A Counselor’s Review on Toxic People—Don’t let them in!

We’ve deleted and blocked people on social media.  We’ve had arguments within our families.  We’ve lost friends, and we appear more divided than ever. It seems like everywhere we turn, there is something that is less than positive. 

After reviewing an article from Psychology Today on loneliness last week, I decided to look through my magazines to see if there were any other articles that had a strong message that needed to, “get out there”.  I found the June 2017 issue with the title: Toxic! – – How to handle difficult people. The article is named with a statement of, “Poison People—They spew negativity to demean and deflate you, and they think you’re the problem.  It’s happening more and more.  Herewith, A guide to surviving toxic times.”—by Katherine Schreiber.

Without even having to finish reading the first sentence of the article, and was reminded of how I felt, “chased” out of my field I so passionately entered into, and worked hard for, all the way through graduate school.  Where I later worked, there was toxicity like I had never experienced. I did not want to be a part of it.

I then left my field to lead a simple life of eating, sleeping and working out at a certified personal trainer.  I enjoyed making my clients laugh through tough workouts, and the friendships that I still have today.  There was not a day without laughter, getting together outside of work, and trading healthy meal ideas we brought to the gym. Any competition we did have was always made fun!  It usually resulted in doing push ups.  I considered it a little extra work out for the day!

Even though being a personal trainer was a good break from the toxicity, I felt a strong pull to get back to my purpose of helping people heal, and become empowered to take charge of their lives. This article is a good depiction of that.  How can we cope with those that do their best to, “get to us”, or make what we may already have going on for us worse?

The sentence I didn’t even need to finish to be able to introduce this article ended up telling the same story as I did above. Christine Porath, who is now an associate professor at Georgetown University’s business school, “…continues to catalogue the acts that can poison the atmosphere in or out of the office, the high costs of toxic behavior to people and organizations, and what it takes to create cultures where everyone can thrive.”  I hope this review validates what you may be going through.  I also hope it gives you ideas on what you can do about a situation you find yourself in, and start finding ways to cope with what’s around you, without letting it get into you.

The studies on toxicity have focused on the workplace—finding that toxic behavior arises mostly from much stress many people carry in the workplace, and out of it when technology has afforded-- yet caused--us to work during our downtime.  But, the workplace is certainly not the only place it bleeds into.  Also due to technology, there are many opportunities for misunderstanding and meanness in communication.  Put-downs are harder to give face-to-face. The times we are in play a role as well. When there are times of cultural turbulence, volatility, and uncertainty, hostile behaviors that play on the fear of others tend to be unleashed.

When you encounter toxicity, you may feel confused, discounted, deflated, and feel like any positive energy you had was stolen.  It gets worse for you when it persists, making you feel uneasy, and unsure why you are the target of it.  Toxic behavior doesn’t only hurt, it causes stress and frustration.  You don’t even have to be the target of toxic behavior.  Just being around it makes people sick, says Porath.  Chronic stress is linked to cardiovascular disease, insomnia, depressed immunity, and overeating.  We can, again, see how the mind and body are related.  You can read more on that here:  https://www.amyenklingcounseling.com/blog/2018/2/7/the-mindbody-connection-why-counseling-is-as-important-as-seeing-your-doctor

Both your emotional health and physical health are at risk when toxicity is around. It takes a cognitive toll on you as well, due to losing time focusing on your work. Due to being greatly focused on hostility, or avoiding the offender, it also takes away from creativity and productivity, and decreases employee satisfaction, which is where employee turnover comes into play—and it is usually a firm’s best employees that choose to leave.  In turn, the company loses money to recruit and train someone new.

Toxicity spreads.  It makes an impact on you brain, even if it is something you witness.  Whether it’s a boss berating an employee, verbal or physical abuse in families, or within romantic relationships, history indeed can repeat itself.  Toxic behavior has been on the rise over the past two decades—being fed by cultural upheaval, accompanied by incivility and rudeness.

“Since 2010, the global communications firm Weber Shandwick has been tracking civility in America, and has found it is declining.  In January 2017, a record high number of Americans—69 percent—said they believe the United States has a major civility problem (vs. 65 percent in 2010).  A majority cited politicians and the Internet (social media as prime culprits)…the level of nastiness in politics has risen so high, respondents said, that it is now deterring good people from entering public life.”

Toxic behavior is most prominent in bullying, and bullying can cause people to strike back as a means of survival.  Feeling intimidated in any form hurts in the moment, and can cause you to carry fear with you into your future, devastating your sense of self, or self-worth.  Less blatant, but also impactful acts are rumor-mongering, shifting blame onto others, being excluded from events, or being ignored.  Whether it is just overt cruelty, someone that is passive-aggressive, or “just because”, toxic individuals put their own interests above everyone else’s.   They either do not know, or do not care to consider your perspective or emotional state.  They will disregard boundaries, avoid any wrong-doing, and are unwilling to change.

When toxicity enters a romantic relationship, it is much like the cycle of power and control you find in domestic violence situations.  There is a cycle of a romance, or a “honeymoon” period that draws you in, sucks you in, and then you find it hard to get out.  We may even take on the blame of their behavior on ourselves.

However you find yourself living in toxic times, it falls to each of us to notice it, and how to deflect it.  It may not be easy, but it is vital to your well-being. Here are some things you can do to combat toxic people and places:

The surest way to shield yourself is to severely limit, or cut off entirely, contact with people who regularly spew it, if it is possible and practical.  I personally did find a way to do this, so I can attest that it indeed, works.  If this is not possible, you can arm yourself with some basic skills as a means of self-management.

Control your exposure. The most important thing you can do is to minimize contact.  At work you can move your office away from a toxic person, or ask for reassignment to another project.  You could also ask your boss if the toxic person could be required to work more from home, or that less team meetings be held.  If it is your boss that is the toxic person, again limit your time with the person, and identify others in your workplace who can offer an ear.  This can be a tricky one.  I would add to try to talk with others outside of work to ensure you do not become the direct target of toxicity with your boss.  If you find nothing can be done, look for another job. You could also ask to be paired with a different supervisor.

If you have hiring power, learn how to question candidates for emotional competence, and lay out norms for behavior at the beginning.  If the toxic person is your spouse, or an ex-spouse you share children with, you likely need the help of a mental health professional for navigating the relationship.

Manage your reactivity.  This is where you have the most leverage.  Set boundaries assertively, saying no to demands that seem unreasonable—without justifying yourself.  Have a few mantras on hand for the moment a toxic individual blames or bullies you.  “I’m not going to continue this conversation if you’re calling me names,” or “I’m happy to discuss this with you when you’re calm.”

You can maintain clarity by taking notes about how you felt before, during, and after an interaction, as well as what was said and done by all.  I have frequently asked my clients to compile a chart like this, and it has provided clarity.  It can also help you make a case for managerial intervention in your workplace.

Strengthen ties with friends and others you trust.  Especially if the toxic person is a spouse, relationships with people who treat you with respect can buffer you from stress, and help balance your perspective.  Having your point of view validated can also boost your self-esteem and counteract isolation. 

Find activities that take you away from the toxic person or environment.  Join a book club.  Take a cooking class, or a fitness class.  You’ll also then be able to gain a better sense of who you are in the world. 

Don’t explain.  Avoid even trying to explain yourself.  By definition, a toxic person is one who refuses to hear your perspective.  Attempts will only frustrate you.  Say, “I’m sorry, but I’m busy then,” or “I can’t do that right now.”  Offer no explanation no matter how much ranting and raving the other does. One thing I personally did when I ran into a toxic person I had completely cut myself off from was to manage my reactivity as mentioned above, calmly said, “No thank you,” and then walked away.  I knew there was no sense in trying to explain myself.

Immunize yourself.  Spot those with toxic potential, and avoid them before there are any outbursts.  Recognize the personality traits that feed toxicity:  the drama queens, those who are suspicious or notably aggressive, and those who consistently display little regard for the feelings of others. 

Please feel free to reach out if you are in a situation where you are in physical, mental, or emotional danger.  Also, as always, please share this with someone you feel could benefit from this.


1.   The surest way…

2.   Control your exposure.

3.   Manage your reactivity.

4.   Strengthen ties with friends and others you trust.

5.   Find activities that take you away from the toxic person or environment.

6.   Don’t explain.

7.   Immunize yourself.