Crazy Be Crazy. Everyone needs help learning how to deal with toxic people in their lives.
You know who they are. Toxic people are those who attempt to control us, take from us, drain our energy and emotions, destroy our joy, rob of us of desire and passion, and hurt us through outright abuse or emotional neglect. These can be blatant abuses or small acts that build up over time.
Living with toxic people does not have to be normal.
People are crazy, even people that we love. Whether it’s a friend, co-worker, parent, in-law, or spouse, crazy be crazy.
You cannot fix a crazy person. You can only control your response to their actions and your continued exposure. So how do you do it? How do you deal with a toxic person in your life?
Here are three keys to diminishing to influence of a crazy or toxic person in your life:
The first step to limiting the control a toxic person has over your life is to establish healthy boundaries. Boundaries protect you from harm. Boundaries are guidelines that say these actions are acceptable and these are not.
Boundaries can come in multiple forms, such as words, distance, and time. Often we need other people to help us be accountable to make boundaries and keep them, especially when the toxic person happens to be someone we love deeply.
Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend remind us in their book Boundaries - When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life that we cannot control a toxic person: “What we can do is set limits on our own exposure to people who are behaving poorly; we can’t change them or make them behave right”(45).
“The most basic boundary setting word is no” (Cloud and Townsend, 36). “No” can be a hard word to use, especially when you are accustomed to saying “yes” even when you didn't want to. But “no” is a powerful word because it gives us a voice, it shows where we stand.
Good boundaries will help you limit your exposure to the toxic person. But what does a boundary look like?
Three components of a good boundary:
1. Good Boundaries have a purpose
Like a fence, a boundary has a functional purpose. A fence protect animals from wandering off and provides protection from predators. A boundary is set in place to protect you from someone toxic or harmful. A boundary is a line in the sand that should not be crossed.
What’s the purpose of this boundary? Is it to protect me from being verbally abused? Is it to keep my time from being monopolized by others? These are questions you need to ask yourself to determine what it is you want.
What is your goal? I encourage you that for each boundary you set make sure there is a practical and specific purpose and desired outcome. This purpose should be something that you can easily articulate and name when asked why you have certain boundary.
2. Good Boundaries Are Clear
Boundaries need to be clear, clear to both you and to the other person. For yourself, it should be tangible. When you first know the purpose of the boundary then it can be set up in a way that is tangible, a way that you can know beyond a doubt that it is in place or when it has been crossed.
You must know what your specific boundary is up front. If your purpose is ceasing to allow yourself to be verbally abused, then perhaps your clear boundary is that you will not continue having a conversation with someone who verbally abuses you. If the boundary is in place to keep your time from being monopolized by others, than your boundary might be automatically saying “no” if asked to do something during a specific window of time or on a specific day (remember, “no” is a powerful tool to set limits on others).
To be unclear is to be unkind.
When you are unclear about your boundary you are unkind to yourself because you have not valued yourself enough to set a firm line of defense and protection. You are unkind to the other person when the boundary is unclear because they do not know what your expectations are. If a conversation turns verbally abusive, tell them that you will not be spoken to that way and that his conversation is over. If someone asks to monopolize your time during your predetermined window then clearly tell them that you have already set that time aside.
Boundaries that are ambiguous are not enforceable, which leads to the third component of good boundaries:
3. Good Boundaries have consequences
Our boundaries need to be backed up with consequences. Life is full of consequences: if I don’t work then I don’t get paid and I can’t eat. If I drive beyond the posted speed limit or don’t wear a seat belt then I will get a ticket. If I mistreat my children when they are young then they will not want me around when they are older. Make the consequences for breaking your boundaries known.
“Consequences give some good ‘barbs’ to fences. They let people know the seriousness of the trespass and the seriousness of our respect for ourselves. This teaches them that our commitment to living according to helpful values is something we hold dear and will fight to protect and guard”(Cloud and Townsend, 40).
Providing consequences does not make you mean. Consequences are the natural result of failing to honor and respect a boundary. If someone continues to verbally abuse you than you leave them. If someone continues to cross your boundaries of time you will no longer answer their phone calls. People will not change unless they can experience the painful results of their actions:
“We change our behavior when the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing. Consequences give us the pain that motivates us to change” (Cloud & Townsend, 72).
Establishing and maintaining clear and helpful boundaries is only part of dealing with toxic people. How resolutely you maintain and sustain boundaries with unhealthy people is directly correlated with the intrinsic value you place on yourself.
The second key to dealing with toxic people:
2. Remember who you are responsible for
When you put boundaries in place, you will experience push back. People who are naive about the issue or who are too self-focused will be confused about the change or addition of a boundary because they never felt there was an issue. When a boundary is established you can expect that a toxic person will consistently react using their normal unhealthy patterns of behavior:
A toxic person will disown their own choices and try to lay the responsibility for their actions on someone else. That someone else is you.
A toxic person, especially one with whom you have an intimate relationship with, will blame you for their problems along with the problems of the relationship and not claim responsibility for themselves.
When faced with this attitude from a toxic person, you must remind yourself that life is all about choices and that you are only responsible for your own choices, not those of the crazy person in your life, no matter what they may say to you.
Remind yourself of this: you are valued, worthy of being loved, worthy of joy and happiness, and created with a purpose. You have your own identity and can only be responsible for yourself. The consequences of someone else's action may affect you, but they are not your fault.
In his book, When Pleasing You is Killing Me - Setting Boundaries With the Controllers in Your Life, Dr. Les Carter reminds us that “While it is good and desirable for you to be attentive to the way your choices affect others, you cross the line of healthy behavior when you make yourself primarily responsible for other’s actions” (location 240).
You may feel tempted to relent in your boundaries, you may feel guilty for putting consequences in place. You may want to rescue the other person from those consequences or you may have been told the lie again and again that this is all your fault. In the presence of all these pressures, remain resolute.
Other’s actions are their actions, your actions are your actions. Remember who, and only who, you are responsible for: yourself.
This leads to the third area where you can protect yourself:
3. Recognize People-Pleasing Tendencies
Carter reminds us that there is a difference between being a serving helper to someone else and unhealthy people-pleasing: “Unhealthy people pleasing can be defined as the tendency to cater to others’ preferences to the detriment of personal well-being” (location 148).
Have you sacrificed your personal well being trying to keep someone else happy? Toxic people in your life may have been there for so long that they are like the leaky faucet that you just have gotten used to dealing with because solving the problem would create a big mess. We often develop patterns of behavior around our motivation to “keep the peace” and avoid negative encounters with controlling people.
This is actually a form of enabling because the toxic person's actions are never called into question. “Do you ever find yourself in the enabler role? If so, your people pleasing may actually be irresponsible on your part because it ultimately keeps others’ bad habits and attitudes in motion and unchecked” (Carter, location 257)
People-pleasing ultimately hurts you more than the other person. Toxic people erode our personal feelings of value and self worth over long periods of repeated hurts, and every time we choose not to stand up for ourselves it only further chips away at our identity.
You are a valuable individual. Not because of what you can offer others or do or accomplish, you are valuable simply because you are a person.
You have the right to happiness and freedom and love. Choosing yourself over choosing to make another person happy does not make you selfish, it is a sign of a mature adult.
Information plus application equals transformation.
Carter reminds us that “Awareness will be a necessary ingredient to the change process.” As you become aware of people-pleasing tendencies and learn to differentiate between what is and is not your responsibility, you will then have the information necessary to establish and apply clear boundaries to your life.
It is the establishment of these boundaries paired with direct consequences that will allow for change to take place in your life and in your relationships with toxic people.
Transformation is possible. Healing and hope are possible for yourself, even when the toxic person refuses to change themselves. As you learn the art of dealing with toxic people, never forget that what you are pursuing is a healthy normal life. You have a right to that life, go get it!
Carter, Les. When Pleasing You Is Killing Me: Setting Boundaries with the Controllers in Your Life [Kindle Edition]. Les Carter, 2018.
Cloud, Henry, and John Townsend. Boundaries With Kids: How Healthy Choices Grow Healthy Children. Zondervan, 1998.
Cloud, Henry, and John Townsend. Boundaries Updated and Expanded Edition: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life (Enlarged). Zondervan, 2017.