The Truth About Toxic People (Your ‘Junkyard Dog’)
In the first post in this “toxic people” series, I made the assertion: There are no toxic people, only toxic behavior. Your negative judgment of another person is an indictment of yourself.
As you might imagine, I got some kickback on this point.
“But I don’t see how my sister’s toxic influence is a reflection of me,” I was told.
Another person said, “It’s hard for me to believe that my brother’s craziness has anything to do with me.”
Let me take a moment and clarify. Another person’s bad behavior is 100% their responsibility! You are only responsible for your reaction to that behavior.
Negative judgement is always a defense mechanism–we criticize people when we’re afraid, uncertain or angry.
Think about that for a moment and think about the criticism you’ve most recently made of the person whose bad behavior impacts your life.
Did it come from a position of fear, insecurity or smallness? Were you afraid that they would damage or disrupt a part of your life or experience?
Even a helpful criticism is often grounded in the perspective: I want you to be different than you are, so I am going to criticize your methods, manner or message in an effort to shame or guilt you into complying with my desire.
Judging other people is the ego’s defense against the soul.
The soul would speak the truth. It would have you free of limitation, fear and smallness. Your ego must defend and attack the truth to preserve itself, and so it deflects your attention to the perceived faults of another and begs you to judge your sister or brother.
The Beginning of Boundaries with Toxic Behavior
Boundaries start with recognition. We are each living in our own realities. You live in yours, and I live in mine. I don’t react or respond to true reality. I react or respond to my reality and you do the same.
In his book, The Power of Intention, Dr. Wayne Dyer says it this way: Your family relationships are in your mind…your relatives exist as thoughts in your mind.
He goes on to state, whatever power they have, you’ve given to them. In order to change the nature of your family relationships, you’ll have to change your mind about them.
Changing the way you think about toxic people in your life can be so hard to do! Even if you understand (and agree with) the basic philosophical point.
Those who are closest to you should protect you, not perpetrate injury against you. They should be the ones coming to your defense, not the ones against whom you must construct a defense.
So it is really hard to acknowledge that we have to change our way of thinking with regards to our loved ones or those who have behaved badly in our lives. It’s just easier to blame them.
They are the one who needs to change. And we use examples of their bad behavior to feel justified in judging them.
Remember this: You are not in relationship with a toxic person, you are in relationship with your image of that person.
So in relationships, you are not reacting to a “toxic” person in your life, you are responding to your reality of toxicity and dysfunction. The wound that causes you to react to someone else’s bad behavior is always there if you will have the courage to uncover it and heal it.
When you recognize this, you empower yourself to heal any injury or wrong in your own life. Only then can you bring healing to another. You must do your work in order for the scar to heal.
This process is like a physical wound…as long as it is open and sensitive, we protect it and cater to it. Once it is cleaned out, bandaged and healed, the scar tissue that replaces the wound is no longer sensitive and, in many cases, is stronger than it was before.
Why Do We Allow Toxic Behavior to Hurt Us Again and Again?
We allow our own emotional wounds to fester because we don’t know how to set proper boundaries. Let’s just be honest…in a way, we like the drama (or something that it gives us–sense of significance or importance).
I know this is another one of those statements that your ego will probably want to push back against. Test it yourself. If the drama (or some aspect of it) is not serving you, there will be no difficulty in releasing it.
So maybe you’re shaking your head saying, But Steve, that’s the whole point. That’s why I’m reading this article. I want to let it go! I’m ready to release the drama. Great! That’s the first step.
Have you heard the maxim, “things only change when you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired”?
You’re on the right track. The next step is learning to set healthy boundaries and practicing this skill until you’re an expert.
Setting Boundaries Shows Kindness
In reality, it is unkind not to set boundaries. Society has conditioned us to “go along to get along” and engage in all other myriad of ridiculous, unwise (and even unhealthy) patterns when it comes to dealing with dysfunctional behavior from those around us.
It is unkind NOT to set boundaries
As children, we’re encouraged to “honor” our parents and respect our elders.You may have been taught that setting boundaries with those around you was improper or disrespectful.
It would be far better to teach our children to love their bodies, trust their instincts, and set boundaries in a respectful and healthy way. But most adults are dysfunctional, so that emotional pathology is passed to their children.
To begin to restore a relationship that has been damaged by bad behavior, you must first…
Recognize and claim your “stuff.”
You must have a clear understanding of the part you play in the co-dependent dance with dysfunction. This has nothing to do with the other person. They are merely the the puppet dancing at the end of your marionette strings.
If you find yourself saying, “I don’t know what it is, but that person just makes me crazy,” it’s a good indicator that you’re face to face with your dysfunction. It’s your job to uncover and expose it so it can be healed.
How can you recognize your stuff? There is an emotional charge you feel when it is confronted (usually best recognized through the behavior of someone else in your life). This emotional ‘charge’ will be an undeniable need to defend and protect–to be “right”–your point of view.
Once it has been healed, you can release the need to defend and protect, because the wound is healed. You will know this happens when the emotional charge disappears. This doesn’t mean that you quit caring, it simply means that the behavior no longer triggers you.
Once you do acknowledge your part in the play, you’re ready to move onto the next step:
Recognize and return the other person’s “stuff.”
Years ago, I knew a brilliant therapist who taught me a wonderful technique. “When you recognize that the monkey on someone else’s back has jumped to yours, give it back to her,” he said.
He stated this lesson with such simplicity and surety that I’ve never forgotten it. When you recognize that the monkey has jumped (or in some cases been thrust) onto your back, give it back. It’s not your monkey.
How do you “give back” the monkey? You give back the monkey by refusing to take emotional responsibility for another person’s well-being. You give back the monkey by refusing to engage emotionally in another person’s drama.
This is the height of compassion and kindness. It doesn’t mean that you become arrogant, inconsiderate or hostile. Instead, you are firm in saying, “I recognize what is yours and what is mine in this situation and I’m giving yours back and will no longer take responsibility for your behavior.”
This doesn’t necessarily have to be said in these words. It’s better said through the action of setting and maintaining healthy boundaries.
Dr. Henry Cloud’s work on setting boundaries, is a great place to start if you recognize that you need some practice in setting healthy boundaries in your life.
Steve’s Tips for Setting Healthy Boundaries
Here are three steps to help you use boundaries to create a place for wholeness and healing in your life.
1. Create the Boundary
First, you have got to set a boundary. If you haven’t done so before, you need to be aware that it will feel strange because it’s a new experience. That’s okay. Do it anyway. Be clear about what you want. Draw the line.
I recommend you write it down and run it passed a trusted friend or confidant (who’s not engaged in relationship with the toxic person). Think of someone who has very clear boundaries in their life and has shown that they have developed this skill set. They will be best able to give you objective insight.
Be sure you can state the boundary clearly in one or two sentences. If you’ve ever watched those “intervention” shows on TV, think of the segment of the show when everyone sits down with the addict and starts the intervention.
You want to be able to state this boundary clearly for yourself first. At first, it will be tempting to project it onto the person who’s behaving badly by saying something like, “I’m no longer going to let you hurt me.”
If you find yourself stating your boundary and intention as a projection, turn it around. Instead, state it from the perspective of what you intend.
For example, you could say, “I deserve respect. I will no longer allow myself to be bullied or abused.”
This seems like a small shift, but it’s vitally important. If you can articulate your boundary with clarity from your own perspective, you begin to empower yourself.
The truth is that you have no control over the other person’s behavior. They may continue to behave badly even after the boundary is in place, but by stating your boundary from your personal perspective, you empower yourself to then take action that lines up with your intention no matter what the other person says or does.
2. Communicate Your Boundary Clearly
Communicate your new boundary clearly. Immediately, people who have had unfettered access to your body, mind, time and attention will react to a boundary being set with them.
Don’t get sucked into manipulative or passive aggressive conversations or arguments meant to deflect attention from the fact that you’re setting a new boundary by baiting you into defending or explaining your position. If you need to have support in communicating the boundary, I encourage you to ask a friend to stand with you as you set the boundary. You may even ask the person you went to in Step 1 for feedback, to support you all the way through this process.
Be ready for this reaction. It may be aggressive and overt or it may be more subtle and passive aggressive. Make sure you’re safe, number one. But allow them to react.
Remember you’re not accusing or making a judgment of the other person’s behavior. You are simply communicating your new boundary: “I am not going to allow myself to be bullied or abused” (for example)
You don’t have to respond to someone else’s negative reaction or hysteria. You don’t have to be sucked into discussions justifying your position or your decision. And you never need to stay in a place to be hurt, abused, manipulated or mistreated.
3. Respect Your New Boundary
In order for others to abide by the “new rules,” you must respect and uphold your new boundary first. You are the one responsible for a new way of being in the relationship.
Be consistent. If the person you are in relationship with will not respect your boundary, share with them the consequences of disrespecting you and then follow through.
For example, “If you continue to yell at me, I will not continue to visit/call you.”
Do not use hyperbole (exaggeration in order to manipulate). “You always scream at me…so I’m never calling you again!”
Use a specific behavior (don’t attack the person). In the example above, we used raising one’s voice…instead, for example, “If you continue to disrespect me…” (disrespect me is too vague).
Above all, be clear. Be careful of the temptation to “soften” the blow–I get it, you’re a nice person–by waffling on your decision. Speak with compassion, but with clarity and confidence. Use a “matter of fact” tone to avoid excess drama. Tell it how it is.
Ultimately, it is your responsibility to respect yourself and to re-teach others how to be in relationship with you.
What to Expect Once Boundaries are Implemented
We talked about the potential negative reaction to a newly-set boundary. However, when you are able to open up communication, you may find that what the other person was trying to communicate was exactly the opposite of what you were receiving.
For example, when you were a child, your mother might have raised her voice to you because she was afraid you would disobey and put yourself in danger. She was expressing love, but you received it as aggression or intimidation.
You may be surprised to find that intimacy is restored and even deepened once you set and enforce a healthy boundary. Trust can be rebuilt. The person engaged in the bad behavior may recognize your love and seek to join you on the path toward a more healthy relationship.
A Short Personal Story
Several months ago, I was treated in a way I felt was inappropriate at work. Honestly, I got angry and bitter. This situation consumed me every time someone would ask, “How was work today?” or “How do you like your job?”
I realized that I had to let this go. So, I started in exactly the manner I’m recommending to you. I took responsibility for my “stuff”. Once I could see that clearly, it began to heal. Next, I acknowledged the part of my employer that wasn’t my stuff.
In my situation, things began to change. The circumstances didn’t improve, but my perspective of them changed. I began to put my focus and energy on projects that served me. I let go of the past.
When people asked, “Do you like your job?” instead of complaining about what happened to me in the past, I became eager to talk about what I had planned for the future.
It made all the difference. It gave me the confidence to set proper boundaries with my employer and my colleagues because I was able to siphon away the drama that had triggered my own emotional reaction.
It really is true, when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change. James Allen said it this way: “You cannot travel within and stand still without.”
In the next part of this series, we’ll discuss what to do when the toxic relationship breaks down as a result of setting boundaries.
NOTE: Don’t forget to check out Part One – How to Break the Power of Toxic People in Your Life