I talked last week about how to support people, with some significant caveats.
Today, I want to talk about people who are toxic, taxing, or too far above your ability to heal. Who the hell am I you ask? I’m nobody, really. I’m not a mental health professional or life coach. I’m just someone who likes people and writes about them for fun. I wouldn’t consider this advice so much as a reminder, or encouragement because what do I know about your life? I know a bit about dealing with people who are beyond your capacity, and that’s really it.
First let’s talk about what this all means.
Toxic people to me are those who take and never give back, or who take in a way that hurts us. A friend who supports you when you’re going through a break up but then reminds you of that break up every time they’re upset at you is a toxic friendship. So is the friend who calls you to cry about their break up but doesn’t listen to you when you need a shoulder to cry on. Toxic people might attempt to manipulate you, or can’t be trusted to respect your autonomy, by doing things like sharing secrets, misrepresenting you when they want, or pushing you to provide support you wouldn’t normally provide. They can be family members, best friends, co-workers, heck, even strangers. You can love someone and still realize that they hurt you in ways that feel intentional or willfully ignorant. In short, these are frenemies and haters.
I think it should be said that having a bad day or a fight with someone doesn’t necessarily make someone toxic. It’s more patterns of control, a lopsided relationship that does not allow for someone to get a consistent benefit, or to get that benefit at a price.
Taxing people are those who aren’t hurting you, but who drain you, for lots of reasons. Maybe they’re not able to control their emotions due to anger or illness, or are going through a really, really tough time and need more ongoing support than you can provide by yourself. Maybe they insist on doing things you know to be a bad idea but you can’t convince them to stop. Or perhaps they unwittingly or earnestly are doing something that just so happens to be something you don’t handle well. There’s no malice, they’re not doing anything to you, they just take everything you have to give through no fault of their own.
And then there are the things you’re not equipped to handle. It could be that you have no experience to pull from to comfort your friends, or that it’s a topic you have a tough time handling. It could well be that you’re going through things of your own. Whatever it is, sometimes you’re just not the jedi they’re looking for.
There’s a one word answer for all of this, and that answer is useless. But fine, I’ll share it. The answer is boundaries. We need to set boundaries.
Welp, now you know what to do, that’s today’s post, good luck!
“Just set boundaries.” Yes, thank you, self-help gurus! I get so irritated about the memes going around about boundary setting. Okay, yes, I deserve love. I don’t need to be unhappy for someone else’s happiness. Fences make great neighbors and all that. Well, peachy! I want those. But what does it mean? It’s so easy to say, sitting over there feeling all centered and secure, but how do we do it in the field, so to speak?
Step one, always put on your own oxygen mask first.
This is where I start. Make sure you’re safe first. For the record, let me say that if you are not in a space to support someone, it is okay. You are not a bad friend or partner if you can’t be there right now–this is about the long game, and you’ll take turns helping each other out of the bad times. But helping someone should never feel like drowning. If someone is asking you to drown for them, see the definition of toxic people.
Make sure you’re feeling safe and supported before you go out on a limb for others.
Step two, determine how much you have that you can give.
I like to think of it like a bank account. For an acquaintance, I might spot them $10 or $20. A close friend I might dip to the point I’d have to give up something frivolous but not so far that rent is impacted. For someone I count in my family circle experiencing a complete emergency, I might play a little finer with that edge. But in no circumstance (ideally) should anyone ask you to overdraw or declare bankruptcy for them. Right? It’s the same emotionally. Partners and best friends make regular deposits into your trust fund (get it??) and therefore might be able to draw more from you more regularly.
But when someone, even bestie, starts taking more than you’re willing to front, you have to set a withdrawal limit. This could be that you only answer their texts from 5-7 pm. This could be saying you’ll get back to them tomorrow, or a decision you have to enforce in which you will not discuss anything outside of work matters with them. For me, this also means I have to set thresholds. I am only going to interfere when I think something illegal or mortally dangerous is about to happen. I am only going to correct them when I think what they said causes harm to others. I am limiting how many fights I take on, rather than necessarily limiting how many times I contact those people.
This sounds almost as easy as “just love yourself” for boundary setting. I wish you could just pull up a quick summary and see you have 40 friend bucks in the account, which of course is not what it’s like. It’s not easy, so all I can say here is trust yourself, try out what feels right, and amend as you see the results. If I ever figure out more specific rules, or stumble across someone who has, I’ll be sure to write about it and put it behind a pay wall because I think that’d get me rich.
Step three, stay in your wheelhouse
Most of us aren’t professional mental health experts, and even they will tell you there are certain conditions they don’t treat. You don’t have to be everything to everyone, so if someone comes to you with something you don’t know how to handle, be up front about it. “I love you, I am not the person you want to have this conversation with,” is a perfectly acceptable thing to say to someone, in my opinion. If it’s just outside of your strengths, you can still stick to the things you know you do well–are you a great hugger? Do people just want to hear you say that you see them and believe them? You don’t have to fix it, you just have behave like a friend.
Step four, know when to walk away.
Sometimes people won’t listen and they won’t stop doing things that hurt you. Toxic people, in my experience, are often very good at getting around boundaries. They want reactions–they often want you to hurt, and the only real way to disengage from them is to be completely non-responsive. They feed off your response to them, so denying them your reaction is the only way to get free. We know that hurt people hurt people, but that’s not a good reason to accept abuse. It might feel hard, like letting someone suffer, especially since they will likely make sure to tell you how you’re hurting them.
But when your survival is at risk for someone else’s it’s time to make the choice that allows you to fight another day. Unfollow them on social media, lose their number, stop responding to texts, block them. This is really, really tough to do, especially if it’s someone with whom you’re very close. While everyone deserves compassion, you never deserve an attack. If their words were fists, what would you do? Sometimes it’s easier to see if you imagine it happening to someone you love. If someone treated your spouse, best friend or child that way, what would you think or do? If it’s “stop playing with them,” time to say goodbye. Remember when you do this to have your circle around to help you stay strong and grieve safely.
Good luck! If you have tips on creating boundaries, please share them so we may all learn! If you send me a meme I swear to Al Gore that I will only answer you between the hours of 5 and 7 pm.