Dealing with a toxic person

April 18, 2016
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Sometimes you encounter a person who is so nasty it takes your breath away. Their manipulative and boundary-pushing tactics leave you gasping, “Did he really just say that?”

Such “toxic” people are rare, but they definitely pop up now and then. Perhaps it’s the manager at that causal job you’ve recently taken, or maybe it’s that person trying to pressure you into a second date. It could even be one of your parents.

Here are some tips on how to deal with that toxic person in your life.

Set boundaries

The only way to respond to a person who doesn’t respect what you want is to clearly and firmly set your boundaries, advises Tanya Koens, Relationship Therapist and owner of Surry Hills Therapy.

“If you don’t like how people are treating you, use your words to say, ‘That’s not OK,’” says Tanya. “Everyone has to learn to say 'no' and to hear 'no'. It’s a part of life.”

Because a toxic person is a master of manipulation, you will need to be quite definite when saying 'no'. “Don’t give reasons or justifications,” says Tanya. “These will just be used as ammunition against you.”

Imagine that a boundary-pushing person wants you to go to a party with them on Saturday evening and you really don’t want to go. “I can’t,” you say. “I need to study on Saturday.” The toxic person may challenge your reasons to get what they want. “You can study on Sunday,” they may respond, leaving you fumbling for a reply.

A better answer, says Tanya, would be to give a definite 'no' in the first place, like, “I’m sorry but I can’t make it this Saturday night.” By not providing a reason, you take away the toxic person’s opportunity to argue. “‘No’ is a complete sentence,” Tanya says.

Stand your ground

It can be really hard to set boundaries when the toxic person is in a position of power, such as your superior at work.

If someone at work is making unreasonable requests of you, try referring back to your job description to clarify what is and isn’t your responsibility. Ask for a document that keeps track of the tasks asked of you and set up regular meetings with your supervisor to review these tasks. “If you are at full capacity, ask your superior which tasks will come off your list to accommodate the new request,” Tanya says.

Limit contact

If you have tried to set boundaries and the person is still not respecting you, you may need to limit contact with them.

This can be tough when the toxic behaviour comes from a family member. Try to put things in place so that you can see less of the person. If you live out of home, set limits on how often you visit. Enlist the help of a friend or sibling so that you’re never alone with the difficult person.

If you live at home, and the difficult person lives there too, you may need to explore the option of moving out.

Seek assistance

Sometimes the situation escalates and you need to get help dealing with a toxic person. In a work context, the HR department can be a good resource, Tanya suggests. You can also speak with your superior’s boss, although this is “the last card up your sleeve, not the first”, says Tanya.

If the manipulative person in your life is making you feel unsafe, make sure you reach out for support. Try your campus counselling service, the Lifeline helpline, a trusted friend or the police. You absolutely have the right to feel safe.

Walk away

Sometimes the only way to deal with a toxic person is to completely cut contact. “If they won’t listen, vote with your feet,” Tanya advises. “Leave the situation; don’t agree to meet or do things again.” 

Melinda Cooper

Melinda loves reading on rainy days, drinking cups of tea and making things. She is doing a PhD in English at the University of Sydney. 

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