Monday, October 27, 2014

How To Deal with Toxic Individuals

Hell, Sartre said, is other people.

As much as I admire Sartre-- a great, but now often overlooked philosopher-- his statement leaves much to be desired.

True enough, some people are hell to deal with, but if Sartre believed that all other people were hellish then he should have chosen his friends better.

Carrie Bradshaw and her friends were trying to deal with what she called New York’s toxic bachelors. Now, consultant Travis Bradberry explains that success in life depends largely on your ability to deal with toxic individuals.

We are all happy to learn that it’s not just New York bachelors who are toxic.

According to Bradberry, if you spend your time interacting with toxic people your stress levels will rise and your health, both mental and physical, will be compromised.

One should note that therapists are in the business of dealing with toxic individuals. Surely, a therapist’s ability to manage toxic emotion, rather than to try to find out how meaningful it is, will not only help his patients but will protect his own sanity.

Bradberry reports on some recent research:

Recent research from the Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany found that exposure to stimuli that cause strong negative emotions—the same kind of exposure you get when dealing with toxic people—caused subjects’ brains to have a massive stress response. Whether it’s negativity, cruelty, the victim syndrome, or just plain craziness, toxic people drive your brain into a stressed-out state that should be avoided at all costs.

In the same vein, the Washington Post explained that toxic bosses are likely to make you sick:

Difficult bosses can come in many forms, including hypercritical micromanagers, inept managers, bosses who push blame for problems onto others or hurl obscenities, and those who make unwanted sexual advances. But researchers say that whatever the type, when employees deal with a bad boss day in and day out, negative health effects often begin to pop up.

But, how do you go about managing your relationships with toxic individuals?

While examining some of Bradberry’s recommendations—all of which are useful—ask yourself whether, by these criteria, therapists manage toxic people well or poorly. If therapists cannot manage their patients’ toxic emotions, how will they be able to teach their patients how to deal with toxic people themselves?

It is worth underscoring that these methods for dealing with toxic individuals come to us from the world of business consulting, not therapy.

Bradberry’s first guideline for dealing with toxic individuals is this: set limits to how much complaining you are willing to listen to. He adds that, instead of allowing another individual to expound on problems and issues, it is better to direct the conversation toward solutions.

He writes:

Complainers and negative people are bad news because they wallow in their problems and fail to focus on solutions. They want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves. People often feel pressure to listen to complainers because they don’t want to be seen as callous or rude, but there’s a fine line between lending a sympathetic ear and getting sucked into their negative emotional spiral….

A great way to set limits is to ask complainers how they intend to fix the problem. They will either quiet down or redirect the conversation in a productive direction.

Working on issues means working out the possible solutions. It does not involve wondering what it all means, pondering why you cannot solve the problem or asking which unresolved childhood is being played out.

In Bradberry’s words:

Where you focus your attention determines your emotional state. When you fixate on the problems you’re facing, you create and prolong negative emotions and stress. When you focus on actions to better yourself and your circumstances, you create a sense of personal efficacy that produces positive emotions and reduces stress.

It is reasonable to ask whether therapists are prone to allow their patients to wallow in their issues or whether they look for practical ways to solve problems. It is also reasonable to ask whether patients, faced with a therapist who wants to hear complaints, believe that more, better complaining constitutes progress.

Bradberry’s second piece of advice is: curb your emotions. Which means, don’t express them.

Toxic people, he  believes, are emotionally overwrought. You are not going to be able to deal with such an individual if you decide to match emotion with emotion.

So much for empathy.

To manage the situation, take a deep breath, step back, control your emotions and try to reason with the individual. That means, Bradberry notes, trying to bring things back to the level of objective facts. With that I obviously concur.

If it all becomes too arduous, you need to step away from the conversation and the individual.

You certainly need to control the space and time of interactions with toxic individuals.

In Bradberry’s terms, you need to set boundaries. Most therapists are very good at this, if only because they schedule sessions. And they do so in a way that applies, in principle to everyone and thus allows everyone to feel that they are submitting to the same set of rules.

If you are outside of a situation where you can set clear limits, you will need to make sure that you do not get involved in difficult conversations until you are ready to do so. Having someone make an appointment to discuss a matter with you will immediately set a boundary.

Finally—for our purposes— you should not see toxic individuals as crazy people, as suffering from an emotional disturbance. Thus, you should not try to address their craziness. Instead, try to figure out how you are going to handle them.

In Bradberry’s words:

When it comes to toxic people, fixating on how crazy and difficult they are gives them power over you. Quit thinking about how troubling your difficult person is, and focus instead on how you’re going to go about handling them. This makes you more effective by putting you in control, and it will reduce the amount of stress you experience when interacting with them.
Unfortunately, the therapy profession tends, for obvious reasons, to see toxic people in psychiatric terms. It sees them as cases, suffering from emotional disturbances, needing medical treatment.

Many psychiatrists have their own way of dealing with toxic individuals. They do not bother to listen to complaints, but whip out their prescription pads and tell their patients to come back in a month.

Of course, this is an extreme way to manage toxic people. It is surely not the same as coddling them, but it goes to the other extreme: it dismisses them. Unfortunately, this technique will not work outside of a psychiatrist’s office. If you try it at home or on the job you might end up telling your toxic friends to ingest the wrong kinds of substances.


Sam L. said...

My sister used to say, "Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I'm going to go eat worms."

I haven't had to deal with toxic individuals for some time, but it seems to me that asking if they've tried eating worms would derail their 100-car train of complaint, and allow one to ask what they've tried as solutions.

Your mileage may vary.

The anti-robot text was exceptionally clear today!

Ares Olympus said...

I don't much like the label "toxic", as if there was a singular category that can manage all sorts of people problems or problem people as the case may be. And if there are a million categories of toxicity, then perhaps there's also a million categories of advice how to handle it.

A first question is whether there can be any objective diagnosis, I mean if you're an extreme atheist with a fear of being manipulated, you may label a religious person toxic, while 99% of other people will be perfectly fine around this person.

So under such cases, it would seem more an issue of projection.

If we're willing to skip the objective categories and just say subjectively "This person is toxic to me", causing regular allergic reactions, then you don't have to blame the other person for being different than you, but take responsibility for your own reaction, and learn what boundaries you need to accept that person as they are.

When I was a kid in the 70's for a number of years my dad joined a New Age church, and they taught love and kindness, and positivity as the answer to all life problems.

Interestingly into the 90's I heard they ended up moving their commune to Montana and stockpiling guns for when the government collapsed.

So they successfully got rid of all the toxic people I guess, but also ended projecting all their demons onto the external world, and had no way to integrate themselves in the world without avoiding it entirely.

So the virtue of Spiritual Purity wasn't the right standard to be able to handle the low-grade toxicity of ordinary life.