Are there people who constantly criticise you, tell you that you can't do things, make you feel bad about yourself, even yell at you? These are toxic people. Dealing with them is never easy, but it's such a difficult problem that it's worth looking at some strategies you might consider.
I was reminded of this problem by a reader recently, who asked, "What if toxic people are my family? How do I shut them out? What if I can't find the courage to rise above them?"
I have to confess, there aren't any easy answers. I've used a number of strategies in my life, and I'll share what I've tried.
1. Practice Self-Compassion When You're Feeling Bad
This is always my first step these days, as I've learned how useful this method is. Think about it: if you're feeling bad because of someone else's behaviour, you might show your anger or irritation in your actions and words, and that only makes that person more likely to be toxic. Your bad feelings are not only horrible for you, but for the situation. So try this when you notice you're feeling bad from someone else's actions/words: turn inward and notice your feelings, instead of avoiding them.
What do they feel like in your body? After a minute, try creating a feeling of love towards yourself. Wish yourself happiness, and an end to your suffering. Wish yourself a life of joy and peacefulness. This won't magically cure the pain, but it's a good place to start.
2. Talk to Other People
I've found that when I'm hurting, I often don't want to admit it to other people, but then when I talk to someone about it, I inevitably feel better. So take the plunge and talk to someone. Share your feelings, ask for them to listen, maybe even give advice. The advice doesn't matter so much as the connection and listening.
3. Practice Empathy and Compassion
Try practicing the same compassion method towards the person who frustrates you. In your heart, wish them happiness. See that they're also going through difficulties, like you are, and that's why they act that way. Wish for an end to their suffering. Wish them a life of joy and ease.
4. Talk to the Toxic Person
Once you start to feel more compassionate towards the other person, talk to them. Yes, they might not act in a compassionate and peaceful way towards you, but you can be the better person. You can see that they're suffering in some way, and are acting inappropriately because of that suffering. Try connecting with them, sharing that you're having a hard time, asking for their support. This might not always turn out well, but if you do it in a spirit of connection, they might be open to this discussion.
5. Model the Behaviour You Want to See
Often I get mad at other people for getting mad at me, and then I'm doing the same thing they are, behaving badly because they behaved badly. Even if I feel it's their fault, my behaviour escalates the situation. So I try to show how to deal with frustration, try to be compassionate with them, try to show a positive way of dealing with things. And often that can have a great effect, even if it's not immediate.
6. Find More Positive Friends
If all of this isn't working, it helps to find other people who are more aligned with the way you want to live. People who are creative, entrepreneurial, self-sufficient, excited about things, positive, healthy, happy. Find them in your local running club, yoga or crossfit class, Toastmasters, volunteer organisations. Find them online in various positive communities.
Take the plunge and reach out, develop relationships. Buy someone tea or coffee and start a friendship. One by one, nurture the relationships that have a positive influence in your life, and be a positive influence in theirs. I've done this in my life, and it's made a huge difference.
7. Cut Them Out
It's a harsh thing, but when family members aren't supportive of me, if they're constantly critical and angry… and none of the above works… I will just stop seeing them as much. I'll do my own thing. See other friends. That's harder to do, of course, when they live with you, but even then you can go out for a run, take a hike and see nature, meditate, create.
Don't let the thinking about toxic people be the thing you focus on all day — put your mind in more peaceful, creative, positive places.
7 Strategies for Dealing with Toxic People [Zen Habits]
Leo Babauta is the creator and writer of Zen Habits. He's married with six kids, lives in San Francisco (previously Guam), and is a runner and a vegan. Read more about him: My Story.