Toxic People:

How to Protect Yourself against Toxic Behavior and People

By Dr. Ben Kim

Several years ago, I was fortunate to meet a lady named Deborah at a fasting clinic in northern California. I had several conversations with Deborah over the course of a year, and what I remember most about her is that her kindness was amazingly genuine; the feeling for me was that she had spent a lifetime enduring great sadness and suffering, and had done much inner work to identify and strive to live according to her ideals.

One day, I asked Deborah why she chose to eat her meals alone rather than with other fasting guests. After a beat of silence, she told me that she was getting some negative vibes from another guest, and that she felt that it was best for her resting experience to stay away from that energy. I remember her using the word "toxic" to describe the other guest's energy - not in a malicious way, but with a thoughtful and observational tone.

Deborah's thoughts on avoiding unnecessary toxic energy have stayed with me over the years. I feel that this facet of living is a vastly underrated determinant of health and overall quality of life. We know that our sense of emotional balance or lack thereof has constant influence over the health of every organ system in our bodies, particularly our nervous and endocrine systems. And clearly, our emotional health status is largely affected by the interactions that we experience with ourselves and others on a daily basis. So it stands to reason that learning how to identify and effectively deal with toxic influences is an important skill to develop when looking to experience optimal health and a peaceful life.

How to Identify Human Toxicity

Generally speaking, I think it's safe to say that a person is toxic to your health if his or her behavior makes you feel bad on a regular basis. Clearly, there are exceptions to this guideline. For example, if a close friend or family member shares a concern about your behavior with a spirit of wanting to improve your relationship, you may feel bad and your health may take a temporary hit, but it doesn't make sense to label such friends or family members as being toxic.

What follows are specific patterns of behavior that I believe fall into the "toxic-to-your-health" category:

  1. Attempting to intimidate you by yelling or becoming violent in any manner (slamming a door is violence).
  2. Consistently talking down at you, sending the message that he or she is just plain better than you.
  3. Regularly telling you what he or she thinks is wrong with you.
  4. Slandering others behind their backs i.e. trying to engage you in gossip that is hurtful to others.
  5. Spending the bulk of your conversations complaining about his or her life and others.
  6. Discouraging you from pursuing your interests and dreams.
  7. Attempting to take advantage of your kindness and resources, and trying to make you feel guilty if you don't do what he or she wants.

How to Deal With Toxic People and Behavior

So how do you preserve your health after you have identified a person as being toxic to your health? The answer depends on the role that the toxic person plays in your life. Although it is virtually impossible to categorize all such people into neat columns, I tend to classify them into one of the following groups:

Group 1: H&G (Hi and Good Bye)

Examples of people who belong in this category:

Unkind customer service representatives
People who exhibit road rage
Strangers on the street

How to protect your health against such people:

  1. First, think carefully about your own behavior to see if you may have done or said something to cause the other party's behavior.

  2. If you can identify something that you did that likely offended the other party, if possible, offer a sincere apology. If he or she accepts your apology, things work out well for both parties. If your apology is not accepted, you can at least walk away with some level of peace of mind, knowing that you owned up to your behavior.

  3. If you cannot think of a single thing that you did that could have offended the other party, give him or her a silent "H&G" and walk away. Confronting the other party about unkind behavior is not likely to be fruitful. Since you don't have to co-exist on a regular basis, you can take the mindset of "fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me." In other words, the other party's unkind behavior -- unexpected by you -- is on him or her; he or she will reap natural consequences in due time.

Group 2: No real need to be close, but contact is frequent due to life circumstances

Examples of people who belong in this category:

Fellow students
Members of groups that you regularly meet with (church, book club, sports club, etc.)

How to protect your health against such people:

  1. As before, start by examining your own behavior to see if you can come up with a reasonable cause for the other party's unacceptable behavior. If you cannot come up with a reason for the other party's behavior, find someone who you can trust to be as objective and honest as possible, and explain the conflict to him or her as thoroughly and accurately as possible. Ask for honest feedback on how you might have triggered the other party's behavior.

  2. If appropriate, apologize for your behavior. If you and your advisor have thought long and hard about the conflict and cannot identify anything that you need to apologize for, work on developing compassion for the other party.

    Most can agree that people are not born to be mean-spirited and toxic to others. People can become mean-spirited and toxic to others for varying periods of time if they encounter enough hurt, disappointment, and/or anger in their own journeys. Maybe the other party is jealous of you and consumed by his or her own failures. Maybe he or she is just going through a really rough time due to a loss in the family. Maybe he or she has never truly felt cared about by another person. Maybe the other party has been treated so poorly by family members that sensitivity has been numbed and he or she has no idea that you feel like you have been mistreated. The idea is to generate enough compassion for the other party to overpower or at least quell your hurt feelings.

    This doesn't mean that you need to be a martyr or a doormat and go asking for another two tight slaps to your other cheek. Developing some compassion for the other party's behavior is meant to prevent said behavior from causing you to stew and stay emotionally unbalanced for a long time after the actual moment of conflict. And if the other party has or develops the courage to apologize to you, having some pre-made compassion available in your heart improves your chances of offering genuine forgiveness and experiencing that much more emotional harmony.

  3. After you have worked on developing compassion for the other person's circumstances, if you haven't received an apology, be kind, but don't push for a make-up session. An important part of experiencing emotional balance is learning to teach others that you expect to be treated with kindness and respect. To seek out a make-up session when you have done nothing wrong and the other party has not mustered up the courage to apologize is to teach him or her that you can be walked on.

Group 3: Ideal to be close

Examples of people who belong in this category:

Immediate family members
Friends that you have good reason to respect

How to protect your health against such people:

  1. Go through the first two steps outlined above; try to figure out if you did something wrong, and apologize if you can think of something.

  2. While it's important that you teach family members and close friends how you expect to be treated, in some cases, it may be necessary for you to seek out a make-up session even if the other party has not apologized for his or her behavior.

    For example, if it was your spouse who mistreated you, and he or she has not owned up to the mistreatment, if you know from experience that he or she is not likely to initiate a conversation that can lead to healing, and a top priority for you is to have your children grow up in a mostly peaceful and love-filled environment, it may be best for you to reach out first. By reaching out first in such a scenario, the hope is that you inspire your partner to edge closer to taking more responsibility for his or her actions during the next conflict. Clearly, this proactive and almost martyr-like approach to increase understanding and intimacy is most appropriate in situations where you are deeply committed to the long term relationship that you have with the other party.

    If you are currently struggling in your relationship with someone who belongs in this category, I hope that you find one or more of the following articles to be helpful:

    Using Honesty to Build a Good Relationship

    Understanding Your Partner's Primary Love Language

    How to Forgive Someone Who Has Hurt You

If you have any thoughts on how to effectively deal with people who may be toxic to your health, I encourage you to share them in the comments section below. As Deborah did for me several years ago, I hope that this article encourages you to embrace the journey of learning how to protect yourself against toxic behavior. I also hope that this article serves as a good reminder that we all have the capacity to engage in behavior that can be toxic to others. Staying mindful of this fact can only help to minimize the potential that we have to bring others down.

Dr. Ben KimImprove Your Health With Our Free E-mail Newsletter

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