By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast full of simple ideas for better mental health by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on practical and simple ideas that you can use to improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing every day, based on quality research.
This is Episode 75 and this week I’m talking about toxic people. In this episode I’ll cover what toxic behaviour looks like, why it’s important to know the difference between challenging behaviour and toxic behaviour, and how to deal with toxic people for the sake of your wellbeing. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the article/transcript version.
Watch Episode 13 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV — in this latest episode I’m sharing five quick (and free!) things you can do in under 10 minutes a day that will have a HUGE impact on your mental health.
Watch it below or visit the channel on YouTube:
This podcast episode was originally released on 18 April, 2021.
Hello and welcome to Episode 75, and thanks so much for joining me! 2021 is The Year of Wellbeing here on the Let’s Talk About Mental Health podcast, and each week I’ll be exploring ways you can make a positive difference in your own life.
This week is all about dealing with toxic people. As I said last week, I like to focus on the positive as much as possible however there’s also reality to contend with and the reality is that some people are arseholes. My main message in most of my work is about focusing on you and your own choices rather than worrying about what other people do or don’t do, and I fully stand by that, but I’d also be fooling myself if I didn’t acknowledge the rather negative effect toxic people can have on those around them. A lot of the ‘how-to’ when it comes to dealing with these people does, indeed, focus on the choices you make, however since it can be a real challenge to work through (and can trigger negative feelings for many of us, no matter how much we might try to rise above it) I think it’s worthwhile digging into the ‘how’ in a lot more detail.
Before I get into that, a couple of announcements which will take me a minute or two. First, Episode 13 of Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV is out now on YouTube where I’m sharing five little things you can do in less than 10 minutes a day that will have a MASSIVE impact on your mental health… and they’re all free! The episode is out now on my YouTube channel and the content I post there is completely different to the stuff you hear on this podcast, so if you’d like some more Let’s Talk About Mental Health goodness each week then head to YouTube ] or watch it now at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au/YouTube — you’ll find the links in the episode description for this podcast.
Second, my other announcement is that I have a few new services available to help you improve and maintain your mental health and wellbeing. I have live online seminars which I’ll be delivering every 2-3 months, with a Q&A session at the end where you can talk to me live about the topic: the first one is about resilience and digs into the topic much deeper than the podcast episode did, and it’s running on May 8 & 9 depending on where you live.
I’m also starting a monthly Mental Health Talk group session which is a bit like group therapy and a live chat session rolled into one, where we talk about a particular topic and explore your questions live (you can also submit questions anonymously if you like). The first one is focused on wellbeing in general and looking at how to improve all the different aspects of your life. Those sessions are an hour (the seminars are an hour and a half) and it’s running on May 19 & 20 depending on your location. These are both low-cost options and you’ll walk away with tools and resources that will help you to put the content covered into practice immediately.
And finally, I’m opening up just three coaching slots where you can work with me one-on-one to explore challenges you’re dealing with and put in place plans to address them. For pricing and availability head to the website at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au, plus you can find details for all of those in the description for this episode on whatever podcast service you’re using.
So, now, on with this week’s episode about dealing with toxic people…
There are some people that should wear a warning — you know because it’s dangerous, I’m falling. And if you thought I chose this topic just so I could quote Toxic by Britney Spears well… you wouldn’t be completely incorrect. Actually this was a topic requested by a couple of listeners (the Britney thing was just a happy coincidence) and you’re always welcome to suggest a topic to me; get in touch on Instagram @ltamentalhealth.
Look, we can tend to throw the label ‘toxic’ around a lot when we don’t like someone or what they do, but there is a big difference between someone who is challenging and a bit difficult versus someone who is outright toxic (and I’ll explore that difference in a little bit). I think the two most common situations where we can encounter truly toxic people is within our family and at work — which, funnily enough, are the two places where it’s often hardest to escape from them. So that’s what I’m going to be exploring this week — I’ll be giving lots of advice but I will also be saying “don’t put up with shit” a lot because, well, you shouldn’t put up with shit. I’ll also be touching on dealing with toxic people in romantic relationships as well.
First, let’s talk through some definitions.
What is toxic behaviour?
Toxic behaviour can be described as someone acting towards you in a manner that is harmful, destructive, or even poisonous. They might try to drag you into unhealthy behaviours or situations, or they may treat you in a way that puts you down or negatively affects your self-confidence and self-esteem.
According to VeryWellMind: “A relationship is toxic when your well-being is threatened in some way — emotionally, psychologically, and even physically.” (Source: https://www.verywellmind.com/toxic-relationships-4174665).
What we’re talking about here is someone who is frequently negative and unpleasant to deal with, or even worse. Dealing with them can be stressful and can bring up a lot of negative emotions for you because of how interacting with them makes you feel.
They might display one or more of the following behaviours on a regular basis: demanding, inconsistency, needing constant attention, being self-centred and self-absorbed, being manipulative, demeaning, judgmental, negative, being overly critical (and definitely not constructive), to name a few. Often relationships with these types of people are very one-sided, and they don’t respect boundaries at all because everything is about them and their needs. They often behave as though they are the centre of the universe, and they tend to thrive on drama. They might often behave in an outright hostile way towards people who they don’t like or who they perceive as being beneath them or as getting in their way, or they may frequently display passive-aggressive behaviours (like making snide comments or being clearly annoyed about things while never actually talking about them and dealing with them). At the more extreme end of the scale they may deliberately sabotage others, act in cruel ways, have anger issues, be controlling and, at worst, be physically and/or emotionally abusive. You might also be talking about people, especially within your family, who try to impose their beliefs on others, such as their political, social, religious or philosophical beliefs, and who treats anyone who disagrees with them as being less-than or sub-human.
Look, I try to give most people the benefit of the doubt and I believe that the majority of us have good intentions, but we’re talking here about people who do not have good intentions towards others. These are not nice people, even if they try to behave that way every now and then to get what they want. These people frequently behave in a way that makes it clear they are the only priority in their life and to hell with everyone else.
Three situations where we commonly experience toxic people are at work, in our family and in our romantic relationships. I think that, in most cases, it’s easier to walk away from toxic people outside of those three main situations (well… unless you’re at school, perhaps — I certainly dealt with enough bullies at school to know that so I guess we can throw that in there as well for anyone still at school or university where it’s definitely harder to remove yourself from the situation).
My sort-of general philosophy towards other people is “don’t put up with shit” and that does still apply here, but I totally understand how much harder it is to do that when you’re stuck in close proximity to the person pumping out enough toxic energy to run a nuclear reactor. As I said at the end of last week’s episode, I try to separate the person from the behaviour as much as possible (because we all have bad days sometimes) however there are people in life who insist on making it difficult to give them the benefit of the doubt, and usually someone who repeats the same toxic actions over and over again is telling you very clearly what type of person they are. But we do need to be clear on the difference between ‘challenging behaviours’ (that happen every now and then) versus ‘toxic behaviours’. Which leads me to…
Why is it important to know the difference between challenging behaviour and toxic behaviour?
Sometimes we all have a bad day or period of time. In Episode 73 two weeks ago, about anger, I talked openly about the times at work years ago where I was struggling to deal with everything that was going on in my life and it spilled over into my work in the form of a short temper and constant frustration. Does that make me toxic? I mean I don’t think so, but I’m sure some of the people on the receiving end of that on a regular basis might have thought so. It’s a really fine line because I do believe that intention has a lot to do with it (in my case, at that time I wasn’t intending to be an arsehole but I was so miserable that I was probably being one anyway)… and the unfortunate thing is that we can never truly know what another person’s intentions are, so all we can do is judge them on the way they behave. If there is a willingness to change and try to make things right, then I think that’s very different to outright toxic behaviour which mainly involves a ‘screw you!’ attitude towards the rest of the world — which is where the ‘don’t put up with shit!’ message comes in.
A lot of toxic behaviour involves constantly or frequently being vile to people without any explanation of why or any recognition of the behaviour and its impacts on the other person. I could talk about the why behind this kind of behaviour but let’s face facts: we’re each responsible for our own behaviour and what we put out into the world, and if you mess up then it’s up to you to be an adult and make it right. Toxic people don’t care about making a mess or hurting other people; they only care about themselves.
For me, that’s the difference — nobody is perfect, but when you just don’t care about other people’s feelings or trying to make things right if you messed up, that’s when you’re in toxic territory and that’s the sort of shit that you should never accept or even tolerate because that leads to unhealthy outcomes.
Learning how to effectively deal with toxic people in a healthy way matters. To quote Mental Health America:
“Certain people and situations in life can trigger us to feel badly about ourselves or engage in destructive behaviors. Identifying the toxic influences in our lives and taking steps to create boundaries or a new life without them can improve mental and physical health over time.”Mental Health America (Source: https://mhanational.org/eliminating-toxic-influences)
And, also, according to the UK’s Mental Health Foundation:
“On the whole, relationships are good for us and, for most of us, are central to living a good life, but that’s not true of all relationships. Sometimes relationships in our lives can be harmful – for example, when they are characterised by bullying or abuse. It’s important to remember that harmful relationships are not just limited to our romantic partnerships; a person can have a damaging relationship with a friend, co-worker or even a family member.”Mental Health Foundation [UK] (Source: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/guide-investing-your-relationships/toxic)
How do you identify toxic relationships? Well, I’m going to quote again from the same article by Mental Health Foundation which has five bullet points that I think explain it really well. The quote is:
“…some signs to look out for when assessing whether you are in a toxic or harmful relationship [are]:
- You don’t feel good enough. You feel like nothing you do is quite right and are constantly trying to prove your worth. You constantly seek the other person’s validation.
- You can’t be yourself. You feel you have to walk on eggshells and monitor everything you say and do. You feel you need to think twice before you speak as certain topics are off limits, and you feel you have to act or behave a certain way. You’re afraid to bring things up because you’re not sure how the other person will react.
- The other person puts you down.
- You feel like the problem. The other person doesn’t take responsibility for their actions and instead blames you. They attribute any problems or difficulties in the relationship as all your fault.
- You start to withdraw from participating in activities or seeing people in your life.”
And, again, the link for that article is in the transcript.
So how do you deal with toxic people for the sake of your wellbeing? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode…
How to deal with toxic people for the sake of your wellbeing
Alright so let’s explore some advice about how to deal with these toxic people. And my first point is:
Confront — which might send a shiver of horror up the spine of anyone who doesn’t particularly enjoy confrontation (and really, who does?), but hear me out. ‘Confront’ can mean telling the other person how you feel, but it also means being honest with yourself about how you feel. If you’re able to have a calm and rational discussion with the other person then I definitely think it’s important to do that, and to be assertive in that discussion (and I discussed assertiveness in Episode 45 which is worth checking out), however there are some people who you might not feel comfortable or even safe to have that sort of talk with (or you just might not feel capable of saying what needs to be said without screaming at them to stop being an arsehole). In those cases I think it’s still critical to start with confrontation, but instead choose to confront the situation and your part in it. Unless you begin by acknowledging where you are today, how can you hope to plan out the steps you need to take to move forward in a healthy way? So speaking of steps, my next point is to…
Set clear and healthy boundaries — decide on what you are willing to accept and what you’re not, and set boundaries accordingly. That might mean telling the other person your boundaries and asking them to respect them; on the other hand, that might mean being clear on your boundaries with yourself and focusing on what you need to change in the situation (because all you can ever directly control is yourself in terms of your words, actions and feelings). For example, if someone is repeatedly behaving in a way that leads you to feel frustrated or unhappy, figure out what it is that you are going to do about it (again recognising that you can only directly control your own words and actions here). You can influence people by asking them to stop or to treat you differently, but you cannot control what they do or don’t do. I talked about boundaries in Episode 53 so check that out for more on the subject. So once you’ve set clear boundaries, then (moving on to my next point)…
Maintain your boundaries — so boundaries are great, but if you don’t maintain them then they’re pointless. Now, I’m going to give an example which might seem a little crass but it’s one many of us would be familiar with: if a neighbour’s cat likes to shit in your garden, and you tell it to shoo once but then you don’t say anything the next time, what do you think is going to happen? It’s going to shit in your garden. Don’t let people shit in your garden; tell them to shoo each and every time otherwise your inaction is a form of condoning the behaviour… so vigilance and assertiveness are required. Which leads to my next point…
Address breaches — if someone repeatedly breaches your boundaries, that needs to be addressed as it’s wilful behaviour (like, they’re making a choice). Here’s how I like to handle this in a simple 1-2-3 approach: first time, I highlight it (to give the person the benefit of the doubt in case they have done it accidentally); I’ll point out what has happened and that it goes against what we’ve discussed or what my wishes are. Second time, it’s an emerging pattern so I’ll address it as such; for example, I’ll note that we’ve discussed it twice now and yet the same thing is happening. Now I do find here it’s worthwhile, in some situations (especially with people you’re close to, like family members), to take an assertive-yet-open approach such as highlighting what has happened and asking open-ended questions such as, “what’s happening here from your perspective?” so I can try to listen and understand (while at the same time having my bullshit detector on high alert — remember; don’t put up with shit). But it’s about giving the person an opportunity to talk and try to understand what’s going on with them; for some people this isn’t malicious, it’s just inconsiderate if that makes sense. And the third time? Well, that’s an established pattern; it’s such a pattern it should be available to buy as wallpaper. Address the pattern assertively (such as by saying that you’ve now addressed this three times and they are continuing to treat you with disrespect, and you will no longer accept or tolerate it because you do not put up with shit) and then apply consequences. I’m not talking about a slap on the wrist here: at work, take action via your leader or with Human Resources; at home, extricate yourself from the relationships either temporarily or indefinitely. Which leads me to the next point…
Spend less time with them — this is where the “don’t put up with shit” bit of advice comes into play again, and it’s about putting your mental health and wellbeing first. If you’ve done all the other stuff and the person has no interest in adapting the way they behave towards you, all you can do is limit the amount of time you spend with them. Now I know that hurts when it’s family (which I explored in Episode 19 about family), but the choice is always yours. If nothing changes then nothing changes. That leads to the next point…
Remove yourself from the situation/relationship entirely — this is often the hardest one for most people to swallow and we try to resist this as much as possible, but hear me and hear me well: if someone is treating you like shit and they refuse to show you basic decency or treat you with dignity, you need to remove yourself from that situation. Like, now. Go on, I’ll wait. If it’s work, change departments or change employers. If it’s family, stop speaking to the person. If it’s a romantic partner, leave. You know, I’m not talking about just doing this the first time that something happens***; we’re talking about if you’ve addressed things multiple times and it keeps on happening… there has to be a point at which you choose to remove yourself from the situation. It does not matter what that person’s relationship is to you; no relationship or no situation is worth putting yourself in that position for. These might seem like simplistic solutions but far from it; these are often the most difficult actions to take for the majority of people. Do you think it was easy for me to go more than seven years without talking to my mother, something I’ve shared in previous episodes? No! But there is a point at which all you can do is focus on what is within your direct control and if that means you need to leave the situation or relationship completely then do so. Your mental health and wellbeing needs to be your number one priority.
[***POST-EDIT NOTE: Hi, it’s Jeremy from the editing suite here (also known as my office). I always try to encourage you to address issues proactively which is why I stated ‘I’m not talking about just doing this the first time that something happens’, however I would like to add one exception to that comment… domestic violence. Don’t stick around and give multiple chances; domestic violence is unacceptable and you must remove yourself from any situation where your wellbeing is at risk. So now, back to the episode…]
Forgive (if you can) but don’t forget — forgiveness is 100% about you and letting go so you can move forward without feeling trapped; it does not mean the relationship has to continue, it does not mean you have to tell the other person you forgive them, and even if it does then it does not give the other person a blank slate to do whatever they want with you again. ‘Don’t forget’ refers to the fact that forgiveness goes hand-in-hand with your boundaries, which are up to you to set and maintain. And that leads me to my final point which is to…
Get support — you do not have to go through these sorts of things alone. Work with a counsellor or therapist to explore your challenges and possible solutions, and for more serious situations seek specialist support (especially when we’re talking about family or domestic violence or abuse). Please don’t feel that you’re stuck or that you have to fix everything on your own, because there are lots of different resources and services available to support you no matter what your situation is. All it requires from you is to take that first step and ask for help.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to toxic people and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: When we find ourselves dealing with nasty, manipulative and downright vile people, it can do a lot of damage to our wellbeing. However, let me be clear and say that the way other people behave has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the type of person they are — and, unfortunately, some people just are not particularly nice. Focus on surrounding yourself with positive and supportive people, and remove toxic people from your life. Your health and wellbeing is the most important thing in your life and frankly life is too valuable to spend it putting up with nasty people, so choose not to put up with shit.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the Iranian writer and poet Kamand Kojouri, and it is:
“Some people are in such utter darkness that they will burn you just to see a light. Try not to take it personally.”Kamand Kojouri
Next week I’ll be talking about dreams. I think dreams are wonderful things because they are like hopes for the future, however turning them into reality takes a lot of hard work and determination and, let’s be frank, courage, since it can be terrifying to jump into the unknown. But if we choose to let our dreams slip away and just become ‘what-ifs?’ then we aren’t taking steps to be the best version of ourselves possible. So next week I’ll be talking about what dreams are, why they play an important role in our mental health and wellbeing, and how to turn your dreams into reality. NOTE FOR EP: DON’T LET YOUR SOUL WITHER!
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday 25th April. And join me for Let’s Talk About Mental Health TV on YouTube, with new episodes released every Wednesday.
Head over to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au for links and past episodes (including audio links and full transcripts) and while you’re there join the Let’s Talk About Mental Health mailing list to have exclusive updates land in your inbox — those of you on my email list receive the full transcript for each episode every week and I also just started a short weekly newsletter where I share 3-4 things that have inspired me or which I found interesting related to mental health and wellbeing, so if you like this show then sign up now at the website: letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.
You can also find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest as @ltamentalhealth, where I post extra content throughout the week, and if you follow me on Instagram then you’ll notice that I make a point of interacting with as many people as possible there so it’s a great way to continue the conversation!
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
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