Toxic people are people who bring out the worst in us. They seem to take pleasure in putting others down, and pointing out all their faults. Of course, they’re sure they have none of their own.
Toxic people may have either a personality disorder or a toxic upbringing. Hurt people hurt people.
If you have a toxic person in your life, keep interactions short and businesslike. Don’t try to over-please – your actions will never be recognized anyway.
When I first opened up my playgroup, I was young and insecure. Although my trepidation was so strong, that I still remember it today, I took the plunge. Baruch Hashem, it went well, though I hoped no one could hear my racing heartbeat. The first day passed, successfully, though it was exceptionally challenging.
There was just one issue that kept coming up: “Avrumy’s mother.” Avrumy’s mother was the most sophisticated woman I have ever encountered. She was perfect until you got to know her. Her voice was tough and domineering, even before you heard the actual words.
When I met her at orientation, I offered her and her son a bright cheery hello, accompanied by a lollipop. She did not return my smile and in a clipped voice pronounced, “No lollipop.”
I was a bit bewildered and begged her, “Just this once,” while handing the lollipop to her son. She grabbed it away from him, and the room was filled with his wails.
She wasn’t at all perturbed. She interrogated me in her tight-lipped manner, asking how I would cope in various situations, as if I was her brand new maid. I answered in the most coherent manner I could manage, but I was sweating.
When I saw her number on the ID the next day, I trembled. And it seems I had reason to. In her powerful, super-controlled domineering voice, she slapped down a couple of criticisms, mostly about why her son came home with sticky hands.
Did I mention that this was the first day?
That Shabbos, as I reflected on my success, I couldn’t savor my accomplishment fully. All that kept coming up was Avrumy and his overbearing mother.
On Sunday, when she called again, I asked my husband to take a message. When he told her, not unkindly, “She’ll get back to you later,” she insisted she wanted to talk to me at that moment. My husband wisely repeated himself, but I knew I’d have to call her back. The thought kept me antsy all day long.
Then I remembered a personal story I’d heard on the radio from Lucinda Basset, the founder of The Stress Center. She talked about a time a woman had wanted to join her sessions, but kept on putting down the program and Mrs. Basset. She got kind of flustered and asked her partner, Dr. Fisher, to deal with the woman. And so the difficult woman started “giving it” to him. He calmly said, “Mrs. X, this program is not for you.” She started protesting, but he simply repeated, “This program is not for you.” That was all.
I thought about the story. I had never spoken to anyone with that type of assertiveness, but I knew it would save my sanity.
With trembling fingers, I dialed the woman’s number. Naturally, she started with some biting remarks in her characteristically-clipped tone. I didn’t even hear her. As soon as there was a pause, I simply echoed Dr. Fisher’s cool words, “Mrs. X, this playgroup is not for you. I’ll send you back the money I owe you.” In her typical fashion, she snapped out, “Can I pick it up now?” I told her to wait on the line while I checked if I had the cash on hand, and then told her she could.
When we hung up, I breathed a sigh of relief. I couldn’t believe how much energy this one person had taken out of me. Although there were a number of other challenges over the course of the next couple of weeks, now that there wasn’t someone ripping me apart over everything that went wrong, I managed to overcome them all.
Having a constant critic around is like having someone hitting you over the head on a regular basis. The only difference is the first is physical, and will soon cause serious injury and eventually death; the latter is emotional and will cause a person to lose trust in himself and his abilities. Assertiveness is a key tool to handling a toxic person when disassociation isn’t possible, like when it is a husband, parent, or child.
However, it is almost impossible for a person to go it alone, and it’s therefore best to get professional guidance.
If the toxic person is a spouse, one may be able to get support from his or her family. In-laws will, in many cases, do anything to keep the family together. Be open with healthy family members and demand your rights in a respectful manner. Have them help you financially, or otherwise, so that you can get the support and assistance you need to remain in the marriage if you choose to do so.
Thank you, Dr. Yael, for highlighting this issue and for giving us all the tools we need to deal with such people.
Thank you for your well-written and helpful response to my last few columns on “toxic people.” You are absolutely correct that the best way to deal with toxic people is to stay away from them if possible. However, if the toxic person is a family member, I agree that you must get the help you need to get through the trying times! Hatzlocha!