Our soul recoils when exposed to something toxic. It sounds a distress call that reverberates throughout our very being and won’t stop until we wake up.
You’re hard-wired to sense toxins both physically and psychologically. Call it your survival instinct. Trust it.
Caring for ourselves entails recognizing and avoiding things that can be toxic to us. A broad spectrum of things can fall into that category, ranging from toxic food to toxic people. Avoiding toxic food doesn’t produce much guilt…if any at all. But avoiding people who have a toxic effect on us is another matter. Especially if we tend to be guilt-prone and lug around a heavy-handed internal bully. Inner critic is another term that’s been used.
Merely describing someone as “toxic”–even if it’s well-deserved–can result in a hefty case of self-recrimination. That internal bully of ours wastes no time in accusing us of being unkind, unfair, unloving and judgmental.
Distancing from such people isn’t viewed as a reasonable option rooted in self-care. It sounds cruel.
What’s tragic about this? Irrational guilt causes us to second-guess the very instincts that are designed to serve us—nudging us to self-protect. The truth is, a clear-eyed examination of the psychological toxins in our environment and taking the necessary precautions is an act of love—a demonstration of mattering to ourselves.
But choosing to distance ourselves from a demeaning coworker isn’t nearly as challenging—or heart-wrenching—as distancing ourselves from a loved one. Guilt gnaws away at us but so does grief. That’s fairly normal when we’re faced with the possibility of leaving someone or just pulling back—even a little.
Fears and self-doubt also paralyze us. So we stay and endure. Enduring, though, is never a smart move because an unhealthy pattern never improves on its own. And continuing to go along to get along—continuing to cooperate with a toxic situation—merely reinforces it. Yet, even if we get good at speaking up and confronting, change is not guaranteed.
The sobering truth is that no matter how hard we try, we can’t make another person change. We know this but we forget. We just can’t get someone to become a more positive version of themselves. In short, we can’t make anyone less toxic. They have to want to change.
Guilt would have us believe otherwise. It tells us it’s our fault that they’re not nicer and that we’re responsible for any connection or disconnection. And if the connection is missing, we’re supposed to work at altering ourselves in myriad ways to make it happen. Routinely, we may appease and placate that other person in an exhausting effort to make them more pleasant.
But this self-desertion comes at a hefty price—we lose ourselves, resulting in our unhappiness and feeling empty inside. Some may describe it as depression. It’s miserable, nonetheless, and it’s the very thing that forces us to stop and look truth squarely in the face.
Emily’s a prime example. She loves her father, but has to limit the amount of time she spends with him because she finds it toxic to be in his presence for long periods of time.
“My light gets put out,” she said. “I get drawn into his darkness.”
Her father hibernates in a cocoon of good versus evil, shame, judgment, and condemnation. He believes that in order to appease a condemning god, people must be pummeled with shame—starting at a very early age. That’s what happened to Emily—both physically and emotionally.
“I can’t be around that,” she said. “It’s crippling emotionally.”
Emily’s given up the idea of opening his eyes. “I don’t think he can see outside his reality. He can’t see me,” she said with a pained expression. “He’s lost in his darkness, pinched off from his light. It’s sad.”
In essence, Emily’s father is pinched off from his true self. Like all of us, his early training and life experiences influenced and colored his ideas and perceptions. They linger yet today, poisoning his frame of mind, pushing people away and denying him an interior experience of joy… something that’s everyone’s birthright. That is sad.
This brings to light a fundamental truth: A particular person may have a toxic impact on us, but inherently, they’re not toxic. Like Emily’s father, their interaction style is a product of their upbringing. Most people are innocent and oblivious—lacking any ill intent.
Viewing her father through this broader lens, and the sadness she feels for him, is a significant step in Emily’s healing journey. It means she’s rising above his effect on her. Guilt is less and less a magnetic force keeping her connected to him—love is.
This doesn’t suggest that she can nor should endure his toxicity. She needs a boundary. One aspect of that boundary, she realizes, is reducing her exposure to him. She has also been speaking up more—saying what’s on her mind, including objecting when he relates to her in a rude or insensitive manner.
The wonderful news is that she’s been seeing progress—not just with herself, but with him also. He seems to be catching himself when he’s about to make a caustic comment, and he’s being more respectful toward her.
That’s what happens when we set boundaries. It tells the other person: I’m not going by the same old rules. I’m changing my dance step.
It’s called disrupting the status quo–breaking the pattern–and it causes the other person to stop and take notice. Remember the old expression: It takes two to tango. If there’s any hope that our loved one might begin a metamorphosis, it lies in us making the first move—changing up the dance.
Many people fear that if they choose paths and actions that are right for them, they will be acting selfishly. The opposite is true. When we honor ourselves, we simultaneously honor and invite the best in the other person.
Names are changed to honor client confidentiality.
(c) Salee Reese 2020