BUZZZZZZZzzzzzzz! “What’s that?” “Look out! It’s a rattlesnake! Keep your distance!”
Rattlers typically give you a warning before they strike. The bite is painful, toxic, and deadly. Unfortunately, toxic people don’t come with warnings. They just show up, and unfortunately, there is no shortage of toxic folk.
When something or someone is toxic, they are potentially dangerous to the point of being poisonous and deadly. Discernment dictates caution when encountering toxins in physical, emotional, or spiritual realms if one wants a full and enjoyable life.
To be safe in the presence of toxins requires recognition of the toxin and its deadly potential. As an example, if I encounter a snake when out for a hike, knowing the difference between a harmless bull snake and a deadly rattlesnake can save my life. A rattlesnake is what it is: dangerous and deadly. Toxic. Neither ignorance nor avoidance of reality will give me protection, but ignorance or denial can bring me great harm. The same is true of toxic people or toxic relationships.
Unlike the rattlesnake, people are not born toxic. Toxic people become that way by absorbing external toxicity from internalizing their own trauma, anger, hurt, or experiences. Pure water starts fresh from a spring, but as it flows through the environment, it can pick up toxins that turn purity to toxicity. People are no different. How people become toxic is not an excuse for their behavior, however. Behavior is a choice.
The first step in dealing with toxic people is the ability to see the toxicity for what it actually is. Toxic behavioral traits may give you a gnawing feeling of discomfort when around the toxic person, coupled with an ongoing need to excuse, explain, or defend their toxic behaviors. Typically, toxic people are subtly or overtly driven by a need to control people and situations around them. This control need is relentless. Being around toxic people engenders stress, confusion, and anxiety that can be damaging. Those behaviors trigger internal, visceral responses in the form of muscle tightening, increased heart rate, clenched teeth, and other physical responses that are warning flags from the body, signaling conflict and danger. The toxic person is like a magnet, taking time, funds, and emotional energy from others without a reciprocal return.
Toxic people often enjoy upheaval and chaotic stress because this gives them a way to control, if not overtly, covertly. They appear to constantly stir the pot of discontent. Continuous conflict becomes the norm. Those around them feel uncomfortable, always looking for, or expecting, an apology for the toxic behavior. The apology never comes, but the toxic behavior continues to sow discomfort.
When discomfort becomes so intolerable that those in the toxic person’s realm share their pain with others, it is not uncommon for others to say, “Just pray about it.” Prayer is powerful and needed by all, but praying over a rattler will not turn it into a playful puppy. Another tactic is to try to ignore the obvious. That does not work either. The only productive way to deal with toxic people is to intervene. Without intervention, the relationship will not heal. It will only worsen over time.
There are two amazing stories of dealing with toxins in Elisha’s life. Second Kings 2:19-21 relates how the prophet healed a poisonous spring with salt. In 2 Kings 4:38-44 there is the story of toxic gourds in the stew. It was all good until someone cried out, “There is death in the pot!” (verse 40). When Elisha intervened, as he did in chapter 2, things changed. Note that first there was recognition of the problem, then there was intervention to change the toxicity. Both were needed to get positive results from negative situations. Those two elements are vital when dealing with toxic people. Recognition and intervention make a difference.
As followers of Jesus, we want to heed the admonition of Paul in Romans 12:17, 18: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (NIV).
So just how does that work when dealing with toxic people? The admonition is clear: we don’t return toxic behavior by becoming toxic in our response. What we can do is help break the toxic and destructive cycle by wise and well-planned intervention. If the cycle is not broken, the toxic behaviors will continue to spin out of control and cause increasing damage. Intervention offers healing. Nonintervention, “just leave it alone,” is nonproductive and increases the short-term and long-term damaging effects. If I am bitten by a toxic reptile, intervention is by far the best option.
The first feature of intervention in toxic relationships is to honestly recognize and admit that problems exist. The next step is to have a clear plan to address the toxic person or relationship. These steps can be uncomfortable, but they are vital if there is to be any chance of change and healing.
ADDRESSING TOXIC BEHAVIORS
Once toxic behaviors are recognized, the next step is to communicate with the toxic person about a need for change. Communication is key to success in building a nontoxic relationship. Using “I messages” allows me to express how the toxic behaviors affect me and our relationship. As an example, saying, “I really feel uncomfortable when I hear negative comments about my choices. I feel angry, and that isn’t helpful for our relationship” is far more productive than a “you message,” such as “You make me angry when you are so negative!” “You messages” prompt immediate pushback, resistance, and defensive attacks because they come across as blaming. “I messages,” on the other hand, allow me to be up-front with how a specific behavior impacts me personally. It’s not an attack; it’s an honest risk-taking sharing of how the behavior impacts the relationship.
Yes, risk taking. Deep sharing is a willingness to take a risk to help build a better relationship. Jesus set the example by His seven “I am” statements in the New Testament.* Was it a risk? Certainly. Was it effective? Yes indeed.
The next step in addressing toxic people is to set clear boundaries. Having and maintaining boundaries is a way of showing respect. These boundaries can include verbal communications and words used, such as, “In the future when we talk, put-downs and name-calling will not be part of the conversation. If so, the conversation will immediately cease.”
Boundaries can also include time: “When we talk about issues, we will spend only 15 minutes on the subject, then we will drop it. If we need more discussion, we will mutually set another time to do so.” Other boundaries might include location, who else is around (or not), physical contact, threats, or other behaviors. Here is a great place for the “pray about it” advice some will give.
Be sure, boundaries will be tested. Remember the drive for control? Boundaries will really test that. If boundaries are not kept, there is little or no chance to end the toxicity, and an increased likelihood of ending the relationship. If someone is unwilling to respect boundaries, they are dangerously toxic.
“But boundaries sound so harsh,” some will say. “Shouldn’t we be flexible and open?” Take a serious look at boundaries in the Bible. Boundaries are clearly set in Genesis 2:16, 17: “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die’” (NIV). Not only are there boundaries, but there are also consequences for violating those boundaries. If there are no consequences for boundary violation, there is no sense in setting a boundary at all. The same is true in dealing with toxic people.
Linking boundaries, consequences, and “I messages” produces a statement such as: “If I hear name-calling, threats, or swearing, the discussion will cease, and we will not converse again until a set time two days from now.” Or “If there is any physical violence or abuse, I will report it to the authorities, and we will no longer meet privately. We will meet only in the presence of a third party.”
Setting and maintaining boundaries is essential and clearly biblical. Both Deuteronomy 19:14 and Proverbs 23:10 warn against moving or violating boundaries. In Deuteronomy 27:17 it is recorded: “Cursed is anyone who moves their neighbor’s boundary stone. Then all the people shall say, ‘Amen!’ ” (NIV).
Respecting physical, emotional, and other boundaries is not a suggestion in Scripture; it is a mandate. This is especially true in dealing with toxic people.
OUTCOMES AND RESULTS
Dealing with toxic people or relationships requires recognition of the toxic behaviors and intervention. The final step is to clearly define the desired outcomes. Those desired results must be clearly stated, measurable, realistic, and within a specific time frame. They are best not only discussed mutually but, even better, put in writing. That way there is no way to waffle about what the goals are, and by when they are to be evidenced.
Now it comes down to where the rubber meets the road: choices. That, too, is a biblical concept. All of life, and even eternal life, comes down to what we choose. If the toxic person violates boundaries, refuses to cooperate, will not make a choice to build the relationship, they have made a choice. Perhaps the only response can be “When you choose to discuss our relationship, respect boundaries, and work together, I will be delighted. Let me know when you are there. Until then, we will not talk to each other. I care about you, and I care about myself and my family. I would like nothing better than a positive relationship. Let me know when that is also your choice.” Choices have consequences.
Dealing with toxic people is not fun. Not dealing with them hurts everyone. Toxic behavior does not disappear magically, but it can change with appropriate intervention. In some cases, seeking guidance from a professional is necessary to have clarity and courage to confront toxic people. Sometimes people are toxic as a way to distance themselves from others as a protective device to stave off more pain. Unfortunately, they only increase their own pain and that of others. The good news is that we are God’s children. He can heal and help us change. Just ask Him. Then follow through. He can turn toxicity into triumph. That is the good news of the gospel. It isn’t easy, but it is possible.
*The seven “I Am” statements of Jesus can be found in John 6:35; 8:12; 9:5; 10:7, 9; 10:11, 14; 11:25; 14:6; and 15:1. It is interesting that in two of the statements Jesus says He is “the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). What we need to stop toxic cycles is His light to see each other as real valid equals rather than lopsided, one-way relationships leading to toxic, abusive, attempts at overpowering others. In fact, these are a pattern in John’s Gospel showing the reality of who Jesus is . . . authentic, real, present, counted. “I statements” do the same for us: they validate that I am present and real, and have value. Disrespecting who I am by not accepting me as a whole person with boundaries is actually a rejection of any potential relationship. If someone rejects me as having reality and rights, we can’t have a mutual relationship. It’s that simple and yet complicated. If I treat others as having no value, no recognition, no needs, no boundaries . . . there is no hope of any fulfilling relationship.