When I was little girl, I found a bird with a broken wing outside the front porch of my grandmother’s house, where I was living at the time. I had to be around 7 or 8 years old. I vividly remember asking myself, “how is it going to eat,” and “where is it’s mommy?” because the bird looked like a baby. I ran into the house to grab my orange pumpkin.
I filled the pumpkin with grass and carefully scooped up the baby bird and placed it inside. For the next week or so, I went out hunting for worms to feed the bird and with each passing day, the bird started getting stronger and stronger. Eventually the bird was healthy enough to fly on it’s own. We went outside and I sat it free in the woods behind our home. It was a defining moment for me, because from that day forward, I’ve always had this deep desire and need to care for & nurture other things – I enjoyed babysitting when I got a little older and took great joy in serving as a mentor in High School. As I got older, I started to realize that (a) not everyone wanted help & (b) helping some people could put my own happiness, peace, financial security, safety & health in jeopardy.
There are some people, that no matter how good intentioned or knowledgeable you are, will not accept your help. When I was a teacher, I had a student who had trouble reading. This student was in High School, reading at a 2nd or 3rd grade level. When I attempted to intervene, I was brushed off and told that the student was on his/her way to becoming a professional athlete & didn’t have time for tutoring. In this case, this was a parent who told me essentially to back off. I continued to provide the support that I could within the classroom and backed off from pursuing additional support out of respect for the parent. It broke my heart, but it was a situation that was out of my control.
Sometimes, people have mental, emotional or spiritual challenges that are beyond the scope of your ability to address their challenges to provide them with help. The individual(s) may not have control over their behavior. This may include people with diagnosed mental or emotional illnesses like schizophrenia or bi-polar disorder. This may include people who self-medicate through alcohol and drugs. People may need therapy, medication or other support, but we don’t have the professional expertise (or the licenses) to help them with their challenges. The best thing you can do in those situations is to recommend professional help (especially if you know the person has been diagnosed). It can sometimes be harmful (and insensitive) to try to diagnose a person – but if you care & have built a relationship of trust with the person, perhaps you can suggest you’re willing to join him/her for an appointment with a professional.
If you are a person with a documented medical condition that may impact your relationships and friendships, you may want to consider informing people so that they can support and advocate for you. Let them know the symptoms, the triggers and how they can best support you. There unfortunately is still a large stigma against people with mental health conditions, so please be sure that you are sharing the information in a way that won’t be harmful for you and in the case of employment, be sure that you are documenting things so that your employer can protect and support you. At one point in my life, I had both night terrors & I went through a period where my attitude was extremely bad. I could have certainly been written off as “toxic,” “attitudinal,” “ungrateful” or any other number of labels. Through the right support, I was able to address my internal challenges due to surviving a sexual assault, ultimately minimizing the negative effects on others & myself.
Moving beyond those who have difficultly controlling their behavior due to no fault of their own, are those who are intentionally hurtful, disrespectful, messy, etc. You know you are dealing with a toxic person if:
(a) Your mood instantly changes for the worst when you’re in their presence
(b) They make you feel uncomfortable & if you had a choice you wouldn’t be in their presence.
(c) Multiple people feel uncomfortable and don’t want to be around them.
(d) You feel heightened anxiety or stress when you have to communicate with them.
(e) They are always negative and question your positivity, optimism or goals.
(f) They bring out the worst in you.
(g) They try to isolate or separate you from your family or friends.
(h) Other people feel compelled to “defend” you or “speak up” for you in their presence.
(i) They want to tell you negative things that other people have said about you (especially when it is unbalanced and they don’t have anything positive to say).
Our instincts are a powerful tool. We can sometimes “feel” the vibe or energy of a person or space. Our instincts are always correct, but we should certainly pay attention and look into the “vibes” and “energy” reads we receive.
Sometimes there are people that are so unhappy or so destructive – I call these people “suicide bombers” because they are willing to not only destroy other people, they are also willing to destroy themselves. They have nothing to lose, leave a trail of burned relationships & are so consumed with themselves that they can’t even comprehend (or don’t care to see) how their actions may be harmful to innocent bystanders. There is also usually a pattern. Many of their relationships end in a similar fashion.
If you are generally a kind person, you believe and look for the good in people. You are open-minded and open-hearted and that is ok. Being open-minded and open-hearted is unfortunately a petri-dish for emotional manipulation. Toxic people can be masters of emotional manipulation! My rule of thumb is generally that people get three chances, unless they are suicide bombers. If I notice the characteristics of a suicide bomber, I immediately remove them from my life because anyone who is willing to destroy themselves will & can ultimately destroy me. For people that get multiple chances, with each incident I try to address it with the person and share my perspective & hear them out. If they continue to disrespect, intentionally hurt or offend me & other loved ones I put up emotional blocks. As we rebuild the trust, eventually the emotional blocks are removed. Remember, you do not have to attend every argument you are invited to, and as an adult you have the power to decide who will be a part of your life, and who won’t!