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Toxicity: How to recognize and avoid it

By CLAUDIA BERMUDEZ-HYUN, The Philippine STAR Published Sep 06, 2022 5:00 am Updated Sep 06, 2022 10:01 am

Toxicity is everywhere. We inhale it through polluted air, we consume it through food that has been treated with pesticides, through tap water that’s been infused with “purifying” chemicals. We unknowingly rub it on our skin and hair using products containing cancer-producing preservatives like parabens.

How do we attempt to live a toxic-free life?

Yes, we can try buying everything organic, test our tap water for lead, and check for suspicious ingredients in our shampoo, toothpaste and face serums. But what about people? Just as the environment has toxins, humanity includes people who consistently do toxic things that spread unhappiness, personal suffering, and the capacity for poisoning careers, businesses, marriages, and often children.

How do we recognize and avoid these noxious beings? They defy logic, create unnecessary complexity, and worst of all, stress the people around them. Narcissists, gossipers and chronic complainers are often the cause of interpersonal disasters. Surely you can identify a few of them as you read this. Think: the one who never has anything nice to say, criticizes, judges everything and everyone, has an obvious superiority complex and is never at fault.

Sometimes cutting people out of your life may seem like the only way to escape their toxic influence. Do what it takes. Life has so much positivity, love.

It is often said that you are the product of the five people you spend the most time with. If you allow even one of those five to be toxic, you will soon find out how capable they are of holding you back, creating needless havoc at school, work or at home.

“Whether it’s personally or professionally, we all need to find ways to gracefully handle toxic personalities,” says Leah Rockwell, an LPC (licensed professional counselor), mental health counselor, and founder of Rockwell Wellness Counseling. She notes that the common advice to simply cut toxic people out of your life, while appealing, isn’t always practical. “Finding ways to cope and setting clear internal and external boundaries are key in working through these relationships, Rockwell says.

Say no and walk away. The more you practice saying no, the easier it becomes.

It’s sometimes tricky to distance yourself from those individuals unless you first know who they are. The challenge is to differentiate the annoying and difficult ones from those who are truly toxic.

In an attempt to determine this, let’s take a look at nine of the most common types of toxic drainers. We might recognize some of these traits in ourselves.

The gossiper. They thrive on dissing and dissecting the lives of others, deriving pleasure from people’s misfortunes and hardships. They are usually apt storytellers and attention seekers, who entertain their audience with the “dirty laundry” of others, but get very offended when the tsismis is about them.

The narcissistic-aggressive. It’s all about them, all the time. Superficially charming and glib, they are often controlling, possessive, verbally abusive, and intimidating towards other people. They believe they are assertive rather than aggressive and have a sense of entitlement that will extend to seizing the rights of others as if it was God-given to them. Arrogant and haughty, they think they are experts on everything and tend to put others down to boost their image.

The perpetual victim. Everything is a problem that has been purposely done to them by others to annoy and irritate them personally. Every speed bump is an un-crossable mountain. Their “time of need” is all the time. They never take ownership of their own lives.

The envious. For these people, the grass is always greener elsewhere. They tend to measure their worth against the world rather than from within. Never happy with what they have. They can’t appreciate when others do well, achieve or move forward. If anything good is going to happen it should be to them. They are often immune to insight, remorse or lasting positive change.

The frenemy. Often acting like a friend, especially in a time of need, their inclination to help has little to do with selflessness or concern, but a desire for a sense of self-worth from assisting others who are needy. They become jealous, intolerant, and passive-aggressive when faced with the happiness and success of others, and will try to sabotage or simple distance themselves. In reality, they are insecure and attempt to enhance their own self-esteem by surrounding themselves with people who are worse off.

The dementor. These people “suck the life” out of the room by imposing their negativity and pessimism on anyone they encounter and can inject fear and concern into the most benign situations. They are energy drainers. After interacting with these people you leave feeling exhausted and emotionally depleted.

The judgmental. They can take the thing you are most passionate about and make you feel terrible about it. You can spot this type of person by their constant criticism. You might want to avoid sharing your dreams, plans, and goals with someone like this. Keep it light and in the present tense.

It is often said that you are the product of the five people you spend the most time with. If you allow even one of those five to be toxic, you will soon find out how capable they are of holding you back, creating needless havoc at school, work or at home.

The negative-complainer. They are never happy, find nothing positive in anything or anyone, and discourage others from doing the same. They ramble on about problems with little interest in finding solutions or taking action. Passive-aggressive behavior is common in these individuals. They appear pleasant on the surface, but once you identify them, the constant complaining and “nothing is good enough” attitude will be obvious.

The manipulator. They can be difficult to pinpoint because they treat you as a friend. They know what you like, who you care for, what makes you happy, and they use this information in a hidden agenda. Manipulators always want something from you, but hardly ever give back.

So whether it’s negativity, victim syndrome or just plain craziness, we need to protect ourselves by limiting exposure, avoiding and staying away at all costs.

Recent research from the Department of Biological and Clinical Psychology at Friedrich Schiller University in Germany found that exposure to strong negative emotions — similar to dealing with toxic people — caused the subject’s brain to have a massive stress response.

Older studies have long shown that stress can have a lasting, negative impact on the brain, compromising the effectiveness of neurons in the hippocampus, responsible for reasoning and memory.

Here are some ideas on how to approach pernicious situations:

Avoid playing into their reality. Toxic people are hardly ever at fault and often see themselves as a victim in every situation, blaming you or others for their issues. Rather than nodding to avoid conflict and enabling this behavior, explain your side using words like: “I see it from a different perspective” and describe what happened without accusations. While your disagreement might irritate them further, they will probably lower the chances of them involving you again.

Be aware of your own emotions. Pay attention to how they make you feel. Simply becoming aware of this can help you better navigate your interactions with them when any interaction happens.

Rise above. You don’t need to respond to their emotional chaos or beat them at their own game. Do not respond to them emotionally and get sucked in. The more irrational they are, the easier it is to remove yourself from the situation.

Set limits and establish boundaries. After some time, behaviors become more obvious and highly predictable. This gives you the power and control to decide how you want to deal with that person at that given time. Distancing yourself before the chaos begins will be easier to anticipate.

Set limits and establish boundaries: After some time, behaviors become more obvious and highly predictable. This gives you the power and control to decide how you want to deal with that person at that given time.

Don’t get personal. When someone’s behavior makes you feel insecure and sad, you may blame yourself. Don’t. Toxic traits reflect on their own self-doubt and struggles. Try to keep interactions with toxic people superficial, light and insignificant. The less you share about yourself, the better. Use lines such as: “I prefer not to discuss my relationships in the workplace” or change the subject to something trivial like the weather.

Say no and walk away. The more you practice saying no, the easier it becomes.

Removing yourself physically from a highly toxic situation can help you avoid uncomfortable and unwanted scenarios. Excuse yourself and leave.

Become unavailable. If you are never close by, they won’t be able to engage. This strategy works especially well at work. Phrases such as: “Sorry, I need to make an urgent call” or “They are waiting for me in my office” will get the point through.

Encourage them to get help. Depending on how close this relationship is or how much you might care, you might consider pointing out your observations positively and tactfully. Counselors and psychologists can aptly help identify ways to manage emotions and problematic behaviors. 

Sometimes cutting people out of your life may seem like the only way to escape their toxic influence. Do what it takes. Make it a priority to surround yourself with kind and supportive people with good intentions and kind hearts. Life has so much positivity, love and beauty to offer. Concentrate on that.