How to handle toxic people

My husband and I have been in Virginia Beach, Virginia attending a church homecoming event. It was joyous and inspiring except for about a half an hour when a dear friend of ours talked about how “toxic” her mother, daughter, and a sister had been in her life, and how she was not going to see them any more. I’m friends with the daughter, and I see how wonderful they both are.

Toxic means “very bad, unpleasant or harmful.” The term “toxic people” has been growing in popularity over the past few years. When I hear it, I cringe, knowing that at our best every person is sacred, kind, helpful, and lives the golden rule. But as people evolve, they can cause stress to others, which can lead to their harm.

Dr. Travis Bradbury is the co-author of the bestseller “Emotional Intelligence 2.0” and co-founder of TalentSmart, the world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence training. I found an article by him called “How Emotionally Intelligent People Handle Toxic People” and learned how damaging stress can be. He states, “Exposure to even a few days of stress compromises the effectiveness of neurons in the hippocampus — an important brain area responsible for reasoning and memory. Weeks of stress cause reversible damage to neuronal dendrites (the small “arms” that brain cells use to communicate with each other), and months of stress can permanently destroy neurons.”

Also, notice his categories of how people are toxic: “Whether it’s negativity, cruelty, the victim syndrome, or just plain craziness, toxic people drive your brain into a stressed-out state that should be avoided at all costs.”

While his website is geared more toward toxic people in the workplace, some of his strategies for handling such people can be applied to all, and let’s remember that toxicity is not a permanent diagnosis, and that emotionally intelligent people know how to handle toxic people 90 percent of the time.

The following are some of the ways he lists to protect ourselves:

1. Set limits: Complainers and negative people wallow in their problems without trying to find solutions. Paul Solomon called them “psychic vampires.” They feed off of others’ compassionate energy, which leaves them depleted. Distance yourself when necessary. A good way is to ask them how they intend to solve the problem.

2. Read and respond to your own emotions: Choose your battles wisely, and only stand your ground when the time is right. Don’t get sucked in to nasty skirmishes.

3. Rise above: Toxic people’s behavior is irrational. Don’t allow yourself to get sucked in to responding to them emotionally. Stay reasonable. Respond to the facts of what is happening. A person’s car breaks down, fact. It doesn’t mean that nothing good ever happens to them, and they get all the bad luck in the world. If you can give them a ride, offer that, and politely excuse yourself.

4. Buy yourself time to deal with a situation: Toxic people may get very confused, and want immediate help from you. Don’t let their highly anxious state cause you to respond without thinking things through. Tell them you’ll think about what you can do, and get back to them.

5. Establish boundaries: As you complete the above steps, you’ll begin to see patterns in a toxic person’s behavior, and it will become easier to understand. Decide where and when you will engage a difficult person.

6. Don’t let anyone limit your joy: When emotionally intelligent people feel good about something that they’ve done, they won’t let anyone’s opinions change that. And if you are dependent upon other’s good opinions of yourself, you may want to consider why that is, and work on changing it.

7. Become solution-oriented: “Where you focus your attention determines your emotional state.” Fixating on problems can create stress. Focusing on actions to better yourself and your circumstances produces more positive emotions and reduces stress. And don’t focus on how toxic your difficult person is, focus on how to handle him.

8. Forgive but remember: Emotionally intelligent people are quick to forgive, but will remember what harmed them and not repeat a similar mistake.

9. Stop Negative Self-talk: If you absorb another’s negativity you may find that the thoughts you think about yourself become negative too. Nip it in the bud. It’s not helpful at all. Counter a negative thought with a positive one about yourself, perhaps what you learned from this experience. Dr. Serge King used the expression, “And this can change.” When he talked about negative things that he wanted to change. I use it too, to reprogram myself to be pro-active in making a change.

10. Get enough sleep: When you sleep, your brain recharges, reviews the days activities and stores or discards them (causing dreams), so that you wake up alert and clear-headed. Sleep deprivation raises stress hormone levels even without a stressor present. Your self-control, attention, and memory are all reduced when you don’t get enough. A good night’s sleep makes you more able to handle stresses in your life.

11. Develop and use support systems: Everyone has someone in their lives who is on their team, rooting for them, and ready to help them get the best from a difficult situation. Some have several. My sister is my first one I call for medical info. My husband helps me understand negative behaviors in people, my grandchildren help me get out of my head when I need to and into the world of play, women friends listen to me when I have family problems, and offer ideas, or just listen as I sort things out myself. I’m in two spiritual study groups for spiritual support. Find these people. You’ll have something to offer them too.

I would like to add that while you may need to stand back sometimes from difficult people, I have had great success praying for them, and loving them from a distance. I’ll visualize myself having a meaningful, caring conversation with them, and praying to know how I can really help. Wonderful results have happened from this. Sometimes this so-called toxic person is actually a medicine that teaches us something valuable about ourselves. Stay positive. You always have help.


Hale ‘Opio Kauai convened a support group of adults in our Kaua’i community to “step into the corner” for our teens, to answer questions and give support to youth and their families on a wide variety of issues. Please email your questions or concerns facing our youth and families today to Annaleah Atkinson at For more information about Hale ‘Opio Kauai, go to


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