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You Can’t Change Toxic People with Kindness
I have never been a confrontational person.
I get along well with others and always have. So I was entirely unprepared for how to handle people in my life today who exhibit toxic behaviours.
Unfortunately, these people are everywhere. They are our bosses, parents, exes, and sometimes even our friends—why are we friends with these people? Most of us have someone like this who pushes all of the wrong buttons. And unfortunately, they’re often someone we can’t easily remove from our life. While in theory we can remove anyone or anything from our life that is no longer serving us, in actuality it is far more complicated than that.
Cutting out parents, even when necessary, hurts. Cutting out a boss could mean a job change we’re not prepared for, and how do we cut out an ex when we share children with them? We can’t. We are stuck with these people who so often do not seem to understand how they come across to the world. Or if they do, they certainly don’t care.
The old me used to slowly back away from people like this because confrontation left me far too vulnerable. I ignored problems, rather than face them head-on. And while I was quite good at it, it did not feel genuine, and it tore me up inside to stay quiet.
I am no longer that person, and I do not stay quiet. I speak up for myself, I defend myself, and I call out bad behavior. To do this with kindness rather than anger is the challenge. To do this without using dehumanizing language is the challenge. To do this and grow from it is the challenge.
As an eternal optimist, I have more hope and faith in people and their ability to change than is deserving. I don’t think I will ever stop hoping for people in my life to grow and become kinder, more compassionate human beings. But we cannot hope and will someone to change. The only person we can change is ourselves. The only path to personal growth is self-reflection and asking ourselves the tough questions: Is this who I really want to be? Am I showing compassion to others, even people I don’t get along with? How can I be a little bit better today than I was yesterday? Everyone has to get there on their own—but some people may never get there.
In my own life, individuals with toxic behaviors present themselves to the world as if everything is fine—they have their sh*t together and certainly don’t need anyone’s help. If we could only see past that mask, I believe we would see someone overwhelmed and struggling, without the tools to process their own traumas. Because of that, they spread their poison to others. They lash out. They are angry, and they seemingly want to stay that way. But anger is just a mask for depression, feelings of unworthiness, and fear.
I learned long ago that living a life full of anger and negativity does not serve me. My brain and heart cannot operate that way. I soften my words. I look for ways to encourage and build others up around me. I am direct and to the point when necessary, but always doing my best to be kind and unassuming.
Where has kindness gone? It is so rare to find this quality that when I do, I latch on to these people—my tribe. We are the ones who ease expectations, understand and empathize with our shared humanity, and genuinely try to help each other succeed in life. We build each other up rather than tear each other down. We are the rare flower that is just so tired of being trampled by the aggressive toxicity in the world.
While I am continually going inward and reflecting on who I am and how I can better show love and kindness to others around me, I feel as if I am at a zoo getting poop flung at me by monkeys. I understand that if I participate in the poop flinging, I’m going to get back what I give—but I do not ever deserve the harsh words, the gaslighting, and the uncooperative spirit that I seem to always be up against.
So where do we go from here? How do we go on day-to-day and live amongst people like this?
These are the lessons I’ve learned over the years with toxic people:
Acceptance. Accept the person they have proven to be and stop hoping for change. Hoping for another person to change who they are, when they haven’t shown any remorse or even acknowledgement of bad behavior, will only lead to your own suffering. Hope is what drives me every day, but the tip of that blade is sharp and painful when continually let down.
Reassess the relationship. You do not have to allow any toxic person space in your life, and it is probably in your best interest to remove them from your heart and mind and move on. When complete removal is not possible, limit your interactions to the bare necessity.
Learn the word “no.” “No, that doesn’t work for me,” is a powerful tool in your arsenal. You do not have to say yes to each and every whim they have. You do not have to say yes when doing so would cause you harm, and you certainly do not have to say yes when you want to say no. Learn to say no, and say it often. You do not have to justify or defend your nos.
Their thoughts and words are not absolute truth. I have encountered so much gaslighting and truth bending, that this is one I have to remind myself of daily. Just because they say something does not make it true, even if they tell others, even if it is convincing, and especially if it differs from your own memories and experiences. Speak up for yourself, and say your truth when there is clearly lying and gaslighting happening.
Trust your gut instincts. Trust your gut to warn you of toxicity, and run like hell back to your tribe to regroup and heal. Finding your tribe and sticking with them is how we thrive and the only way to survive a world full of toxicity.