Many of us have a family member who makes us feel uncomfortable whenever we see them. Perhaps they make jokes about our appearance, try to manipulate us to get their own way, or they’re simply entitled people who don’t respect anyone else’s boundaries.
That person might be toxic, but if they’re a close connection you could feel reluctant to cut them out of your life completely. This doesn’t mean you have to put up with their bad behavior, though. Newsweek asked psychologists how to recognize a toxic person—and how to deal with one.
How To Recognize a Toxic Person
Psychologist Chloe Carmichael, author of Dr. Chloe’s 10 Commandments of Dating, believes it’s important to make a clear distinction between toxic people and people you simply don’t like or who don’t share your values.
There are typically two types of toxic people, she told Newsweek: “Someone who clearly shows an extreme amount of disrespect or actual malice towards you, and someone whose level of disrespect and malice towards themselves causes them to disrupt the lives of everybody else around them.”
The first type, according to Carmichael, is aggressively toxic towards others—someone who’s physically abusive, calls you names or keeps trying to tear you down.
With the other kind of toxic person, the level of disrespect or negativity in their own life makes them toxic to be around. “Like an active alcoholic who just wants to sit and complain about how terrible their life is, but they refuse to accept any help,” she said.
Greg Kushnick, a psychologist based in Manhattan, added that a toxic person usually doesn’t respect other people’s boundaries and can steal your energy and motivation, affecting your sense of agency.
“Toxic people are typically unable to place themselves in other people’s shoes and adjust their behavior accordingly. They usually have their version of reality and are closed off to other people’s perspectives,” he told Newsweek.
How Do You Deal With a Toxic Person?
One of the biggest challenges of coping with a toxic family member, according to Kushnick, is that whenever you’re triggered by them, you’re trying to cope not only with the present moment but also the memories of previous interactions. So, the first thing you should do is decide how much is too much.
Set Your Boundaries
To protect yourself, it’s crucial that you know yourself well. This will enable you to recognize when a toxic person is being insulting or manipulative. “This self-knowledge includes your morals, values and a keen awareness of your triggers,” said Kushnick.
Define your boundaries. “What are you willing to put up with? What is considered too much? To feel more prepared to face a toxic person, you need to remind yourself of your options for how you can respond to toxic behavior,” he added.
Kushnick also recommends getting the input of a third party who can help you see your blindspots and offer perspective.
Try Talking It Out
If you want to keep a toxic relative in your life—or at least have a cordial relationship when you see each other at family gatherings—it’s worth having a conversation with them about the issue.
Carmichael said the first thing to do in that conversation is acknowledge that you’ve allowed a toxic pattern to be established, because you’ve allowed that person to mistreat you without setting boundaries, and that you’re no longer willing to accept this.
She cited the example of a mother-in-law who constantly makes unpleasant remarks about her daughter-in-law’s weight or fertility. A woman in this situation can politely ask her mother-in-law to talk about it.
Carmichael said this discussion could begin: “I wanted you to know, I realized I’ve allowed a certain pattern to develop, where you make remarks to me about my weight or about my fertility, and I haven’t been as clear as I should be about the fact that I’m not OK with that. And so I’m telling you now, that it’s really not OK with me, and I’d like you to refrain from commenting on those things. Do you think that you could do that?”
Giving the person a chance to respond to more “aggressive” boundaries helps, she explained. In many ways, toxic personalities are like bullies—and will back down when somebody pushes back.
Carmichael added: “If they persist, you can say, ‘Look, I tolerated that with you for a while. I shouldn’t have, I had a conversation with you about it and I told you it’s not acceptable. So, at this point, if you persist, then what’s going to happen is…’ And tell them what your next step is, which might be, for example, ‘My husband and I are going to get up and leave from family visits.'”
Evaluate If You Need Them in Your Life
If their behavior doesn’t change after that conversation, Kushnick said you need to evaluate whether it’s worth keeping the person in your life.
“If the toxic person does not make adjustments based on multiple attempts to give feedback, it might be necessary to distance yourself from this person, at least temporarily, to regain balance, perspective and to feel protected,” he said.
In that scenario, Carmichael suggested telling them: “I’ve come to realize that the way you treat me is not acceptable. I don’t feel willing or able to work on it anymore with you, and so this is going to be our last conversation.”
Standing up to a toxic person can be scary, especially if they’re likely to become aggressive, so you might want to bring an ally with you, she added.
If You Cut a Toxic Person Out of Your Life, How Do You Get Over Them?
Cutting someone out of your life permanently isn’t easy, especially if you used to be close. Carmichael offers three key tips to cope with the situation.
Acknowledge It’s OK to Miss Them
First, she said, “it’s very important to remember that just because you miss someone doesn’t mean that you made a mistake in saying goodbye.”
She added: “When a relationship ends, even if it was an unhealthy relationship, there’s oftentimes just a pattern of a familiarity or even, just being able to count on that person being there, even if it was negative. And so then it’s normal for things like loneliness to arise, because previously, that toxic person was taking up so much of your mental space.”
Write a ‘Top 10 Toxic Things They Did’ List
Making a list of the “top 10 toxic things they did” or their unpleasant behavior will remind you why you have excluded them from your life, according to Carmichael.
“When we’re in that lonely, vulnerable mental state, we can sometimes have our rose-colored memory glasses on, and it can be difficult to recall all the things about the person that we actually want to just push out of our minds anyway.”
Plan Some Self-Care
Self-care is always a good idea, but it is particularly important in moments of stress or sadness.
“If you’re planning to have that goodbye conversation with a toxic person, consider planning lunch or dinner with a good friend to immediately follow. Also consider just activating your social support network and explaining what’s happening in your life,” said Carmichael.
She advised planning at least three gatherings with friends per week for the first few weeks after the conversation, so you have a lot of built-in social support, and maybe scheduling a few extra trips to your therapist if you feel you need it.