Why? Because it’s incredibly challenging to stay away from toxic people, especially when they’re our family members or friends. These types of people tend to be charismatic, socially popular, and overall fun to be around—except when their wrath is targeted at you.
What exactly makes a person “toxic,” you ask?
In applied psychology, researchers evaluate toxic personality traits within the scope of the “Dark Triad” of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.
According to a study in The Handbook of Interpersonal Psychology, narcissism involves grandiosity, an egocentric mindset, and an exaggerated sense of personal entitlement; Machiavellianism refers to “strategic manipulation;” and psychopathy relates to apathy, impulsivity, and thrill-seeking behaviors.((ResearchGate: Differentiating the Dark Triad Within the Interpersonal Circumplex))
Therefore, there are many different types of toxic people out there. Some may just be irritating to interact with (e.g., a friend who constantly brags about their life) while others can have potentially devastating impacts on your happiness, self-esteem, health, and general well-being.
If you recognize some of these antisocial traits in someone from your life, what can you do to stay away from toxic people and protect your sense of self-worth and life satisfaction?
The following sections offer a variety of research-backed psychological and interpersonal strategies to help you successfully navigate (or even cease) relations with the toxic family members and friends.
Toxic Family Members
If you are dating or related to a toxic person, it can be challenging—if not impossible—to stay away from them altogether. For romantic partners and married couples, recognizing the signs of a toxic relationship is a good first step, but it’s not as simple as breaking up and moving on with your life.
The same problem arises with immediate family members—it’s just not realistic to avoid them (especially if you live with or near them) and cutting ties is an enormously complicated and emotionally exhausting decision that shouldn’t be made lightly.
If this family member is unbearably toxic and unwilling to change, perhaps you’ll eventually reach a point where you can let go of the relationship and move away from them. However, if you want to stay away from toxic people without relocating or inciting tiresome family drama, there are two ways to limit their influence over your life without severing the relationship:
1. Establish Firm Communication Boundaries
The problem with toxic people is that they either lack self-awareness about how their words and actions negatively affect people around them or they’re actually well-aware of their apathetic, manipulative tendencies and aren’t in any hurry to change their ways if nobody presses them to.
Remember the Golden Rule of “treat others as you would want to be treated?” Forget that for now, and embrace the principles of the Platinum Rule, which involves treating others how they want to be treated.
The Platinum Rule is superior to the Golden Rule when dealing with a toxic family member because it requires a meaningful discussion about how you two interact with each other, rather than leaving you to make assumptions about how the other person wants to be treated.
A word of caution: one of the most common traits of toxic people is a persistent refusal to accept personal responsibility or empathize with another person who’s upset or harmed by them. If you approach the conversation from the one-sided angle of “you hurt me and we need to talk,” there’s a good chance they’ll refuse to listen, dismiss your concerns to avoid the discussion entirely, or possibly twist it around and project blame onto you.
You don’t owe a toxic, hurtful person anything. However, if you want to increase your chances of them genuinely listening to your concerns and changing their ways, here are some scripts to help you start setting firmer interpersonal communication boundaries:
- “When you said ____________, it made me feel ____________ because ____________. I would prefer it if you said/did ____________ in the future instead.”
- “I don’t appreciate the way you ____________. It hurts my feelings because ____________. Would you be willing to discuss alternatives with me?”
- “I love and care about you, but I’m not a fan of how you ____________ because ____________. I think it would make our relationship/communication better if we could both do ____________.”
2. Practice Self-Distancing
We all learned what “social distancing” is in 2020. But what about self-distancing?
This concept refers to psychologically removing yourself from an event and engaging in adaptive self-reflection to moderate your own thoughts and feelings about the person or situation. Self-distancing is similar to mindfulness techniques in that you become more aware of yourself while developing the emotional resilience necessary to successfully manage interpersonal conflicts.
For example, say you’re dealing with a family member who refuses to ever take responsibility or apologize for their words and actions. You probably know from experience that there’s no point in arguing endlessly with a toxic person in hopes that they’ll give up at some point and admit fault (truly toxic people rarely concede first, if at all).
In this case, self-distancing would involve taking a step back and assessing the issue from the perspective of a neutral, external observer. It helps if you imagine the problem is happening to a friend instead of you.
At this point, you might be wondering: if my family member is the toxic person—and thus, unlikely to care much about my feelings—then why shouldn’t I reflect on my own feelings?
The answer lies in our tendency to get emotionally agitated or overwhelmed when reflecting on people and experiences that upset us.
The Journal of Personality published a study in 2019 that compared the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral implications of self-distancing as a response to adverse experiences as opposed to self-immersion (reflecting on negative people and/or incidents with an emphasis on their own thoughts and feelings on the matter). The study ultimately found that individuals who engaged in self-distancing were more likely to experience significant growth in positive emotionality but no increase in negative emotionality.((PsyArXiv: Self-distancing promotes positive emotional change after adversity: Evidence from a micro-longitudinal field experiment))
It’s not easy at first, but if you genuinely want to stay away from toxic people and achieve emotional freedom from their manipulative clutches, then here are two self-distancing techniques to start practicing in your daily life:
- Reflect on events with third-person pronouns. Self-talk is most effective when you frame thoughts and feelings using he/she/they pronouns instead of I, me, or my. For instance, you could ask yourself, “Why did their sister say that to them?” instead of framing it as “Why did my sister say that to me?” This helps with self-distancing by temporarily depersonalizing your connection to the incident, thereby allowing you to reflect on it from a more neutral point-of-view.
- Engage in expressive writing. Spend 20 minutes writing down all of your thoughts and rawest emotions related to the conflict you’re experiencing with a family member. This open-ended journaling technique is called expressive writing and should only be done for yourself (i.e., don’t share it with anyone afterward; you’re just getting everything out on paper so you can better manage and articulate your emotions later).
Which group brings you the most happiness—your family or your friends?
Two studies assessing nearly 300,000 adults worldwide found that friendships tend to produce the best outcomes for an individual’s happiness and health.((The Guardian: Do friends make you happier than family?)) This could be because we consciously choose to interact with friends whereas family relationships feel more like obligations we’re required to fulfill.
Interestingly, the aforementioned studies found that when friendships are reportedly “stressful,” individuals are likely to report higher rates of disease as well. On the other hand, family relationships have comparatively little influence over a person’s health and well-being.
While these broad statistical findings don’t apply to everyone equally, this nevertheless suggests that toxic friends could be more destructive for your health and happiness than toxic family members.
If you’re friends with raging narcissists, aggressive manipulators, or vocal complainers who are negative about everything, you can stay away from toxic people like them without abandoning your friendship or mutual social circles using the following strategies:
1. Discuss the Issue With Them Directly
How close are you to this friend? If you’ve been friends for years and they’ve only recently started acting this way, you should directly address your concerns with them (preferably not over text or email, but these electronic avenues are preferable to never bring up the problem at all).
Following some conflict management guidelines, you should calmly introduce the problem, acknowledge any personal responsibility you may have in the conflict, and propose a compromise that’s fair to both parties.
If you do all of the above and your friend still blows you off (or blows up), then your next step would be determining whether the friendship is worth continuing in its current state or not. After all, the primary purpose of a friendship is to provide mutual companionship and support. If only one person is willing to put in the time and effort to make it work, then it’s preferable to stay away from toxic people like that friend so you can save your emotional energy for someone else who will treat you the way you deserve to be treated.
2. Limit Social Media Interactions
If your friendship is more casual or if you don’t want to burn bridges entirely, then your next step should be minimizing your online interactions with them. Staying on close terms with a friend who regularly strives to make you feel envious, posts upsetting things, or disparages you can have devastating consequences on your mental and emotional well-being.
What’s worse: your toxic friend’s words and actions aren’t the only problems. The Internet itself—especially social media—is a seemingly endless breeding ground for toxic interactions between people.
Yale Professor of Psychology Dr. M.J. Crockett wrote in a 2017 analysis in Nature Human Behavior that digital media encourage expressions of outrage by exacerbating emotional triggers, reducing reputational risks for individuals, and enhancing potential benefits to be gained from toxic rhetoric and behavior online.((Nature Human Behaviour: Moral outrage in the digital age))
A 2020 study of how social media platforms’ technical architectures influence toxic communication among users also found that these sites’ algorithms privilege emotionally-charged, inflammatory content to drive the greatest possible engagement (views, likes, clicks, comments).((Nature: Angry by design: toxic communication and technical architectures)) In other words, social media allows toxicity to flourish while camaraderie flounders.
To minimize the negative consequences of engaging with toxic friends on social media without having to de-friend or block them entirely, you can do the following:
- Mute or unfollow them. Most social media platforms offer users options to hide a certain person’s posts and stories without notifying the other person that you muted them. Similar to self-distancing, this simple strategy allows you to get a much-needed break from seeing their posts and photos without severing the friendship altogether.
- Enhance your posts’ privacy. If your friend constantly makes negative comparisons between you two, harshly judges or mocks you for what you post (even if “it’s just a joke!”), or otherwise uses personal information to make you feel terrible about yourself, then it’s time to tighten up your privacy controls and restrict them from seeing your content.
It’s hard to stay away from toxic people when you’re physically and emotionally close to them the way we are with our family members and friends. In these types of relationships, it’s just not as simple as recognizing their toxic traits, realizing you deserve to be treated better, and cutting your losses so you can move on with your life.
To preserve your own happiness and well-being, boundary-setting and self-distancing are essential techniques you can use regardless of whether the toxic individual is willing to listen to you and put in the effort to change the way they treat you or not.
We can’t control the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others, but we can control our own.