How to Set Limits with Toxic People

There are toxic environmental factors, such as fumes, chemicals, and waste, and then the less literal (but still damaging), toxic people. We all think we know what we mean when we say this, but do we really? How do you identify if someone is toxic to you, and how do you know what to do about it? As we look forward to a more positive and hope-filled 2021, it is important to do a little audit of our relationships. Times are challenging and our mental health is a top priority, so it is counter-productive to engage with people who negatively affect us, without setting limits in place. Therapist Teyhou Smyth has some good advice on this topic in today’s article.

setting limits with toxic people blog post imageHow to spot a toxic person?

It may not be obvious at first, but often there are subtle signs that indicate the presence of toxic characteristics.

Saccharine sweetness:
Someone who presents as artificial and overly sweet can sometimes be hiding underlying feelings of bitterness and passive-aggressive tendencies.

Lack of empathy:
People who lack empathy for others may simply not have the capacity for it, which enables them to engage in negative behaviour toward others without feeling guilty.

That missing inner compass of empathy can allow for self-serving behaviours without regard for the impact on other people.

Excessively judgmental:
Those who are chronically casting blame on others or who seem to have a judgmental opinion about everyone likely has toxic energy.

Incites drama needlessly:
Beware of the person who tries to pick fights, is too easily insulted, or seems to thrive on anger and hostility.

It should be noted that there are endless reasons for varying human behaviours. Some of the characteristics above may represent non-toxic emotional challenges. Often the simplest question we can ask ourselves to consider if a person is toxic is, “does this person make me feel bad?”

Notice and Stay Open to Facts

As you get to know people and learn about their tendencies, resist the urge to jump to immediate conclusions about them. Allow yourself to stay open as more information about their character presents itself.

Often our first instincts are right but bear in mind that our instincts are also biased, based on our life experiences, personality, and character traits as well as underlying needs and desires. Our assessments of ourselves and others are thoughts, not necessarily facts; they need to remain a work in progress.

Limit Setting is Self-Protection

Protecting yourself from toxic people is smart and necessary. Some of the strategies for limit setting are related to internal guidelines while others are external behavioural techniques.

What Are Some Guidelines To Avoid Toxic People

Establishing internal guidelines for yourself can help you refrain from engaging in certain interactions with toxic people. If you notice that the office gossip is always trying to pull you into a secret discussion about co-workers, or is prying for personal information, for example, it requires a planned response to shut it down.

Know your off-limits topics:
When dealing with a toxic person it is imperative to know where to find your off-switch. Consider some of the topics you are not willing to discuss with people outside your circle of close friends or family.

It is important to have that self-awareness so that if you are being asked personal information about these topics you can come up with a prepared response and avoid oversharing.

Pay attention to the way an interaction feels:
Trust your gut. If you notice that you are uncomfortable, consider giving yourself an out. Even if you’re not sure why you feel a certain way, it may mean you are feeling manipulated in a subtle way and need space to sort it out.

Don’t invest too much in others’ opinions of you:
If you are too worried about what others think of you, it may result in you tolerating bad behaviour for too long or not wanting to see it for what it is.

Try to remember that your opinion of yourself is far more important than what others think of you.

Setting boundaries with others can help you stay focused on living up to your own expectations rather than meeting the demands of people who have toxic traits.

Values-based limits: What is important to you?
Base your internal boundaries on your value system; if you value kindness, for example, think of compassionate ways to view this toxic person while maintaining your boundaries. If you value honesty, think of some ways you can express yourself and your intentions to others, including an effort to avoid negativity.

How to Set Up External Boundaries

Communication is the key to setting external boundaries. Toxic people may attempt to push away your limits, so it is important to stand firm and communicate clearly.

Say what you mean, mean what you say:
Speak your mind with clarity of intent and purpose. Be specific and avoid excessive emotion in your communication; keep it simple and straightforward.

Know when to walk away:
Social norms teach us to stay engaged with others, but this should have limits. There is no need to tolerate being treated poorly.

Say no:
You do not owe a toxic person anything, even if they attempt to make you feel that way. Not only is it “ok to say no,” it is wise to do so. You’re not being rude or dismissive, you are protecting yourself from harm.

Distract and divert:
Changing the subject if someone is trying to manipulate you is an effective avoidance technique. Remember, it is not your job to reach, teach or fix this person. Using distractions may keep you from getting chewed up and spit out by a toxic person.

You have probably heard the quote, “hurt people hurt people.” Often those with toxic traits truly are suffering with internal emotional wounds.

Setting limits with toxic people doesn’t mean you don’t care about them; it means that you have compassion for yourself and wish to refrain from taking on their pain.

Giving yourself permission to set healthy boundaries is the ultimate method of standing in your own power and honouring your emotional wellness.

[This blog post originally appeared on Teyhou’s website ~ some content may have been modified for the UK/Irish context.]

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