If you do a quick Google search on ‘toxic people’, the overwhelming advice you’ll find is to cut these people out of your life.
But that’s easier said than done in most cases, especially if these so-called ‘toxic’ people are family, colleagues or other people we live or work closely with. We’ve all been around those people who can leave us feeling drained or a bit ‘off’ after an encounter with them. Some people can leave us feeling agitated or annoyed or even just feeling really bad about ourselves.
The first thing to realise if you’re dealing with someone like this is:
Their behaviour towards you has nothing to do with you.
Psychotherapist and Life Coach Jodie Gale says “Often the person is deeply wounded and for whatever reason, they are not yet able to take responsibility for their wounding, their feelings, their needs and their subsequent problems in life” (click here to see the full article). So it’s not that these people are inherently toxic (no-one is inherently bad unless they’re a diagnosed sociopath) – they’re wounded. But the way they unconsciously act out their wounds towards others can be labeled ‘toxic’ because this behaviour can be hurtful and damaging to others.
‘Toxic’ people feel an unconscious need to bring others down to boost their own feelings of self-worth.
They’re usually completely unaware of their unconscious need to hurt others and ignorant of the fact that they do that because they don’t feel good about themselves. They will find ways to bring others down – intentionally or unintentionally – because it feels like the only way they can lift themselves ‘up’. And the effects on those around them can be damaging. Some of these people go to extraordinary lengths to hurt others as a way to make themselves feel better, which can be really painful if this person is a family member or someone who you thought was a ‘friend’.
The fact is these people don’t yet have enough self-awareness to take responsibility for their own negative feelings and unfulfilled needs, so they look to the outside to release their pent-up frustration.
If you happen to be the target of someone’s subversive, toxic behaviour, it’s quite likely that you trigger one of the following emotions in them.
Envy / Resentment / Bitterness
Perhaps you have or are something that they want to have or be. They may not even be aware of it; in their eyes you probably just ‘get their hackles up’, but underneath their irritation may be feelings of envy, resentment or bitterness that you have what they want but feel they can’t get.
You may threaten their position somehow. Perhaps they’ve worked hard to create feelings of safety and superiority (to cover up their feelings of inferiority), and you threaten this position in some way. If this is the case, they’ll need to hurt you to try to get you out of the way and to retain their sense of control.
Perhaps they feel you aren’t paying them enough attention, or aren’t making them feel special enough, which triggers their own feelings of unworthiness. So they might try to hurt you back to make themselves feel better (even though you probably weren’t aware you hurt them in the first place).
The fact is, whatever the dark feelings are that you trigger within the other person, it’s up to them to take responsibility for these feelings and to do the inner work to clear them.
You’re simply acting as a mirror, reflecting back to them where they’re wounded and unhappy.
We all know how painful and unpleasant it is when we’re the target of someone’s toxic behaviour. That’s why it’s so important that each and every one of us have the courage to face our own ‘shadows’. By shadows I mean the not-so-nice parts inside of us, the dark and the ugly parts, the parts we would rather deny, disown or push underground. If we don’t face these dark parts of ourselves, own them and do the work to transform them, our darkness ‘oozes’ out towards other people in the form of toxic behaviour. And since you know how awful it is to be on the receiving end of that behaviour, you don’t want to be one yourself!
Mark Matousek (Author of Sex, Death, Enlightenment) talks about seven ‘shadows’ that hide our inner light, obscuring our pure and original essence of love and compassion. We’re all born as pure love; we know this to be true when we’re with a baby. We all love babies because they’re pure and not yet been wounded by life. Here are the 7 Shadows explained below.
The 7 Shadows That Hide Our Natural Essence of Love and Compassion
Somehow in our childhood we’re all made to feel ashamed of something. I felt ashamed of my strawberry blonde hair as a child after someone called me a ‘carrot top’ in school. I was ashamed of the fact that I didn’t grow breasts until many years after my girlfriends did; and later I was ashamed of many of the reckless things I did in my teens when I was trying so hard to be cool and accepted. Many of us harbour shame but we don’t really know it.
When I first started seeing a therapist during a very difficult phase of my life many years ago, the first thing she said was “I can see you feel shame around many things”. My first reaction was “Shame? I don’t feel any shame”. But as she probed deeper, I started to cry as I realised just how much shame I had been holding onto. This was the first critical step in my own healing, to acknowledge my shame and to love and forgive myself for all these things I felt shame around – I’m only human after all. If you don’t recognise and release your own shame, it can unconsciously leak out onto others in the form of ‘toxic behaviours’.
We’re told from a young age that anger and rage are bad emotions. We’re told, “Don’t get angry, it’s not nice”. But in fact, anger is a very necessary emotion that tells us where we feel our boundaries have been violated. It’s telling us something important about ourselves. Perhaps it’s telling you that you need more privacy, or that you need to articulate your boundaries more clearly, or that you need people to respect your needs.
If you feel angry about something that’s happened to you, what is the anger caused by?
Usually, there’s grief or sadness underneath the anger.
If we were all taught to listen to and honour our anger as children, and to ask what it’s trying to tell us, the world would be a different place. We wouldn’t be ashamed of this valuable emotion and we would know how to process it properly.
“It’s humbling to admit our anger. It gets us off our self-righteousness, off our soapboxes, to admit I have anger, I have shame, I have rage, I have greed and the rest of it. It makes us human. It brings us into contact with the rest of the human race. Compassion is to feel with the suffering of a person. If we don’t accept our own suffering, we can’t possibly have compassion for the suffering of others.”
– Mark Matousek
Again, we’re told that we’re not supposed to feel envious, but instead appreciate what we have and be joyful for others. But again, envy is a helpful emotion that can teach us about what we really desire ourselves. If you feel envious of someone, it’s because they have something that you dearly want. Rather than become bitter and resentful towards that person, let it tell you where you desire things in your own life. And then take responsibility for creating those things in your own life. Envy is very useful for helping you understand how and where you want to improve things in your own life.
Greed is another ‘shadow’ emotion that can cause you to act out in toxic ways, if left unacknowledged. If you feel insatiable in some areas of your life, Mark suggests “Ask yourself, why do you feel like you’re not enough or like there is never enough? Where do you feel like there is not enough in your life? Why when you get what you think you wanted, are you not satisfied? Why is that? What is that?”
That’s greed. Don’t judge yourself for it. Just acknowledge it, because what that greed is telling you is that your desire cannot be satisfied if it’s coming from external things.
True satisfaction has to come from within.
Unless you’re coming from a position of wholeness and sufficiency within yourself, greed will always be active in your life.” True fulfillment comes from knowing yourself deeply, from clearing your wounds and learning to love and accept yourself. It also comes from orienting yourself in service to others; becoming someone who gives rather than just takes. To be able to receive in life, we must also learn how to give.
Most of us are afraid to even admit to feelings of lust. As Mark says, we’re terrified of lust because we believe that it’s stronger than we are, we’re scared of where it’s going to lead us. But if you can admit to your lust and try to understand what it’s telling you, you diffuse the power within it, and begin to see that it’s connected to passion, which is a wonderful, life-affirming power.
Mark says “Remember that passion is key to our own well-being and to our spiritual awakening. We need our passions. They’re part of what give our life meaning. It’s part of what gives us our humanity”.
All of the above emotions are connected to fear in some way – fear that we aren’t enough, fear that we won’t have enough, fear that we’ll be consumed by our dark emotions. So we push them underground where they become toxic. Ask yourself, where is fear holding you back? Where is fear preventing you from fully enjoying your life? What are you afraid of in desiring what you truly want? Acknowledging your fears and embracing them, rather than suppressing them, is the only way to diffuse their power and to move back towards love. As my therapist used to always say:
“We can only ever act from fear or love. Choose love”.
Another emotion that we often work hard to suppress is grief. Grief can be a beautiful thing if it isn’t pushed underground and subverted. It’s a precious emotion because as Mark says “it’s proof of your heart, it’s proof of your caring, and it’s proof of your compassion. The wound is proof of humanity”.
Inside most of our wounds, we find grief at some level. So ask yourself where you feel grief in your life. Where have you suppressed your grief so that it’s turned to sadness, bitterness or depression?
None of these 7 shadow emotions are ‘bad’. They become harmful when they’re denied, disowned or suppressed.
We all have these emotions; it’s part of the human experience. But instead of trying to push these bad feelings aside, we need to move towards them, embrace them, ask what they’re trying to tell us, and where we need to allow ourselves to heal. The more we try to ignore them and pretend they’re not there, the more they leak out unconsciously in toxic behaviours towards others, harming or hurting those we spend our lives with.
The next time you’re in a situation where someone has triggered a shadow emotion in you, pause for a moment and ask yourself “What is this emotion telling me”?
Which feeling has been triggered in you? Is there somewhere in your life you feel you need or want? Does this person trigger your own feelings of unworthiness? Where do you need to heal yourself so that you can feel more whole and peaceful?
It’s not easy navigating our own emotions. If you’re stuck in negative emotions triggered by someone else, reach out to someone who is trained to help in this area – a therapist, a coach or a healer. Heal the wounds that lie underneath your shadow emotions. Try not to lash out at others with your negative reactions. Otherwise, you run the risk of hurting others, perhaps someone you love.
You owe it to yourself, and to everyone in your life, to own your own shadow feelings, to process them and to take radical responsibility for creating your own happiness.
As a final note, when dealing with a toxic person, be sure to set and maintain healthy boundaries with this person. Don’t be afraid to say “No”. For more help on the topic of setting healthy boundaries, check out my article: Open Heart, Big Fence – 5 Strategies For Strong Boundaries in Life.
And finally, try to be a positive influence in the lives of others – that’s where you’ll find lasting, genuine happiness and fulfillment.
In service to helping you live your brightest life,
Katie De Jong, Ph.D
Global Career Coach for Thriving Professionals
Inspired Careers International