Some time ago now, I wrote an article about recognising the toxic people in our lives.
The other side of the coin to this article is the idea that we attract what we put out in the world. That if we act in a toxic way, we draw more toxicity to us.
How valid is that idea?
It’s not one thing or the other.
Yes, if you are behaving in a very toxic manner, you might be sending out a vibe that draws in those on the same wavelength. But that’s not always true.
We all inhabit different spaces: a home, a workplace, a family, a friendship circle… Some of these areas (like our friendships or work) are more open to our choices. Others, though, are not (like our families).
Of course, there are always choices. But it’s not always as simple as “stop being toxic”. The idea that we are responsible for the actions of others isn’t strictly fair.
However, I think it is possible to set a tone in a relationship that suggests you operate a certain way — and others may respond in kind. You might not be a “toxic person” in general. You might just be doing something toxic, without realising it.
You might be someone who wants to fix others, please others, a perfectionist, have low self esteem, issues with jealousy… And not everything comes from a toxic place. There can be so many reasons for attracting the wrong people.
But if it is a toxic habit that you’ve inadvertently picked up, for any reasons, there are ways to undo these. After all, if you know you’re doing what you can, you’ve got a much better shot at recognising bad behaviour in others, too.
1. Know your values
Are you loyal? Do you think white lies are ok? Does reliability matter to you? Would you be hurt if someone spoke ill of you behind your back?
A lot of toxic things we might be doing come from the fact that we’re just not thinking about how they would affect us, were roles reversed. We forget what it is that’s important to us, or sensitive to us.
For instance, I have a real thing about people cancelling on something I’ve organised at the very last minute. I have a bit of a phobia, let’s say, that despite organising an event, nobody will show up. As a result, I do my utmost never to cancel last minute. Obviously, emergencies come up. But I do more these days to just say ‘no’ when the invite comes in, rather than dithering back and forth on whether or not I really want to go. This is, in part, because I know how hurtful it might be if someone got lots of last minute drop outs.
I really value being reliable in general, and I look out for this in other people. I want people who will show up for me. So if I start saying no to all attempts to reach out to me, I know I won’t be living my values out. I have to practice what I preach. I have to be reliable in order to know what reliability looks like.
I’ve written more about how you can figure out your values and live by them here:Are You Living A Life Based on What You Really Value?Overcoming Blocks By Reasserting Your Valuesmedium.com
It’s a process, for sure, and we’re all learning. But starting with your values is a good first bet to ensuring you aren’t inadvertently doing the exact things you fear.
2. Get your listening ears on
I can’t stress active listening enough. If you are someone who struggles to remember what people have said to you, it can be hard to notice this. I’ve known people who asked again and again the exact same questions of me, having forgotten (or perhaps not heard) my answer. But there wasn’t any ill intent, they just… weren’t very good at listening.
So, if someone does point this out to you, with something like, “I actually told you this the other day.” There are a few ways to respond.
You might feel hurt, but if you get angry or defensive, you aren’t really helping to move things forward. Start by owning and apologising. If there’s a good reason, you can potentially state this — something like, “I’m so sorry, you must have told me. I’ve just been really all over the place with things lately. I’ll do better next time.”
Don’t dwell on the “excuse” though. We all have shit going on. If you’re doing everything to come up with an excuse that is iron-clad and perhaps which even makes the other person feel bad for pointing this out, that is getting into toxic behaviour. A simple apology is perfectly fine.
Obviously, if you’re a new parent, or you’ve just lost someone, or there’s some other huge thing going on, you might genuinely not be on your listening game. But hopefully the other person would understand that. The issue is if your inability to listen goes beyond that context, or carries on through a whole relationship…
Cultivate your active listening, using the following steps:
- Practice becoming more present and aware in the moment.
- Avoid interrupting as much as possible — though if you need to clarify, that’s okay.
- Take things slow — you don’t have to talk over or interrupt to show you care. Listening is better.
- Ask appropriate follow up questions.
- Give good eye contact and other open body language.
- Go out with good intentions, aiming to understand and connect in a positive way.
Read more about how to improve listening skills here.
3. Contemplate first, react second
If you’re the sort of person who regularly reacts first, and thinks second, it’s time to reorder things.
After all, if you’re highly reactive (i.e. a lot of things upset you quickly), you are very likely to take this out on people around you. You don’t want them to feel like they’re navigating a minefield to be around you.
Nobody wants that.
It’s toxic to make other people responsible for somehow predicting all your emotional needs. I think this point is a tricky one, and if you’re the kind of person who does answer abruptly to things, I have a few steps in mind that might help:
- Practice labelling and being conscious of your thoughts. This might be through meditation, or simply sitting and observing yourself at different points in the day. Literally write things down if it helps. I.e. What am I feeling right now? What am I thinking right now?
- Practice pausing and being curious, not drawing immediate conclusions. There’s always the chance that your instinct is wrong — there can be totally different reasons for something than you can imagine.
- Take a break, if you can. It might well be better to say, “Let me think about this and come back to you,” than it would be to just continue the conversation. Give yourself the time if you need. The break length might well get shorter with practice.
- Consider what your reaction will be — will it help you or them move forward?
There is a great list of ideas in this Forbes article too.
Learning to take things less personally does take time, and comes from a fundamental self confidence that you might need to build. If you know how smart, interesting, or funny you are, you probably aren’t as affected by someone trying to make you feel stupid. If you’re insecure on this point, however, then any little tease might feel like a hard jab.
Start with your self confidence, and learn to…
4. Forget your ego
A toxic person is desperate to maintain a certain image, to the point of getting defensive or perhaps even attacking others about things that just don’t make any sense. Lying can also be a problem here.
No one can maintain a perfect image at all times.
Relationships that are deep come with the acknowledgement of flaws. They include the good, the bad and the ugly. Otherwise, things are just surface.
If you’re so eager to ensure your image is preserved, it can make you a worse listener, unreliable, argumentative, etc. Learning to put aside your ego is important. It negates toxic behaviour that can make itself known in so many strange ways.
Forget your ego, and you’ll find you’re much more relatable for others, and you can probably access your vulnerability much better, and will be more able to…
5. Show vulnerability and accountability
We want to know we’re not the only ones. If you’re in a habit of pretending that all is well, that you’ve never done wrong, of denying others’ feelings, or trying to ‘act superior’, this can get pretty tiring. After all, we want to be around people who are like us — people. And all people are capable of doing stupid stuff. Nobody is perfect.
Showing vulnerability is important if you ever plan to get beyond the small talk with someone. And there’s nothing more toxic than opening up to someone, only to find they use it against you, punish you for it, or never reciprocate.
If you’re not able to be accountable for your own wrongdoing — if you dig in, and have to maintain your image — this is a big potential problem. For one, it’s a sign of narcissism.
For another, it’s really hard to ever have a real relationship to someone who can never ever accept fault. It makes other people uncomfortable, denies their emotions or needs, and leaves them feeling wronged too.
We all screw up relationships sometimes. It happens, nobody is immune. But if you did say something you know doesn’t sit quite right, don’t wait to see if the other person noticed or not. Just say, “Hey, I think what I said didn’t come out quite right…” Then you can tackle it directly, openly and honestly, without wondering if you accidentally hurt someone or not.
And it will encourage the other person, too, to think twice about how they speak to you back. You know, then, that you’re both just doing your best, and if there’s anything that could be ambiguous in future, you can probably assume good intentions first, but a discussion will definitely be possible. The ability to talk through things openly is the key to deep relationships, in my books.
6. Reach out
Don’t wait for your relationships to flounder if they matter to you. If you’re the sort of person who waits for others to do the work, that isn’t good.
Any relationship will require both parties to do some of the ‘work’ in ensuring you get together and actually nurture that relationship. It takes two to tango, as the subtitle goes.
I’ve talked about dealing with someone else who is flakey, but what if you’re that person? If you kind of never show up, or you don’t reach out in the first place, it might be time to ask yourself why that is. Is it that the friendship is no longer valuable? Or is there something else the matter?
Rather than being diffuse about it, address your feelings directly. Don’t put others though having to just keep asking you, hoping one day you’ll be there. Make it clear if you can’t be around for some reason, for some length of time. Make a promise to be in touch when you can be. See that promise through.
After all, if you won’t show up, and if you won’t reach out, you are effectively deciding that that friendship is over. Ask yourself if that is the aim, and if it is, could there be a nicer, less time consuming way to achieve this?
7. Assume positive intent
If you’re assuming negative intent, things get defensive and hurtful fast. This comes back to our point about being too reactive: if we proceed from a point of doubt and distrust, it’s time to stop and ask why that is.
I’ve had one or two friendships like this, where because of things that were said or done, I’ve gradually come to feel like I was always under attack. In one case, the friendship simply ended. In the other, we had a very frank discussion and managed to salvage things. If you’re both starting to assume the worst in each other, it might be worth sitting down and trying to press reset.
Of course, if you know someone who is belligerent or perhaps having trouble ever overcoming their ego (or worse, does their best to prop themselves up by putting you down), then you have hard decisions to make.
If that person is you, you have some work to do.
What’s the real issue behind all this? Are you insecure about something in particular? Why are you triggered to put down someone else? How can you mitigate this? And what else is going on? Is that person actually trying to hurt you? Or could there be another factor in play?
I like this question:
What other possible explanations are there for their behaviour?
It could really be anything. Their cat might be sick, maybe they got cut off in traffic before meeting you, or something they were looking forward to fell through. Maybe they are really unwell. You have no idea, and you just can’t assume that you have them all figured out. Assuming you know, that the reason behind it is bad intent, is dangerous.
I like this quote, too, from this TinyBuddha article:
How do we know when we’re judging things correctly or when our mind is playing tricks? The answer is, we don’t know.
It starts with awareness of our thoughts, practicing positivity and figuring out what really matters at the end of the day.
8. Build others up, don’t test them
We all want to be around someone who celebrates with us. And if that’s not you, if you’re out looking for ways to bring others down, it’s time to hit pause. Why? What does retaliating against or belittling people get you?
If it’s a sense of superiority, the ego is out of wack. It’s probably time to reassess where your values really come from and what really matters to you.
Sometimes maybe you feel you have to do this in order to ‘even the balance’ if you feel attacked. Regardless of where the ‘attack’ comes from, don’t rise to it. If you feel you’ve been judged or attacked, either acknowledging that they ‘may be right’ (to quote Byron Katie) or take the time to clarify. The main thing is not to respond with attack.
In a depression or other states of low mood, we might also try to ‘test’ people, to see if they are really committed to our friendship/love/etc. Testing people might give you momentary reassurance, but repeatedly asking for reassurance starts to get draining for those around you. Constantly subjecting others to ‘tests’ will see you losing friends and lovers; after all, we don’t want to feel like we might ‘fail’ at any moment. Most people won’t put up with this for long.
Gossip is another way of expressing a kind of toxic putting-down of others. If you are a person who enjoys spreading a rumour, it might be time to ask why that is. What does this do for you? If something is missing from your life, why would a rumour make you feel better? And for how long? What about the person who’s being talked about? What would they feel if they knew what you said about them?
Be encouraging, be forgiving, and don’t gossip about people or give in to rumours. You likely want to be encouraged, want to be forgiven, and want people to think well of you, too, after all.
9. Stay curious
We live in a world where we can put more of ourselves out there for public viewing than ever. But when was the last time you asked someone what they were really passionate about?
The habit of failing to ask questions of others isn’t something reserved merely for the dating world. It happens all over the place, in my view. From workplaces to parties to dinners with friends… The habit of simply wanting to say your piece, while never really asking about the person across from you, is an insidious habit that makes you come across as self-centred, disinterested and non-committal.
If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t investigate what’s going on around them, because you assume everyone’s boring or not interested in talking, or perhaps they aren’t sufficiently interested in you for your liking, you’re likely to have your assumptions confirmed.
I really think this article is a useful tool for addressing supposed disinterest in the people around you. It talks through many potential reasons for feeling disinterest in others — social awkwardness, an inability to push a conversation beyond surface small talk, etc. To quote:
Some people feel disinterested in others because they don’t give them a chance. They’ve already made up their mind that everyone is boring and don’t do anything to prove themselves wrong. They’ll meet someone new and, consciously or not, won’t even try to take the conversation in an interesting direction. Instead they’ll put up with a few minutes of uninspired small talk, then walk away thinking, “See? Another person I couldn’t get interested in.”
This is a pretty clear self-fulfilling cycle. If you don’t demonstrate interest in others, they are pretty unlikely to become interested in you, and the surface remains all that there is. To quote Dale Carnegie’s infamous How to Win Friends and Influence People, on this:
“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
Remain curious about the world around you. Ask questions. Chances are, you’ll be surprised.
10. Ask for help
If you’re unsure about your own behaviour in certain aspects of life, that’s completely fine. In fact, it’s probably a good thing to notice this and act on it.
Whether it’s consulting friends, family, a third party (like a therapist or teacher of some kind), there are ways to learn more about ourselves which allow us to go beyond the tunnel-vision that is our own experience of the world and how we operate in it. Feedback is important, and while it can be easy to ignore bad feedback in some scenarios, it’s worth questioning repeated concerns.
For instance, I’ve been told more than a few times that I am a fairly direct person. Sometimes the word used has been ‘blunt’ or ‘abrupt’. I acknowledge that is very true! And I’m probably not going to eliminate this quality altogether, but I know now better when to use it, because I’m aware of it. Sometimes this can be useful, in certain scenarios (cutting through complaints to focus on solutions, for instance). Other times it may be a hinderance (like if someone is talking through a complex problem and wants the space to really get into details).
Awareness has helped make choices about when to use aspects of my character more openly, and when not to. I don’t see this as changing who I am, but rather using what I’ve got in a more thoughtful way.
Part of asking for help, of course, can be giving help too. But be aware of constructive versus destructive feedback. I’ll write more on this soon, but suffice to say that feedback is hard to give and hard to get sometimes — be aware of looking for constructive feedback, that actually gives you a clue about specific concerns that are actionable, rather than destructive feedback which tries to undermine who you are as a whole person.
Ultimately, nobody arrives fully formed into life. We’re all on a journey here. Asking for the help you need to arrive at better relationships with others is never a weakness.
Making it to the end of this article tells me that you care about who you are, your place in the world — how you operate in it.