I decided to write this entry because the original article received a lot of attention and many issues and concerns were raised. I noted in that article that it was “meant as a general overview”, that “relationships are complex and it may not be easy to deal with toxic people until you have learned from previous interactions.” I didn’t intend for this blog, or for any that I write, to be a definitive statement on the subject. The information provided is only meant as a guideline, meant to emphasize certain points and issues that many people may experience when dealing with difficult, challenging—“toxic” people, as they’ve been termed.
Let me begin by saying that in general, it’s not the person who is toxic but rather his/her behavior. People are highly complicated creatures and to label anyone in a way that emphasizes only certain features of their personality and style of relating raises a lot of questions.
The label “toxic” describes a situation/relationship where certain behaviors coalesce, come together to create a syndrome, if you will. While a therapist is likely to recognize certain behaviors more readily than others and has come, over time, to understand that there are common features/traits/ behaviors that are shared in toxic relationships, many individuals have little to no experience with these kinds of relationships. Sometimes people can’t tell the difference between an individual with ongoing behavioral problems and one who is hurting emotionally because of certain situations and circumstances, and just needs the time and attention to heal. They may find themselves caught up in a relationship where they feel committed but may not understand just who they’re dealing with, or what is being demanded of them. That’s the purpose of articles of this kind: general information meant to educate.
Many people who commented recognized the “toxic” syndrome to a tee because of their own personal situations— with spouses, parents, friends, roommates, co-workers. Many offered their own take on the subject and advice based on their own personal perspective. Some people were critical of labeling individuals as “toxic”, expressing that this was not a compassionate way to treat troubled individuals. While I agree that compassion toward others is always necessary it should not stand in the way of healthy examination of the issue. Nor should people who are challenging to others be given more benefit of the doubt than those who are involved and engaged with them. Bottom line—in relationships with difficult people it’s still essential to deal with dynamics between the individuals in an effort to resolve conflict and differences—if that is possible.
For some who tend to give others the benefit of the doubt for too long, the question is how long should one go on dealing with people in this kind of relationship. The consensus of opinion is that “too long” can probably be measured by the toll it takes on the involved individuals. If you’re getting nowhere in changing the dynamic over a reasonable period of time, that’s giving you valuable information. Probably, no amount of talking will change the situation. Having said that, it is essential to make an effort to deal with challenging people. Every relationship deserves the time and effort. But, if the usual way you interact with each other changes nothing, it’s time to go back to the drawing board. Don’t continue to engage in the same way over and over again. Instead, confront them head on with your take on what’s happening (and whatever else you’re feeling—conflicted, frustrated, anxious, depressed, overwhelmed, sick, etc.) and see what the response is. If there is no room for your perspective, opinions, and feelings in the matter, that should speak volumes to you.
If you are not able to effect any kind of change on a one-to-one basis there’s therapy. The question is how do you get someone into therapy if they don’t feel the need to go, if they don’t care to change their behavior, if they feel that what’s wrong with their relationships/interactions is everyone else’s fault or problem, and if they don’t care to gain any insight into themselves. It’s suggested that family and/or group therapy may be a better way to engage them; that the feedback of many may help to better elucidate the issues and may prevent the dynamic that happens over and over again on the individual level.
Not all therapists and patients/clients are a good match. Some therapists are brilliant working with challenging patients who display the traits of a “toxic” person, while others are not so good. It should be no surprise that patients may attempt to engage the therapist in the same way they do other significant relationships. A therapist who commented describes the work with certain clients as “mentally exhausting”. The difficulty arises when a patient/client is advocating/defending their own position and challenges any suggestion by the therapist to change this behavior. For people who have never worked with a challenging patient it may be hard to fathom how draining this may be given working with several different kinds of patients and their problems on an ongoing basis. It’s often hard to leave your work at the office.
How long should a therapist keep a patient in treatment? There is no right answer to this but what must be kept in mind is whether or not the patient is genuinely benefitting from the treatment. To that end, the therapist may need to be more proactive rather than letting the patient talk about what’s going on from week to week. For patients with an ongoing history of problems in relationships (often, there have been many, not just one) the therapist may need to summarize or recap the work that has been accomplished over the prior few weeks or months. Keep on giving feedback and see if there is any progress as well as insight/understanding that will help make beneficial change.
The feedback from those suffering from mental health issues sheds light on the difference between those who are stuck in an unhealthy dynamic with others (but primarily with themselves) and those who have conscious awareness that there’s a big problem that is standing in the way of having healthy, satisfying relationships with others ( but again with themselves primarily). One comment suggested that what makes someone toxic is far more than just the traits /behaviors that describe them. Selfishness and an uncaring attitude seemed to add to the mix, making matters far worse. To their credit, many individuals who identify themselves as suffering from mental health issues recognize their problems and dynamics and are aware that pursuing treatment is necessary in order to change for the better.
Finally, here is the big question to ask yourself: How do you feel when you’re around a certain person/people?
Is this relationship healthy, satisfying, and caring? Is there equality, respect, and mutual concern? Does a person take responsibility for their actions, feelings, and beliefs? Or, do you consistently feel uncomfortable around them? Do you dread interactions with them? Is the interaction one-sided and demanding? Do you feel that your individual boundaries have been violated? Have you done all you can to reach out to this person in an effort to work out your differences? How much time should you give to this kind of relationship, especially if little has changed in spite of numerous discussions and interactions? Do you know when you’ve done all you can do?
And one last point: Do you care more about a person than they do about themselves? Is it fair for anyone to have this expectation?