4 Ways to Learn, Grow, and Protect Ourselves from Toxic People

I venture to say, that there are few people in the world who have not been exposed or perhaps even victimized, by toxic people. These individuals may be wolves in sheep’s clothing, or ‘devout spiritual followers’ sitting in pious judgment supposedly supported by their religion, or passive aggressive individuals with deep demons which manifest in ‘mean girl’ or ‘mean guy’ behaviors. In my coaching profession, not to mention my own life, it is astounding how these individuals show up and how they can be in complete denial as to the roles they play in others’ lives. I have had many clients, mostly women, ask me – ‘what can I do to protect myself from these individuals’?

Well, first, we need to get into ‘alignment’ around what ‘toxic’ person is….and what behaviors they exhibit. A few traits:

  1. Toxic folks manipulate – or try to manipulate – you. They will use passive aggressive methods to do this. This could be blocking you on social media or posting certain posts on social media for you to see, knowing those posts will hurt the recipient. It could be hosting a gathering and including everyone but you – and making sure you know about the event. It could be a classic case of projection – aka: attributing their own thoughts, feeling and motives to another person. This ‘blame shifting’ is often what is behind bullying and/or toxic people’s behavior. The list is endless how this behavior shows up.
  2. Toxic people will ignore or deny your intentions – despite your intentions being pure in nature. They thrive on dismissing you and/or disregarding your desires to support or help. They set unfair boundaries prohibiting your ability to support or be engaged; or on the other side of the fence, they may disregard and ignore YOUR boundaries.
  3. Toxic people thrive on demonizing others. They are judgmental.They will criticize you, what you’ve done, and what you didn’t do…..overtly or covertly. It’s never about them (yet all about them), and they will lie if it serves them.
  4. Toxic people are in denial about the human experience being a collective one. Let’s face it – no one gets anywhere by themselves alone. We are ALL in this together. Often we may hear a toxic person say: “I have done this all by myself”….which is a sad misrepresentation and misinterpretation of the truth….as no one does anything ‘all by themselves’.
  5. Toxic people are not honest. They misrepresent what truly has happened, exaggerate, and are often habitual fibbers. They will share ‘half truths’ to build the story they wish to create, regardless of what actually happened.
  6. Toxic people try to put you on the defensive. These individuals believe they are right and ‘supreme’ in their judgment. Remember, they are supreme manipulators….and most often, manipulators simply of the truth.

Have you ever experienced a relationship like this? Who hasn’t?! So what do we do when we have folks in our lives like this? A few observations:

  1. One will never change the spots on a leopard. Thus, as Maya Angelou so aptly said: “When people show you who they are, believe them.” The only way individuals change is if THEY WANT TO CHANGE. In the coaching profession, we have learned that it is impossible to coach a person who does not want to be coached or to change. So, we have to accept the situation as it is.
  2. We have to learn to respect their boundaries AND create and honor our own boundaries to protect ourselves. When someone simply does not want you in their lives, then we have to learn to honor that. Yes, that can be very hard and hurtful…..I have experiinenced it more than once. Yet, it is their choice….and it is also OUR choice to move forward and create our own boundaries, as well. There is a wonderful piece of advice which was ingrained in us throughout our leadership coach training at Georgetown University: to “meet people where they are”. And, if individuals do not need or want your love, support, help, encouragement, etc. then we have to learn to LEAVE THEM WHERE THEY ARE.  For those of us whose greatest joys come from being in service and helping people reach their potential, letting go once we have been ‘shut out’ can be very hard. Yet, what I am learning in my own life is this: by trying to serve those that simply do not want what you have to offer; and continuing to put your energy into this effort, hurts you more than it hurts them. As my momma has continued to preach to me: ‘we have to learn to let it go’.



3. We own our lives and the roles we play in all human relationships. We do not own other’s roles – only our own. Yet, taking full responsibility and accountability for our actions – is ours alone. I have never been involved in a ’12 step’ program; yet, I became a student of this philosophy when I wrote my second book and highlighted Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, as one of my role models. One of the most vital steps in this program is to ‘make amends’ with those whom you have hurt, intentionally or unintentionally. This is great advice for all us in our lives. When we have offended or hurt someone, we own it. We own clarifying our intentions, and if appropriate, apologizing for our actions. Yet, what this does NOT mean is that we are to carry that burden for the rest of our lives and/or be banished by those individuals. Again, what I have learned, is that we can apologize, do our best to make amends, continue to try to serve with purity of intentions, pray for the situation and the individuals…..and yes, these individuals can still choose to banish us from their lives. What I know and believe for sure is if we have done all we can to make things right….then we have done all we can. And if those individuals are still choosing to banish you from their lives, then perhaps Divine Providence is saving us from more pain, grief, and hurt. And again, as my momma has taught my sister and me all our lives: we must continue to pray for them and for the situation and believe it has been and always be in Someone else’s hands…..and always treat others the way we would want to be treated. Not always easy – yet the way to rest peacefully at night.

4. We need to surround ourselves with healthy, supportive, and value-centered individuals. Relationships are indeed complex. It is not easy to close the door and make distance between individuals. Yet, again, what I am learning is that if we feel badly about ourselves as a result of a relationship with another person, it’s time to sit down and re-evaluate the situation. They may be unlikely to change, YET WE CAN CHANGE. As my daddy always said, we basically have control over three things in our lives: our ABC’s….our Attitudes, our Behaviors, and our Choices. We do not control anyone else’s. We have the CHOICE to move forward as we need and desire. We may choose to forgive the person, yet we need not forget. Emotionally intelligent people are unwilling to let toxic situations bog them down. They work hard to not let the negativity of others penetrate their psyche. Let’s face it – this, too, can be really hard. Yet, allowing other’s negativity to penetrate our thoughts will just make it larger and more intense in our minds. We must learn to tap into our support system and those friends and co-workers who appreciate us and what we bring to the table.

Toxic people are real. We are all in the human condition and thus we will all be exposed at some time or another to these experiences. The choice is ours, though, as to how we live, grow and learn through the experience.