Becoming the Best Possible You
Learning to Deal with Toxic and Critical People
By Leslie Vernick
We started 2018 looking at what it means to live intentionally. In the last newsletter I shared a story of a woman serving in a Charlotte airport restroom with her whole heart, being her best self. But how do you respond from your best self when toxic and critical people get under your skin, push your buttons and leave you rattled and shaken? How do you live from your best self when a co-worker undermines you in front of your boss; your friend puts you down and says she was “just kidding;” or your spouse rages at you and then turns everything around to make you think that it’s all your fault?
Most of us would prefer to just avoid people like that but sometimes it’s just not possible. You may work with one, be married to one, or have some other connection that keeps you in regular contact with a toxic individual.
For a long time Christians have been taught to forbear and forgive difficult and destructive people. While biblically sound, how exactly does one live that out in real life? We know that Jesus tells us that we’re to love our enemies and pray for those who mistreat us but actually doing it while someone is criticizing you or screaming at you is challenging.
The apostle Paul counsels us in these instances not to be overcome with evil but instead, to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). But when it’s happening to us we feel evil wrapping its tentacles around our spirit and we will have to intentionally fight not to let it get the best of us.
Here are some specific ways I have put these Biblical truths into practice when dealing with a toxic or destructive person. They will help you respond wisely and appropriately as well as help you avoid reacting out of your negative or fearful emotions. But for these truths to work, you must be intentional about putting them into practice.
1. Press Pause: As soon as you feel that poisonous dart hit your emotional self, take a deep breath and pray for God’s help. The words or behaviors of another person have just knocked you off balance and will infect you with its toxic effects if you don’t quickly apply an antidote.
2. Don’t panic and overreact or be passive and underreact: Stay calm and don’t fall for the toxic person’s bait. Try not to take what they have done or said personally (which is very tempting to do). Remember, the way someone treats you, whether it be good or bad, really has nothing to do with you. It a statement about who they are.
3. Ask yourself this question: What in this present moment do I need to learn (or change) in order to become the person I want to become? My best self? Here are a few things I have found I needed when I asked myself this question.
- To speak the truth in love
- To set firmer boundaries
- Not to worry so much what others think of me
- Let go of my desire to make everyone happy
- Not to let this person get the best of me or to make me act crazy
Believe me, it is very tempting in the moment to defend yourself or stay passive and let yourself be blamed for the problem, be totally intimidated and overcome, or aggressively strike back with your own attack. None of those ways will help you move forward with a toxic person. However, God does promise to use these painful moments for our good. Therefore, learn what you can from the painful moment and let go of the rest.
4. Teach yourself to respond out of the person you want to be rather than how you feel in the moment: We do this all the time by being responsible and getting out of bed to go to work even when we want to sleep in or getting up in the middle of the night with a sick child even if we don’t feel like it.
If you must respond in the moment, speak calmly, truthfully and firmly especially when you have to set a limit or say “no”. Refuse to engage in arguing, defending yourself, or circular conversations that go nowhere. Practice JADE: No JUSTIFYING, no ARGUING, no DEFENDING, no EXPLAINING.
5. Practice (and this takes a lot of work) looking at this difficult/destructive person in a different way than you have in the past: Instead of meditating on his or her faults or sin, look for her goodness, his humanness, or his/her woundedness. When you can see a person in this new way it’s much easier to allow God to fill us with His love and compassion for this pitiful person who would be so blind as to treat us (or anyone) in such a sinful way.
Having this change in perspective doesn’t excuse the toxic person or give him or her license to continue to do damage, but it does help us not to retaliate, judge or condemn. It also empowers us to forgive him/her, even if we can’t reconcile the relationship or trust this person. We can honestly pray God’s best for this person and leave him/her in His capable hands.
As believers we will surely encounter evil, but by practicing these five steps, you can learn to overcome evil’s toxic effects in you, with good.