Dealing With Toxic People: Tips From a Psychiatrist

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Just Listen" by Mark Goulston. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the best way to deal with toxic people? How can you get through to someone who only responds to toxic, negative emotions?

We’ve all encountered toxic people in our lives: drama queens who blow things out of proportion, bullies who thrive on provocation, or narcissists who only look out for their best interests. Each type of toxic trait requires a different strategy, but the main thing to keep in mind is not to let their behavior rub off you.

Keep reading for tips for dealing with toxic people.

How to Handle Toxic People

Toxic people can destroy your life because they consistently display negative emotions despite your efforts to empathize with them. This can result in a lot of futile effort spent trying to connect with people who only respond with negative emotions. This exhausting, toxic behavior can rub off on you over time.

(Shortform note: Toxic people don’t just rub off on you, they can spread their negativity throughout entire companies and cause significant costs. One study found that firing a toxic employee saved companies an average of twice the amount of money as a top performer returned in cost savings. This is because toxic workers not only drag down morale with their contagious negativity, they also cause their coworkers to leave, which leads to turnover costs.)

Here are Goulston’s strategies for getting through to needy people, bullies, narcissists, and psychopaths:

Confront needy people by being honest about how they’re affecting you and what changes need to happen, and explain that you’ll need to end your relationship with them if they don’t change.

(Shortform note: By being direct about the way a needy person is affecting you, you’ll give them a chance to realize their effect on others and adjust their behavior. Oftentimes, needy people aren’t aware of their negative impact because people view them as fragile and avoid offending them. If they’re surprised to hear your complaint, offer them specific examples of their problematic behaviors. Deliver your honest feedback with respect but treat them like they’re strong. By beating around the bush or shying away from your primary complaints, you’ll only be prolonging their behavior. Finally, encourage them to fulfill their emotional needs from a professional.)

Stand up to bullies and act indifferent to their provocative behavior. Bullies will come after you if they sense that you’re weak. So, look them in the eye and display body language that shows confidence and comfort (stand up straight and let your arms hang freely).

When you can afford to take some risk (your job isn’t on the line, for example), you can try a more aggressive approach with bullies. Call them out on what they’re doing and be honest about its effects on people and the bully themself. Because bullies usually don’t get called out for their behavior, this should surprise them and may even cause them to consider opening up to you and changing their behavior.

When you’re trying to cooperate with a narcissist, make sure you split up responsibilities in a way that gives them work that is in their best interest. This is because narcissists only care about themselves and will only do things well if those things serve them well.

Stay away from psychopaths. If you encounter a psychopath, Goulston suggests you distance yourself as much as possible because psychopaths will ruin your life. Goulston says his techniques for connecting with people won’t apply to psychopaths, because they don’t feel emotion like we do and are, by definition, self-centered and manipulative. 

Additional Tips for Dealing With Toxic People

Research shows that the more narcissistic you are, the more likely you are to be a bully. Here are a few additional tips to help you handle narcissists and bullies in a safe and healthy way

Record harmful behavior in writing. It’s common for narcissists to manipulate you through gaslighting (denying reality to make you doubt yourself). So, recording events can help you keep your personal record straight. Having a record of incidents is also beneficial if you eventually need to report the details about a bully’s behavior to a boss at work or authorities. 

Set boundaries. To limit a bully’s negative influence on you, it’s wise to block them on social media and try not to think about them.

Don’t blame yourself. The negative behavior exhibited by narcissists and bullies is a manifestation of their own fears and insecurities, so don’t take it personally.

Although psychopaths can possess the qualities of narcissists and bullies, they’re additionally characterized as arrogant, manipulative, dishonest, unfeeling, and aggressive. Because of the toxic and dangerous behavior associated with psychopaths, experts echo Goulston’s advice to avoid psychopaths if possible. However, if you aren’t able to remove yourself from a psychopath altogether, here are some tips to help you handle psychopathic people safely

– Limit interaction: If you work with a psychopath, request that you engage with them through email. Research shows that psychopaths are better at negotiating during in-person interactions. So, limit your susceptibility to manipulation by limiting your engagement.

– As with typical bullies, it’s helpful not to give psychopaths an emotional reaction when they try to victimize you. By giving in to manipulative games, you’ll make yourself a target.

– Seek professional support from a therapist to help yourself cope with any emotional stress caused by the psychopath you’re dealing with.
Dealing With Toxic People: Tips From a Psychiatrist

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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