A woman protecting herself from a toxic person by ignoring her when she's yelling.

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Asshole Survival Guide" by Robert I. Sutton. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you have a jerk at home or work? Is there a way to protect yourself from them, short of avoiding them altogether?

According to Robert I. Sutton, sometimes distancing yourself from jerks isn’t possible; you might be forced to be around them for extended periods. When a lot of interaction with a jerk is unavoidable, you can lessen their power over your mental state by changing your mindset.

Continue reading to learn how to protect yourself from toxic people.

Protect Yourself From Toxic People

In doing so, you can protect yourself from the negative effects of their behavior even if you’re frequently exposed. The best way to do this is through the cognitive behavioral technique of reframing—taking a negative thought and reworking it into something more neutral or positive. Reframing is based on the psychological premise that your thoughts dictate how you feel and act. If you can change your thoughts about a situation—such as a jerk’s rude behavior—then you can change how you respond.

Sutton’s advice on how to protect yourself from toxic people entails focusing on what you can learn and empathizing with them so that you can eventually forgive them.

Strategy #1: Focus on What You Can Learn

Sutton offers several strategies for reframing jerk behavior so it mentally affects you less. First, try focusing on anything you might gain from your interactions with the jerk. Is there a bright side to the situation you can find? If you can find a positive element, it can help you look back at a situation and feel better about it or get through a long-term connection with a rude, disrespectful person. 

For example, maybe your boss seems nice at first but turns out to be emotionally manipulative and narcissistic with poor personal boundaries. The bright side of that situation might be that your experience with this boss taught you the warning signs of narcissistic, abusive behavior. Therefore, you can more easily avoid working with similar people in the future.

(Shortform note: While searching for a bright side in bad situations can lessen your mental anguish about working with a jerk, be careful not to fall into toxic positivity. Toxic positivity happens when you only look at the positive side of every situation and ignore anything that prompts negative emotions. Though this may be nice in theory, when you ignore negative emotions, they become more intense because you haven’t processed them. This increases the likelihood that the emotions will come out in unhelpful ways, like lashing out at your loved ones—then you become the jerk. Instead of suppressing negative emotions, allow yourself to feel them without judgment.)

Strategy #2: Empathize and Forgive

Alternatively, you might try finding a way to empathize with the jerk so you can eventually forgive them. Research shows that forgiveness benefits the person who was hurt because it allows them to move on from the situation. Forgiving thoughts can lessen the physiological stress response and alleviate sadness and anger. This doesn’t mean accepting or excusing the jerk’s behavior—it just means letting go of your resentment toward it, which only hurts you. 

For example, say your fellow supervisor frequently yells at her employees, and this causes morale problems among the staff. Your higher-ups won’t do anything about it, so you have to continue working with her. Instead of developing a simmering resentment toward her, you try to empathize with the fact that she felt she had to become aggressive to work her way up through the company, even if she’s misguided. This allows you to forgive (though not excuse) her shortcomings and work with her productively.

(Shortform note: Some studies indicate that, in addition to calming the body’s stress response, the physical health benefits of forgiveness include pain reduction, lower blood pressure, lower risk of heart attack, improved cholesterol levels, and better sleep. Empathizing with the person who wronged you isn’t the only way to achieve forgiveness and its benefits—some experts also suggest letting go of expectations when you decide to forgive. Your forgiveness may not change the other person or prompt them to apologize, so don’t expect them to. Then, you won’t be disappointed. To help you heal, forgiveness must be something you decide to offer freely.)

How to Protect Yourself From Toxic People You Can’t Avoid

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Asshole Survival Guide summary:

  • Wisdom for dealing with jerks in the workplace
  • How to take away a jerk's power and lessen their effect on you
  • The psychology behind rude and mean behavior

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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