Whether or not you’d classify them as toxic people, we all have difficult relationships in our lives. Whether it’s the overbearing mother-in-law, the demeaning manager, or the abusive spouse, problematic relationships are a fact of life for everybody.
And while the best way to handle truly toxic people or abusive relationships is often to simply cut them out, many of us don’t have that luxury. Which means we must learn how to handle those relationships better—in a way that’s respectful of both the other person and ourselves.
As a psychologist, I help people build effective skills and habits for managing difficult relationships every day. What follows are 3 specific ways to deal more effectively and confidently with difficult relationships and even toxic people in your life.
1. Learn to distinguish true guilt from fake guilt
Guilt is the emotion you experience when you’ve knowingly done something wrong. Whether it’s stealing a cookie from the jar, cheating on an exam, or lying to your spouse, true guilt is a specific and distinctive emotion.
Unfortunately, we often get guilt mixed up with other painful emotions. The most common is sadness. Because of our weird cultural aversion to pity—feeling sad for another person—many of us make the subtle emotional mistake of assuming that because something bad happened and we were involved, we’re therefore guilty.
For example: your mom calls and says she’s feeling lonely because she hasn’t seen you in a week, and almost instantly, you feel guilty. This is probably fake guilt.
It’s sad that your mom feels lonely. It’s disappointing that you’ve been too busy with your kids and work to visit your mom. But because you haven’t knowingly and deliberately done something wrong, it can’t be guilt.
Learning to distinguish true guilt from fake guilt is vital for managing problematic relationships because many people use fake guilt as a way to manipulate us.
In the example above, the mom knows that if she tells her daughter how lonely she is, the daughter will feel bad (fake guilt), and in order to stop feeling bad, will put the rest of her life on hold to come visit her.
The best defense against emotional manipulation is to confidently distinguish between true guilt and fake guilt.
So the next time you feel guilty, ask yourself: I this genuine guilt or fake guilt? Have I literally done something wrong, or am I feeling sad that something bad or painful is happening to another person?
2. Hope for the best but expect the worst￼￼￼
One of the reasons toxic people and relationships are so hard is because they’re emotionally exhausting. Just seeing your ex-wife’s name on your caller ID, for example, is enough to spike your stress levels and elevate your irritability.
But more than simple repeated negative association, toxic relationships are exhausting because our unchecked expectations lead to excessive emotional reactions. In addition to simply getting stressed out during kid swamp with your ex, you expect that she’ll be civil this time since it’s Christmas Eve and everybody should be decent on Christmas!
Then, when she immediately launches into you about how you’re always late for kid swap (some truth there maybe?), not only do you experience the normal level of stress and emotional exhaustion that goes along with interacting with your ex, but you also experience a second level of negative emotion that comes from the shock of having your expectations violated.
Handling difficult relationships is hard enough without the added stress of chronic frustration and disappointment that comes from unrealistic expectations.
The simple solution is to lower your expectations.
But lowering our expectations for significant relationships in our lives (even toxic ones) often feels somehow wrong—like we’re giving up, losing faith in humanity, or something like that.
But perhaps more significantly, lowering our expectations means acknowledging the painful reality that we can’t control other people.
No matter how much you wish your ex could be more civil, and no matter how firmly you believe that’s the right thing for her to do and that everyone, including her, would be happier for it in the long run, it’s not under your control.
But, we love feeling in control. And we hate feeling helpless.
And even though maintaining unrealistically high expectations for people doesn’t actually change anything, it at least makes us feel like we have some control, some influence over things that matter.
The problem is, in the long-run, chronically-violated expectations add to our overall stress burden with these people and accentuates our already severe emotional exhaustion. All so we can maintain the illusion of control.
At some point, you have to wake up to how problematic this tradeoff is. You have to acknowledge how much harm unrealistic expectations are doing to you.
So, go ahead and hold out hope that those toxic people and relationships will improve and change for the better. Just stop expecting it.
3. Know the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness
When it comes to dealing with toxic people, the ability to speak and act assertively is key to setting healthy boundaries and protecting yourself. But before we dive into why assertiveness is important, we need to take a quick detour to discuss what assertiveness really means and how it’s related to other forms of communication.
There are four fundamental communication styles: passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive and assertive.
They’re distinguished from each other by where they fall along two dimensions—honesty and respect:
- Passive communication is when you’re high in respect for the other person but low in honesty to yourself. Oh, it doesn’t matter to me what movie we go see.
- Aggressive communication is when you’re low in respect for the other person but high in honesty with yourself. Your movie looks idiotic—we’re gonna go see mine.
- Passive-aggressive communication is low in respect for the other person and low in honesty toward yourself. It often takes the form of sarcasm. Sure, we’ll just go see whatever you want. As usual…
- Assertive communication is high in both respect for the other person and honesty toward yourself. I know you don’t typically like documentaries, but I’d really like to see this one.
The first three styles—passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive—almost never work in the long run and tend to lead to dysfunctional relationships. Assertiveness, on the other hand, while often difficult in the short-term, tends to lead to healthy relationships characterized by honesty and respect.
Many people who struggle to manage toxic people and relationships in their lives have fallen into a habit of speaking and acting from a passive standpoint. Because toxic people are so stressful, frustrating, and emotionally draining to deal with, we end up “giving in” simply to avoid the stress and work of setting good boundaries.
But this is only a short-term solution. And in fact, it tends to make the problem worse in the long run. When we are complicit in another person’s poor behavior, we’re often reinforcing it and making it more likely to happen in the future.
When your demeaning boss insults you, yet again, during a meeting at work, simply smiling sheepishly and trying to steer the conversation elsewhere encourages that the same behavior to happen again in the future.
However, if you were to stand up for yourself and let it be known that his comments were inappropriate, you run some big perceived risks, one of the biggest is that you’ll be perceived as pushy or aggressive yourself (everyone will think I’m being bitchy…).
We are afraid to stand up for ourselves because we don’t realize we can be assertive without being aggressive.
You can confidently express your wishes and needs in a way that’s both true to yourself and respectful at the same time.
In the example above, you might have said something as simple as, That was rude. Please don’t make a comment like that again. Or, immediately after the meeting you might have gone to your boss’s office and said something similar.
The point is, you can stand up for yourself without being rude or aggressive. And having the confidence to do so is perhaps the best way to deal with toxic people in your life.
You can’t manage toxic people without firm boundaries. And you can’t set firm boundaries if you don’t know how to be assertive.
All you need to know
Dealing with toxic relationships can feel hopeless at times. But there are ways to handle them better, even if simply cutting those people out of your life isn’t an option.
Learn to distinguish true guilt from fake guilt. If you want to resist emotional manipulation, validate your sadness and express your pity for others—just don’t call it guilt.
Hope for the best but expect the worst￼￼￼. Unrealistic expectations give the illusion of control and temporary emotional relief that go with it. But ultimately, they just make us even more miserable.
Know the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness. To manage toxic people effectively, you must be able to set boundaries. And the only way to set effective boundaries is to know how to be assertive without being aggressive.