Don’t Let Toxic People Destroy Your Emotional Health

by Caroline Leaf

How do we stay emotionally and physically healthy with toxic people around us? Dr. Caroline Leaf writes:

“Let’s face it: people can be too much at times. In fact, occasionally things will get so toxic that a deserted cabin in the middle of the wilderness can sound quite appealing!

We cannot run from the ugly side of humanity. Every day we can potentially face a toxic experience in one form or another, whether this is an email, text message, conversation, meeting and so on. We need to learn how to deal with such situations, not run from them. As I am sure you know, toxic people can be upsetting and mess with our emotions and mental health, so the sooner we learn to manage the way other people choose to react, the better off we will be (both mentally and physically).

Even friends and family can unknowingly, or knowingly, create toxic environments! Yet, as Warren Buffet wisely says,

“You will continue to suffer if you have an emotional reaction to everything that is said to you. True power is observing things with logic. True power is restraint. If words control you that means everyone else can control you. Breathe and allow things to pass.”

This quote has helped me so much, so I wanted to share it with you and give you some tips that I have developed that have really helped me and others learn how to manage toxic situations.

First, you need to realize that you can’t control what another person chooses to think and say, but you can control your emotional reactions to them, as I discuss in my books Switch on Your Brain and Think, Learn, Succeed. If you choose to give people power over you by continually ruminating over what they said or did, you will to continue to suffer, damaging your brain and mental health in the process. And, if you have developed a pattern of overreacting and being too sensitive (for more on overcoming this see my recent blog post), you can get stuck in a toxic reaction cycle that will directly affect the quality of your mental life.

You need to stop and ask yourself “what kind of person am I becoming?”. Are you developing a victim mentality? Do you want to keep suffering like this? Are you becoming overly self-involved and inward-focused? As Buffet said, true power is restraint. This is key in managing toxic situations: most people are way too reactive and do not develop their self-restraint and self-regulation; living this way makes them miserable!

This type of restraint particularly applies to your thought life. You may be thinking something about someone’s motives, but it is not necessarily true. It is important to remember that assumptions are, by and large, the mother of all mess-ups! You can never truly know what another person is thinking, even if you know that person well.

Restraint also means taking a step back and observing a situation logically, as Buffet says. It means reminding yourself that you have control—you aren’t under someone’s power unless you allow it. Indeed, you can’t be offended unless you take offense!

If you let your toxic emotions grow unchecked by constantly thinking about them and ruminating on your feelings, you will feel worse because the resultant neurochemical chaos will cause brain damage and dramatically affect your mental and physical wellbeing. Do you really want to give people that much power over your life? Remember, “if words control you, then everyone can control you”!

You need to be honest with yourself: are you letting other people control you? Are you walking around hurt and upset? Do you constantly see yourself as a victim? Is everyone always attacking you? If you answered yes to any of these questions, it may be time to shift your thinking!

When you are faced with a toxic person or situation, the best thing you can do is STOP, allow some time to pass, and do a 5-step “mental autopsy”. This has really helped me learn how not to react to toxic people or situations, and can help you too:

1. Practice breathing in and out deeply to control your cortisol and adrenalin levels (which are good but can cause havoc when they flood the brain and body) and calm your HPA axis. This, in turn, will help you get clarity of thought and defog your mind. For example, say you were just sent a really nasty email from a colleague. Don’t respond in a reactive way! Stop, breathe in for 3 counts, and breathe out for 3 counts. This will dissipate excess cortisol and help your mind clear and your emotions stabilize.

2. Recognize and name your reaction. For instance, using the email example above, describe how you feel out loud: “I feel hurt, attacked, defensive…” and ask yourself why. Observe your thinking, and have a discussion with yourself.

Writing down your thoughts can also help you manage and examine your thoughts and emotions. Don’t do this for too long, just a few moments—the purpose of this exercise is to help you name your emotions, such as “I feel hurt because I…”. Writing down your emotions and naming or putting your feelings down on paper can help bring fluency and clarity to your thinking and reduce the overwhelming effect of your emotions.

My new app Switch is a great tool for helping you go through this process. It is based on my 5-step program, which is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of your toxic reactions, and help you build a healthy new thinking habits through the mental process of reconceptualization.

3. Next, I want you to intentionally and deliberately separate the toxic emotions behind your thoughts and words and the logic of the situation apart. Visualize this: imagine a scary, ugly, toxic tree with all your negative emotions and attitudes. Imagine ripping the emotions off this tree, and seeing the well-defined branches with all the information of the situation hanging on the tree in a clear and clinical way, which will give you insight into what to do next. You are essentially imagining taking the threat of the turbulent emotions away from the thought “tree”.

4. Now, focus on the content and words of this tree, which will help you see the actual problem or issue that was previously blocked by your toxic emotions. When you try see things through a veil of emotions, it is like trying to drive through a storm with no windscreen wipers–you can’t see properly and can end up in some serious trouble!

So, using the email example above, when you mentally divorce yourself from your immediate emotional reaction, you can perhaps see that the person who sent the email is frustrated because of “so and so…”, and, putting yourself in their shoes, you can choose to see if there was something you can learn from the situation in order to improve your communication with this person and so on. By doing this, you can transform a potentially explosive situation into a productive learning experience! 

The key is to focus on the logic of the situation, which is separated from your emotions and feelings.

5. This brings me to step 5: work out a solution in order to progress forward in a way that can transform the toxic experience into a good “ahah!’ moment.

Once again, using the email example above, you can respond in a composed and logical manner to your colleague, and set up a call or in-person meeting to calmly discuss the situation and improve your future communication, even if you don’t agree on something. This kind of reaction can not only improve your relationship, but also your productivity!

We can’t just focus on our feelings, even though it is important we acknowledge them. We need to find concrete solutions or come up with a plan of action, which is the only way we can truly move forward.

To sum it all up, we need to learn to be kind to ourselves and to others. It is so important that we control how we react and respond to people—this can mitigate relationship disasters and improve our own mental health.

Of course, this does not mean that we agree on everything, but we learn how sometimes it is okay to “agree to disagree”, and that sometimes we don’t know everything! Indeed, at the end of the day, you will never truly know what really motivates someone’s words or actions. You may be able to guess to a certain extent, but you will never get beyond a 70% accuracy rate, so stop yourself going down that dangerous road. Assumptions are often toxic: you can end up wasting a lot of your mental energy on things that do not contribute to your quality of life or your success. As the saying goes, ‘ain’t nobody got time for that!'” Used by permission.

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