How to Set Boundaries with a Toxic Person

by Dr. Eric Perry (this article was initially published on his website)

We all know at least one person who seems to walk around in a state of doom and gloom. They are in short supply of joy but have an overabundance of negativity. This individual may be a friend, family member, loved one or co-worker. Often times, it is someone you briefly encounter in your daily life; such as, the person who tailgates you in traffic or the rude customer you encounter at work. There are many toxic people in the world that are extremely generous when it comes to sharing their negativity. If you happen to cross their path, they will unapologetically unload their misery onto you.

Toxic individuals have the uncanny ability to transfer their negative feelings onto others. After an interaction with such a person, you are often times left feeling emotions that are not your own. For example, after spending time with a toxic friend, who is constantly complaining about their life, you may experience dissatisfaction with your own life. It is as if you temporarily borrow their negative lens to view the world.

In your lifetime you will encounter individuals, who may not have the self-awareness to not share their negative outlook, or who simply do not respect other’s personal boundaries and will spread their toxicity if given the opportunity. Any interaction, with the toxic person in your life, will leave you feeling drained and dispirited. It is as if they drain your positive life force in order to feed their negative charge. The individual may siphon your energy through constant negative talk directed towards you or others. This negative talk may come in the form of derisive gossip, judgmental speech, critical speech, and constant complaining. The toxic individual may seek to manipulate you into unfavorable situations and you may find yourself in a defensive position whenever you interact with them.

“People inspire you or they drain you. Pick them wisely.”

~Hans F. Hansen

Establishing healthy boundaries is one of the most important things you can do in your life. Clear and firm boundaries will help you navigate potential landmines that a toxic individual will lay to entrap you. Healthy boundaries are personal fortifications that we utilize as a form of psychological self-defense to be used against anyone who does not have our best interest at heart.

There are a number of ways to establish boundaries with toxic and negative individuals. Here are some suggestions that I recommend in my practice.

1. Address the situation
Speak up when someone disrespects your boundaries. This is a direct and bold approach and often times is the most effective. I have found that toxic personalities will often take advantage of our inability to say no or our discomfort for being seen as rude. You must be ok with experiencing momentary discomfort in order to fortify your boundaries. Exercise your boundary reflex. If something does not feel comfortable, speak up and do not participate. For example, if someone is constantly seeking you out to bombard you with their negative talk, speak up and tell them you are not interested in this type of one-sided conversation. In the past, I have addressed this situation by pointing out to the other person that the nature of their conversation felt very negative. I explained to them that I felt as if they were using me to unload the negative content of their life and that I would no longer be a willing participant. Thereafter, this person no longer sought me out to rob me of my time because I had clearly stated my boundaries.

2. Do not add fuel to their negativity by engaging in their toxic games
Toxic individuals come in all shapes and sizes. They may have a personality disorder such as NPD, an attachment disorder or they may just not have proper social skills. They may engage in covert behaviors in order to manipulate you or they may be overtly malicious and abusive. Toxic individuals like to engage in negative conversations such as malicious gossip. These conversations that will leave you feeling drained. Whenever possible, shorten the conversation, redirect it or avoid it entirely. You can also extinguish the negative talk by pointing out positive points.

3. If all else fails, let them “Die on the vine”
What I mean by “Let them die on the vine” is that you consciously choose not to engage or interact with the toxic person. Negativity needs fuel to thrive. If you do not feed their negativity and refuse to engage they will eventually move on to feed off someone else. If this is a loved one or a family member, do not fear the loss of the relationship. Life is too short for negative distractions of toxic personalities.

We do not have a say about the families we are born into, but we can be selective about who we let into our circle of friends and loved ones. Make the conscious decision to only choose people that will honor and respect your boundaries. By surrounding yourself with loving and positive people, you can make sure to have a supportive group around when you need them.

I hope you find these tips helpful. I would love to hear about your experience with toxic people and what you do to protect yourself.

The thoughts expressed in this blog post are my own and are not meant to create a therapeutic relationship with the reader. This blog does not replace or substitute the help of a mental health professional. Please note, I am unable to answer your specific mental health questions as I am not fully aware of all of the circumstances.

Dr. Perry