How to Get Free from Toxic Relationships

I know what it means to be forced to connect with people I don’t like…people who, no matter how much patience and personal responsibility I exercise, will still always find a way to blame me, or a reason to hate me. Can you relate? Whether you’re dealing with a difficult relative, a snarky co-worker, an ex, or your partner’s ex, it’s likely that you’ve navigated those tumultuous waters more than once.

My advice to myself and you? Stop feeding the trolls.

Now, I know there are times when we call in the people and situations that mirror where we are at any stage of our lives, as well as what we might have to learn. But the idea that we attract exactly what we put out into the world is too damn simplistic and literal for me. Toxicity does not always require explanation. Life is messy and complicated, and no matter how authentic or awesome we are, we are going to come up against people that will test our patience and try to tear us down.

So let’s all stop blaming ourselves for “attracting” toxic people, which seems to be the self-professed enlightened person’s chosen philosophy these days. While it’s important to take responsibility for whom we allow into our lives, the truth is, none of us will ever be completely free from “toxic” people. And when we focus all our attention on wondering what we did to make that narcissist’s acquaintance, or why we keep getting into it with backstabbing mean girls, we just end up missing the point.

“You’re attracting toxicity” is the kind of quasi-spiritual justification that makes my stomach turn. It’s a platitude that tells us we should have done something different. We should have been “more enlightened or loving.” This wouldn’t have happened if only we had been more “positive.”

In other words, we should have been able to anticipate others’ actions and control the outcomes of basically everything that comes at us in our lives.

And I’m here to say: That’s complete BS.

We will all experience shitty experiences with difficult people, and we need to create and choose better tools for dealing with them. This doesn’t mean that a hurtful interaction was the result of “putting out negative energy,” or that their toxicity was a reflection of something we are avoiding within ourselves. Although both of those scenarios are plausible, the truth is, people who are wounded act out. Not because the recipients of their attack deserve it, but because it’s human nature. However, we always have the choice as to whether and how we will react and engage.

Remember, Not Everyone Is Gonna Like You

When I talk about “toxic” people, I’m mostly referring to personalities and qualities that are especially draining: blame, victimhood, reactiveness, depression, emotional vampirism, and other forms of negativity. In truth, all of us have these qualities to some degree, but we can decide the extent to which we let them dominate us and affect our interactions with others.

In psychology, transference refers to how situations and people we encounter remind us of things we experienced in the past; this sense of familiarity impacts how we react in the present. You know when you just don’t like someone and you can’t put your finger on it? It’s good to heed those moments; usually, it’s not your gut telling us to be wary of that person—it’s just unexamined transference based on past experiences you’re not even consciously referencing. For example, if you had a parent who was overbearing, you might bristle around similar types of people and judge them, because they remind you of those early experiences in some way.

Every single one of us has both positive and negative transference—and this, more than any objective wrongdoing, determines how we treat them.

To simplify this idea, let me share with you the five-finger rule. Two fingers represent the people you will meet who don’t like you because you remind them of something or someone that rubbed them the wrong way once upon a time (negative transference); two fingers represent the people you can’t stand because they remind you of something or someone that left a bad taste in your mouth (negative transference); and the final finger represents the people you like, and who like you back (positive transference).

Given the sheer rareness of finding the ones who fall into that final category, it’s a wonder that we aren’t at war with each other more often! But, other factors notwithstanding, when it comes down to it, we are only truly matched up with 20% of the people we encounter. The others? Either we actively dislike them (even if we try to convince ourselves otherwise) or we’re more or less neutral.

I have seen a lot of people trying to explain toxic behavior or get the ones displaying it to finally see the light so that everyone can turn a corner together. I know from firsthand experience that this is a waste of time. Sometimes, deep and honest conversation and effort on both sides can transform a crappy relationship, but mostly, you are never going to get them to like or agree with you, or change their behavior. And trying to do these things in an enormous energy drain that too many women fall into.

There are people who will love and hate us for no reason other than that we trigger something in their deep unconscious, or a wound from their past. And the same is true for us! Period.

This is why I think it’s high time we stop trying to like everyone we meet, or get others to like us. It’s just wasted energy on our part because it’s virtually impossible, and counter to human nature. The best we can do is cherish the people who are healthy and positive influences, and nurture those relationships—while attempting to recognize when and why we have negative or positive transference (and yes, even the “positive” transference can be flawed and come from false projections), and to figure out how we want to respond.

Who’s the Toxic One Here?

To free ourselves from toxicity, we have to begin by diving into and accepting our messiness—including our “darker” emotions—so that we can ask ourselves why we tend to be drawn to toxic people, and how we are engaging in toxicity ourselves.

Authentic connections require seeing other people for who they are, without our rose-tinted glasses or biased filters. But they also require seeing ourselves for who we are.

By that, I mean: You might be sitting there and thinking of all the toxic people in your life, but have you ever stopped to think that others might have the same perception of you?

Perhaps that mere question has you thinking, “Well, clearly, they’re wrong!” But even when people are being unnecessarily hurtful to us, we can take the opportunity to actually hear how they might be experiencing or receiving us, no matter how off base their account may seem.

For me, acknowledging other people’s criticism is deeply informative. It challenges me to see myself more clearly and to respond to the grain of truth that might be in the midst of someone else’s negative behavior toward me. In fact, plenty of times I challenge myself to re-frame my outlook on “toxic” people, who also help me move outside my comfort zone by lighting up all the stuff I am hesitant to look at.

And let’s look at that label, “toxic.” When you’re saying that someone is toxic, get very real and ask yourself some very clear questions. How exactly are they toxic? Why is your relationship not hitting you the right way? Is it that you don’t like something they are showing you about yourself? Are they lighting up some aspect of your shit you’d rather not look at? Are you behaving in a way the other person might also construe as toxic? Do you want to make the choice to work on the relationship, let it go, or nurture it? This is how we can take back our power from the perceived trolls and become free to pursue the relationships that actually feel good to us.

If you’ve ever wondered if there are common threads in the kinds of toxic people you attract, take this quiz—What Kinds of Toxic People Do You Attract?—which will also reveal how you can best navigate conflict in challenging relationships.

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About the Author | Kelly McNelis

Kelly McNelis is the founder of global community, Women for One, a speaker, coach, facilitator, and bestselling author of Your Messy Brilliance: 7 Tools for the Perfectly Imperfect Woman. With more than 25 years of experience as a nonprofit and small-business consultant, Kelly empowers generations of women around the world to build the relationships, community, and confidence they need to achieve their wildest dreams. She finds daily inspiration in spending time with her husband and children in her home outside of Seattle.

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