Friday, November 20, 2009

Dealing With Difficult People

Wow, this has been one of those really long weeks that I'm just glad is coming to an end!  We all have a few of those "difficult people" in our lives that we have to deal with from time to time.  Sometimes they do things that actually merit our removing them from our lives for good.  That is what I had to do this week with one such person. 

Toxic People

There is a term, that when I apply it to people, I reserve for only the most extreme cases.  That term is "toxic".  They are not necessarily unpleasant people.  In fact some of the most highly toxic people in my experience, have been extremely charming and charismatic.

They are the kind of person that draws you in, not in a compassionate way, but by making you feel like you want to be a part of what is going on around them.  Of course at the beginning you don't usually see the turmoil that is happening, you just see some kind of excitement and energy and that is hard to resist. 

They convey the impression of great success, even though their successes may have been quite modest when looked at honestly.  They assume from the first moment you meet them, that you will look up to them and they proceed as if you do.

They are very good at making you feel like you could never reach the goals you desire without their help.  They convince you that they are there to help you reach your goals and that they are the only one who can really help you get there.

They always leave you with a hint of doubt about yourself.  They never quite affirm you.  They only affirm that with their help you may make it someday.

If you say no to them, in order to get you to say yes, they can really turn on the charm and  become overly friendly.

They have a lack of boundaries and tend to mix business with pleasure.  They pull you into their personal lives, even though it may not be considered normal or even appropriate to do so.  But it makes you feel special, like you are really "in" with this very important person, even though you may feel a definite "unease" about it.
Charm and charisma, excitement and energy, in themselves are not bad traits.  In fact many of the most successful and positive people in the world have these traits.  But in a toxic person, there is are additional dimensions. 

There is almost always, the inability to take "no" for an answer.  They most certainly will not take your first "no", and likely you will have to repeat it many times - if you are able to continue and hold firm to your conviction.  The Toxic will continue to say that you don't really mean "no", and will keep at you until you change your mind.  The trouble is, you didn't change your mind at all.  You only changed your answer.  So you end up doing things that you did not intend or want to do. 

Toxics are highly manipulative and often very intelligent.  They can encourage you one minute, and let you down hard, the next.  They bait you - they hold out just enough bait to keep you coming back for more.  But when push comes to shove, they will never allow you to pass the point where they want you to be.

Toxics can be controversial people.  That is, peoples' opinions of them are very extreme.  They either love them, practically worhipping the ground they walk on, or they hate them and will no longer have anything to do with them.  The only "neutrals" out there are either people who have not dealt with them directly, or people who have avoided the entanglement altogether because they don't have the open doors that some of us have.

The Open Door

How do we get taken in by these people in the first place?  We have an open door somewhere in our life, in our beliefs about ourselves.  A place where we feel inadequate.  A place of self doubt.  A place where we are convinced that we cannot make it on our own.  That is where the Toxic hones in.

They are tuned in to needy people, to self-doubters.  Being needy and self-doubting has nothing to do with your level of accomplishment.  I have seen people who are extremely accomplished in their fields, who never believe they are good enough, or even good at all at what they do.  Self doubt is not based on accomplishment.  It is how we feel the world at large sees us, based on a negative assessment we perhaps heard somewhere along the way, possibly insensitive remarks we heard when we were in a particularly vulnerable or malleable state, that we internalized and adopted to become our own belief.  I think many creative people are just naturally hard on themselves, even without external "help".  But whatever the cause for our self doubting, that is the open door where the Toxic will try to enter.

What Can I Do To Not Be Taken In?

"Let your yes be yes and your no be no".  That is a phrase from the Bible.  It is great instruction and great wisdom.

When I look at all the people that ended up being a negative influence in my life, nine times out of ten, they started off right from the beginning not taking my "no" seriously.  Now it's not up to them to enforce my "no".  It is completely up to me.  But the fact that some people won't take "no" for an answer is indicative of their lack of respect for you and their lack of boundaries.  It is always up to you to stand by your "no".  Become very good friends with your "no".  You will never regret it.

I am 52 years old and I am finally making friends with my "no".  I was always afraid of what my "no" could do.  It could make people mad at me and disappointed in me.  It could possibly even turn people against me.  It could upset people and make them cry.  "No" is powerful.  It is almost the smallest word in the English language, and yet it is the most powerful.  It is your best tool against being used, manipulated and taken advantage of.

Are you afraid your "no" will hurt the people you love?  When I say "no" sometimes they look hurt.  They may even say they are hurt by my "no".  I believe they do feel pain, but did I actually cause their pain, and is there on honest way that I can take their pain away?  They are in pain because I am not going to do what they wanted me to do.  And as much as I want to take away their pain, changing my answer is not the way to do it.  If I change my answer in order to alleviate the immediate stress I feel of them being in pain, I will end up resenting them and resenting having to do something I didn't want to do in the first place.  How is that good?  The resentment will become apparent to them, believe me, and then you'll have that piled on top of the rest of it and it will just be a mess.  The next time they ask you to do something you don't want to do, they will expect even more that you will of course say yes.
So please make friends with your "no"!
The people around your will survive you saying "no" to them.

The Gift of Gut Instincts

Another tool you need to learn to use is your gut instinct.  It's that churning feeling you get sometimes in your stomach, or elsewhere in your body.  It's like a bad tickle.  In some people it's very mild, almost undetectable, mostly because they have tuned out of their own instincts, and they need to relearn how to listen to them.  In others it is quite strong, even overwhelming at times.

I am the latter case.  My gut is extremely sensitive to the point where I can barely function when it is screaming at me, until I make things right again.  It may seem like a disadvantage, because it can be so overwhelming, but it is actually a great gift.  My gut has kept me out of a lot of places where I could have been hurt really badly.  I respect my instincts and try to follow them as closely as I can.  It would serve any of us well to learn to tune in and listen to that gut instinct.

There is a great book out there called, "The Gift Of Fear", by Gavin De Becker.  It's all about listening to that voice inside, that bad feeling, and not pushing it away or talking ourselves out of it.  I highly recommend the book.

My New Mantra

If my "no" is not good enough for you, then you are not good enough for me.

Does that sound harsh?  It's really not.  What's harsh is when someone won't accept your decisions about your life and they want to have the say about what you do.
Does that mean that I am going to kick out every person who didn't take my first "no"?  Of course not!  It takes a lot more than that to get the boot from me.

The Bullet List

So who gets the boot?  I'll make a bullet list.  You get to decide how much you are willing to put up with.  These are just warning signs to watch out for and be aware of.  Each trait by itself is not a reason to take action.  Most of us are manipulative at some time or another in our lives.  I'm talking about persistent and extreme cases where someone exhibits many of these warning signs together and you are finding that your life is in turmoil because someone in it has too many of these warning signs.  That is when you may need to take some action.  I leave it to you to decide.

Toxic Traits
  • They are extremely charming, charismatic, and arrogant
  • They believe they are the only one who can really help you reach your goals
  • They think everyone else is inferior to them; always critical of others in their field
  • You feel like you'll "miss out" if you aren't in on what is going on around them
  • They expect you to look to them as "the expert", whether they are or not
  • They always leave you with a hint of doubt about yourself
  • They are overly friendly at times
  • They lack a sense of boundaries
  • They often mix business with pleasure
  • You have a feeling of unease when you have talked with them or been with them
  • They have an inability to take "no" as your final answer
  • Manipulative
  • They keep you coming back for more
  • They are controversial people - people love them or hate them, with no in-between


  1. this is such and awesome article and every word of it is true. I have had a great deal of problems with these type of people....I have a very STRONG tendency to migrate towards them and before I know it I am standing there going, what just happened? And by then am up to my neck in doo-doo. Thanks for the article it was a good refresher to remember that my yes should be yes and my no should be no....

  2. Hi Cindy, I am just getting through the "cleanup" stage with this one. It help just to get it all down and I'm glad it has helped you too!!

  3. Good article and right to the point...i have fell prey to a couple of these people and have now become much more willing to say 'no'. Its a good reminder to value oneself. Thank you! I hope soon the stress of your toxic person will soon be over.

  4. I am already starting to feel the new freedom and much less of the stress!! Thanks for reading and commenting!!

  5. What a great post!

    It makes a person think, but also I wonder whether someone can be a "toxic person" and not even realize it?
    Is this manipulative behaviour a conscious decision?

  6. Hi Tara, that is a GREAT question! And good reason why we need to really be careful before we take drastic steps. If it is truly toxic, even if it is unconscious behaviour, we still need to take steps away. But I do wonder just how conscious is it?

  7. Great article - its really hard saying no when you care about the other person too and dont want to upset them. Oh no, I'll have to take on board what you are saying though - a good friend accepts you, warts and all and understands if you are different to them.

  8. It is very hard, especially when you are new at it - which I feel like I still am!!!