Don't Keep It All Bottled Up

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Most of us can come up with a mile-long list of people who've made us miserable, some time or the other - teachers, classmates, brothers, sisters, parents, friends, colleagues... while you were allowing them to make you feel angry, confused and irritated, unknown to you, they were seriously damaging your health. In other words, they were toxic.

Here we go again. Another 2 a.m. phone call, with my best friend pouring her heart out about the latest disaster in her life. Love her as I do, 2 a.m. isn't my best time - especially when I've got an early start and a skin that needs at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Still, have you ever tried saying no to a friend in need? Exactly. So you end up spending an hour saying yes and no in all the right places, then get a headache and take refuge in a peanut butter sandwich. According to psychologist, Dr. Lillian Glass, author of Toxic People (Simon and Schuster), the headaches/peanut butter sandwiches are proof that we're under fire from a toxic person - in other words, "anyone who manages to drag you down, make you feel angry, worn out, deflated, belittled or confused."

Most of us can come up with a list, as long as our arm, of people who've made us feel miserable - starting with teachers and bullies at school, moving on to brothers, boyfriends, bosses and so-called friends. Not forgetting arrogant doctors and road hogs.

But what makes a toxic person tick? "They're people whose feelings of insecurity and inadequacy make them jealous, envious and uncaring, so they end up sabotaging your projects, your relationships, your happiness-even your car journey!" explains Dr Glass.

It could be the temperamental boss who's never satisfied, the friend who knows where you're going wrong (and revels in telling you), or the critical parent who can't stop treating you like a naughty ten-year-old.


But whatever your own personal definition of a toxic person, one thing is certain - putting up with a toxic relationship can seriously damage your health. "Migraines, eye-twitches, skin rashes and eating disorders often have their roots in toxic relationship that have gone on for too long," explains Dr. Glass.

Listing the people and types of behavior that get to you is Dr. Glass's first step to detoxing your relationships - and your life. (And, believe it or not, that's the easy bit!) But the good news is there are ways of responding that can stop you being the victim of toxic behavior.

A humorous response can, for example, defuse the toxic person, so try laughing at your "snide" friends instead of getting angry. Alternatively, mirroring their behavior can show them how unreasonable they're being, while other situations call for a calmer, more questioning approach. Sometimes, if the person is particularly obnoxious, the only way to deal with them is to lose your temper.

But just deciding to do something about the toxic people in your life is a big step in itself. You might know you should detox from your friend/partner/boss, but it's not always that easy to do it. Okay you can find other friends, partners and jobs, but you can't, for instance, go out and choose a new mother.

"You have to weigh up the toxic person's behavior, your reaction to it and what's stake," says Clare Hershman, a counsellor who specialises in addictions. "If they're paying you Pound 20,000 a year, you may decide, 'Okay, I'll take the money and stand on my head if they want me to, but I'm not going to let my emotions into this drama.'" And there's the crunch. While toxic people can make our lives unbearable, we're the only ones who can do something about it.


You think they care for you but their behavior says otherwise

How often have you thought, "She calls herself my friend, but she doesn't behave like it"? You share so much with a "mate" that it's sometimes hard to see that they're actually doing you harm. Over the years I've gradually realised I can't solve my friends' problems, until they want to - and, believe me, some of them don't want to - nor do they want to hear about mine.

They just like a dustbin to throw all their rubbish into - and all too often that dustbin's me.

Deena, 28, and Kate, 28, have been friends for 15 years, but Deena feels she's always given more time to Kate than vice versa, "Kate always finds a story to top mine and switches the conversation back to herself," she complains. "I end up feeling sidelined."

According to Dr. Glass, "Kate's a perfect example of the very self-absorbed person with a fragile ego. She's insecure and needs lots of reassurance and soothing words to build up her self-esteem." But she clearly isn't quite so sensitive when it comes to everyone else's feeling. Recognise the type?

Her selfishness probably isn't intentional, but you still need to confront her. Say something like, "I sometimes get the feeling you're not really listening to me - and it's upsetting." Be direct and honest, without tears or tantrums.

In fact, friendships are a good training ground for sorting out toxic people, because if they're any kind of friend, they really do want what's best for you. Then again, if you've weighed up the pros and cons and think, "Well, she can be a prime woman, but she does know how to get into the best clubs," rely on her for that, but nothing more. And if you really can't stand any more 2 am calls, buy some ear plugs and let your answering machine do more night shifts.


Parents and toxic? Well, they can be, you know

Tricky one this, because relationships with parents have the potential to be the most precious, damaging and long-lasting - all in one go. What you see as big-time intrusion, they regard as concern (with a bit of nosiness thrown in). Tread carefully at first and try to achieve a result with calm explanation or humour.

According to Dr. Glass, telling your mother point blank that she should stay out of your life - or start taking an interest in it or just stop comparing you to your prettier, happier and more successful younger sister - is only going to set fire to a potentially explosive situation.

Viv, 32, has been at loggerheads with her mother for years. "I went out with my husband, Anthony for 14 years before we married, and had to put up with a barrage of comments and criticism, Three years into the marriage, my mum's now itching for grandchildren."

According to Dr. Glass, "This is someone who needs to be told where to get off." (Easier said than done, she is your mum after all.) "Be firm, but kind in the way you say it," she suggests. Counselor, Sylvia Mountain, offers this all-purpose response, "Thanks Mom, I've thought about what you've said, but for the moment I'll do it my way. If I make mistakes, then I'll just have to learn from them."

The flip side of the interfering parent is the one who doesn't seem to care enough. Gabby, 25, would welcome some intrusion. Her mother, an author's agent, spends many evenings socialising on business. "When we meet she rarely asks how I am, but she'll buy me things instead. I feel like I'm a client, not a daughter"

"If your mother has trouble expressing her feelings, treat her gently," says Dr. Glass. "Tell her how forgotten you feel and, as long as she doesn't feel you're out to get her, she'll start to come round"


Aha! This category is easy to spot a mile away.

Some of the most stressful situations we encounter are at work. Ten minutes of hanging around the photocopier is all you need to know it's a seething hotbed of toxic relationships. When Clare, now 31, got her dream job as a production assistant straight out of college, she was absolutely delighted. She had no idea what was in store. "One day the producer called me over, and I started walking towards her," she recalls.

"Suddenly she screamed, "Run!" So, to my humiliation, I did. But I was too new in the job to do anything else."

According to Paul Khan who runs Success Through Support, an employment and arbitration consultancy, feeling sure of your rights is an essential defence against toxic people. "There are more breakdowns, arguments, hassles and sulking than ever before in the workplace because everyone's under so much pressure to perform," he says.

"That's why it's vital to know your role in a company and how it operates."

Lorna, 27, works for a marketing consultancy, but her 23-year-old assistant, Julie, seems intent on clambering over her as fast as she can. "She reads my memos, keeps information to herself and curries favour with clients in an unprofessional way," She complains. Dr. Glass sees this as the "ultimate competitor" situation, a scenario that's on the increase. "In many work situations, a calm, questioning approach works well. Think like a courtroom lawyer, and ask your colleagues to justify their actions - chances are they won't be able to. It's also important to set your working terms and let colleagues know what isn't acceptable."

Paul Khan suggests Lorna tries a humorous confrontation. "How about saying, "You want my job? You got it. Tell me, do you think you can do it?" She'll say no," he says confidently. "And if she says yes, be prepared. Tell her she can make all the decisions for the next month. That's when your experience will tell - as you point out (not too gleefully) what she doesn't know. Take the situation and turn it back to your advantage."


But there's another subtle trick to detoxing at work. "Your speech and body language can give the other person signals that do or don't spell confidence," explains Bridget Wright, author of Which Way Now - how To Plan And Develop A Successful Career (Piatkus). "Know your worth and it'll speak for you."

Kim, an accountant, became aware of harmful gossip in the industry about her skills. She knew it stemmed from her last job, from which she was fired after the boss blamed her for a large order being cancelled. "I was furious. I know my capabilities, my track record speaks for itself."

"What women are naturally good at is being more flexible and adaptable to change," says Bridget Wright. men are prepared to play politics whereas women will stick in a toxic situation only for so long before they do something about it."


The most stressful baggage in life

No one needs telling that along with all the love, fun and exploration in a relationship, a whole load of other (less pleasant) issues are usually waiting in the wings. As most of us have discovered, at some point or another, even the most wonderful partner can have his toxic side.

For Janine, 31, the problem runs much deeper. "Whenever I want to talk to Will about making a commitment, he stalls. If I badger him, he just closes up". Difficult as it may sound, "the only way to deal with him is to keep trying to confront him," advises Dr. Glass.

Most of us have encountered uncommunicative men who keep their feelings under lock and key, and keep you utterly confused. No one's saying you have to keep on bashing your head against a brick wall, but sometimes explosive showdowns are just the bombshell this kind of man needs. "And if he still runs, you know there's very little you can do - or should want to," says Dr. Glass.

"Ultimately, you can only change yourself, not someone else," confirms counselor, Mary Godden. It's up to you to decide how much of pushing around you will or will not take.-- Courtesy: FRIDAY


Listing the people and types of behavior that get to you is Dr. Glass's first step to detoxing your relationships - and your life.

Friendships are a good training ground for sorting out toxic people because if they're any kind of friend, they really do want what's best for you.

There are some parents who don't care enough and, on the flip side, some who can be interfering to the point of madness.

At some point or another, even the most wonderful lover can have his or her toxic side.

back to: Relationships Homepage

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2009, January 12). Don't Keep It All Bottled Up, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 13 from

Last Updated: March 25, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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