How to Stop Toxic People from Infecting Your Life

You Can’t Escape Them, But You CAN Disarm Their Effect

From bosses and fellow employees to random people crossing our path, we’ll never escape incivility — but we can choose how we’ll react, and that will make all the difference in the world.

Several years ago, I came across a wonderful story by Sydney Harris that beautifully illustrated how we should treat toxic people … for our own good.

I walked with my friend, a Quaker, to the newsstand the other night, and he bought a paper, thanking the newsie politely. The newsie didn’t even acknowledge it.

A sullen fellow, isn’t he? I commented.

Oh, he’s always that way every night, shrugged my friend.

Then why do you continue being so polite to him? I asked.

Why not? Inquired my friend. Why should I let him decide how I’m going to act?

As I thought about this little incident later, it occurred to me that the operating word was act. My friend acts toward people; most of us react toward them.

He has a sense of inner balance lacking in most of us frail and uncertain creatures: he knows who he is, what he stands for, and how he should behave.

The Toxic Gatekeeper

A couple of months ago, my five sisters and I were moving my mom from one apartment to another in the same care facility.

Central to our path was the “gatekeeper.” Roosted in her command center, behind an octagon wall of glass, she surveyed movement like a perched hawk.

Whenever something didn’t square with her way of doing things, there would be a short squeal of her microphone followed by a drill sergeant’s instruction of the right way things should be done.

Apparently, the trolley carts we were using were not the “right” ones, although the ones that came with her stamp of approval looked the very same.

Partway through the move, I remembered Sydney Harris’s story, and so I (we) caught ourselves succumbing to her hostility. Instead of continuing to hand her control by reacting in kind, we chose to treat her as a mild source of amusement. We treated her cordially but were genuinely not intimidated.

The dynamics changed instantly, at least for us; she was immediately disarmed, and we were in control.

Changing Your Perspective of Toxic People

All we had done was recognize the situation for what it was, and suddenly, choosing to not react to her hostility was remarkably easy.

Consider people who treat others with disdain. They expect a negative response in return, which is precisely what they’re after. Their reward — the satisfaction of control — requires little effort.

Suppose you refuse to play; how long can a toxic person keep serving the ball when there’s never a returned volley?

By responding to a toxic person with civility, two things happen: You attain complete control of yourself and your emotions while at the same time defusing whatever an inconsiderate person is hoping to gain.

Like the newspaper person in Harris’s story, he may remain grouchy and unfriendly, but by avoiding a reaction, the problem becomes his and his alone because you simply refused to participate.

Taking Control is a Choice

Whether it’s a toxic boss, a co-worker, or an unpleasant civil servant, if you can view their hostility as a game you refuse to play, you’ve won.

A toxic person will undoubtedly have reasons for being noxious, but as long as you choose not to react, then it’s solely their problem, not yours. In fact, when you react with civility to an uncivil person and watch their reaction closely … while they puzzle with frustration, you’ll enjoy the power of self-determination.

No One is Unhappier Than a Person Being Controlled

The more we can master our actions and attitudes, the greater our control. Toxic, miserable people are unavoidable, but we can refuse to be manipulated by them.

Being civil is anything but a sign of weakness; it demonstrates complete command. It shows that you know who you are and how you should behave.

And here’s the bonus: Responding to a toxic person with civility robs them of their ability to bring you down — and that’s “perhaps” the one time that schadenfreude is wonderfully justified.