When Cutting Off ‘Toxic’ Friends Turns Toxic

Do you have a toxic person in your life?

Chances are your answer is “Yes,” and it’s also likely that most therapists and mental health professionals would agree with you. From a clinical standpoint, difficult relationships are built into the human condition. Human beings are complex and imperfect, and at some point, we all exhibit some ‘toxic’ behaviors.

However, even researchers and clinicians struggle to provide a comprehensive definition of ‘toxic’ people, so pop psychology gets to have a field day turning any imperfect behavior into a toxic trait.

While mental health professionals might shy away from using the word ‘toxic’ as flippantly as pop culture does, we do use descriptors like ‘problematic,’ ‘difficult,’ and even ‘narcissistic’ to describe the people many of our patients vent to us about.

The idea of cutting off so-called toxic relationships has good intentions based on sound advice for dealing with toxic people. Relationships are a give-and-take, and they can become untenable due to consistently toxic behaviors.

However, going on a slashing spree and cutting out any friend who might have some toxic tendencies will likely leave you alone and isolated, which we know can cause even more stress, anxiety, and adverse health effects.

So what should we do about difficult people in our lives? How do we know when someone has crossed the line from being imperfect or difficult to toxic? When do we give people a second chance and when do we decide they’ve used up their last?

What is Toxic Behavior?

It’s important from the outset to acknowledge that all of us behave beneath our best selves from time to time. No one goes through life without acquiring some difficult or problematic tendencies along the way. These tendencies are most often due to hurts, disappointments, and traumas that are an unfortunate guarantee in life. They deserve our caring attention so they can heal, but too often they go neglected and are left to fester inside ourselves. When those imperfections slip into more harmful behaviors, toxicity can result.

Again, there isn’t an official definition for toxic behaviors, so I’ll do my best to offer some guiding principles of what warrants a toxic label.

Toxic behaviors are:

  • Manipulative
  • Lack empathy
  • Purely self-centered
  • Excessively defensive
  • Passive aggressive
  • Play the victim

It’s also helpful to note that toxic behaviors also conjure consistent responses from those caught on the receiving end.

Others’ toxic behaviors can make you feel:

  • Inadequate
  • Anxious
  • Insecure
  • Distrusting of yourself
  • In a state of fight-flight-freeze

When you look at these lists, it’s easy to see why there is a movement to sever toxic relationships. However, what I see happening more and more is people cutting off meaningful relationships due to imperfections or irritations rather than actual toxicity. The trend skips the important step of carefully assessing relationships to determine when they’re worth working on and when they’re beyond repair.

Assessing Your Relationships

If you see toxic traits in your relationships, the next step is to dig a little deeper to parse out these behaviors. After all, there’s a difference between an annoying boss and an abusive one; between an imperfect partner and an impossible one; or between a troublesome friend and a toxic one. Assessing the difference can be nuanced and complex, but spending some time evaluating these relationships can help you decide which are worth working on and whether any deserve severing.

A good place to start is with the behaviors in question. List out all your grievances against a person, and then take an honest look at whether each of those faults is truly toxic, or just an irritation or imperfection. For each behavior, ask yourself, “Does this make me feel inadequate, anxious, insecure, or in a state of fight or flight?” If the answer is no, that behavior is likely more of an imperfection than a toxic trait.

If their behaviors cause you to feel more anxious, insecure, and in a state of vigilance and stress, the relationship may be too toxic to continue. If, however, the main thing you feel is frustration or irritation, there is likely room to adjust the relationship rather than cutting it off completely.

Prevalence and consistency also matter when evaluating difficult people. Does the person in question always make you feel bad, or are there only a few isolated incidents in your relationship where you have felt this way? Are you always uneasy around them, like you are constantly on eggshells? Also, consider the person’s current life situation. Do they have a temporary circumstance in their life that may be a source of their problematic behavior?

This isn’t about making excuses, it’s about taking an honest look at what’s really going on. If we cut off every friend who struggles to behave according to our expectations during a rough season in their lives, we will be left with very few friends, if any.

Know When to Hold ’Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em

With some clarity on your difficult relationships, you can decide on the best path forward. If your relationship woes are just bumps in the road, you can adjust your relationship to preserve it while caring for yourself in the meantime. If, however, the toxic behaviors are too much to overcome, you can (and should) gracefully and firmly sever ties.

Adjusting Relationships Worth Keeping

If the relationship is worth preserving, some adjustments can help you protect yourself and find a happy compromise as you leave room for both of you to continue growing and evolving as flawed but wonderful human beings. Remember, you probably have a few difficult traits yourself you could stand to work on! The research indicates that when we believe we are capable of growth and change, we are more likely to be intrinsically motivated to make those changes. Healthy relationships are a give-and-take, and finding the right balance can make all the difference.

Some adjustments to help difficult relationships include:

  • Talking to the person about how their problematic behaviors make you feel
  • Taking the onus of your happiness off of them changing their behaviors and instead, focus on what changes you can make towards your happiness
  • Cultivating your own hobbies separate from them
  • Spending less time with the person
  • Forming social groups that do not include them
  • Enforcing personal boundaries that refuse to accept the more problematic behaviors from the person
  • Explore your own personal growth to contribute to a healthy relationship

Severing Truly Toxic Relationships

When it’s clear that a relationship is truly toxic, cutting it off is the best solution. This is where that nugget of truth comes in from pop psychology — truly toxic traits are very difficult to address and change because they are, by nature, void of self-awareness and personal responsibility. The priority is your mental health and well-being, and cutting off such relationships as much as you can is the only way out.

If this is the path you must take, here are a few suggestions to protect yourself in the process:

  • Be convicted in your decision to sever ties. Any wavering may allow a toxic person to hang on to the relationship for their own benefit.
  • Resist the urge to make amends with a toxic person even if they say they will change. If you are at the point of severing ties, you likely already know they won’t.
  • If you can’t completely cut them out of your life, get creative in limiting interaction. Unfortunately, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to fully cut out certain toxic people in your life. If you have a toxic boss, see if you can make email your primary communication. At family gatherings, strategically limit face time with a toxic relative by busying yourself with the cooking or tending to the kids.
  • Have supportive relationships in place. Severing a toxic relationship is difficult and loving, supportive relationships around you are crucial to receive the care and support you need.

Isolating yourself completely is never the answer in dealing with difficult people. While it’s likely that you’ll have some relationships throughout your life that warrant cutting off, chances are you’ll have far more that are worth fostering through necessary adjustments. Our relationships are a fundamental source of our own nourishment, so being careful, discerning, and wise about when to keep and when to cut off relationships is essential to our well-being. After all, as human beings, one of the most toxic things we can be is isolated.