1 Simple Tool to Identify Toxic People in Your Life

Let me introduce you to the Toxic People Spam-Filter. Yep, it’s exactly what it sounds like, a tool I use to identify and deal with toxic people. Sometimes toxic people can be very close, even friends or family, and in these cases it is often easier to ignore the toxicity than it is to deal with it. But at what cost? Your health? Your success? Your happiness?

Why it’s important to recognize toxic people

Some of the most valuable advice I’ve received is to let go of toxic people. But when it comes down to it, this can be a difficult pill to swallow. And if you’re a highly sensitive person like myself, it is doubly difficult: when you let someone go, you hurt them, and because highly sensitive people have so much empathy, hurting them hurts us as well. Because of this, if we’ve been close to someone for a long time (and especially if we love them), we often allow them to put us down rather than free ourselves and see them hurt. I’m learning this the hard way right now.

My first mistake was not realizing just how negative these people can be. Negative people bring us down, they use us, discourage us, make us doubt ourselves, and if left unchecked it can even grow to mental or emotional abuse. I had a roommate a few years ago who was mentally abusive, something I didn’t realize until I finally moved out of her place. A few years later, I had to let go of a 16-year friend over a fight about my future husband (she said it was her or him). Her negativity had always bothered me, but I didn’t realize until after our relationship ended just how much it held me back. Do I have great memories with her? Yes. Do I miss her? Yes. But I believe I’m better off.

However, my biggest lesson came from my family. This is too painful to go into depth, but the people who say they love me the most (my husband excluded) are also the ones who hurt me the most. My family sees family as open season to say and do anything, no boundaries; they just expect me to “take it”. They apologize for hurting me but no matter what they do (insult, discourage, verbally attack, ridicule) they follow it up with “but I don’t think I did anything wrong”. This caused me a world of hurt, including physical ailment, anxiety, depression, lost work, and almost the collapse of my marriage. It took all that for me to see the light.

I went through things the hard way. Now I know how to recognize and properly handle toxic people; I know that no one deserves to be put down, taken advantage of, degraded, or abused. By recognizing the people who did this to me, I was more equipped to handle them, and by recognizing the people who do this to you, you’ll be able to handle them too; you’ll get out from under their thumb and discover strengths and passions you never knew were inside you.

Disclaimer: I am not a trained professional. If you believe you are in danger and/or the situation you are in is beyond your control, please seek professional help.

The Toxic People Spam-Filter Analogy

I was thinking about the above experiences while organizing my email, when it hit me: spam, inbox, filters, unsubscribe; the same idea can be applied to relationships. It would work like this:

  • Inbox: All the people in your life
  • Label filters and archive: Those whom you have a positive relationship with, but who can be annoying and may wear you down after a while. These are people you should deal with in your own way, on your own time.
  • Spam filter: Negative/toxic people that you either have no realistic way of ending your relationship with (family, neighbors, co-workers) or who have good qualities that make them worth keeping around. Also included in this category are toxic people whom you love and, despite the negativity, want to keep in your life. These last two types of relationships can be very dangerous, making the spam filter even more important; the spam filter helps you set boundaries, establish control, and optimize your relationships with these people.
  • The Spam and Unsubscribe: Toxic people who either don’t respect your boundaries or who aren’t worth setting boundaries with at all.

So who are these people and how can you recognize them?

Psychologist Karen Young describes the different kinds of toxic people on her website. They are:

The Controller
The Taker
The Absent
The Manipulator
The Bullshitter

The Attention Seeker
The One Who Wants To Change You
The One You Want To Change
The Abuser
The Jealous One

The Worse-Off One
The Sideways Glancer
The Cheater
The Liar
The One Who Laughs At Dreams

To identify these people, I like to take a page from the KonMari method and ask myself: does this person bring me joy? In other words, does he/she contribute something positive to my life? Does he make me laugh, lift me up, encourage me? Is he fun to be around? Does he provide a sense of home and family? If the answer is yes, treasure and hold on to him, nourish the relationship. Do not take people like this for granted. But if the answer is no…

To root out negative and toxic people in your life, ask yourself these questions:

For “Label and Archive” people:

  • Are they annoying? Are they only annoying?
  • Are they bad to me?
  • Are they emotionally/mentally/physically abusive?
  • Does spending time with them wear me out?

For “Unsubscribe” or “Spam” people:

  • Do they always get me to do what they want?
  • Do they listen to me?
  • Do they respect my boundaries?
  • Do they only take and never give? Do they give with strings attached?
  • Do they drain my time and energy?
  • Do they admit when they are wrong? Do they take responsibility for their actions? Do they apologize?
  • Do they tell me lies?
  • Do they put down my ideas? Do they dismiss my dreams?

Click here to get the printable list.

Set Boundaries or Let Go?

This is where it gets difficult. On the one hand, I believe in second chances; on the other, I know that most people won’t ever change. To deal with this, I follow this oft-repeated proverb:

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

If someone you care about is hurting you, I believe the best course of action is to (1) let them know and (2) set boundaries to prevent it from happening again. If this person really cares about you and wants to be part of your life, they will respect your boundaries (they’ll have to). If they don’t, stick to your threats and let them go. I’ll discuss some ways you can do this in my next post.

Get the Toxic People Spam-Filter checklist
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