How to let go of the toxic people in our lives (even when they’re family)

Part of growing up is learning how to cut ties with toxic people — no matter who they are.

Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash

by: E.B. Johnson

We all come to a moment in life when we realize that it’s time to cut ties with someone that we once loved. It can come down to a realization that the person isn’t so great, or it can simply come down to a change in direction. Sometimes, though, we realize that someone in our lives is just downright toxic.

While everyone has a rough patch here and there, the relationships in our lives — be they romantic, friendly or otherwise — should add to it in positive and meaningful ways. Not all of them are, though, and despite our best efforts we will occasionally find ourselves entangled with someone who takes from our experience more than they add to it.

Toxic people are dangerous. They are dangerous to our inner peace and they’re dangerous to our self-esteem. The most dangerous thing about them, though, is that they can often lurk in our closest inner circles. The true secret to growth in this life is learning how to identify them and detach them from our journey to happiness.

Identifying the toxic people in our lives.

Everyone has someone in their life that does more harm than good.

These are the people that suck the joy out of work and holidays. They play manipulative games and give you the run around no matter how hard you try to make things work with them.

Learning how to name and identify these individuals in our lives enables us to protect ourselves from the underhanded consequences of their bad behavior. Luckily, there are a number of easy-to-read warning signs that someone in your life is poisoning your growth.

A gravity for drama.

Toxic people thrive on drama. It gets them sympathy and it gets them attention; best of all it allows them to manipulate the emotions of the people around them.

A person whose psyche is defined by the negative things in their life will only attract more negativity into yours.

While the dramatics might be fun for school kids and reality stars, it’s toxic when it comes to living a life fulfilled. Drama is a distraction — and a poor one at that — which causes us to lose focus of the people and goals that give our existence meaning.

Negative people suck all the positivity out of our lives and the longer we allow them to dwell in our orbit, the more they take.

Self-centered nature.

Remember to think of yourself is one thing, thinking of only yourself is entirely another. Toxic people are obsessed with themselves and think only of their own feelings and opinions, showing little to no concern for others.

They fail to communicate like rational people, because they’re stuck on a broadcast with only one topic: them.

Toxic people genuinely do not care about your feelings or the feelings of anyone else for that matter. They feel the need to be the center of attention and they have a need to exercise control over the people and situations that surround them.

They get what they want and they don’t care how they have to get it, even if that means manipulating the people they love to do so. A self-centered family member might demand that you babysit their children (for free); while a self-centered boss might demand that you work late — heedless of your spouse or child’s birthday.

Lies on lies on lies.

We all tell white lies, but those who deliberately mislead are toxic to our inner peace and mental wellbeing.

When people intentionally withhold information or twist the truth, they make it impossible for us to trust anything that they say. Someone who is comfortable with telling small lies will tell big ones too, so it becomes necessary to constantly watch your back.

The lies told by the toxic often come down the self-centered nature and from an inability to accept responsibility for the choices and decisions that led the person to whatever point they’re at in their lives. They’ll obscure and even reinvent the truth to conceal their flaws and mistakes. But the truth is always there…and it always bubbles up to the surface.

A need to be right.

Have you ever known someone who had an almost obsessive need to be right about everything? These people seem to have a need that is so strong that it often overcomes common sense, truth and even reason.

Toxic people are so insecure that they cannot tolerate the idea of being wrong. It’s a rejection to them; a personal affront that cannot be tolerated at any cost. It doesn’t matter what the issue is or what resolution might be staring them in the face — these people will argue their point of view until their blue in the face or buried in the ground.

Never a nice word for others.

Those who are stuck in a negative loop hardly ever have a nice word to say about others. The problem with that is that that constant negativity can spill over, and cloud our own personal opinions, judgements and attitudes about a person or situation.

Balanced people understand that there’s a little good and a little bad to almost everyone (Trump not included). Toxic people don’t. To them, everyone is garbage; to them, no one is ever good enough to “add up”.

There’s a fine line between harmless gossip and complaining and these people seem to always engage in the latter. Having a strong opinion about someone is one thing, but judging them is another entirely.

Toxic people have nothing nice to say about others because — if pressed — they’d have nothing nice to say about themselves. Insecurity is a catchy disease that’s best to steer clear of if we’re set in building a better tomorrow for ourselves.

A mean disposition.

It can be hard to spot the destructive people in our lives because they’re not always immediately destructive to us. Sometimes, the most toxic people in our lives are those who are toxic to others, with a mean disposition to boot.

Harmful and dangerous people can appear very charming (just look at Ted Bundy) but it’s necessary to look beneath the surface when it comes to the people we surround ourselves with — be they family or friends.

We get a real sense of who someone is by watching how they treat others. Observe the relationships of the people in your life and you might just be surprised to realize some motivation you never noticed before.

A permanent victim.

People who can’t take responsibility for their actions are toxic to our personal evolution and corrosive to our wellbeing. They always have someone else to blame for their problems and are happy to blame anyone and everyone when things go wrong.

Why toxic people do toxic things.

Above all, toxic people thrive on their ability to control the people and circumstances in their life. It’s not a loving or helpful control, it’s an all consuming need to be king of the castle, and it’s destructive to relationships and self-esteem alike.

Everything a truly toxic person does is to keep the people around them small and manageable. They criticize, judge and oppress — and they enjoy every minute of it. Toxic people will do anything to keep someone in their place and the more you try to “step out of rank”, the more they’ll pile on the toxic behavior and manipulation that allows them to regain control. They’ll do anything to put you back in the box they believe you belong in, and unless you know how to understand and react they’ll get you back in there too.

This behavior is often learned in childhood, when their Base Line is formed through experiences that teach (or fail to teach) them the empathy that is so base to our positive development as human beings. As they grow, they miss out on all the great aspects of respect, compassion and kindness. Their hearts harden and their attitudes grow icy and they become unable to look past their own needs and wants.

Individuals who are toxic are most often broken people, who look for the kind, open people with the beautiful and transformative hearts they wish that they had. Even the strongest person in the world can find themselves trapped in a poisonous relationships, with no energy to leave, all because they were targeted for their openness and understanding.

We stay in toxic relationships — with our friends, with our family — because we think we can change them. The honest truth, though, is that no one can change unless they want to. All we can do is learn to manage our reactions and our proximity to those who would tear the world down, given the choice.

When the toxic are family.

Our lives once depended on the family unit and the protections it offered, but we now know that love has a strange way of keeping us tied to situations that are less than ideal for our physical and mental health.

The fierce bonds of love can keep us tied to the people who injure us the most and this is especially true when it comes to family. We grow up in a fold, believing we must love and protect the people who form our origin story, no matter what. While the things that we believe in childhood are powerful, they don’t necessarily hold true as we move on to the second, third and fourth stages of our lives.

We love our families. We trust them. We listen to them. We keep their secrets and hold them in our hearts even when it kills us a little each and every day. We accept the baggage our family throws at us with wide-eyed innocence because we still believe in the childhood lies that blood family trumps everything.

As children that might be true, but things change.

At some point we grow up; meaning we can also outgrow the people that we once needed. Beliefs change and attitudes realign and before you know it, you have nothing in common with the people that helped make you what you are.

The pressure to stay loyal to family is immense, but love and loyalty are not the same thing.

We mistake loyalty for submission and that keeps us stuck in the relationships that no longer serve us. In order to become adults capable of controlling our own destinies, we have to stop answering to the people who wound us…even when those people are a part of our family.

Cultivating acceptance.

There are a lot of ways to deal with the poisonous or vicious people in our lives, be they friends, co-workers or family members. Each method begins with the same step, though: acceptance.

While people can change, they often don’t. We might think that we can change or weather a person or circumstance, but we can’t and it’s not healthy to do so. Toxic people rarely change and toxic relationships never do. Broken people are broken and no one can fix them but themselves. The sooner we come to accept this, the sooner we can move on to cutting these people out of our lives.

Knowing when to cut and run.

The signs are usually clear when it’s time to walk away from someone who is dampening your life, and sometimes it can come down to just feel wrong about a person or situation. There are some concrete mile-markers, though, that could be telling you it’s time to walk away. You just have to be brave enough to accept them.

Emotional and physical abuse, criticism, lying and emotional starvation are all signs it’s time to leave someone behind. If you spend your nights lying in loneliness or quiet heartbreak, it’s a sign that things have run their course and come to a natural end.

Life is not meant to be lived in misery, it’s meant to be lived in celebration. As humans we each have our own individual needs and we have a right to have those needs met. When we don’t thrive, we stifle the nature that makes us who we are and guides on this path that we call life.

Leaving can be hard, but life is lived through connections, not commiseration. When you are starved for intimacy, connection, friendship or kindness: it’s time to detach and start living a life filled with beauty and love elsewhere.

How to let go of the toxic people in our lives.

Moving on is easier said than done, but it’s necessary to cultivate the change in our lives we need to grow. Accepting your worth will make it easier to walk away from toxic people, but there’s no “one-size-fits-all” solutions when it comes to cutting ties with the people that drag us down.

It takes effort and creativity to oust the naysayers in our life, but it can be done by keeping a few home truths in mind as we separate ourselves from their constant negativity.

1. Don’t wait for an apology — it’s not coming.

Consider a time that an acquaintance treated you bad. Really, really bad. Did you wait around for them to miraculously apologize to you? Or did you cut your losses and walk away?

It would be great to get an apology every time someone hurt us, but that’s not reality. The reality is that toxic people don’t apologize — because they think that they have nothing to apologize for.

Sometimes, apologies just never come. While that’s hurtful, when we come to accept our worth we can also come to realize that we don’t need someone else’s apology in order to forgive and move on.

2. Understand that it’s okay to walk away.

While we like to think that relationships last forever, that just isn’t true. Just as we move on from our romantic partners as teens, we move on from friendships and even family ties because the person that we are changes over time.

We are defined by our goals and desires in this life, but those things can morph and switch direction over time. This change in aims is natural, and with it can come some growing pains that see the end of things we once thought of as permanent in our lives.

Relationships come to a natural end, just as we all do. When we understand this, we can come to understand that’s okay to walk away from the things that no longer suit our journey to achieving the goals we set for ourselves.

3. Focus on healthy relationships instead.

Substituting our unhealthy relationships for the ones that better suit our lifestyles is a great way to cut ties and get rid of the toxic people in your life.

It can be helpful to allow your attention center on the healthy relationships that bring joy into your life, rather than the ones that attract nothing but negativity.

4. Phase out contact.

Ending a toxic relationship can be dramatic, especially if it involves an over-the-top family member. If you’ve made the decision to cut someone off, try avoiding the dramatics by slowing phasing out contact with them, letting the relationship fizzle out naturally on its own.

Avoid contact with the person as much as possible, but when you are forced to interact: keep it civil and brief. Eventually, they’ll take the hint and do what you don’t want to do — walk away.

5. Stop making excuses.

Toxic people are like cancerous growths. They spread until they affect every aspect of our lives, and they destroy us if we don’t cut them out.

You have to be honest when it comes to walking away from someone who is destructive to your life or peace of mind. Ask yourself what you want from the relationships and then be brutally honest about what you’re actually receiving from the relationship.

Even in the midst of a storm, we know when we have the support of authentic love. Stop making excuses and stop ignoring all the stress, exhaustion and things you just can’t find the courage to say.

If it doesn’t feel right, it’s isn’t.

6. Let go of fantasies.

Beyond loyalty, it is often our fantasies that stand between us and the happiness we’re so desperate to achieve. The fantasy throws flowers constantly at our feet, hoping that we never look up to see the things that are crumbling down around us.

The more we fantasize about what could be, the more we stay stuck; chained to our fear and inaction like the slave that we are.

A fantasy will persuade you to hold on a little longer; to tolerate one more black eye or broken heart, but it’s a lie. When you drop the veil of fantasy, you can see things for what they really are. Only then can you come up with the solutions that can reignite the joy in your life.

7. Make your last encounter a brief one.

Sometimes, we just have to give someone a hard stop sign to let them know that we won’t tolerate anymore. If you’ve come to this crossroads with someone you love, then make your last encounter or confrontation as brief as possible.

Say what you need to say and don’t mince your words or the way you feel. Let the other person know exactly what it was that hurt you, and accept no blame from them no matter how hard they try to shift it.

You do not owe someone a long and drawn out explanation, so don’t give them one (unless you feel like it). Avoid the arguments and engage only in the things that can add to your last few moments together. Simply let the other person know that they will no longer be in your life. State your point and move on.

8. Write a letter.

Facing someone who’s hurt us is not always an option, nor is it always good for our inner peace. Sometimes, jotting down your thoughts on paper is just as good as a full-on confrontation, and it takes the stress out of dealing with a an emotional one-on-one. It also gives you a chance to edit yourself, as well, and make a clean exit looking like the mindful, peaceful person that you are.

Keep the letter, burn the letter, or give it to the person that hurt you. It really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that your peace is said and that it empowers you to move on toward your dreams.

9. Give yourself a deadline.

While some manage to walk away from the people that hurt them “cold turkey”, cutting out the toxic isn’t always that simple. If you’re finding it hard, then give yourself a deadline and commit to reassessing how you feel when that deadline is up.

Pick a day. It can be a week, a month or even six months into the future. Honestly and openly assess your relationship during this time and work hard to improve it in any way that you can.

When your deadline comes, take a step back and reconsider where you’re at with the other person. If things haven’t gotten better, practice some self-respect and self-love by walking away and finding yourself again.

10. Allow yourself to be heartbroken.

Even when people are bad to us, it can would us deeply to remove them from our lives. It’s important to take time to reflect on our emotions and the way other’s treatment of us affects them.

Realizing how someone made you feel bad will help you to learn what you will and won’t accept in the future…but you have to spend time with those uncomfortable feelings to reach this higher, ultimate truth. Let your emotions in and embrace them like the old friends that they are. Whether good or bad, they are with us for life.

The only truth that matters.

There is only one truth in this life that matters: the things that make us grow are the things that we should follow with the full fury of our souls.

Growth means a lot of things, but it also means walking away from the things that no longer suit us. This can mean letting go of parents, brothers, sisters and friends and it can be done with a door wide open or a door locked shut. It’s all a game of grace and boundaries and it’s one that can only be decided by us.

It is only ourselves who determine the conditions which we will or will not tolerate. If someone treats us poorly, it is because we have allowed them to. Pursue the things that make you feel like a better person and you’ll unlock the power of loving yourself.

Putting it all together…

Sometimes, choosing health and wholeness means cutting out the people who are cancerous to our growth. The world is full of those who would genuinely love, but it is also full of those who don’t even know how to love themselves (let alone anyone else). Knowing how to spot these people and remove them from our lives — no matter who they are — is one of the most difficult skills we can ever master, but it’s imperative to our survival and happiness.

Walking away from toxicity isn’t easy but it is always brave and it is always right. Letting go may even come with guilt, anger and rage but it is these feelings that teach us the most about ourselves and what we want.

There is not always two sides to a story. Sometimes, there is only one. Know your story and make yourself the hero of it by accepting nothing less than the treatment you deserve in this life. No relationship is worth destroying and diminishing the light that shines within us. Know how to walk away when the time is right.