Let’s discuss people who bug the absolute shite out of us, shall we?
Most of us have a person (or people) in our lives whose voice/face/image/memory grinds our nerves right down to a stump. Certain people are triggering. The mere thought of them engages our nervous systems, and we become puddles. Or monsters. Or terrified children, no matter what our age.
Most of these people are supposed to love or, at the very least, respect us. Some are supposed to protect us. Frequently, these people have positions of power. We chose some of these people; some ‘came with the house,’ so to speak.
But what separates the annoying from the destructive? What makes a person difficult vs toxic?
Grab a seat. Let’s talk toxicity.
First, we have those who test your patience and sanity—the difficult ones. These people can turn a coffee meet-up into a complex chess match. They’re the folks who bring you to your knees, have you gritting your teeth, and wtf’ing at breakneck speed. But, with these people, the frustration is more about their quirks, their need to over-compensate, their lack of self-awareness, and their all-round personality flaws that do not dovetail nicely with yours. Their crazy doesn’t mesh with your crazy, so to speak. Their agendas don’t align with yours. They don’t see things like you do. Their habits make you crazy. Their insecurities mess with your head. They like to control. They are annoying and maddening af, but they aren’t on a calculated mission to mess up your life.
Difficult people have their unique brand of aggravation.
Maybe it’s a friend who perenially lets you down or a co-worker who seems allergic to deadlines. Maybe it is a family member whose desperation for power or control or attention exhausts you. Maybe someone habitually lies. Maybe they lack integrity. They may be duplicitous and self-serving. They may need to be right or constantly admired. Their way or the highway might be the only option. Their actions, however infuriating, aren’t necessarily intended to wreck your life. These people are just so inflexible or flawed, so unaware or insecure, so mean-spirited or broken in their own lives that they take it out on you. These people, bless their hearts, are like sandpaper on the soul. They just will never be ‘your people.’ They are difficult.
Toxic people or relationships aren’t just frustrating; they’re the emotional equivalent of a tsunami flooding through your life.
Unlike difficult people, toxic people leave a trail of wreckage and carnage in their wake. They plan. They calculate. They execute. Then, they observe your reaction and calculate some more.
Toxicity manifests in many forms: manipulation, emotional abuse, ceaseless negativity, and the mind-twisting, gut-shredding art of gaslighting and/or violence. Toxic people aren’t just irritating; they’re on a mission to erode your self-esteem until you’re left questioning your every thought. Toxic individuals run the ship into an iceberg, tell you it’s all your fault, hand you a sieve, and convince you it’s your job to bail out the water. They mess with your mind and watch you drown.
Difficult vs. Toxic: what’s the toll on your sanity?
Difficult relationships are draining. Difficult people make it feel like you’re trapped playing a never-ending game of emotional dodgeball. But when it comes to toxicity, the toll is a whole different level. Toxic relationships leave you emotionally hollowed out, mentally battered, and bruised in ways difficult relationships never could. Toxic people leave you feeling like you’re trying to navigate a storm of biblical proportions without oars, a compass, or a life vest. Toxic people don’t just leave you frustrated or enraged; they disorient you until you are left questioning your sanity and wondering if you can trust yourself. They have you second-guessing your ability to make decisions. They make you fearful of life and your future. There is no peace of mind. They have an eye on you.
The word ‘toxic’ has been overused and has become almost synonymous with ‘difficult.’
That’s a problem. It’s a problem mainly because when we mislabel ‘difficult’ as ‘toxic,’ it messes with our ability to strategize effectively. When we write off someone as toxic, we tend to stop putting effort into our relationship with them. Believe it or not, at home or at work, there is a lot to be learned from difficult people or difficult situations.
Dealing with difficult people or working through a difficult situation with someone can lead to new paths or new solutions.
At the very least, difficult people help us learn about ourselves: our blindspots, breaking points, triggers, and tolerance levels. Difficult people help us crystalize what we want and don’t want. Sometimes, working through a problem with a difficult person helps us grow in maturity, wisdom, or empathy. If we label every difficult person as toxic, we can get into the habit of walking away. We can short-change ourselves by avoiding conflict. We can make ourselves small instead of learning new ways to deal with people. We can miss opportunities to grow. Not every difficult person or situation is out to ruin us. Wisdom comes from facing forward with perseverance, patience, and the willingness to learn new strategies.
Using the words ‘difficult’ and ‘toxic’ interchangeably normalizes toxic behavior.
Overusing the word ‘toxic’ has become a lot like crying wolf. If everyone is toxic, it is hard to react appropriately when someone is toxic. It is also dismissive of those individuals who are truly suffering at the hands of a toxic person. Ever been in a conversation where someone mentions a toxic person or relationship? More often than not, someone else jumps into the conversation to one-up, mentioning that they, too, had a boyfriend, boss, in-law, friend, parent, or sibling who was toxic, and, therefore, they know exactly how the other person feels. This minimizes the other person’s experience. The person in the toxic relationship feels unheard, unseen, unvalued, and unsupported, which only adds to that person’s emotional and mental load.
Additionally, when we say we are in a ‘toxic’ relationship or that someone is ‘toxic,’ it can send a signal to our bodies and brains that we are victims.
More often than not, we are not victims. We are just mad as hell. There is a difference. Why reinforce a victim mentality when we can instead face conflict and show up for ourselves on a different level? Dealing with difficult people allows us to develop our confidence and self-trust skills. We put more tools in our coping-with-life toolbox. The more we face the problem and problem-solve in new ways, the stronger and more confident we become. Why let a difficult person control our narrative?
Dealing with difficult people allows us to fine-tune our communication skills. We can try ways of coping that we hadn’t thought of before. While it might feel unbearable at the time, getting past a problem by working through it reinforces our ability to make good decisions for ourselves. This helps us grow in confidence and wisdom.
By and large, frustrating, tedious, blood-boiling, difficult people and relationships far outmeasure toxic ones. We are more likely to be frustrated and angry with difficult people than we are to be victims of toxic ones.
Do a gut check. Figure out what you are dealing with. Check yourself, honestly. Is the person or relationship you are struggling with difficult or toxic? It is important to understand the difference because survival tactics will differ.
Difficult people need boundaries. Toxic people require full-on hazmat suits.
Boundaries: setting boundaries with difficult people can feel terrifying. Making lines in the sand, managing expectations, and enforcing a newfound conviction with a difficult person is anything but easy. Setting and enforcing boundaries can feel like you’ve stumbled into an electrified fence if you are unused to standing up for yourself. But saying ‘no’ is often the most loving and respectful gift you can give yourself (and others!). Boundaries are a way of saying, ‘I respect myself, and your behavior is off-limits. I will not tolerate this.’ Sometimes, you must have a difficult conversation, take a healthy risk, and/or work through a problem or crisis. Sometimes, someone’s words or actions will slice open your world, and you’ll face heartbreaking decisions. It might feel like you have to leap without a net, or you must cut someone out of your life, move on, quit a job, or develop a new game plan.
Your discomfort doesn’t make the other person toxic.
Your discomfort may indicate that they are not a good fit for you. Maybe you’ve outgrown them. Maybe their behavior illustrates you are not where you are meant to be. Maybe you need to choose a different path or plan.
Toxic relationships are a whole different ball game.
Survival with toxic people does not depend on space or boundaries. Toxic people will not simply move on if you leave or if you call them on their BS. A toxic person will manipulate a situation so a victim has difficulty recognizing, let alone accepting, that irreversible damage is being done. Toxic people are like emotional vampires; they suck the life out of you. They mess with your head and your health. In these cases, getting help and getting away permanently may be the only way to protect yourself. What might work with a difficult person (boundaries, new ways of communicating, a more refined strategy, etc.) won’t work with a toxic one.
With toxic people, you’re gonna need to initiate a hazardous waste cleanup. You’re gonna need a metaphorical hazmat suit. You’re gonna need professionals and with highly specific tools. You will need to ensure your safety at every step of the extraction process.
In life, we encounter all varieties of murky waters. Relationships at home, work, and the wild can be trying. That is how life is. We need to expect difficult people and difficult situations. Difficulties can be bearable.
Toxic people are dangerous to your mental, emotional, or physical health. They make you feel like you’re sinking through quicksand, trapped.
Understanding the difference between difficult and toxic relationships is crucial for your survival. Get clear on what/who you are dealing with so you can gear up, get professional help if needed, and navigate stormy waters with the resilience of a battle-hardened sailor.