Toxic People: Hindsight is Insight

by Andrew Leigh on 18 April, 2012

How hindsight can help you deal with difficult and toxic people

Hindsight has a bad name. After all, it’s easy to see what went wrong when we look back on events, what mistakes we made, or maybe, how some toxic people manipulated a situation.

We say things like, ‘Oh, it’s obvious with the benefit of hindsight,’ and then leave it at that. So hindsight has gained its bad name because although it’s easy to see what went wrong with the benefit of hindsight, it can’t do anything to change what’s already happened.

But here’s a thing – if you use hindsight as a learning tool, it sure as heck can help you change the future.

Understanding the Barriers

Before you can do so, however, you need to be aware of what makes it so challenging for us. For example, one of the odd things about our encounters with toxic people is the way toxic events repeat themselves. Sometimes this can go on for years – an apparently endless repeating cycle that leaves us baffled and clueless about what’s going on – other than the fact that we don’t like it.

With long- term toxic relationships we can know exactly how things will pan out. We can be so sure about the negative outcomes we are going to experience – the anger, humiliation, guilt and pain, that we begin to experience them just by thinking about our next toxic meeting.

For some strange reason it’s easy to use hindsight to tell us what to expect in these situations, but not to help us do anything about it. Part of the explanation might be that when we do use hindsight to analyze how a toxic situation happened we frequently use our negative self instead of our positive self.

How to Use Hindsight Badly (with your negative self  in control)

  • Find your mistakes and then beat yourself up about it
  • Find your mistakes and then beat someone else up about it
  • Use it to justify the low opinion you have of yourself
  • Use selective memory to justify your position
  • Prove to yourself (again) that you can never change your toxic situation

How to Use Hindsight Well

As the title of this post says, you can use hindsight to gain valuable insight into new ways of dealing with your own toxic people.

For the purpose of this post, I’ll define two kinds of insight: Epiphanical and Mechanical.  I promise this won’t get complex.

Epiphanical Insight

This is simply the kind of insight that you might describe as a ‘a-ha moment’, or a ‘light-bulb’ moment. It’s when the penny drops and you are gifted a flash of understanding that helps you see underlying causes and reasons, or recognise instantly the significant moments in a toxic encounter and know how to change them.

No Change, No Gain

You’ve probably heard the slogan no pain, no gain, which in the context of dealing with toxic people I definitely do not subscribe to  – of course you can gain without pain. I prefer No Change, No Gain. It reminds you that in negative situations doing nothing rarely has a positive outcome. I should emphasise here that thoughtful change is what I’m talking about, not change driven by anger and made without thought and insight.

So when this kind of epiphany-like insight strikes, it’s vital that you take it to the next stage and make changes to your actions or responses in light of the new understanding your insight has provided.

One of the challenges of using hindsight to gain this kind of epiphanic insight is that you need to be able to look back as calmly and objectively as possible. That means leaving your negative self in its box – it means not being hard on yourself, not demonizing the toxic person and not looking back simply to justify your feelings or previous actions.  And when you are feeling battered and bruised from whatever your toxic person has just dished out, that often ain’t easy.

How to Look Back Objectively

If it helps, start by promising yourself that you are only suspending , temporarily, any strong feelings that may get in the way. You’re not denying or disowning those feelings, you’re just putting them to one side for a moment.

Now try to think about things from outside yourself – as an observer. It can help here to imagine your viewpoint as being above the toxic situation, or to one side. It can also help to imagine some kind of barrier between the ‘observing you’ and the toxic action. That might be a two-way mirror, for instance, or a Harry Potter style cloak of invisibility.

Looking back in this way can offer you the best chance of gaining that invaluable moment of insight.

Mechanical Insight

Mechanical insight doesn’t rely on light-bulb moments. It’s good to know that even if these aren’t available to you, hindsight can still be used to help you detoxify previously toxic situations.

Mechanical insight is all about looking back to notice repeated moments that seem to set a toxic person off – or if they are always in toxic mode, the moments that give them an opening or opportunity to be toxic.

You can then try to do something different (see other posts, or better still invest in the Dealing with Toxic People program for ideas about changes you can make).

When you try something different you then have another opportunity to look back on how the dynamics of the toxic situation were changed by your new actions or responses. Once you’ve done that, you have mechanical insight. You’ve learned that doing things as you always have leads to a particular toxic outcome, and that different key actions bring about other (hopefully better) outcomes.  You don’t need an understanding of how or why the changes have happened – although of course, it’s nice if you do – you just need to know what actions make your toxic person act less toxically.

Hindsight is so often written off as a kind of false wisdom. But that’s only true if you don’t learn and use the lessons that hindsight makes available. Get into the habit of turning hindsight into insight and you’ll find that you really do have options available to you in dealing with the toxic people in your life.

Have you used hindsight to help detoxify a toxic relationship? Please share your experiences in the comments section.

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