Think before Confronting Toxic People.

by Andrew Leigh on 27 September, 2012

Confronting Toxic People can be riskyFollowing on from my previous post, Why I Despair of Toxic People ‘List’ Articles, I’d like to have a crack at another piece of common ‘advice’ that’s out there on the web. It’s the idea that confronting a toxic person is a generally the best way to go. Actually as far as many so-called experts are concerned it’s the only way to go. They’ve apparently spent years working in the field of personal development and then they come out with statements like: ‘Why you must confront toxic people.’

It’s more of the simplistic, one-dimensional thinking that seems to regard all toxic people as the same, all toxic situations as the same – and of course all their solutions and strategies are the same as a result. Am I being a bit too scathing here? Well… no… and yes. But the yes is simply because there’s also more thoughtful and helpful stuff out there too.

However, it’s the ‘must confront’ material that concerns me, not least because it’s obvious from the comments to some of these articles that people do buy in to the whole ‘confrontation first’ mentality and follow it through. Now clearly there are situations where confrontation is a good choice – and I’ll deal with that later in the post. Right now though, let’s look at a few excellent reasons why you should think twice before confronting toxic people.

Hostile and Dangerous

Dictionaries say that confrontation is about facing people in hostility or defiance. Sure there are circumstances where a hostile showdown is very satisfying (yes, okay, I’ve had my share) and it can certainly have an impact. But such hostile confrontations are fuelled with anger, frustration that is at its emotional peak, or perhaps with a burning sense of injustice that becomes too much to bear.

And unfortunately, the kind of impact you achieve in such situations is akin to the impact a hammer has on glass – shards, slivers and whole daggers of the stuff spraying off who knows where, leaving razor sharp edges to injure you, your friends or loved ones, either now or later.

Here are just a few of the negative outcomes that hostile and emotionally charged confrontation can bring:

  • Your ‘toxic other’ may see themselves as the injured and innocent party – and see you as the toxic one
  • Mutual friends may misinterpret events and also consider you to be the toxic person
  • You risk losing or alienating valued non-toxic friends
  • Using confrontation as a habitual tactic is probably toxic behaviour itself
  • You may simply crank up the whole toxic relationship and making things even worse

And don’t forget that most confrontations are also an invitation for the other person to have a blast back at you. Make sure you can take whatever they might throw.

The Right Kind of Confrontation

So what are the alternatives? Never resort to confrontation? Do nothing and let the toxic person walk all over you? That’s definitely not what I’m saying.

In fact I’d suggest that if there is a place for confrontation, then it’s earlier in a toxic relationship, maybe even before you’d label it ‘toxic’ – rather than later when emotions and grievances have built up. Earlier confrontations tend to be much smaller scale– hardly confrontations at all but simply establishing boundaries and making clear what isn’t acceptable. You could argue that this is a simple matter of being assertive – and remember – being assertive is quite different from being aggressive.

When a person sets boundaries with a potentially toxic person early in a relationship, there are two likely outcomes

  1. The toxic behaviour does not develop
  2. The toxic person finds someone else to be toxic with

It’s no accident that friendly, helpful yet assertive people have fewer problems with toxic people, whereas friendly, helpful but unassertive people often seem to attract them like flies.

Established Toxic Relationships

Okay – that’s all fine if you are just getting to know someone – but what about if you are already in the grips of a toxic friend or relative? What then? Then, I suggest, you begin to use your head and get smart. Damaging confrontations often happen because you, as ‘victim’, don’t have the faintest clue of how else to deal with the situation – or perhaps you’ve tried a few things and either they haven’t worked, or they’ve made things even worse. It’s easy in these circumstances to carry a belief that you have no options other than confrontation. But, as I’ve already said above, the confrontation rarely happens until growing tension and anger has you fit to burst. It can get ugly.

Confrontation Cycle

I should mention here that because you often feel better after a confrontational outburst, one outcome can be that apart from feeling temporarily better about things,  nothing actually changes. Gradually your unhappiness builds again and the cycle just loops and loops in a desperate (for you) toxic dance.

So what do I mean by ‘using your head’? Simply that you take time to learn about the different ways that you can successfully deal with the toxic people blighting your life. Learn about yourself – your strengths and weaknesses. Think of your weaknesses as areas for development instead, because implicit in that phrase is the idea that you can grow and develop. And you can. Everyone can and you’re no exception.

This takes work, but it’s fascinating, enlightening and very, very positive.

And it means that should you ever need to confront, you can do so calmly – in control and from a position of strength.

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