Toxic People – Managing the Serial Moaners

by Andrew Leigh on 19 February, 2015

Toxic People - Toxic MoaningSome people moan and whinge in a distinctly entertaining way, dynamic and enjoyably vitriolic in a manner that invites shared laughter, positive connection and warmth.

In this post, we ain’t talking about them. No. We’re talking about the serial moaners, the obsessive whingers, the drip, drip, drip negativity specialists who drain your positive energy as sure as a vampire sucking your blood.

But most serial moaners aren’t fully toxic people and don’t have any malicious intent towards you or anyone else. They don’t intend to drain your energy, even if that’s exactly what they do. They may intend to feel better for their moaning, but most would be horrified to know of their negative impact on those around them.

Toxic, serial moaners may also have lots of good points – redeeming features that more or less balance things out. They can be good people who you otherwise like, trust and love (yeah, ok – they can also be pain-in-the-butts who you feel a little bit sorry for but wouldn’t miss much if they moved to another planet).

Ambiguous Feelings

Part of what keeps us trapped in relationships with these kinds of toxic people is the sheer ambiguity of our signals and feelings. Yes, this person has a toxic impact on us – but no, they aren’t evil and if it wasn’t for the incessant whinging they’d be okay to be around, and maybe even fun.

So we don’t want to ditch them, but we can’t see what else we might do to improve the situation. And with no other options coming to mind it can seem like our only alternatives are to put up with things as they are or end the relationship altogether.

We Have Plenty of Options

As it happens there are so many techniques available that your biggest challenge is choosing which to go for first. For any strategy to work well it helps to engage your curiosity. Some things might be successful with one person but not with another, so being curious as to how your toxic person responds, while simultaneously monitoring your own reactions and feelings, gives you a chance to make good judgements about what’s worth repeating and what isn’t.

Let’s have a look at some of the things you might go for. I’ll list them first before looking at each idea a little more closely.

  • Refuse to collude
    • Withhold your sympathy
    • Ask constructive questions
    • Be mischievously upbeat
  • Make a pact with them
  • Change the subject
  • Manage contact

Refuse to Collude

In most dictionaries ‘collusion’ is defined as plotting illegally or secretly with someone. But there’s another meaning that you’ll find in life coaching and therapy but won’t find in regular dictionaries. This kind of collusion is where a coach accepts without question their client’s view of themselves and their world.

Let’s say a client believes that they always fail, are always unlucky and that everyone hates them. Rather than exploring and challenging the client’s perception, a colluding coach accepts their beliefs at face value and merely sympathises with the client. They offer supportive and sympathetic listening, but not much else. This rarely leads to productive coaching and can be frustrating for client and coach alike. Although the client may feel better for getting stuff off their chest, ultimately they come to coaching (or therapy) to find positive change – to move forward.

A serial moaner does not have change and moving forward as their primary aim. When they latch on to you they are looking for an opportunity to feel better by venting their negative feelings and justifying their position. They want support and reassurance that it’s not their fault and agreement that things are as bad as they say. I doubt that it ever occurs to them that this comes at cost to whoever is stuck listening to them.

When we collude with our serial moaners we are feeding their need to justify their view of themselves and the way the world treats them. We are giving them what they want – and when they need some more of it, well… they know where to come. By colluding with serial moaners we actually encourage them to do it again, and again, and again.

Ways to Avoid Collusion

The most obvious way to stop colluding with your toxic moaner is to just tell them to stop moaning. Unfortunately there are also obvious drawbacks to doing this. Most of us don’t like being so confrontational and abrupt, and that’s enough reason in itself. There’s also a good chance you will damage the relationship, cause unnecessary upset and possibly damage your own reputation. You may be accused of being uncaring or cruel – and this can easily morph into an argument and bad feelings all round.

Let’s look at some more subtle options. Do be aware though, that even these more gentle methods can be perceived negatively by the toxic moaner. You are still denying them the satisfaction they’re seeking. Because of this it’s often best to introduce changes slowly – only gradually changing the way you interact. This gives you chance to experiment and find out what works and what doesn’t.

Do remember that it’s your responsibility to be subtle with this. Try things slowly and see what happens.

Withhold your Sympathy

You still listen, but much more non-commitally. You hold back on expressions of:

  • pity and sorrow for their distress – ‘I feel so sorry for you’
  • sharing their feelings – ‘you must feel really bad about that’
  • condemnation of others or of the situation – ‘they should be ashamed’

Ask Constructive Questions

The advantage to asking constructive questions is that you can remain sympathetic while disrupting the flow of moaning. If you’re lucky there may even be some positive outcomes – but don’t hold your breath! By and large moaners are not looking for solutions. Asking constructive questions highlights the fact and makes the conversation less satisfying for them.

Ask Questions like:

  • What are you going to do about it?
  • How long are you going to stand for it?
  • What are your options?
  • How could you change the situation?

Be Mischievously Upbeat

This can be fun. Drop in the odd positive spin and enjoy seeing it dismissed. The key here is not getting frustrated when your sunny observations fall on stony ground. Instead be amused by the new game you’re playing. If you go over the top on this your toxic moaner will probably complain that you’re not being supportive or really hearing what she’s saying. That’s fair enough – you’re not.

Make a Pact with Them

You have to have the right kind of relationship with your toxic person for this to work, because you’re going to be honest with them about how unenjoyable their moaning is for you. With this tactic it’s often useful to explain first how you do sympathise with them and understand. So you’re not refusing to collude you’re openly offering your support. But you want to make a deal. That might be a promise to bring other more positive stuff to the relationship, whether it’s doing interesting non-moaning stuff or just talking about something else after a certain amount of time. Even if they agree, you will probably have to police this. That’s best done with lightness of touch and as above, a certain amount of warm humour.

Change the Subject

You can change the subject almost imperceptibly or more openly. Going for imperceptible changes can really add interest and fun to your conversations, and if your toxic moaner keeps returning to her moaning that’s just an extra challenge. So how can you change things imperceptibly? The key is carefully listening for cues that you can use as a jumping off point. Listen for the ‘furniture’ in the conversation and use it to bring in something new. What’s the furniture? Anything in the conversation that’s not directly about the current topic of negativity. Let’s say the conversation is about something that happened with a boyfriend when they went to the cinema. You have the chance to redirect the focus to the cinema, the film, other cinemas or films, the location… anything you want. Ask about what the film was like, what they ate, which studio the film was in. Or give your own thoughts and experiences. If like me, you have a well-developed sense of mischief (non-toxic of course) you’ll enjoy this technique.

Changing the subject in a more up front way gives more of a signal that you now want to talk about something else. In fact you can say exactly that: ‘I want to change the subject and tell you about…’  or ‘Before I forget I wanted to ask what you thought of…’

Manage Contact

Managing contact time is useful for all toxic people. You can avoid them, limit your time with them and alter the type of contact so that opportunities for extended moaning are limited. Go with what suits you best but remember that focusing mainly on avoidance and making poor excuses in order to get away from them can leave you feeling dissatisfied with your own weakness. I’ll expand on managing contact in a later post.

What Outcomes can I Expect?

You have to accept that changing the way you respond to your toxic moaner will change the relationship dynamics so do adopt these techniques with sensitivity and intelligence. If negative talk is all there is in the relationship it’s likely the toxic moaner will seek you out less and latch on to some other hapless and helpless listener instead . But these strategies can also transform dull and draining relationships into ones that are richer and much more rewarding.

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Toxic People - You get what you tolerate

  • The daughter whose father constantly turns up uninvited, regardless of the plans she’s made
  • The partner who is constantly belittled and blamed by their other half
  • The long-suffering wife who turns a blind eye to hubby’s late nights and not-so-secret infidelities
  • The put-upon guy who bows down to his girlfriend’s every whim
  • The boss whose decisions are blatantly ignored by one senior staff member
  • The P.A. whose boss is a tantrum throwing, mind-changing, paranoid control freak

In every case one person is ‘crossing the line’ and the other is simply putting up with it. Are they getting what they tolerate? Absolutely.

Do they deserve what they tolerate? Surprisingly, many people say ‘yes’. ‘Just don’t put up with the bad behaviour,’ they’ll say. ‘Have it out with them. Confront them.’ Or, ‘You should eliminate all the toxic people in your life.’ (This last one always sounds a little sinister to me).

Let’s be clear. No one deserves the toxic behaviour they tolerate. BUT – (yes, it’s a big but) – toleration of unacceptable behaviour is often a contributing factor to its growth and development. This is not about blame or self-blame – it’s simply that toxic behaviour flourishes where there is no resistance to it, or no signal of its unacceptability.

Why Do We Put Up With It?

Of course, there are lots of reasons why we tolerate toxic people and the stuff they do. We may have no idea how to deal with it. We may not actually be aware that we’re tolerating it. We may feel that we do indeed deserve the toxic behaviour. We may not feel strong enough to do anything other than suffer it. In extreme cases we may believe we’re totally trapped by circumstances out of our control.

Trade Off

Finally – we can often suspect (consciously or unconsciously) that it’s worth putting up with toxic behaviour because:

  • we fear the possible consequences and costs involved in dealing with it
  • the good things the toxic person brings to the table outweigh the bad

Can a Toxic Person Really have Positive Things to Offer?

Of course they can – in fact I’d argue that most toxic people either genuinely offer some positives  or at least seem to. The kind of trade off I’m talking about here can be hugely variable from person to person.

Sometimes we may not want to acknowledge these positives because of what it says about us. The toxic person may bring status, for instance, or an affluent life-style. It can often be hard to admit to ourselves just how important the nice car, the holidays abroad or the heated pool actually are. Of course, it may be nothing more than the benefit of not feeling alone.

A toxic person offering these advantages might be a romantic partner, but could just as easily be a parent, a successful boss  – or even a sibling or friend.

And if those advantages extend to others – your children for instance, the cost to them of you dealing with your toxic person may simply feel out of the question.

Toxic Relationships have Unrecognized Complexities

All things considered then – your toxic relationship probably has a little more complexity than you might first recognize. And it’s often this unrecognized web of benefits, needs, hopes and fears that can lead us to toleration of normally unacceptable toxic behaviour. Think, for instance, about the jumble of complications that make the average friendship or the tangle of feelings that can make love so confusing.

Audit for Clarity

That’s why I’d always advocate an ‘audit’ of personal costs and benefits in a toxic relationship before you begin to change it. Such knowledge brings invaluable clarity and strength.

Clarity allows you to better understand your toxic relationship. It helps you see that there are choices you can make. And with strength comes the determination to work out the best way to deal with your toxic person and then make it happen.

With toxic people, I believe we definitely do get the toxic behaviour we tolerate. Understanding that we actually are tolerating toxic behaviour is a first step – figuring out why we tolerate it isn’t always as easy as it sounds, but it can be the key to finally doing something about it.

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Why Toxic People Make Us Stupid

by Andrew Leigh on 12 November, 2012

What is it that makes so many otherwise intelligent people act and feel stupid when their toxic person is around?Why Toxic People make us Stupid. Image: Andy Leigh

You may be just everyday-intelligent – streetwise and getting on with a busy life. You may be highly educated-intelligent – a PhD, a professor, medical consultant, rocket scientist even. Or perhaps a sharp-brained millionaire entrepreneur.

It doesn’t matter, because when the toxic people in our lives are strutting their stuff we can leave all that aside and become (as the saying goes), as thick as two short planks.

How does this happen? Do our toxic people have special super powers that transform normally bright people into clueless dullards? Do our toxic people radiate invisible stupid rays at us?

Hmm… obviously I’m not going to sell that idea as objective fact. But there is definitely something going on.

Why Toxic People Make Us Dumb

Now I could shift at this point into some dense psychological explanations of why this happens (I’m lying here – I most definitely couldn’t) – but I work best using language that I actually understand. I think there are two main factors in play when our toxic people are around us:

  • Our churning negative emotions
  • Our disempowering negative inner voices and inner doubts

When these two combine, the result is often a nastily scrambled head – or to use a metaphor that fits with my cartoon – we get a bad attack of turnip brain. Now, I don’t know what the average IQ of a turnip is – but I’m betting it’s not very high – not even for the bright ones.

Once we accept that toxic people can have this effect on us, it’s no wonder they find it so easy to run rings around us. The trouble is that even when we recognize that we currently have all the addled brain power of a root vegetable we find that the presence of the toxic person (with their stupid rays) makes it difficult to act in a smart and intelligent manner.

But we can be smart around our toxic people.

How to be Smart around Toxic People

The answer is almost disappointingly simple: don’t leave it until you are bathed in stupid-rays to do your thinking and your planning. If you want to build an effective shield against the stupid rays, spend some time on it when you are feeling strong, able and a little more clear-headed. Focus on what makes this person toxic to you; on how other people deal with them, and on any recurring patterns that you feel sucked into repeating over and over. Then think about what you might do differently next time you’re together. Plan to try different things and see how they work out. Then with your new information, modify and try to improve things.

It’s the work you do away from them that will immunize you from those toxic people stupid-rays and allow you to use your brains.

And please remember that if you have trouble seeing new options and strategies you can read about them in my other blog posts. Or, of course, you can invest a small amount of money for a huge return of knowhow and techniques and buy Dealing with Toxic People.

You have nothing to lose but the turnip.Toxic Person Induced Turnip-brain

 

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Dealing with Toxic People is available in Kindle and all other formats

 

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Think before Confronting Toxic People.

September 27, 2012

Following 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 […]

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Why I Despair of Toxic People ‘List’ Articles

May 23, 2012

There’s a type of toxic people article that seems to be getting everywhere just now. Seems like everyone and their dog want to tell us the same tired old story: Here’s my category list of toxic people. Avoid them. At all costs. The author will offer us their ‘top ten’ worst kinds of toxic people […]

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Toxic People: Hindsight is Insight

April 18, 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 […]

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Toxic People and Toxic Giving

March 9, 2012

Do you ever cringe with embarrassment, shame or even anger when certain people offer you help or a gift? Are you sometimes baffled by the way their ‘generosity’ can feel so negative and unhelpful? Well, while sometimes we just need to work on our own ability to accept generosity as well as giving it, there […]

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Are You a Toxic People Magnet

December 1, 2011

There are some unfortunate men and women who seem to attract toxic people like a magnet. Or maybe a better image would be like wasps around a jam pot. There they are, buzzing around, and each one with a painful sting they’re not afraid of using. Skewed Perspective Hardly surprising then, that many toxic people […]

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The Toxic People Compassion Trap

November 24, 2011

Does your good nature lead you to giving more time, energy, money or gifts than you feel comfortable with? Have you ever felt trapped into continually giving more than you want to, while the receiver seems to simply take it all for granted and expect even more? Then you may be caught in a toxic […]

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Why Toxic People Don’t Know They’re Toxic

September 15, 2011

I’ve known Mark for years. I get on okay with him (okay, I don’t see him too often) – but I know that other folk find him abrasive, rude and a little too snobbish. To be fair I can see exactly where they’re coming from. Anyway – here’s what I heard Mark say to another […]

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