Lord, I declare that your word never returns empty and that you have set my heart on eternal things.

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Relationships That Destroy

Leslie Vernick

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How to Handle Toxic and Critical People
by Leslie Vernick

We all have encounters with difficult people who leave us rattled and shaken. A co-worker undermines us in front of our boss; our friend puts us down and says she was "just kidding"; our spouse rages and then turns everything around to make us think it's our fault.

Most of us would prefer to minimize our contact with people like this but sometimes it's just not possible. We may work with them, be married to them, or have some other connection that keeps us in regular contact with toxic individuals. For a long time Christians have been taught to forbear and forgive. While biblical in essence, most of us aren't exactly sure how to live this out in real life.

We know Jesus tells us we're to love our enemies and pray for those who mistreat us, but actually doing it is much more challenging. The apostle Paul counsels us in these instances not to be overcome with evil but instead, to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). But honestly, there are times when evil feels stronger, and we are not sure how to stop it from getting the best of us.
Below are five specific steps I have found helpful in putting these biblical truths into practice, especially when dealing with a toxic or destructive person.

  1. Press Pause: As soon as you feel that poisonous dart, take a deep breath and pray for God's help. The words or behaviors of another person have just knocked you off balance and will infect you with their toxic effects if you don't quickly apply an antidote.

  2. Don't panic and overreact or be passive and under react. Stay calm and don't fall for their bait. Try not to take what they have done or said personally (which is very tempting to do). Remember, the way someone treats you, whether it be good or bad, really has little to do with you. It reveals something about who they are.

  3. Ask yourself this question: What in this present moment do I need to learn (or change) in order to become the person I want to become? Here are a few examples of things I have found I needed after I asked myself this question:

    • Courage

    • Humility

    • Generosity

    • To speak the truth in love

    • To set firmer boundaries

    • Patience

    • To not worry so much what others think of me

    • To let go of my desire to make everyone happy

    • To not let this person get the best of me or to make me act crazy

    Believe me, it is very tempting in the moment to defend yourself, feel responsible for someone else's feelings, become totally intimidated and overwhelmed, or strike back with your own attack. None of these responses will help you move forward with a toxic person. However, God does promise to use these painful moments for our good. Therefore, learn what you can and let go of the rest.

  4. Teach yourself to respond out of who you want to be rather than how you feel in the moment. We already know how to do this when we act responsibly and get out of bed to go to work even when we want to sleep in or when we patiently work with our child on their homework even though we'd rather be doing anything else.
    If you must respond to a provocative situation, speak calmly, truthfully, and firmly, especially when you have to set a limit or say, "no." Refuse to engage in arguing, defending yourself, or circular conversations that go nowhere.

  5. Practice (and this takes time) looking at this difficult/destructive person in a different way than you have in the past. Instead of meditating on his or her faults or sin against you, search for her goodness, his humanness, or his/her woundedness. When we can see a person in this new way, it's much easier to allow God to fill us with His love and compassion for this pitiful person who would be so blind as to treat us (or anyone) in such a sinful way.

Having this change in perspective doesn't excuse the toxic person or give him or her license to continue to do damage, but it does help us not to judge, even as it empowers us to forgive him/her, when we can't reconcile the relationship. We can honestly pray God's best for this person and leave him/her in His capable hands.

We all encounter evil situations and difficult and destructive people. By practicing these five steps, we can learn to overcome evil's toxic effects in us with good.

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