What to Do When Things Turn Toxic

My Little Pony the Movie, 1986

In My Little Pony the Movie, the ponies were plagued by a weird enemy. It was a purple goo that seemed to be unstoppable. Slimy, relentless, ruthless, with no sense of boundaries, it was unclear whether the purple goo killed the My Little Ponies or just took them out of action for a while. During the movie, both were suggested. Maybe it was vague because the writers made it so, or maybe it was vague to a five-year-old’s mind because, well, that purple goo was shit-scary. And at an age I didn’t even know the word shit… maybe.

Even getting a bit of the purple goo on the colourful ponies’ bodies was corrosive. It was to be avoided at all costs. But the goo wasn’t getting the message that it needed to leave the ponies alone. If anything it took the My Little Ponies’ protestations to respect their space as an invitation to dial up its gooey efforts.

They must have defeated it somehow but I don’t remember how. To be honest, I don’t really remember if they did. But what a downer of a movie if they didn’t!

There’s only one line I can recall from that film:

“Home is where you hang your hat.”

I liked that line. I think it was spoken by a gnome. Considering the My Little Ponies’ homes were being flooded with purple goo, he was probably giving sage advice. But also, a touch dismissive of the large-scale emotional trauma watching their homes and friends being destroyed was bound to have been causing the My Little Ponies.

The image of toxic slime also stuck in my impressionable mind, as it did to the My Little Ponies, like a limpet to the bottom of a boat. It had a feeling attached. You might know that feeling. It’s kind of like ‘ick.’

The My Little Ponies could see the toxic purple goo cresting the hills on the horizon but what do we do when the toxicity oozing into our spaces is not as easy to see?

It can be hard to identify there’s a problem. Sometimes it’s just an uncomfortable feeling that something isn’t quite all it seems with a situation. Trust that! You have instincts for a reason. Your body has honed them over a long time to keep you safe.

I would like to practice kindness and generosity towards everyone but to get to the nub of it, that was probably how I’ve got into the messiest toxic situations in the first place – by believing I had to be nice. I’ve come to recognise, that in order to effectively deal with sticky messes caused by toxic dynamics, it is self-compassion that is key. It seems counter-intuitive in some ways, but exercising kindness and understanding towards yourself really does have the power to reduce the impact of toxicity in your life, keep you out of resentment, and encourage you to communicate more clearly with all parties involved.

I’ve been in more than my fair share of toxic situations and my biggest takeaway involves believing wholeheartedly that the only person any of us have any control over is ourselves. Those My Little Ponies weren’t asking for that toxic goo all up in their castles. They did have to find the best way to manage the ick.

The best place to start with toxicity detecting is with how you feel. In my experience, it is the first thing I notice. I get an icky feeling arise in my stomach and I have learned I must pay attention to that. Like a herd animal who suddenly hears a crack in the woods, I have to lift my head and observe what’s going on. What am I doing? What is someone else doing? What is being said?

Sometimes an environment can feel toxic. With one troupe, we used to rehearse in the back room of a pub. There were times guests wouldn’t want to join us because it was so crappy in there. The walls were peeling, the floor warped and it was damp and badly ventilated. It was weird too; it had random pictures on the walls, some cellophane wrapped, and a wide assortment of disregarded stained furniture.

Eventually, one member of our troupe said, “Hey, this place has icky vibes.”

We all agreed it did and had to wonder why it had taken so long for one of us to say it out loud. And we’re talking years!

If places can be hard to call out, it’s surely so much harder with people. Looking honestly at a person can be really tough to do, especially when people deploy evasive tactics. There may be masks involved. There could be a personality clash. There might be a variety of factors.

“Despite how open, peaceful, and loving you attempt to be, people can only meet you as deeply as they’ve met themselves.”

Matt Kahn

The reasons someone is a challenge to connect with can keep us searching for excuses for a long time. And these excuses can blindsight us. A helpful tip I picked up from Lisa A. Romano, a life coach specialising in recovery after narcissistic abuse, is a bit of a language hack but it can help with justifying thoughts. Instead of saying, “This person is very unkind to me because they’ve had a difficult life.” I’ve retrained myself to now say: “This person is very unkind to me. They have had a difficult life.” I then remind myself both those things can be true separately. One does not justify the other. In time, you might even find the second statement will fade when how someone treats you becomes your priority.

“Toxic people are not necessarily uniformly toxic, which also makes it complicated. There are some people who are equal-opportunity tyrants – they treat everyone badly – but most are too smart for that. They have folks they target and others whom they keep close at hand, because, if everyone thinks they’re awful, it can make it difficult to sidle up to the bar… The difficulty raised by this is that different people may have very different experiences of a toxic person.”

Dr Ramani S. Durvasula, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility

You can’t always trust word-of-mouth to identify toxic behaviour. Not everyone will experience a person the same. This is made even harder if you have experienced the undermining of your reality through gaslighting. You can feel unsure of your instincts, so a good rule of thumb is to observe behaviour as you see it. Observed behaviour, along with how you feel, can build a more realistic picture of a situation or pattern. Words spoken can be very deceptive, most especially when they originate from the person exhibiting toxic behaviour.

Toxicity is not a one-off incident that might be caused by an unsettling life event or change in environment. It is repeated damaging behaviour. It is a cycle. I have found that as I become less reactive and manage to gain some distance from toxic behaviour it becomes easier to observe the traits as they reoccur and a situation I once thought I played a significant part in creating, turns out to be very little to do with me as I watch the person go on to repeat the pattern with others.

Here are some signs of toxicity suggested by WebMD:

  • You feel like you’re being manipulated into something you don’t want to do.
  • You’re constantly confused by the person’s behavior.
  • You feel like you deserve an apology that never comes.
  • You always have to defend yourself to this person.
  • You never feel fully comfortable around them.
  • You continually feel bad about yourself in their presence.

Unfortunately, as in all corners of society, people who display toxic behaviour patterns appear in improv communities. To argue that improv is somehow immune as it is such a darn-nice-people sport would be naïve and also dangerous fantasy thinking. The ground of improv is just as vulnerable to toxicity, as any other community space.

Maybe even more so.

Improv contains a lot of empathetic, kind, accommodating, vulnerable hearts. And this is a beautiful thing. But it also exposes it to frenzied feasting if a fox, with a hankering for empathy, gets into the hen house.

In the Americas, there is a cryptid – a mysterious hidden monster – that is blamed for killing livestock. It is said to suck the lifeblood out of its prey. It’s called Chupacabra – goat sucker – and sightings of it have been possibly explained as a wild dog with mange. Chupacabra’s skin is said to have a fluorescent glow like it’s toxic. This could be because of the incessant scratching that comes with the mange mites embedded under its skin.

If Chupacabra is a creature with an affliction, surely we must pity it. Having contracted mange is not the creature’s fault and it is a horribly uncomfortable condition for the animal to endure.

True, but try telling that to the goat.

“I acknowledge that many roads lead to the “reasons” why people are antagonistic, narcissistic, difficult, and abusive and that they have backstories too. But the bottom line is that, when someone abuses you, it hurts, and, over time, it takes a permanent toll. No, “toxic” is not a nice word. But these are not nice patterns. Nobody should be relegated to the status of human punching bag. Nobody.”

Dr Ramani S. Durvasula, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility

I’ve learned it’s very important to give yourself permission to feel upset by toxic situations and dynamics, regardless of the reasons behind the behaviour. If you don’t allow yourself to feel the hurt and anger, you yourself can get stuck. Priding yourself on being an accommodating, kind person makes it even more likely you may put the needs of others before your own need to pay attention to uncomfortable feelings.

In Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong, she talks about a rumble she had with the premise: people are doing their best. When I first read this, I, like Brené, went through a stage of scoffing “Well, that’s not true.” But over time I’ve realised this way of thinking is oddly liberating. Initially, I felt it justified abusive behaviour but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realise it does not. What it does, is help us to accept what is. It shuts down fantasy thinking.

“All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgement and let’s me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”

Steve, quoted by Brené Brown in Rising Strong

If you assume everyone is trying their best, it allows you to be discerning. You let go of judgment and perfectionism. You give yourself permission to choose how to handle a situation as it is.

“Toxic behaviour tends to be associated with traits congruent with narcissistic, antagonistic, psychopathic, dysregulated, and passive-aggressive personality styles. These are personality styles that often cause more harm to the people around them than any other personality or mental health/illness patterns we observe. The people with these personality patterns may not be experiencing discomfort, but the people around them likely are. This is not a “moral” judgement. Nor is it an indictment of people who engage in these patterns; this is an indictment of these patterns. They are invalidating, they are deceptive, and they are damaging.”

Dr Ramani S. Durvasula, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility

Consider another hidden monster: Mothman – a ‘flying man’ spotted first in a small town in America. The people in that town came to think of Mothman as the harbinger of doom, when in actuality it seems very likely that Mothman was an owl. The owl was an unusual breed, probably a bit wet from the rain, sleeping rough in an abandoned toxic factory, not the most eloquent runner, but trying its best to survive.

People who display toxic tendencies are trying to survive. Unfortunately for everyone, they have a way of doing it that hurts others and transmits pain. For me, understanding more about personality differences, disorders and disturbances has been a life-saver. I think it has actually reduced a lot of my social anxiety because I know what to listen out for and that other people’s behaviour is most often about their internal struggles and not about me.

“Anyone a certain age will always remember the story of Charlie Brown and the football. Lucy (the toxic invalidating friend) repeatedly asks the empathetic and yearning Charlie Brown to play football, and she invariably pulls the football away as he goes in for the kick, leading him to fall flat on his back. Each time, he approaches it thinking it will be different – and each and every time, she pulls the ball away. A relationship with a toxic person leaves you feeling like Charlie Brown. You keep going in, thinking that this time it will be different, that this time Lucy will not pull the ball. The first time she did it, it was time for him to be cautious; the second time she did it, it was time to never play ball again. That eternal hope that it will change is what keeps these relationships going (and keeps the Charlie Browns of the world repeatedly falling on their backs).”

Dr. Ramani S. Durvasula, “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility

I’ve come to recognise that if I do not learn to draw the line with toxic situations, I actually become an invalidating friend to myself. I centre the toxic behaviour and become increasingly more invisible as I ignore my own needs. My self-trust takes a nosedive.

Dr. Ramani S. Durvasula has an incredibly helpful YouTube channel offering advice and information as to the psychological tendencies, patterns and dynamics surrounding people with narcissistic traits. She has also written a brilliant book called “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. In it, she considers how toxic and narcissistic behaviour is on the rise, fuelled by present-day cultures, like social media. In 2018 the Oxford Dictionaries chose “toxic” as their word of the year and “narcissism” has become a buzzword for our times, quite often used now to reflect on the behaviour of world leaders.

Towards the of Dr Ramani S. Durvasula’s insightful and invaluable book is a super useful section entitled A Simple Survival Guide, which gives you strategies for dealing with toxic situations. Here is a flavour…

  • manage expectations
  • maintain boundaries
  • shore up supports
  • recognize they will not change
  • take care of yourself/ practice self love
  • don’t engage
  • get mental health assistance
  • learn to let go
  • stop defending yourself
  • hold on tight to your own reality
  • do the things that you value

Doing something you value helps you refocus and get some distance. It can be an effective antidote to ruminating. And I have found practising improv can particularly assist with stopping spiralling thoughts and running dialogues over in your head. To make a scene successful, you have to be all in. For this reason I have found it very hard when doing improv has actually put me in the shoes of Charlie Brown. I’ve been lying on my back on the grass in my life more times than I care to count. And sadly, I have also been down there as a result of my practice of improv. In order to do my best, most connected improvisation, I’ve come to understand that I have to do it away from toxic dynamics and behaviours. I have had to not participate in jams at times. I have had to pull out of a course. And I have had to opt out of doing a showcase once because I recognised I would be putting myself into harm’s way, like a My Little Pony jumping into a paddling pool of purple goo.

As improv is generally such a vulnerable-making, trust-requiring, and empathy-breeding arena, toxic behaviour can feel all the more hurtful. We take risks in rehearsal, in class and on the stage when we show up to be seen. The culture created by the ethos of improv dictates we should be up for anything at any time which can conflict with our instincts.

Although improvisation can be a fun, fast, spontaneous sport, that shouldn’t mean your practice of it needs to lack boundaries. The only way to get better at creating them and holding them seems to be to practice. And practising having boundaries is the best way I have found to prove my true commitment to myself. It’s the way to increase that self-trust. I do not regret removing myself from toxic situations one bit. And although it was tough to do, if it had been easier, it wouldn’t have meant so much to me.

“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.”

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

If I don’t stick to my boundaries surrounding toxic behaviours, I get resentful. I then start acting in ways that don’t feel like me. I get bristly. It doesn’t feel good and I’m more easily sucked into ego games I have no genuine desire to play. When we drop our boundaries in the face of someone else’s discomfort, we confirm their superiority over our inferiority. We send a signal to our inner world that our needs come last. And that leads to resentment.

Boundaries are not so much about changing the behaviour of others as we might initially assume is the intention of their design. Most often, they are instead about our relationship with ourselves. What will we do to get distance from invalidating, damaging, toxic behaviour? How do we prioritise our own needs? What short-term discomfort will we suffer in order to extract ourselves from long-term goo cycles?

“I assumed that people weren’t doing their best so I judged them and constantly fought being disappointed, which was easier than setting boundaries. Boundaries are hard when you want to be liked and when you are a pleaser hellbent on being easy, fun, and flexible.”

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

When you strive to be an inclusive, tolerant and kind person, this can come into conflict with making the tough decisions about how to handle toxic situations but it is very important we give ourselves permission to be discerning. If you feel that being around an individual (or group) is making you feel crappy, you don’t have to be around that person. We do all have that choice.

With every toxic situation, dynamic and environment we cut away from our lives, we create space. That can feel scary but it’s surprising how quickly a vacuum fills with other opportunities. And ones with the potential to be life-affirming, joyous and fulfilling. So pay attention to the ick. Honour your instincts. Set boundaries. And if you have to, distance yourself. Make home where you hang your hat – with you. Give yourself permission to choose. And choose your sweet self.

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