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As I listened to him talking about toxic people, my first impulse was to think about myself (Matthew 7:3-5). Specifically, am I this person? What are some of the things that I do in relationships that would identify me as a toxic person? I’m not sin-groveling here but realizing there is an implied warning for the discerning heart not to move too quickly to that person “out there somewhere” before addressing the toxicity that might be in my heart.
I’m sure most of you thought of yourself first, too, because you have that “log in my eye” impulse that governs how you think about people and their problems. You’re a careful self-assessor, knowing that you are part of the collective that encompasses people problems. The sadness with a toxic person is that they do not see themselves that way. They never address their hearts but always focus on what others are doing (or not doing) for them.
As you work through these thoughts from my pastor, I trust you will keep that log properly in its place—your eye socket, knowing that if you’re not that toxic person, you have been one before, and it’s a small step to becoming one again. Perhaps a brief prayer would be appropriate right now, asking the Spirit to examine any toxicity that seeks to rear its poisonous head in your heart, hoping to bring division into your community.
The toxic person pulls you into their orbit. They are inconvenient people, like a gnat that continues to buzz around the ear. The tension in your heart is whether you should step away from them or help them. The vital point before you make that decision is to distinguish between a toxic person and a difficult one. There is a difference. All toxic people are difficult, but all difficult people are not toxic.
Just because a person is a challenge, you don’t want to label them as toxic automatically. Some of us do not want anyone to inconvenience us. That is a “me problem.” According to our terms, we crave life a certain way, and if someone interferes with our expectations, we can too quickly label them as toxic. It might not be an accurate assessment. Do you know how to distinguish between a difficult person and a toxic one?
We all have patterns in our lives that make us difficult people. To think otherwise is to step outside a biblical hermeneutic. There is only one option, not two: for all have sinned; there are no perfect people. We have our hang-ups, quirks, pet preferences, and odd ways of thinking about life. Those oddities make us different from each other but not necessarily toxic.
Our pastor gave us a helpful table to distinguish between a toxic person and a difficult one. As you assess yourself, friends, and acquaintances, where do you fall? What about your associations?
If you’re unsure which kind of person you are, the humble and courageous thing to do is ask someone who knows you. Talk to them about toxicity. Let them know that you want to know how they perceive you. We all need help because we’re hard to love at times. We should not be like a toxic person. Has something taken control of your heart that perpetuates toxicity in your life?
Our pastor also gave us a few characteristics of the toxic person to help us sniff out if someone is oozing with toxicity. The caution is that you don’t want to label someone this way, willy-nilly. The current problem we have in our culture is that we can too quickly label anyone who disagrees with us as toxic. Social media is a toxic space.
Public discourse is one of our worst enemies as keyboard warriors imbibe on the disinhibition effect, saying some of the most unkind things that they would never say to your face. They demand loyalty to their ideas. Authoritarian pastors or husbands can be this way, too. “If you disagree with me, you’re toxic. I cancel you!” Here are a few ways to fish out whether a person is genuinely toxic or merely difficult.
Jesus is our example when it comes to dealing with people. He had the wisdom to discern folks (John 2:24-25) and the courage to separate from them if they were too toxic (Mark 5:40). Though Christ was a people-problem-solver, He was not a people-pleaser. There were limits on what He would permit, relationally speaking (John 11:14-15).
You want to imitate Christ when navigating the tenuous contours of potentially toxic relationships. Without being rude, you cannot let them continually distract you from what you should be doing. Jesus liked to talk about how He was here to do the will of His Father (John 6:40). This concept is your key when interacting with the toxic. If there are things you should be doing but can’t because of “toxic interruptions,” you need to let them know that the pattern cannot continue.
The toxic person makes demands, but the difficult person will give you the space you need, knowing that you will be there for them but not at this moment. Parents could serve their children well if they instilled this perspective into them while they were young. Teaching kids discretion, self-control, and an others-centered worldview early would nip their temptation to demand when they become adults. “No” is a complete sentence.
Loving someone does not mean catering to all of their wishes. Caving to the demands of toxic people is not love at all. The most loving thing you can do is to speak the truth with love in your heart for that person. Just because they are toxic, it does not permit you to meet them on their toxicity level. If you do, you will become like them. The response is always love, but love has broad borders that encompass the toxic as well as those you prefer.
If they do not give you the space you need, you create it, which could mean that you will have to unfriend them. You can be kind to them, but you may have to walk away from the toxic person after a while. If you don’t, your mind will become distracted and divided (James 1:3-6). You won’t be able to focus on anything other than that person who is sucking the spiritual life and time out of you. These are judgment calls that you must make.
If you do walk away from them, there will be blowback. Toxic people do not have the humility, insight, or courage to perceive or own the problem. They will blame you. They are used to bending others’ wills, and if it does not work out, there is always an excuse—which is never them. Weak caregivers fall into this snare because they do not know the differences between being empathetic and sympathetic.
Before you pull the plug on the toxic person, ask a competent and trusted friend for their perspective. It is not gossip for you to talk about the person if your motives are redemptive: you’re not venting but genuinely want to help the toxic person. Some folks struggle over this matter of “talking about others” without them knowing about it. We talk about people every day of our lives without them knowing it. You can’t live in this world and keep from talking about folks who are outside of earshot.
There will be times when you must talk about those folks with whom you struggle. It does not have to be wrong to do so, but you must be right in how you think and talk about them. Your assessment of them may be inaccurate. Borrow brains. You want to make sure before you pull the plug on the relationship. Have you done all that you should do for them? The temptation with inconvenient people is that we too quickly want to cut them out of our lives.
People’s problems are messy and inconvenient. To love God and others well means there will be issues, and we must persevere with those who are more of a hassle than an asset. We don’t want to be that superficial friend. Of course, the longer you strive with a toxic person, they will eventually cut you off. Poisonous people do not stay in relationships—unless you let them continue in their toxicity. If you are a genuine friend, you will eventually offend them, and they will blame you as they sever the relationship.
Some of the people you love the most will hurt you the most. You pour into their lives. You jump when they call and bend backward when they ask. You are there for them. Their problems are your problems. You serve them the best you can. You make mistakes. You say and do the wrong things. You walk through that relational minefield with them. If they are a toxic person, at some point, you’ll step on the land mine. It cannot be otherwise with poisonous people.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).