Eisenbud's Odyssey: Toxic people
‘How bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes’ - Shakespeare.
Shakespeare Photo: thinkstock
If all the world’s a stage, as Shakespeare famously contended, then toxic people
are often seated front and center (their preferred seating), serving as smiling,
stealthy saboteurs who try to get into our heads to make us forget our lines,
with the hope that the curtain will come crashing down on us.
ones who say “break a leg” with a wink and a nod – and really mean
Indeed, one commonality we all share as human beings is the
misfortune of knowing individuals who want, or expect, us to fail. They are
frequently misrepresented as friends or confidants – at work, in our families
and in our social circles.
Toxic people are as ubiquitous as the common
cold, and their exploits have made Shakespeare one of the most compelling,
tragic and best-selling storytellers in history.
To be sure, the most
famous book of all time is riddled with unconscionably toxic people – of
biblical proportions – seeking the demise of those in their inner and
surrounding circles. It is, of course, the Bible.
And while such behavior
is similar to the more impersonal schadenfreude (or joy in other peoples
misfortunes, which I wrote about a few weeks ago), the defining characteristic
among toxic people is that they infiltrate our lives directly, instead of
Clearly, it is one thing to take solace in our frequently
challenging existences by watching the all-too-willing buffoonery of politicians
or reality TV “stars,” who seemingly court our contempt and ridicule, and quite
another to derive a similar satisfaction from the travails of otherwise decent
friends and family.
But, as we all know, life is not a dress rehearsal,
and the show must go on – with or without the toxic among us. Therefore it
behooves us to be cognizant of our potential hecklers, and to keep them in their
THE TRICK, I believe, is to readily identify and emotionally
quarantine toxic people, and to lead our lives in a dignified, self-respecting
and fulfilling manner despite them – as if they don’t exist.
Not an easy
To do this successfully, first it is important to define what a
“toxic person” is, as they inhabit a seemingly endless spectrum as varied as the
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, their common
denominator is that, like ticks, they are parasitic and hope we won’t notice
that they’re sucking the life out of us until they’re full and can move on to
the next host.
Perhaps most importantly – and maddeningly – none of them
view themselves as remotely toxic, parasitic or anything other than a “friend.”
It is this very lack of sensitivity and self-awareness that makes them so
That said, in broad strokes, here are the four most common
categories of toxic people:
Dream-killers. These pessimistic people are
notorious for telling you why you can’t accomplish goals important to you and
your growth, while insisting that you should remain stagnant. They frequently
attempt to make you feel foolish for being proactive and inspired, and
habitually masquerade their cynicism as “realism.”
The end result is
always the same: to make you believe you were naïve or stupid to even consider
the prospect of a meaningful challenge or change in your life, and instead to
stay put, along with them.
Whiners. Whiners are emotional vampires who
suck the happiness out of you by constantly complaining, yet offering no
solutions – all the while mitigating your happiness, as well. They
pathologically seek out your sympathy and always want to hear about your
problems, making you believe they care about you.
But whiners don’t want
to hear your problems in order to help you, so much as to have companionship
while marinating in their own never-ending unhappiness.
Indeed, the end
game for whiners is to ensure that their misery has plenty of
Death by Chocolate. Like the decadent dessert, people in this
superficial subgroup can make you feel like a million bucks for a moment, but
have no substantive value whatsoever. And despite appearing like a friend, they
will use you solely to have a good time, then turn their back on you as soon as
the party’s over.
To be sure, when the chips are down and you need
healthy spiritual or emotional sustenance, “Death by Chocolate” is off partying
somewhere else with other friends, and doesn’t return your calls unless you have
something fun planned.
Brutus. Perhaps the most insidious of toxic
people, those in this category will gain your trust and friendship, only to stab
you in the back when you least expect it.
They are the most cunning and
damaging of toxic people because when they betray you they leave painful and
indelible scars, making it difficult to trust anyone again.
ALL OF this
begs the question: What can we do to protect ourselves from the toxic among us?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer.
“De-friending” someone is among
the most unpleasant things a person can do, and often causes far more harm than
good. However, in extreme cases, it is as essential as weeding a prized garden
threatened by sunlight-stealing weeds.
On a practical level, it’s far
more advisable to keep damaging people at a safe distance than to alienate them
Indeed, there are few things more dangerous than a toxic person
scorned. Just ask Mel Gibson’s ex-girlfriend.
So instead of cutting ties completely and risking inciting narcissistic rage, there is nothing wrong
with maintaining superficial ties with someone who is toxic, as long as you know
what you’re getting – and expect nothing more.
Personally, I have always
been notoriously particular about the company I keep, and have few friends, as I
view the people I enjoy spending time with as nothing short of vital nutrients
that I need to stay healthy. It’s not snobbery so much as
This isn’t to say that you should surround yourself
with sycophants. My closest friends routinely tell me what’s wrong with me – but
in a constructive, and often very funny, way – and take no pleasure in doing so,
as toxic people do.
They give me tough love when it’s warranted, not
because they can, but because they care about me and want me to be happy and
successful. And it has made me a better person.
At the end of the day, it
is the people who love and support us who are most deserving of our time, energy
Yes, toxic people will always be there, looking for the best
seats in the house for our proverbial “show,” but how we deal with them and the
way they affect us, is entirely up to us.
That said, one of the greatest
tips for success I have ever received is to know your audience, and proceed
If you do, nothing can stop you from giving an unflappable,
tour de force performance in life, despite the hecklers – except for
So break a leg. (In a good way.)