Eisenbud's Odyssey: Toxic people

‘How bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes’ - Shakespeare.

Shakespeare (photo credit: thinkstock)
(photo credit: 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.
They’re the ones who say “break a leg” with a wink and a nod – and really mean it.
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 peripherally.
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 place.
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 feat.
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 dangerous.
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 company.
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 entirely.
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 self-preservation.
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 and focus.
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 accordingly.
If you do, nothing can stop you from giving an unflappable, tour de force performance in life, despite the hecklers – except for you.
So break a leg. (In a good way.)