How can you deal with toxic people in a spiritual way, especially when you’re a highly sensitive person who takes on others’ emotions or thoughts and has a hard time settling down after a confrontation? This post explores this *big* question and offers a few practical suggestions I’ve used in my own life to deal with this issue.
First things first: let’s define the terms of the conversation. What do we mean by “toxic people”?
In the context of this article, a “toxic person” means someone who:
- displays manipulative, passive aggressive (or outright aggressive), narcissistic, or irrational patterns of behavior or speech when they interact with you
- twists the truth
- acts confused, laughs, or mocks you when you try to explain how you feel
- resorts to name-calling and insult-hurling when they realize that they’re not going to get their way with you
- is an unreasonable person with irrational demands
- is unable to see the truth about themselves, the world, and/or you when they interact with you
- is sweet and charming one day, but becomes furious or aggressive the next.
I was inspired to write this post because I recently had a not-very-friendly confrontation. It left me feeling sick and raw and frazzled. As a highly sensitive person and as an empath, I find it hard to move beyond any type of confrontation. I used to have the hardest time accepting that someone out there in the world might be – gasp! – mad at me.
But I guess this is just something we’re going to have to get comfortable with, this idea that someone out there might not like us, or might think we’re idiots, or might never want to work with us or speak with us again. This is inevitably going to happen at some point if we dare to speak up and become more visible in the world. (Things that we definitely should be doing!)
I believe that a mutual misunderstanding played a role in the breakdown of communication that led to this person calling me a name, which I’d rather not repeat here. (It was pretty traumatizing.) Hearing a negative word used against me in an accusatory, passive aggressive tone took me by surprise. I felt sick to my stomach. I felt nauseated. My heart started beating faster. I fully went into fight-or-flight mode. Some primitive part of me believed I had to defend my honor.
But I quickly realized this person and I were simply not going to understand each other. We were never going to understand each other. Besides, her anger with me by the end of our exchange felt pretty set in stone. It didn’t feel like I could do or say anything to change it. Even so, I apologized for any miscommunication on my part. Of course, I knew that those words of apology would never be enough and that this fundamental misunderstanding would probably never be repaired.
So what do we do when we get to that point? What do we do when we’re interacting with someone but they refuse to engage in a peaceful or reasonable way without name-calling, blaming, or shaming? What do we do when someone is irretrievably mad at us? What can we do to try to salvage the situation? How do we cope with it?
Here are my favorite suggestions.
1. Stop trying to reason with them.
Once someone is mad, upset, frustrated, or feeling as though you’ve hurt them, there’s no point trying to reason with them. They’ve moved into a deeply emotional state and will therefore have limited access to reason and logic. (This is true of all of us when we feel hurt by someone — we can’t access our own capacity to think logically.)
When you recognize someone has moved into this emotional place, stop trying to present logical arguments to them. Logical arguments mean nothing at this point and can actually make things worse. Once someone becomes emotional, your best bet is to retreat, stop talking, and pull the emergency break on the conversation. Tell them that you would prefer to pick this up another time when everyone’s emotions are more settled. Tell them that you truly did not mean to hurt them, and that you’re sorry. At this point, it’s ok to remove yourself from the conversation and allow things to simmer down. If necessary, resume your exchange at a later time.
2. Stop trying to get them to empathize with you.
Once someone feels hurt or angry or perceives you as an “enemy” (i.e., someone who has hurt them), it will be extremely difficult for them to empathize with you or whatever it is you’re going through. They will not care about this. So don’t try saying, “Well, I’m feeling X and Y” or trying to compete with them about who is hurting more. Don’t bring up past grievances. Don’t point out the ways in which they’ve hurt you (if you believe that they have).
At this point, you have to show sincere interest in what the other person is saying and try to validate something they’re saying that feels true for you. Let’s say they’re accusing you of being selfish. If you can recognize that some part of you DID act selfishly, you can agree with them to some extent. Try to empathize with their emotions and see things from their perspective, even if for one second. This doesn’t mean you’re being a doormat; it just means you’re trying to use spiritual tools to defuse the situation. You don’t need to add more fuel to the fire at this point. Trying to get them to see things from your perspective is not going to work, so don’t try.
3. Stop trying to get your point across.
This one will be hard, because your ego wants to get your point across and be right, no matter what. But your ego will have to take a hit here. If you continue trying to get your point across or you continue trying to clarify a miscommunication that has already devolved into name-calling or blaming, you’re just going to make things worse. This is not the time to fight to make your voice heard because whatever you say will fall on deaf ears. Save your energy.
Now, this doesn’t mean you agree with whatever the other person is saying even if you don’t agree at all. It means that you find something you can validate in whatever they’re saying, and you focus on that. If they’re not saying anything that actually rings true for you, then go back to #1 and retreat from the conversation.
4. Defuse & deflect.
Once emotions are running high and things are getting heated, your only job is to defuse the situation. This is the best thing you can do for everyone involved. Defuse the situation in any way you can. This might mean apologizing for your part in the misunderstanding/issue. It might mean asking to stop the conversation and come back together once the tension has dissipated. It might mean changing the subject from something that’s really emotionally charged to something (anything) where you can find some common ground. Usually, showing someone that you’re willing to take responsibility for your stuff and apologize for it helps to defuse some of their anger or frustration. Do whatever you need to do to emerge safely from the conversation.
5. Protect yourself energetically & physically.
In dealing with toxic, angry, or aggressive people, your priority must be to protect yourself. In fact, all the strategies we addressed above are about protecting yourself in one way or another. If you notice a conversation or situation is escalating and the other person is just not getting where you’re coming from at all, your best bet is to (1) protect yourself and (2) remove yourself from the situation.
To protect yourself energetically, you can mentally call on your Spirit Guides or Guardian Angels to plant themselves all around you and keep you safe. Invoke Archangel Michael, who can guard you with his mighty sword. Physically, plant your feet solidly on the ground (even if you’re sitting) and try crossing your arms over your chest. This protects your heart chakra and solar plexus and also prevents the other person from sending out energetic hooks in your direction. (Well, they might send them anyway, but you can at least keep those hooks from catching on you.)
6. Self-care after the fact.
For me, it was really important to get grounded and centered after my recent negative interaction. Being called a name – and feeling the anger and judgment behind it – was really disconcerting and upsetting. My immediate impulse was to react by attacking back, defending myself, or pointing out something negative in the other person (all the things our egos want us to do). But I was at least aware enough not to add fuel to the fire.
So what can you do after a confrontation, tense situation, or heated conversation? The first important step is to create space between yourself and the other person/situation. Retreat to a safe space where you can take a breath, cry, hit a pillow, or do a 5-minute meditation.
Then, evaluate what actually happened and the extent of your responsibility. Is there something you need to apologize for? What was triggered in you during this confrontation? What was triggered in the other person? Is there a misunderstanding you can try to correct? Or is it best to leave things as they are?
Finally, remind yourself that how people behave is a reflection of their own inner landscape — not yours. This is particularly true when people behave aggressively or in a judgmental way. Remind yourself that whatever they’ve said to you is just their own idea or belief about something. You can disagree. And, most importantly, someone else’s words don’t have to define who you are or how you see yourself.
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