Handling Truly Toxic People

Many years ago I read and responded to a post on a lowcarb forum from a woman named Joy who was facing a weekend encounter with toxic relatives:

Please believe me when I say I really really hate to do this, but next weekend when we go visit the folks, I think I’m going to go off lowcarb for the weekend.  I really, truly would rather not, but (I know I’m a coward), I just couldn’t stand having my weight be “the big topic of conversation” the whooooole weekend. And it would be. It would just be non-stop. I just can’t take that. It would be so embarassing to me.

I hate being the center of attention, and people in my family focus so much on weight that it would just be too hard for me. I don’t want to have to argue about it with them right now (my sister is a nurse, so I know it wouldn’t end). My brother, father, and brother-in-law would never let up on me (teasing me). I know they’d be kidding, but I think I’d probably wind up crying.

Just to give you a couple of examples: When I quit smoking back in ’89, I had been off cigs (had been a 2-3 pack/day smoker) for about 3 weeks, and we went back for Thanksgiving. I was having a piece of pie after dinner, and my Dad said, at the table full of relatives, “I’m going to need a wide-angle lens to take a picture of you, Joy.” I wanted to die. This is the man who told me when I was a little girl that I was so fat that I would have to be buried in a piano case and lowered with a crane when I died. Once, when my sister came to visit, I was doing dishes (had my back to her) and she came in with a camera and told me (with a laugh–all in fun, right?) that her husband wanted a picture of my butt to see how big it had gotten.

That’s just two examples. I just can’t deal with my weight being the big topic of converstation, so while I’m not going to go hog wild, I’m going to do everything I can to keep it from being an issue. I’m going to try to keep as lowcarb as possible without drawing attention to it. And I’m back on induction the minute we leave my folks’ house. I hope you guys won’t think I’m too much of a coward, even though I know I am. I just don’t want to wind up crying next weekend. lol! I feel better having told you guys. I guess confession really is good for the soul. — Joy

I’d like to suggest that crying when someone makes a comment such as the ones some of your relatives subject you to would be a healthy, appropriate, and truthful reaction.  Perhaps the only reaction that could eventually put a halt to the comments and an end to the behavior.  Crying might put the humiliation back on the people who are trying to humiliate you, by forcing them to face the bare-naked truth of what their behavior caused to someone else.

There are certain kinds of people, both male and female, who seem to get some perverse pleasure out of this kind of “game.”  This is about drawing attention to themselves as possessing an utterly false, cheap sense of superiority–as in “Well I sure told Joy what I thought about her weight!”  (Huff, huff, like a frickin’ rooster)  This had nothing to do with you, except that you provide them one little thing for them to feel superior to you and everyone else in the moment. These are socially/emotionally sick and immature people–I sure hope you can see that.

But no, I know it sure doesn’t FEEL that way on the receiving end…

One of the most painful, humiliating days of my life happened on Christmas day back in 1973–when my mother pulled me into an empty room, shut the door and said to me, “It is just too painful for me to look at you now.  So from now on we will to need to limit our contact to phone calls and letters.” (She was horrified that I had re-gained the weight I had lost for my wedding that March).

Well, 22 year old me walked out of that room in shock and went on with the day as if nothing had happened.  I see now that this was an immature mistake on my part–I should have addressed it openly the moment it happened with the rest of the family.  But it was definitely a pivotal moment.  And when the comment finally came to light many months later when my father couldn’t understand why I refused to speak to them, my mother denied ever having said it.  I could give you hours on the before-and-after stories, but no one has time for that now.  I was essentially estranged from my mother from that point on, until she died in 1978.  So I am somewhat lucky in the sense that my primary tormentor is out of my life.

But I do want to tell you how the new, emotionally responsible, grown-up me would handle any situation like yours now, including my own mother or any other toxic person.

First off, I would never set foot in that house without food for myself.  I don’t change my food plans to please anyone else, but I never rely on others to understand or meet my somewhat unusual food needs. (I lead with the diet, right?)   Second, I would never agree to setting foot in any potentially hostile environment like that without having a plan for leaving quite literally on a moment’s notice, without needing to check with, or getting the cooperation or agreement of anybody else.  In other words, my husband–and kids if I had them–would have to agree beforehand to get up and leave with me that moment if I ever said the word.  No agreement from them?  Then I don’t go or I’d take my own car.  I wouldn’t agree to be anywhere known toxic people without an escape plan.

And if/when someone said anything inappropriate like this, I would go ahead and cry if that was what I felt–go ahead and feel the pain.  Let them see what they caused.  There’s no shame in reacting truthfully to a statement like that.  Any shame belongs squarely on the one who spoke it.

Then I’d say as little as possible, but something along the lines of “Wow.  That is one of the most hurtful things anyone has ever said to me.” Then I would get up, collect my things and I would leave without another word.  That is, unless others at the gathering are not aware of what happened and ask why I’m leaving so suddenly.  If that happens, I’d say “Dad called me a fat lard ass, so I’m done here.”  And let those who remain to have it out with each other about what happened.

If I were to ever receive this treatment in my own home, the person who inflicted it would be asked to leave just as quickly. I would stand, look them in the eye and say, “get out of my house this minute.”

If the culprit wants to speak to me later with a true apology and promise that nothing like that will ever happen again, maybe, okay.  But, I’d either expect this apology to be made in front of the others who were there when it happened or spoken about the next time we were gathered.  The apology would also need to be 100% sincere–one with no “buts” and no talk of how “oversensitive” I was, or how I “took it wrong.”  Because those tactics mean they are backing away from total responsibility for their toxic behavior, which means it’s not a sincere or total apology.

Until this was resolved to my satisfaction, I would not spend another moment in the presence of that person(s).  If others in the family who do are not hurtful wanted to make arrangements to spend time with me without the the offender present, that might (or might not) be okay with me–I suppose it would depend on how much I wanted to see them.  This also continues to hold the offender accountable for their actions to others in the family which I think is more than fair.

And if after an honest apology something similar ever happened again then the relationship would be over.  Period.  No more apologies, no more do-overs.

I think this is what setting and enforcing a firm, emotionally healthy boundary with a toxic person looks and lives like.

I’m sorry you’re going through this, and I want you to know that you don’t need to tolerate that those kind of comments from another adult, Joy.  I hope I’ve shown you how you CAN put a stop to this.

I hope you guys won’t think I’m too much of a coward, even though I know I am. I just don’t want to wind up crying next weekend.

Is it really that you don’t want to cry? Isn’t it really that you’d rather not be insulted and hurt to the bone again?  You cannot control other people’s behavior or feelings, but you do have the power to take all the steps necessary to not experience it from the same person again.  And let them decide if/how they want to proceed with any relationship with Joy respecting your firm boundaries.  Even if they decide they’re done with you (unlikely), they will be the losers and you have the toxicity out of  your life for good.  If your refusal to be present with that person causes others in your family inconvenienced or uncomfortable, well, that is their issue to handle however they want to.

You really can—and I think you need to—take control of this situation.  I wish you Plan.