Some people are like clouds.

When they disappear, it’s a brighter day.

I wish I could say I made that up. It was on a meme I saw recently on Facebook.

An interaction last week reminded me how I let some people take up space in my life. I let them settle into my world like squatters, not paying any rent and breaking all the china.

Then I saw this meme:

negativity toxic people

What toxic people teach us

Birds of a feather flock together, just like Mom always said, right?

It’s true. If we aren’t in a strong, healthy place, we attract similar personalities. When we feel negative, needy, whiny and low energy, we find ourselves around people who commiserate with us.

Heck knows no one in a good place wants to listen to our crap anyway.

Trouble is, we get ourselves to a better place and those toxic people stick around and drag us down. It becomes even more problematic when they’re people you can’t easily get away from, such as your family, your boss, your co-workers and, sometimes, your spouse.

The more philosophical among us may argue that everyone comes into our lives for a reason. Each person is meant to challenge us and teach us something about ourselves.

What can we learn from toxic people? That we need to be more discriminatory about who we let into our lives.

That, maybe, they amplify qualities in us that we don’t like about ourselves.

Aye, there’s the rub.

Hold up the mirror

I don’t always start off on the right foot with some people. They perceive me as arrogant and abrupt. Pat, one of my dearest friends who eventually willed her children’s care to me, saw these qualities in me.

We were working together at a large national company and we were among the top salespeople on the force. We, along with Yvonne, were sent to a big conference where our days started with everyone singing the company song together. (I know, cheesy but it was the ’80s and common practice. I swear.)

Yvonne and Pat spied some balloons and thought it would be a great lark to breathe in the helium, jump up on stage and sing with all their high-pitched, squeaky might.

They wanted reinforcements.

A conversation ensued.

Yvonne: Let’s get Janice.
Pat: Janice, but she’s such a bitch.
Yvonne: What? No, come on. She’ll do it.

Of course, I was happy to get on stage with them and sing along, completely changing Pat’s perception of me. We’ve been best friends ever since.

After I realized how Pat felt, though, I spent a lot of time trying to change how I presented myself to people. I wanted them to like me. I worked so hard at keeping everyone from seeing me as arrogant that I fell into imposter syndrome.

I was stressed out and exhausted, completely drained from trying to be someone I’m not. With my stress, the qualities people didn’t like about me were amplified.

I’m much healthier when I show up as me, strong and opinionated.

At the same time, I needed to take a look at how I show up. I got feedback from Pat (and others) that allowed me to see how I could communicate differently with people and become a bit more approachable.

Toxic people in our lives can help us get clearer about who we want to be.

They can remind us what our priorities are and what we need to protect. They show us that we must consciously choose to what or to whom we’re giving our time and resources.

What to do

Let’s say someone walks up to you and says, “You’re a bitch.”

How do you react? Do you laugh it off, do you get angry or do you respond in kind? Do you let that statement eat away at you for the rest of the day, wondering what you’ve done to let that someone think you’re a bitch?

Certainly, there’s a difference in how that person delivers the message. Her body language, her tone and her eye contact matter. She might be joking or she might be dead serious.

Your reaction is what matters.

If you let it impact you negatively, you go to a place of blame and shame. There’s a part of you that believes what she said or how she said it.

But not every encounter with a toxic person has a big Freudian experience. It’s her observation about you. If it’s the same person all the time with the same reaction, you have to realize you can’t change her way of thinking, unless she’s open to doing so.

You can work with yourself and how you respond and how communicate with that person.

And you can set up boundaries with yourself to keep that person from negatively affecting your day.

Boundaries, not walls

The easiest way to deal with toxic people is to say “eff it, I’m just not going anywhere anymore.”

But we’re social beings and we need the contact with others to grow and thrive. Yes, there are people who you can remove from your life. You can:

  • Stop answering the phone when they call
  • Unfriend them on social media
  • Decline invitations to be in their world

You must decrease the negative impact they have in your life.

However, if you know you’re going to come into contact with toxic people, your boundaries are how you protect yourself. You can:

  1. Set your intention.
  2. Focus your attention.
  3. Prevent any tension.

You have to structure your context of the interaction around “how do I want to engage with people — with this person.”

When I know I’m about to have a potentially toxic interaction, I go out of my way to be respectful. I stretch my comfort zone and open myself up to the conversation.

If that respect isn’t mutual, however, my boundaries kick in and I go back to my comfort zone. I disengage and go about my way.

I have to take responsibility for how I interact with toxic people. I own and protect what is right for me.

If we aren’t prepared by setting our boundaries, we let those toxic people have impact.

Boundaries — your limits on how and when to engage — are about a healthy relationship with yourself. They’re your filtering system for how much effect you allow toxic people to have.

They aren’t meant to be rigid. They can grow as we take in more information and get more feedback. They can even change for each person or situation we encounter.

They allow you to lower the stress you build up by anticipating toxic people and encounters with them.

And they allow you to grow and feel more confident, every time you use them.

Now if that thought doesn’t chase the clouds away …

Next week, we’ll look at navigating the toxic workplace.

I’m Janice Otremba, a professional speaker, facilitator and coach who specializes in stress management, health and wellness, personal growth and life balance. Let’s kick your butt into gear with simple, sound advice for beating burnout and powering up your happy. Book a free 15-minute consultation call with me to get started!

Image courtesy of scottchan at

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