Immunize Yourself Against Toxic People

by Jody Pawel

Most parents will attend a family gathering this holiday season. Many will also endure a chronically negative or critical relative. You know who I mean. Every family seems to have at least one. That person we avoid all year long but have to see at holidays because we're related.

If you don't have a relative like this, count your blessings -- then look at your workplace or neighborhood. You probably have someone in your life that fits this bill. However we know this person, we need a plan for keeping our sanity and self-esteem intact when we're around these toxic people.

Why People Criticize

Sometimes people mean well, but express themselves poorly. Seek the value in what these people say, instead of reacting to the way they say it.

Other people criticize because they are pessimists or know-it-alls. You probably can't change them, but you can protect yourself from their toxic personalities. Spray your shoulder with imaginary ScotchGuard so their comments roll off your back. Or imagine you are surrounded by a clear bubble so their negativity bounces off you.

Mean-spirited people will intentionally criticize to get revenge or express jealousy. They thrill in pointing out your mistakes or shortcomings. Present yourself humbly and attempt to resolve the hurts between you.

When people criticize parents, they are often insecure about their own parenting. They see different parenting methods as indicators that they did a poor job. Remind these people that society, children and parenting information changes over time. Reassure them that they did their best and ask for their support as you attempt to do the same.

Responding to Criticism

If you are repeatedly criticized by someone you can't avoid, plan ahead for the next attack.

  • First, recall what the person usually says. Plan a respectful response and practice it in your mind or with a person who knows the criticizer and what he or she might say or do.
  • Start your response by acknowledging the other person’s feelings or perspective. "I can understand how you might feel that way..." or "...how it might seem that...."
  • Then set limits or express your feelings respectfully, "I feel..." or "I've decided to..." Speak for yourself, without attacking them.
  • Remain firm. Don't defend or explain yourself, unless someone is truly interested in your opinion.

If you react to criticism like me, you stand there stunned with your jaw dropped to the floor. Over the next week, you think of a million things you could have said. At these times, it helps to have some assertive one-liners, like these:

  • "We've researched this, discussed it and have decided..." Or "I know it might not work for everyone, but we’ve decided..."
  • "I'll consider that." Then give the idea some thought...even if only for one second!
  • Acknowledge that "there is probably some truth" in what they said, without making any commitment to change.
  • Ask, "Why do you ask?" To answer, the person must admit their hurtful motive, so they usually don't answer and disengage.
  • Agree to disagree and
  • change the subject. Ignore the cut. Forgive and forget, if you can.
  • Use humor. A mother-in-law once asked, "How long are you going to breast-feed anyway?" The toddler's mother replied, "Well, what do you think they have recess for?" The mother-in-law realized her question was ridiculous and never brought it up again.

When to Set Limits

If none of these tactics work, set limits in the following order:

1. Say you will not respond to criticism -- then follow through.

2. Set guidelines for your visits with this person, such as what you will discuss, how you will respond or how you expect others to treat you or your children. Set time limits for visits. Have toxic out-of-town relatives limit their visit to a few days or stay at a nearby hotel. The cost is worth preventing a nervous breakdown or major blow-up.

3. If they won't respect your limits, leave or keep visits on your turf, where your family rules are in effect.

It can feel awkward or seem taboo to set these kinds of limits, especially with our elders. Our goal is to do what is best for our emotional health and our children's, by trying to resolve conflicts peacefully and assertively. Our positive efforts will often detoxify these negative critics. If not, we'll know we've done our part and are not contributing to further hurt.

Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is a second-generation parent educator and president of Parents Toolshop® Consulting. She is the author of 100+ resources for parents and family service professionals, including her award-winning book, The Parent's Toolshop® at Parent's Toolshop® Consulting, Ltd. Since 1980, Jody has trained parents and professionals through her dynamic presentations and served as internationally recognized parenting expert to the media worldwide. Get practical parenting resources, including more information about this topic at Parent's Toolshop®'s archive.

© Jody Johnston Pawel. Permission to republish provided by Net Connect Publicity.

Image provided by Steve Ford Elliott.