A question came up the other day about how I handle “toxic people” around the holidays. My first thought was, yikes! I’m not touching that topic with a ten foot pole. Then, my wheels began to turn. In our communities, churches, families and places of work, we are all bound to run into difficult people, no matter what time of year it is. Over the last few years, I’ve learned a few strategies that have equipped me with the tools to navigate these interactions with a lot more grace than I once did.
Let me start by saying, this isn’t about any specific person I know. Using the term “toxic” to describe any of the people in my life would be a gross over-exageration. In fact, I’m really not all that keen on using “toxic” to describe humans in general. We need to be careful with the way we use that word.
Now, I’m certain there are plenty of scenarios when it is appropriate. Truly, deeply appropriate. I’m not here to speak on the subject of trauma or abusive relationships.
Instead, I’m talking about those “tricky people” in our lives. The ones that complicate and cut down. The ones that suck the life out us, and never seem to care or try harder. Using the word toxic to describe these people is rather hyperbolic and overgeneralized. Frankly, it does more damage than good.
What Happens When We Label Someone as Toxic
First, it gives them more power than they should have. Toxic is known as, “containing or being poisonous material” sometimes “capable of causing death or serious debilitation.”
Death or debilitation? These people only have that kind of power if we give it to them.
Second, it puts our tricky people inside a box. We begin to expect toxic content to flow from their lips and actions by constantly assuming the worst. It can quickly become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Third, we excuse our own actions. Rather than looking in the mirror to see what we could do differently, we can paint them as a toxic person, when we may play a bigger role than we care to admit.
Finally, describing a person as toxic devalues them. While there are people we’d all love to avoid, the reality is they too have been created in the image of God. They are worthy. They are loved.
At times, it’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true.
I’ve found the more grace I bestow on my tricky people, the more I learn about myself as well as them. It unlocks a deeper understanding of love, grit, God and grace itself. Most importantly, I realize, at times I too can be someone’s “tricky person,” in need of the very grace I’ve learned to bestow on others.
Here are 3 Concepts That Have Helped Me Dump Grace on My “Tricky People” When I’d Rather Not.
1. We Are All Doing the Best We Can
I’m sorry, I feel like you may have just glossed over that last sentence and read it like, “Oh Rachelle really liked that book. What’s it called again?“
Let me just say this. Rising Strong, by Brené Brown is required reading. It’s one of those books that shifts the way you see the world and the people in it. If you can’t dissect the whole book right now, I suggest you at least read chapter six, Sewer Rats and Scofflaws.
In this chapter, my girl Brené (I’m certain we would be friends in real life) shares her journey from assuming the worst in people to realizing that,
“People are doing the best they can.”
I know, it doesn’t seem like it, especially for those of us particularly bent toward needing to see justice play out, but they are. This has changed everything for me.
I started realizing that some of these “tricky relationships” were simply me, assuming everyone should be doing something more, something differently, something better.
But when I started to, as Brown puts it, “bury my idealized version” of everyone and “see them instead as people with struggles and limitations, with their own difficult histories and heartbreaks,” I found a lot more freedom.
I found I had a bucket load of grace to disperse! Instead of a hardened heart and an anxious mind full of resentment, I found more joy in these exact relationships I would have once called “toxic.”
“It means that we stop loving people for who they could be and start loving them for who they are.” -Brené Brown
Now that I think about it, read chapter seven as well, The Brave and the Brokenhearted. Oh for the love, just do yourself a favor and read the whole book.
2. Hurt People Hurt People
People hurt from a place of hurt. Realizing this helps us look past ourselves.
It allows me to step back from a hurtful or abrasive interaction and realize, this isn’t really about me.
Our “tricky people” could be struggling with fear, low self-worth, pain or maybe they simply had a rough morning.
I know this because I’ve been there too. When I don’t feel so great about myself, I lash out at the very people capable of pulling me from that darker place.
Be patient in the hurt and remember, hurt people hurt people.
3. Up Front Contract
This is a bit of advice I picked up from our long time friends, Aaron and Stacey.
Before entering any function, together they establish an “up front contract” by deciding ahead of time when they will be leaving. Whether it’s a work party, friendly gathering or family function, they agree upon and exit time before they even enter.
Implementing this simple strategy has done wonders in improving communication with my husband around these functions, which often tends to include our tricky people.
Prior to the up front contract, we’d have to rely on our eyeballs to tell each other when we were ready to get the heck out of dodge. You can’t shout over the room, “can we leave yet?” At least not where I come from.
With an up front contract I know ahead of time when we are leaving. It may require I brace myself for another hour when I can hear my couch calling my name. Or perhaps I need to wrap up a conversation I wish could last forever. When it’s time to go, it’s time to go.
The Holidays are notorious for exacerbating all the drama. It’s the time of year when we’re typically eating the least healthy, most financially stressed, overcommitted and missing those we’ve lost more then ever. Yet, in the spirit of the season we cram together in small spaces and raise our expectations for one another.
*This post contains an affiliate link for your convenience. If you buy the book through my link, I get some change in return…literally, like pennies. As always shop around or borrow from your local library. Though, if you’re anything like me, I suspect you’re going to want your own copy to mark up. This one’s worth owning.
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