Should toxic people come with warning labels?

We are taught to avoid toxic substances at a young age. One of my earliest school memories is of my grade one teacher putting ominous symbols on the wall and telling us not to touch or ingest anything branded with those images. This lesson is reinforced by parents, many of whom lock up toxic substances long after their kids are old enough to identify them, just in case.

The lessons are blunt and the message is clear. Any product that features a skull and crossbones, a flame, an exploding grenade or a skeletal hand dipped in liquid is poisonous, will seriously kill or harm you and should be avoided at all costs. There is no safe quantity or list of circumstances where their toxicity is less harmful. They are just poison, plain and simple.

Unfortunately toxic people don’t come with warning symbols. Wouldn’t it be great if they did? Imagine if people had to walk around with signs that said things like “Flammable when Threatened” or “Contains volatile emotions”.  If they did, you would avoid them in the first place or, if you had to interact with them, you could just wear a hazmat suit and sit on the other side of the table.

It’s not until high school at the earliest that we realize that some people have the ability to poison their environments, infect others and compromise their immune systems.  As we get older we learn to recognize the warning signs of toxic humans but unlike the bottle of toilet cleaner, it’s not instant. In fact, many toxic people are quite charming when you first meet them and often, by the time we see them for what they are, they’re in our inner circle.

Toxic people are everywhere – in our extended families, in our workplaces and even in volunteer organizations. They’re dramatic, belligerent, demanding and, like a poisonous substance, just a drop goes a long way. They blame everyone else for their problems and thrive on spreading chaos. And, just when you think you might have gotten through to them, they change the rules of engagement and leave you questioning your instincts.

Martha Beck, a life coach and bestselling author has great advice for coping with toxic people. She says, you wouldn’t try to negotiate with a bottle of rat poison. You wouldn’t think that if you approached it in a collaborative, helpful way that it would become less poisonous. You wouldn’t label it as misunderstood or socially-awkward. You accept its nature as 100% toxic. So why do we approach toxic people as if we can somehow charm them into being less noxious?

I’ve been guilty of this when encountering toxic people  in my personal and professional relationships. I’ve gone out of my way to be kind. I’ve consulted with them more, listened to them longer, tip-toed around them, given them undeserved praise and stroked their egos. And you know what? It’s never made them any less toxic. If anything, it’s strengthened them because they’re being rewarded for their bad behaviour.

From now on, I’m going to follow Martha’s great advice and accept them for what they are – poison. I may not be able to completely avoid them but as soon as I see the warning signs, I’ll go into lock-down, put up an invisible force field and keep the number for poison control close by.

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