The 3 Steps to Take When Someone in Your Life Isn’t Serving You


You’ve likely heard of “toxic” individuals before - people who enter your life at one point or another and bring more negativity than positivity into it. They’re referred to as toxic because of their tendency to pollute our physical and/or emotional environments in some way, whether purposefully or unintentionally.

Many of us have encountered at least one person over the course of our lives who’s fit this bill. Perhaps they constantly brought drama to the table, or perhaps they were a continual burden, a bad influence, or a negative force for us. Maybe they even got us into trouble once or twice.

More often than not, when one of these individuals is in our midst for a period of time, we soon come to the recognize their toxic nature and purge them from our lives (sometimes by slowly and subtly distancing ourselves from them, and in other instances by swiftly and bluntly showing them to the exit).

But what do you do when someone who has been a part of your life for some time, maybe even for years, begins to have a toxic effect on you? And what if this person is someone whom you don’t want to remove from your life - perhaps your significant other or one of your family members?

This sort of scenario doesn’t have such a cut-and-dry answer, but when it arises, I’ve found the following three-step approach to be helpful:

1. Figure out what boundaries you need to establish.

a) To start, consider what adverse impact(s) this person is having on your life. (i.e., what symptoms or indicators of the problem have cropped up?)

Have you begun to feel more overwhelmed, stressed, unhappy, or [fill-in-this-blank with the applicable negative emotion] due to having them in your life? Have you noticed a consistent and downward-trending shift in your emotional space when this individual reaches out to you (whether by phone, computer, etc.) or enters your physical area?

Has there been a negative change in your health or wellness or in how you feel from a physical standpoint that you attribute to them? What signs or signals have you perceived that suggest this person might be a detrimental or toxic factor in your life?

b) Next, work to identify the root cause or issue at hand. (i.e., What diagnosis do the symptoms point to?)

In the interest of gaining more awareness of the influence that this person is having on you or your life, and to assist in identifying any patterns that may exist, try jotting down some particular instances in which they’ve held you back or negatively impacted you and see where they fall.

For instance, is this individual consistently distracting you or actively impeding you from working toward one or more of your goals? Are they draining your physical or emotional resources? Are they altering your surrounding environment in a way that isn’t serving you?

If you can gain awareness and come to recognize where in your life this person is affecting you, you can then move on to step 2 and begin to take some corrective action.

2. Speak with this individual to communicate your needs to them and solicit their support.

a) Be direct in setting or establishing boundaries with them.

If you communicate your new boundaries to this person in a kind, clear, and compassionate way (and if they respect you), they should be willing to grant you the space or time you’re requesting, or honor whatever other boundary you feel the need to put in place.

However, if you don’t ask for whatever it is that you need, it will be very difficult (if not impossible) for them to respect and honor your wishes, even if they want to do so.

The onus will initially fall on you to recognize what it is you need and what actions you must take in order to get those needs met. In other words, you’re ultimately responsible for taking the requisite steps to improve your own life.

b) Be clear in asking them what you need from them, if anything.  

Give this individual a fair shot to help you out and positively contribute to your life.

Consider the following example. Let’s say you’re looking to lose weight, and you discover that you’ve been gaining weight when you spend more time around this person. In response to this realization, what boundary or boundaries could you set for yourself?

Maybe you could try establishing the boundary of eating or drinking with that individual less frequently - once every week or two. Or perhaps you could suggest to them that you spend your time together engaging in a physical activity of some kind and actively solicit their help and buy-in to work toward your goal.

Maybe you need this individual to stop being a bad influence on you, so you ask them to help you by trying to set a more positive example in one or more areas. Or perhaps you need them to stop proposing activities that will distract you from your work, so you ask them to limit those activities to a certain day of the week or time of year.

Whatever your ask might be, strive to be clear in communicating: 1) your goal, 2) what’s keeping you from accomplishing that goal, and 3) how that person can help you (or at least not impede you) with respect to it.

3. If all else fails, try taking a break and getting some space for a bit.

You may need to establish a more substantial boundary initially in order to help you reset or better recognize what your needs are and how they can be met.

There’s a chance that you might find you’re much happier without that person in your life. When this proves to be the case, it can be hard to accept that reality, and you’ll ultimately need to decide for yourself how to proceed.

You may choose to make one or more sacrifices in order to keep that individual in your life. (If you go this route, just be sure to consciously accept and acknowledge that you’re making that decision and be prepared to own its consequences. Otherwise, you may come to unfairly resent that person for a decision that you’ve made of your own accord).

Alternatively, you may decide that it’s time to let go. Unfortunately, sometimes all of the effort in the world isn’t enough to resolve things, and we find that we need to let go of others who are hurting us or causing us pain.

Our relationships with others are complex, and there’s rarely a “right” answer. Only you can determine what’s best for you.

I’ve personally found that the people in our lives who truly care about us will usually be willing to invest the time and effort to try to meet our needs, provided that we are kind and respectful in expressing those needs and willing to reciprocate by working to honor their needs as well. And it’s those types of people that are worth holding onto.