On November 1, 2006 Alexander Litvinenko, a former lieutenant colonel of Russia’s Federal Security Service, suddenly fell ill and was hospitalized. Three weeks later, he was dead, a victim of a toxic substance identified as polonium-210, a radioisotope that caused a painful death. He had been poisoned, and it wasn’t by fast food he had eaten on a London street corner. He had become a victim of a toxic substance, a poison, given to him by someone who obviously wanted him dead.
There are some individuals who are toxic, period! No, they may not have put polonium-210 in your food or drink, but they are not good for you. They may be in your office or workforce. They may be living down the street from you, or you run into them at school or the club. Escaping them is not always an option.
Notice that there are degrees of toxicity. The more you rub shoulders with them, the more time you spend with them, the more they poison you. The toxicity in their life begins to poison you. “Why not do it?” they prod you, realizing fully that what they are asking you to do violates your ethics or morality.
How do you handle toxic people in a toxic world?
Begin by putting as much distance or space as you can between yourself and the person you have come to acknowledge as being toxic. “If it is possible,” wrote Paul to Roman Christians who were trying to survive in a toxic city, “as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18). There are three thoughts that will help you. Three phrases, which are, “I didn’t… I can’t… I won’t.” First, tell yourself, “I didn’t create the toxicity in this person’s life. I am not responsible for what he or she does. Then, “I can’t control what that person does” and “I won’t change her,” so don’t try. Just don’t let the person infect you with what you dislike about that person.
“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Matthew 16:6
The second step to countering the influence of toxic people is to be your own person. Perhaps you haven’t quite figured out the secret of success, but it’s clear that the secret of failure is to try to keep everybody happy all of the time. Don’t try to put the ball back across the net. Walk off the court and don’t try to play the games they play with you. You lose every time you violate your conscience trying to be “cool” or fit into the scene you know is toxic.
Then set boundaries. Decide where you are going to draw the line, and when you feel pushed across the line into an area of behavior that you know is wrong, are uncomfortable with, or make you compromise your convictions, say, “Enough is enough! I can’t handle that.” Will there be a price to pay? Of course. But it’s worth it. When you are true to your conscience you are true to the Lord, and this brings me to my final suggestion in handling toxic people in your life.
Rick Warren put it like this: Live for an audience of One. Paul wrote to Christians in Thessalonica and said, “We are not trying to please men but God, who tests our hearts” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). Toxic individuals are not real friends. They will not be there for you when the going gets tough. They use you. They break down your resistance to what is right and then mock you for your failure to stand and be counted.
You won’t eliminate all the toxic people in your life, but you can keep them from infecting you. Keep up your guard and stay healthy.
Resource reading: Matthew 16:1-12