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Strategies for Dealing With Toxic People

Learn how to navigate challenging behavior at home or in the workplace.

We all know them: Friends, co-workers, or family members whose behaviors leave us feeling down, frustrated, and drained. Individuals who enervate, not energize. People we sometimes call toxic.

While studying in an online clinical mental health counseling program, you will learn to recognize the personality traits that fuel behaviors often called toxic, a word Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines as extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful.1 And while toxic personality is not a psychological diagnosis,2 the behaviors behind these unpleasant and damaging encounters could be a sign of a personality disorder, as cited in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).3

Strategies for Dealing With Toxic People

According to the DSM-5, the most recent edition of the manual, “The essential features of a personality disorder are impairments in personality (self and interpersonal) functioning and the presence of pathological personality traits.” A person diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder, for example, may have an “impaired ability to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.” Their relationships may be “largely superficial and exist to serve self-esteem regulation; mutually constrained by little genuine interest in others’ experiences and predominance of a need for personal gain.” They may exhibit feelings of entitlement, and a need to be admired and the center of attention.3 You may know a person who exhibits those and other tendencies, with whom interactions are frustrating and unproductive.

While diagnoses should be left to mental health professionals, people we call toxic may demonstrate traits found in other DSM-5-identified personality disorders. Master’s programs in clinical mental health counseling can help you learn to identify potential root causes of other behaviors that when excessive may feel toxic to others: negativity, lying, or anger. Toxic people can be controlling and often portray themselves as victims. Their behavior may be judgmental or manipulative, and they may always need to be right. They may be people around whom others feel they are walking on eggshells so as not to provoke an outburst.

For those who encounter toxic people unaware of their behaviors or making no attempt to modulate them, it’s helpful to remember the “3 Cs” of some 12-step programs: You didn’t cause it, you can’t control it, you can’t cure it.4 You can, however, control how you react to any situation. That’s where strategies for dealing with toxic behavior come into play. How you interact with people exhibiting toxic behaviors can be vital to your success at work and at home. Here are key approaches to help navigate your way through relationships with challenging people:

  • Identify unproductive or poisonous behaviors and examine how you react to them. Becoming self-aware and tuning in to your needs are powerful weapons against toxicity.
  • Sit down with the individual and use an I-statement or an I-message to communicate your concerns.5 The Ohio Commission on Dispute Resolution and Conflict Management offers this four-part framework to structure discussions:
    1. “I feel like ________.” (Take responsibility for one’s own feelings.)
    2. “I don’t like it when ___________.” (State the behavior that is a problem.)
    3. “Because ______________.” (What it is about the behavior or its consequences that one objects to?)
    4. “Can we work this out together?” (Be open to working on the problem together.)
  • Propose joint sessions with a licensed clinical mental health counselor, or discussions with a human resources manager, if appropriate to the relationship. If you supervise an individual displaying toxic behaviors in the workplace, you might refer him or her to an employee assistance program or suggest career counseling. Perhaps the job is the wrong fit.
  • Seek counseling yourself or meet with a human resources director to get professional viewpoints on how best to manage the situation.
  • Set boundaries. Remember, you can only change your own behavior. You might limit your time with a friend whose behavior deteriorates into toxicity or change how and where you interact. Or you might choose a phone call with a difficult relative rather than a visit because it’s easier to get off the phone and less awkward than leaving a restaurant or their home.
  • Remove the toxic person from your life. This is the most extreme measure, but sometimes it’s necessary to maintain self-esteem and equilibrium. If the relationship is with a family member, it may be difficult or unrealistic to exercise this option. The other strategies can help. If it’s a boss or co-worker unwilling to change toxic behaviors and you have no support from the human resources department to correct the situation, it may be time to look for another job.

Learn More in an Online Clinical Mental Health Counseling Program

As a working professional, you can pursue an MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling online and immediately use what you’re learning to deepen your understanding of human behavior.

An accredited MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling program can give you the confidence, qualifications, and critical thinking skills to help clients cope with daily life. You can also help them address their most significant challenges—some of which may lead them to exhibit toxic behaviors. Your focus on assisting them to develop their strengths and find their own solutions to issues can help them navigate life more successfully and harmoniously.

When selecting an online degree program, look for specializations that mesh with your interests and career goals. In addition to a general program, Walden University’s master’s program in clinical mental health counseling includes specializations in Addiction Counseling, Forensic Counseling, Military Families and Culture, and Trauma and Crisis Counseling. Walden’s program is accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP), a specialized accrediting body recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA), which is a requirement for licensure in many states.

The job outlook is bright for individuals seeking an MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects a 23% increase in jobs through 2026, resulting in an additional 60,300 jobs for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors.6 A licensed clinical mental health counselor salary varies depending on the specialty and industry in which you practice. The BLS reports counselors working in government in May 2017 earned median annual salaries of $50,600, the highest they recorded. The median annual wage for substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors was $43,300. The highest 10% of earners received more than $70,840. The lowest 10% earned less than $27,310.6

Use skills from your clinical mental health master’s program to work with children and adults in settings that include community mental health centers; domestic violence, emergency, and homeless shelters; correctional facilities; employee assistance programs; and child and family service agencies. Help others reach their potential, grow in your own self-awareness, and advance your career with an online master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an MS in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,