Published on December 31, 2020

How To Stay Away From Toxic People When It’s Hard To Do So

How To Stay Away From Toxic People When It’s Hard To Do So

Maintaining a relationship with someone who’s self-absorbed, judgmental, manipulative, or even downright antagonistic requires an enormous amount of emotional energy. Yet, many of us stay on good terms with people like this in our lives. Why is it sometimes difficult to stay away from toxic people?

Why? Because it’s incredibly challenging to stay away from toxic people, especially when they’re our family members or friends. These types of people tend to be charismatic, socially popular, and overall fun to be around—except when their wrath is targeted at you.

What exactly makes a person “toxic,” you ask?

In applied psychology, researchers evaluate toxic personality traits within the scope of the “Dark Triad” of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.

According to a study in The Handbook of Interpersonal Psychology, narcissism involves grandiosity, an egocentric mindset, and an exaggerated sense of personal entitlement; Machiavellianism refers to “strategic manipulation;” and psychopathy relates to apathy, impulsivity, and thrill-seeking behaviors.[1]

Therefore, there are many different types of toxic people out there. Some may just be irritating to interact with (e.g., a friend who constantly brags about their life) while others can have potentially devastating impacts on your happiness, self-esteem, health, and general well-being.

If you recognize some of these antisocial traits in someone from your life, what can you do to stay away from toxic people and protect your sense of self-worth and life satisfaction?

The following sections offer a variety of research-backed psychological and interpersonal strategies to help you successfully navigate (or even cease) relations with the toxic family members and friends.


Toxic Family Members

If you are dating or related to a toxic person, it can be challenging—if not impossible—to stay away from them altogether. For romantic partners and married couples, recognizing the signs of a toxic relationship is a good first step, but it’s not as simple as breaking up and moving on with your life.

The same problem arises with immediate family members—it’s just not realistic to avoid them (especially if you live with or near them) and cutting ties is an enormously complicated and emotionally exhausting decision that shouldn’t be made lightly.

If this family member is unbearably toxic and unwilling to change, perhaps you’ll eventually reach a point where you can let go of the relationship and move away from them. However, if you want to stay away from toxic people without relocating or inciting tiresome family drama, there are two ways to limit their influence over your life without severing the relationship:

1. Establish Firm Communication Boundaries

The problem with toxic people is that they either lack self-awareness about how their words and actions negatively affect people around them or they’re actually well-aware of their apathetic, manipulative tendencies and aren’t in any hurry to change their ways if nobody presses them to.

Remember the Golden Rule of “treat others as you would want to be treated?” Forget that for now, and embrace the principles of the Platinum Rule, which involves treating others how they want to be treated.

The Platinum Rule is superior to the Golden Rule when dealing with a toxic family member because it requires a meaningful discussion about how you two interact with each other, rather than leaving you to make assumptions about how the other person wants to be treated.

A word of caution: one of the most common traits of toxic people is a persistent refusal to accept personal responsibility or empathize with another person who’s upset or harmed by them. If you approach the conversation from the one-sided angle of “you hurt me and we need to talk,” there’s a good chance they’ll refuse to listen, dismiss your concerns to avoid the discussion entirely, or possibly twist it around and project blame onto you.

You don’t owe a toxic, hurtful person anything. However, if you want to increase your chances of them genuinely listening to your concerns and changing their ways, here are some scripts to help you start setting firmer interpersonal communication boundaries:


  • “When you said ____________, it made me feel ____________ because ____________. I would prefer it if you said/did ____________ in the future instead.”
  • “I don’t appreciate the way you ____________. It hurts my feelings because ____________. Would you be willing to discuss alternatives with me?”
  • “I love and care about you, but I’m not a fan of how you ____________ because ____________. I think it would make our relationship/communication better if we could both do ____________.”

2. Practice Self-Distancing

We all learned what “social distancing” is in 2020. But what about self-distancing?

This concept refers to psychologically removing yourself from an event and engaging in adaptive self-reflection to moderate your own thoughts and feelings about the person or situation. Self-distancing is similar to mindfulness techniques in that you become more aware of yourself while developing the emotional resilience necessary to successfully manage interpersonal conflicts.

For example, say you’re dealing with a family member who refuses to ever take responsibility or apologize for their words and actions. You probably know from experience that there’s no point in arguing endlessly with a toxic person in hopes that they’ll give up at some point and admit fault (truly toxic people rarely concede first, if at all).

In this case, self-distancing would involve taking a step back and assessing the issue from the perspective of a neutral, external observer. It helps if you imagine the problem is happening to a friend instead of you.

At this point, you might be wondering: if my family member is the toxic person—and thus, unlikely to care much about my feelings—then why shouldn’t I reflect on my own feelings?

The answer lies in our tendency to get emotionally agitated or overwhelmed when reflecting on people and experiences that upset us.

The Journal of Personality published a study in 2019 that compared the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral implications of self-distancing as a response to adverse experiences as opposed to self-immersion (reflecting on negative people and/or incidents with an emphasis on their own thoughts and feelings on the matter). The study ultimately found that individuals who engaged in self-distancing were more likely to experience significant growth in positive emotionality but no increase in negative emotionality.[2]

It’s not easy at first, but if you genuinely want to stay away from toxic people and achieve emotional freedom from their manipulative clutches, then here are two self-distancing techniques to start practicing in your daily life:


  • Reflect on events with third-person pronouns. Self-talk is most effective when you frame thoughts and feelings using he/she/they pronouns instead of I, me, or my. For instance, you could ask yourself, “Why did their sister say that to them?” instead of framing it as “Why did my sister say that to me?” This helps with self-distancing by temporarily depersonalizing your connection to the incident, thereby allowing you to reflect on it from a more neutral point-of-view.
  • Engage in expressive writing. Spend 20 minutes writing down all of your thoughts and rawest emotions related to the conflict you’re experiencing with a family member. This open-ended journaling technique is called expressive writing and should only be done for yourself (i.e., don’t share it with anyone afterward; you’re just getting everything out on paper so you can better manage and articulate your emotions later).

Toxic Friends

Which group brings you the most happiness—your family or your friends?

Two studies assessing nearly 300,000 adults worldwide found that friendships tend to produce the best outcomes for an individual’s happiness and health.[3] This could be because we consciously choose to interact with friends whereas family relationships feel more like obligations we’re required to fulfill.

Interestingly, the aforementioned studies found that when friendships are reportedly “stressful,” individuals are likely to report higher rates of disease as well. On the other hand, family relationships have comparatively little influence over a person’s health and well-being.

While these broad statistical findings don’t apply to everyone equally, this nevertheless suggests that toxic friends could be more destructive for your health and happiness than toxic family members.

If you’re friends with raging narcissists, aggressive manipulators, or vocal complainers who are negative about everything, you can stay away from toxic people like them without abandoning your friendship or mutual social circles using the following strategies:

1. Discuss the Issue With Them Directly

How close are you to this friend? If you’ve been friends for years and they’ve only recently started acting this way, you should directly address your concerns with them (preferably not over text or email, but these electronic avenues are preferable to never bring up the problem at all).

Following some conflict management guidelines, you should calmly introduce the problem, acknowledge any personal responsibility you may have in the conflict, and propose a compromise that’s fair to both parties.

If you do all of the above and your friend still blows you off (or blows up), then your next step would be determining whether the friendship is worth continuing in its current state or not. After all, the primary purpose of a friendship is to provide mutual companionship and support. If only one person is willing to put in the time and effort to make it work, then it’s preferable to stay away from toxic people like that friend so you can save your emotional energy for someone else who will treat you the way you deserve to be treated.


2. Limit Social Media Interactions

If your friendship is more casual or if you don’t want to burn bridges entirely, then your next step should be minimizing your online interactions with them. Staying on close terms with a friend who regularly strives to make you feel envious, posts upsetting things, or disparages you can have devastating consequences on your mental and emotional well-being.

What’s worse: your toxic friend’s words and actions aren’t the only problems. The Internet itself—especially social media—is a seemingly endless breeding ground for toxic interactions between people.

Yale Professor of Psychology Dr. M.J. Crockett wrote in a 2017 analysis in Nature Human Behavior that digital media encourage expressions of outrage by exacerbating emotional triggers, reducing reputational risks for individuals, and enhancing potential benefits to be gained from toxic rhetoric and behavior online.[4]

A 2020 study of how social media platforms’ technical architectures influence toxic communication among users also found that these sites’ algorithms privilege emotionally-charged, inflammatory content to drive the greatest possible engagement (views, likes, clicks, comments).[5] In other words, social media allows toxicity to flourish while camaraderie flounders.

To minimize the negative consequences of engaging with toxic friends on social media without having to de-friend or block them entirely, you can do the following:

  • Mute or unfollow them. Most social media platforms offer users options to hide a certain person’s posts and stories without notifying the other person that you muted them. Similar to self-distancing, this simple strategy allows you to get a much-needed break from seeing their posts and photos without severing the friendship altogether.
  • Enhance your posts’ privacy. If your friend constantly makes negative comparisons between you two, harshly judges or mocks you for what you post (even if “it’s just a joke!”), or otherwise uses personal information to make you feel terrible about yourself, then it’s time to tighten up your privacy controls and restrict them from seeing your content.

Final Takeaways

It’s hard to stay away from toxic people when you’re physically and emotionally close to them the way we are with our family members and friends. In these types of relationships, it’s just not as simple as recognizing their toxic traits, realizing you deserve to be treated better, and cutting your losses so you can move on with your life.

To preserve your own happiness and well-being, boundary-setting and self-distancing are essential techniques you can use regardless of whether the toxic individual is willing to listen to you and put in the effort to change the way they treat you or not.

We can’t control the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others, but we can control our own.


More Tips on How to Stay Away From Toxic People

Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via


More by this author

Kelly Kehoe

Kelly is a full-time professor of communication studies with over 12 years of award-winning experience in public speaking, persuasion and debate.

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Last Updated on July 20, 2021

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

How to Overcome the Fear of Public Speaking (A Step-by-Step Guide)

You’re standing behind the curtain, just about to make your way on stage to face the many faces half-shrouded in darkness in front of you. As you move towards the spotlight, your body starts to feel heavier with each step. A familiar thump echoes throughout your body – your heartbeat has gone off the charts.

Don’t worry, you’re not the only one with glossophobia(also known as speech anxiety or the fear of speaking to large crowds). Sometimes, the anxiety happens long before you even stand on stage.

Your body’s defence mechanism responds by causing a part of your brain to release adrenaline into your blood – the same chemical that gets released as if you were being chased by a lion.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you overcome your fear of public speaking:

1. Prepare yourself mentally and physically

According to experts, we’re built to display anxiety and to recognize it in others. If your body and mind are anxious, your audience will notice. Hence, it’s important to prepare yourself before the big show so that you arrive on stage confident, collected and ready.

“Your outside world is a reflection of your inside world. What goes on in the inside, shows on the outside.” – Bob Proctor

Exercising lightly before a presentation helps get your blood circulating and sends oxygen to the brain. Mental exercises, on the other hand, can help calm the mind and nerves. Here are some useful ways to calm your racing heart when you start to feel the butterflies in your stomach:

Warming up

If you’re nervous, chances are your body will feel the same way. Your body gets tense, your muscles feel tight or you’re breaking in cold sweat. The audience will notice you are nervous.

If you observe that this is exactly what is happening to you minutes before a speech, do a couple of stretches to loosen and relax your body. It’s better to warm up before every speech as it helps to increase the functional potential of the body as a whole. Not only that, it increases muscle efficiency, improves reaction time and your movements.

Here are some exercises to loosen up your body before show time:


  1. Neck and shoulder rolls – This helps relieve upper body muscle tension and pressure as the rolls focus on rotating the head and shoulders, loosening the muscle. Stress and anxiety can make us rigid within this area which can make you feel agitated, especially when standing.
  2. Arm stretches – We often use this part of our muscles during a speech or presentation through our hand gestures and movements. Stretching these muscles can reduce arm fatigue, loosen you up and improve your body language range.
  3. Waist twists – Place your hands on your hips and rotate your waist in a circular motion. This exercise focuses on loosening the abdominal and lower back regions which is essential as it can cause discomfort and pain, further amplifying any anxieties you may experience.

Stay hydrated

Ever felt parched seconds before speaking? And then coming up on stage sounding raspy and scratchy in front of the audience? This happens because the adrenaline from stage fright causes your mouth to feel dried out.

To prevent all that, it’s essential we stay adequately hydrated before a speech. A sip of water will do the trick. However, do drink in moderation so that you won’t need to go to the bathroom constantly.

Try to avoid sugary beverages and caffeine, since it’s a diuretic – meaning you’ll feel thirstier. It will also amplify your anxiety which prevents you from speaking smoothly.


Meditation is well-known as a powerful tool to calm the mind. ABC’s Dan Harris, co-anchor of Nightline and Good Morning America weekend and author of the book titled10% Happier , recommends that meditation can help individuals to feel significantly calmer, faster.

Meditation is like a workout for your mind. It gives you the strength and focus to filter out the negativity and distractions with words of encouragement, confidence and strength.

Mindfulness meditation, in particular, is a popular method to calm yourself before going up on the big stage. The practice involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future – which likely includes floundering on stage.

Here’s a nice example of guided meditation before public speaking:

2. Focus on your goal

One thing people with a fear of public speaking have in common is focusing too much on themselves and the possibility of failure.

Do I look funny? What if I can’t remember what to say? Do I look stupid? Will people listen to me? Does anyone care about what I’m talking about?’

Instead of thinking this way, shift your attention to your one true purpose – contributing something of value to your audience.


Decide on the progress you’d like your audience to make after your presentation. Notice their movements and expressions to adapt your speech to ensure that they are having a good time to leave the room as better people.

If your own focus isn’t beneficial and what it should be when you’re speaking, then shift it to what does. This is also key to establishing trust during your presentation as the audience can clearly see that you have their interests at heart.[1]

3. Convert negativity to positivity

There are two sides constantly battling inside of us – one is filled with strength and courage while the other is doubt and insecurities. Which one will you feed?

‘What if I mess up this speech? What if I’m not funny enough? What if I forget what to say?’

It’s no wonder why many of us are uncomfortable giving a presentation. All we do is bring ourselves down before we got a chance to prove ourselves. This is also known as a self-fulfilling prophecy – a belief that comes true because we are acting as if it already is. If you think you’re incompetent, then it will eventually become true.

Motivational coaches tout that positive mantras and affirmations tend to boost your confidents for the moments that matter most. Say to yourself: “I’ll ace this speech and I can do it!”

Take advantage of your adrenaline rush to encourage positive outcome rather than thinking of the negative ‘what ifs’.

Here’s a video of Psychologist Kelly McGonigal who encourages her audience to turn stress into something positive as well as provide methods on how to cope with it:

4. Understand your content

Knowing your content at your fingertips helps reduce your anxiety because there is one less thing to worry about. One way to get there is to practice numerous times before your actual speech.


However, memorizing your script word-for-word is not encouraged. You can end up freezing should you forget something. You’ll also risk sounding unnatural and less approachable.

“No amount of reading or memorizing will make you successful in life. It is the understanding and the application of wise thought that counts.” – Bob Proctor

Many people unconsciously make the mistake of reading from their slides or memorizing their script word-for-word without understanding their content – a definite way to stress themselves out.

Understanding your speech flow and content makes it easier for you to convert ideas and concepts into your own words which you can then clearly explain to others in a conversational manner. Designing your slides to include text prompts is also an easy hack to ensure you get to quickly recall your flow when your mind goes blank.[2]

One way to understand is to memorize the over-arching concepts or ideas in your pitch. It helps you speak more naturally and let your personality shine through. It’s almost like taking your audience on a journey with a few key milestones.

5. Practice makes perfect

Like most people, many of us are not naturally attuned to public speaking. Rarely do individuals walk up to a large audience and present flawlessly without any research and preparation.

In fact, some of the top presenters make it look easy during showtime because they have spent countless hours behind-the-scenes in deep practice. Even great speakers like the late John F. Kennedy would spend months preparing his speech beforehand.

Public speaking, like any other skill, requires practice – whether it be practicing your speech countless of times in front of a mirror or making notes. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect!

6. Be authentic

There’s nothing wrong with feeling stressed before going up to speak in front of an audience.

Many people fear public speaking because they fear others will judge them for showing their true, vulnerable self. However, vulnerability can sometimes help you come across as more authentic and relatable as a speaker.


Drop the pretence of trying to act or speak like someone else and you’ll find that it’s worth the risk. You become more genuine, flexible and spontaneous, which makes it easier to handle unpredictable situations – whether it’s getting tough questions from the crowd or experiencing an unexpected technical difficulty.

To find out your authentic style of speaking is easy. Just pick a topic or issue you are passionate about and discuss this like you normally would with a close family or friend. It is like having a conversation with someone in a personal one-to-one setting. A great way to do this on stage is to select a random audience member(with a hopefully calming face) and speak to a single person at a time during your speech. You’ll find that it’s easier trying to connect to one person at a time than a whole room.

With that said, being comfortable enough to be yourself in front of others may take a little time and some experience, depending how comfortable you are with being yourself in front of others. But once you embrace it, stage fright will not be as intimidating as you initially thought.

Presenters like Barack Obama are a prime example of a genuine and passionate speaker:

7. Post speech evaluation

Last but not the least, if you’ve done public speaking and have been scarred from a bad experience, try seeing it as a lesson learned to improve yourself as a speaker.

Don’t beat yourself up after a presentation

We are the hardest on ourselves and it’s good to be. But when you finish delivering your speech or presentation, give yourself some recognition and a pat on the back.

You managed to finish whatever you had to do and did not give up. You did not let your fears and insecurities get to you. Take a little more pride in your work and believe in yourself.

Improve your next speech

As mentioned before, practice does make perfect. If you want to improve your public speaking skills, try asking someone to film you during a speech or presentation. Afterwards, watch and observe what you can do to improve yourself next time.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself after every speech:


  • How did I do?
  • Are there any areas for improvement?
  • Did I sound or look stressed?
  • Did I stumble on my words? Why?
  • Was I saying “um” too often?
  • How was the flow of the speech?

Write everything you observed down and keep practicing and improving. In time, you’ll be able to better manage your fears of public speaking and appear more confident when it counts.

If you want even more tips about public speaking or delivering a great presentation, check out these articles too:


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