Dealing with a toxic person is never fun, but having to answer to or try to please a toxic person who has power over you can be pure torture. But if you find yourself in this unfortunate situation, don't despair. There are things you can do to preserve your working relationship and your own sanity at the same time.
Many employed people believe that if only they could work for themselves, they'd never have to put up with a rude, manipulative, or overly demanding person ever again, or at least not while at work. Those of us who actually are self-employed know better. Instead of a single bad boss, we may have to answer to multiple demanding clients or suffer through high-handed treatment from people who believe the old adage that the customer is always right. You want to tell these jerks to take a hike, but with your employees and investors counting on you, that usually isn't an option.
What should you do instead? In an insightful post at Psychology Today, clinical psychologist Seth Meyers offers some solid advice (he calls them "difficult" rather than "toxic" people). Here are a few of his tips.
1. Avoid sharing personal information or your true opinions.
Knowledge is power, and the more a toxic person knows about you, the more power he or she will have. So while openness and honesty can help you create a healthy relationship in most situations, when you're dealing with a toxic person they can put you in danger of further emotional abuse or manipulation.
So avoid telling the toxic person anything you wouldn't want the whole world to know. Don't share information about your personal life, and in particular if you have strong feelings about something being discussed, don't let the toxic person know. "Anything with emotional content should be avoided with a difficult person who has power over you," Meyers writes. The less a toxic person knows about you, the less ammunition he or she has.
2. Always be prepared, organized, and centered.
The more prepared you are in any encounter with the toxic person, the better. Have all the data you need at hand, and make sure you're up-to-date with anything you were supposed to deliver. Just as important, Meyers advises, you should do your best to make sure you feel emotionally calm and strong when you're in the toxic person's presence. He or she will have the greatest power over you "when you're caught off-guard, feeling vulnerable, or upset in any way," Meyers writes.
3. Get the toxic person to like you.
I know, I know. Why would you want to make friends with someone who treats people badly? It may be the last thing you want to do, and yet it's absolutely to your advantage.
Meyers recommends expressing gratitude for every little thing the toxic person does for you. That's a great idea, and so is getting to know the person better, learning about him or her, while divulging as little as possible about yourself. Just because you dislike the toxic person doesn't mean he or she should dislike you. Getting the toxic person to like you can help tip the balance of power in your favor, if only a little bit. There are many ways to make someone like you, but one of the most surprising is to ask that person for a favor, something called the "Ben Franklin effect" because Ben Franklin discovered it and wrote about it more than 200 years ago.
Follow this advice and something surprising may happen -- you may start to hate the toxic person a little less. Most toxic people got that way for a reason, and the more you learn about their history, the more you may understand their motivations. You may even be able to change the dynamic of your relationship for the better.
4. Take care of yourself.
Having to answer to a toxic person is incredibly wearing. So if you're in that situation, taking care of your own emotional and physical health should be a top priority. This includes things that promote mindfulness, such as meditation or journal writing. But it's also important to include several different activities that let you deal with your frustrations and blow off steam, such as talking with understanding friends and engaging in sports. "When you're entrenched in such a difficult, no-way-to-win dynamic, utilize multiple coping skills to manage the complex feelings that arise," Meyers advises.
Ultimately, the best way to take care of yourself if you have to answer to a toxic person is to get out of that situation as soon as you can. Find a new customer or business partner, branch out into a different area, or do whatever you must to remove yourself from the toxic person's power.
That may seem difficult, but, as Meyers says, stop and ask yourself how long you can put up with the toxicity before your emotional and physical health are affected. Dealing with a toxic person "is a chronic problem as long as you stay in the orbit of that difficult personality," he writes. Once you do escape that orbit, you may be surprised to learn how much more mental and emotional energy you have, now that they're not being drained.