It’s Narcissist Friday!
What is our responsibility, as believers, to the toxic people in our lives?
Can another believer be toxic to me?
What is a toxic person? A toxic person is someone who affects you in a negative way, poisoning your heart. In the presence of a toxic person, you become something you don’t want to be. You may be fearful, weak, angry, or even sad, but the emotions you experience will be inconsistent with how you want to feel and how you should feel in a normal relationship. In other words, a toxic person will damage you much like a poison destroys your health.
Narcissists are usually toxic people, toxic at least to certain others. Often through criticism, narcissists consistently bring certain people down. Sometimes by expectations or job requirements. Sometimes by gossip, or negative talk, or comparisons. Sometimes even by violent verbal and personal attacks. However they do it, narcissists bring people down.
You know what I mean. You are having a great day until the phone rings. It’s the narcissist. You know she will say something to discourage you, some unkind word. There goes your day. Work is great until the narcissist comes in, then everything goes downhill. I wonder how many drivers will narrowly escape an accident because another driver has been upset by a narcissist. I wonder how many kids and spouses will get yelled at. I wonder how many dogs and cats will be kicked. Toxic people bring everybody down.
And, of course, they go merrily on their way with no care about the harm they have done. When others are down, they feel lifted up. When others suffer, the narcissist is there to “help.”
So, as Christians, what are we supposed to do with toxic people? How should we respond to them, relate to them? What are our responsibilities as people who try to do the right things?
Before I try to answer that, let’s insert another question: Can another believer be toxic to me? In other words, if we are supposed to be one in Christ, should I be able to relate to everyone with peace and joy?
Let’s be honest. Some of the most difficult relationships in our lives are with people who consider themselves Christians. Whether they are or not may not be for us to say. All we know is that they are challenges to our sanity and peace.
Toxic people bring something into the relationship that hurts. I do not believe that Christians have two natures, but I do understand that Christians have their feet in two worlds. We read that we can walk with the Spirit or in the flesh. We can choose fleshly responses to life, or we can look to the Spirit for our help day by day. We live with that choice. The reality is that the flesh is the familiar and comfortable way for us. The flesh is self-serving, anxious, abusive, manipulating, and so much more. In relationships, the flesh is toxic. When a believer acts out of the flesh (which may be a regular pattern) that believer may be toxic, bringing hurt into our lives.
So, yes, believers can be toxic people even to other believers.
Now, as a Christian, how am I supposed to deal with toxic people?
First, we must be who we are. In Christ, we love others. In Christ, we forgive. In Christ, we desire peace with others. That’s who we are. To act contrary to that is to be (and feel) inconsistent.
Second, we are called to sacrifice, suffer, and serve in our relationships. Jesus modeled that for us. He put others first and suffered because of His love for them.
Third, we are not to entrust ourselves to toxic people or to anyone other than Christ. Knowing that people will use us, we must not let them define us or burden us with shame. Loving them does not mean agreeing with their assessment of us. Nor does it mean allowing our identity to be lost in the vacuum of theirs.
Fourth, love is possible from a safe distance. Once I identify someone as toxic, I have a responsibility to decide how closely I will relate to them. I don’t have to get together regularly, pretending that would be a good thing. Instead, I may choose to pray without contact. If a person will hurt me, I am certainly free to protect myself while I find ways to love from a distance. Yes, you can set boundaries even against other believers. You can also love them without contact.
Fifth, distance can be maintained in the heart even if not physically. In other words, I may have to work with the person or even live with the person, but wise and strong boundaries keep me safe. This may not be as easy as no-contact, but that isn’t always possible. I can choose to let criticisms and comparisons slide off as though I didn’t hear them. I can disagree with the toxic person. I can protect myself.
Sixth, my emotional health, along with physical, mental, and spiritual, must be maintained if I am to be of any value in any of my relationships. If your narcissistic mother brings her toxic criticisms to you, and you take them to your kids, you are hurting your kids. Keeping a safe distance from your mother may be the best gift you can give your kids. You must be healthy to give and to love.
Yes, Jesus sacrificed, but reading the Scriptures leads me to believe that He chose when and where and how to sacrifice. He didn’t heal everyone. He didn’t submit Himself to authorities until He was ready. He didn’t listen to the criticisms. He didn’t trust the crowds. Out of His health, He maintained His identity and purpose until the gift of love could be given. Surrounded by toxic people, even some of those closest to Him, He kept a distance in His heart. He could love them without losing Himself in their needs or desires.
And, in Him, so can we.