Memories of Toxic People

I’ve been thinking lately about toxic people. People whose presence, words, and influence are overall detrimental to you. Sometimes these people are family members. Sometimes they’re friends or coworkers or fellow students or volunteers. You don’t always get to “leave them behind,” as the Facebook memes say. You don’t always get to avoid them. And, looking back on the people who were toxic but are no longer in your life, it can be hard to know how to regard them. I find my thoughts and feelings can be overwhelmingly negative, but I’ve also noticed that negative feelings are more likely to come up again and hold onto my mood longer than positive feelings.

As a kid, I thought the greatest and healthiest revenge on the people who made me miserable would be to forget them entirely, deliberately. I got this largely from the movie “Ever After.” At the end of the Cinderella retelling, when Danielle (Drew Barrymore) is confronting her sinister stepmother (Angelica Huston), she doesn’t ridicule her or admonish her for all the terrible abuse she inflicted on Danielle. Instead, Danielle, now married to the prince and with a crown on her head, presumably with the power of life and death over her stepmother, says, “I want you to know that I will forget you after this moment, and never think of you again. But you, I am quite certain, will think about me every single day for the rest of your life.” And she ensures that her stepmother and one wicked stepsister will be made to work as servants for the rest of their lives, but won’t be harmed. The ending felt magnanimous to me. And wise. And sharp. “I will forget you…and never think of you again.”

I endeavored to do this for years. Once I was no longer at school with my childhood tormentors, I worked to forget them. And when I thought of them I’d draw a knife across the memory and send it back into the void of forgetfulness. Until a pair of them transferred to my new school. I refused to speak to them. Everyone else liked them. They didn’t know them the way I did, but what does that matter in the wheels of childhood social popularity?

We remained classmates throughout the rest of middle and high school. And in middle school, facing the writing on the wall, I decided I couldn’t excise them from my memory. I wouldn’t do to them as they’d done to me. I couldn’t. But I did have to interact with them. I didn’t have to trust them again. I didn’t have to be friends or friendly with them. But I did have to remain neutral territory to them, since they had all the social stock and I had next to none. I could tell the truth, to their mothers if no one else, and I had tools I didn’t have in elementary school, but if they left me alone, I’d leave them alone. So whenever I’d get raging furious at them, or whenever I’d recall an interaction that made me feel shame or humiliation, or whenever I’d grow indignant at their hypocrisies, I’d focus instead on a memory I could be grateful for. Playing in the maze of their dad’s stacked crab pots. Baking snickerdoodles with their mom. Dancing in their black light-lit room.

I still employ this technique in dealing with memories of toxic people. I settle on one thing I’m grateful for related to them—even if it’s just that now I know what that type of snake looks like—and try not to think about the rest. By not bringing those memories up again and again, I help them fade, becoming less potent and harder to access. If I do think of them, if the memory stirs that strong emotion again, I remind myself that those people aren’t in my life anymore and they have no ongoing power in it. I also remind myself that I don’t have to feel those ways anymore. I can feel gratitude instead, simple and brief.

And whenever a toxic but gone person comes up in conversation or in a memory, I do a sort of emotional temperature check. How do I feel about this person? How much am I letting memories of them affect my mood? Do I still forgive them? Do I need to forgive them all over again? Like a nuclear fallout, I’m amazed how long and in what odd and subtle and sometimes significant ways they can still affect me. I don’t like that that’s true, but it is.

I think it’s easier for me to deal with my childhood bullies than the toxic friends of college and adulthood because I can draw some lines in the sand around my childhood. They weren’t family. They didn’t physically hurt me. I wasn’t abused. I didn’t endure lasting trauma. And that part of my life is over. I’m a totally different person now. I could say all these things about college, too, but I’m now more like the person I was in college than the person I was as a child. My life more closely resembles college life than childhood life.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about 2 people who I now recognize as toxic. Both were in my life when I was in my early twenties but I’m still finding negative emotions, sometimes strong ones, rising in me at their memories. One was a classmate and friend. The other was a coworker and friend. During those same years, there were people who I better recognized at the time as being toxic. So I’ve already done a lot of work to heal from their influence. But these two people were my friends, or so I believed. I didn’t begin to comprehend how bad their influence was for me until much later. And, since lately I’ve been thinking about them without any fondness, I’m doubling down on applying my healing technique to them. I have chose one good, solid memory to be thankful for regarding each of them.

1. The classmate encouraged me to disregard negative feedback that focused on me instead of my writing.
2. The coworker provided a phone when my best friend was hurting and needed to talk with me.

There are other good memories, but I don’t need to analyze our relationship in depth—that can bring more pain. I’ve spent enough time already unlearning and unapplying their toxicity. I don’t need to analyze the good if I risk discovering (or rediscovering) new landmines of bad. One good memory is enough. And, frankly, they don’t deserve more than that.

Sometimes people say that God turned someone’s bad circumstances into good. Others believe that God led or allowed people to enter those bad circumstances in order to bring about the good outcomes. It does bring many people comfort to think in these ways. However, I don’t believe that God brings us to terrible circumstances because those are the only ways to make us learn or grow in certain ways. I don’t think we need to be able to identify a purpose to every thing that happens to us, good or bad or neutral or complicated. I don’t think there needs to be a purpose, understood or not. Hurricanes of various types just happen. And so do storms in my own life.

As is always the case, I can only control myself. Grasping one good memory with both hands is a big way I do so.

How do you deal with the legacies of toxic people in your life? What about toxic people who are still in your life?