A: Some of us have found that the people we have been sequestering with have Jeckyll/Hyde personality types. Being cooped up for a long period of time can cause masks to fall and long-dormant character traits can bubble to the surface. Abnormal situations cause abnormal responses. We can see this sometimes with the people we are living in close proximity with, and sometimes we experience it with co-workers and other associates that we are communicating with remotely. How do we cope with these situations? Let’s look at the two scenarios separately.
How do we deal with toxic associates?
This situation is the easier of the two because we are only with them for limited amounts of time over the course of the day. Their own circumstances, whatever they may be---cabin fever, being stuck with someone toxic, boredom---are altering their ways of dealing with other people. They are most likely projecting their own frustrations outwards. There is an old saying that if everyone who entered a room put all of their troubles in a pile for all to see, at the end of the day, everyone would choose to take back their own problems. But this never really happens. We can only know what is going on in our own world. The lives of other people are always going to rest behind an opaque curtain. Because of this we tend to assume that what is behind the curtain is better than what is actually there. And so jealousy starts to grow. The frustrations of the co-worker/client are projected outwards onto what appears to be another person untainted by stress.
How do we deal with this type of person? First: remember that you are only responsible for taking on that aspect of the job that you are contractually obligated to and nothing more. Separate the toxicity from the transactional. Steer the conversation back to the task at hand and don’t feed the demon that the other person has willingly or unwittingly brought to the table. If they don’t get satisfaction in their attempts to project their troubles onto you, they will save that until some future interchange with someone else.
Second: if this is a family member or friend that is reaching out to you, make sure what the focus of their issue is. Don’t let side issues muddy the waters. Oftentimes stress causes people to spew out everything that is troubling them all at once. Ask the person specific questions to try to determine what it is that they need you to do to help them over this moment. Efficiency experts tell us to tackle little piles instead of trying to do everything at once. Deal with the main problem and save the rest for another time.
Sometimes, however, the person is being toxic on purpose. They derive pleasure from sharing misery. If you find yourself confronting such a person, put a stop to the interchange. Any energy that you throw in their direction will only feed the beast that is consuming them. None of it will serve you. A gracious exit is your best friend at times such as these.
How do we deal with toxic roommates?
This is trickier. You can’t hit the exit button of a Zoom meeting with someone who is in the same space you are. Confrontation is required. What do we mean by confrontation? Our minds go immediately to a screaming match. Don’t go there! It’s not the other person who is being confronted, it is the situation that needs to be confronted.
Each situation is unique and a silver bullet response is not possible in a blog post. But there are some handy guideposts to follow to get to the heart of the matter and hopefully defuse a toxic situation. First determine what is causing the toxicity:
• Bad mood on one side
• Bad mood on both side
• True Jeckyll/Hyde situation
Always remember, before entering a confrontation, clear the head. Do several minutes of deep breathing exercises to calm and focus the mind. If possible do a yoga or workout routine. If there is no time for these, pound on a pillow for a minute or two. Blow off excess energy that may be getting in your way. Have your flatmate do the same. Working together on a physical exercise is a bonding moment as well as a way of decompressing. Then ask yourselves what is the underlying cause of the toxicity. A specific situation, a general vibe, stir-craziness. Then determine if the problem exists on both sides or is just coming from one person. Work to find a resolution to the problem.
If the person won’t respond to these overtures and is simply acting out in a nasty way, a deeper conversation must take place. The association may need to be ended.
As always, you cannot go it alone every time. When the problems become overwhelming, remember that help is out there. Contact a mental health professional if you find that you can’t alleviate your problems on your own or with the input of the other person.
David Salvage, MD, FAPM