Do you remember the old skull and cross-bones? The last time I saw it was when I was watching The Pirates of the Caribbean. There was a time, though, when it was the universal symbol not just of pirates and their undead henchmen, but of poison.

I just checked my box of 20 Mule Team Borax, which I purchased as a part of a nefarious plot to poison ants. Nowhere on the box is the skull and cross-bones displayed. The makers of 20 Mule Team Borax content themselves with a warning to keep it out of the reach of children and a prescription, if ingested, to rinse the mouth, drink a glass of milk, not to induce vomiting, and to call the doctor immediately.

Which is all well and good – if you can read.

The point of the skull and cross-bones was that even if you couldn’t read, you could recognize the symbol and avoid ingesting the contents.

Actually, I don’t want to talk about poisons or about the packaging and labeling of poisons. I want to talk about toxicity. Toxicity is the noun form of the adjective “toxic”, which my online Merriam-Webster defines as:

1. containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation
2. exhibiting symptoms of infection or toxicosis

3. extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful

Ah ha! It is that final definition that I want to talk about. “Extremely harsh, malicious, or harmful .”

Now I was taught, as a little girl, to avoid things with the skull and cross-bones on them. But I was also taught that I should like everyone. My parents never told me that there are toxic people, people who are harsh, malicious, or harmful. People who should wear the skull and cross-bones as a warning to all who approach them to beware.

Perhaps you know someone like this: people who can drain your energy, poison your outlook, negate any positive ideas you might harbor, and make suicide seem like an attractive alternative. This person could be your husband or wife, your mother-in-law, your boss, a co-worker, your next door neighbor, or even, God forbid, you.

Avoidance is perhaps the most effective antidote for these toxic people but avoidance is not always possible. So how can you handle these toxic people in your life?

Perhaps the first step is to ask yourself why these people “get to you” the way they do. Why do they “hook” you? There is a chance, according to Jungian psychology, that toxic people are able to plug in to and drain our energy because there is something of their toxic behavior buried deep within us. Let’s use the Merriam-Webster example: toxic sarcasm. Is it possible that their sarcasm bothers you so much because you yourself have a tendency to sarcasm? Are you perfectly willing to dish out sarcasm but not so happy to take it yourself?

It might be well, then, to ask yourself why you are so sarcastic. Is sarcasm an armor that you wear to protect yourself? Is it a cover for other, more problematic, emotions like fear or anger? Once you’ve gotten to the root of your own sarcasm, perhaps you will find it easier to tolerate sarcasm from others.

You still won’t like it, but you will understand that it comes from some other, deeper source in their psyche and maybe – just maybe – you’ll be a little more understanding.

If the toxic person catches you being more understanding, they will either avoid you because they are uncomfortable with the idea that you understand some deep, dark secret that they might not even understand themselves or they will be so grateful for the understanding, for the time and effort you took to try to understand them, that they will be nicer to you.

It’s kind of like giving someone who has swallowed poisonous emotions the milk of human kindness. It’s worth a try, anyway.

Continuing to follow the instructions on my box of borax, do not induce vomiting. Don’t worry so much about other people’s toxic behavior that you make yourself sick. If you don’t have frequent encounters with the toxic person, it may not seem worth your while to try to understand them. Just let their unpleasantness roll off your back. They can’t bug you unless you let them bug you. Don’t let them.

And, finally, call the doctor immediately. No, not your family physician, but anyone who makes you feel good, who makes you believe in yourself, who makes you laugh.

If you are the one who is toxic, if you have noticed that people are beginning to avoid you, if you find yourself appalled when you remember how you treated or spoke to someone, then do some digging to find out why you are behaving that way.

We can become addicted to nastiness just as we can become addicted to alcohol, drugs, food or sex. You might even want to try your own, personal twelve-step program to break the chains of the addiction. Admit that you can’t do it by yourself, seek help from a friend, a counselor and/or your High Power, make amends, and resolve to do better and be better. And you’ll probably find that you like yourself better.

You don’t have to be toxic. You don’t have to label yourself with a skull and cross-bones. You just need to take steps – twelve of them or however many are necessary – to change.

Author's Bio: 

I am a Baby Boomer who is reinventing herself and a newbie internet entrepreneur focusing on the Baby Boomer generation. I spent sixteen years serving as pastor in United Methodist congregations all over Kansas. Those congregations were made up primarily of Baby Boomer or older members, so I developed some expertise with the Baby Boomer generation. I am now on leave of absence and living in Atchison, Ks. with my almost-thirty year old son and two cats. I also help my daughter, also living in Atchison, with three sons, ages 8, 6, and 16 mos, while their father is in Afghanistan. My blogs are found at