A Christian's Perspective on Dealing With Toxic People

Updated: Aug 11

By Martha Clipp


Almost 20 years ago, I found myself in a toxic situation. I was stunned to realize that the people I trusted the most were nothing short of bullies!

They were in charge of an organization I cared about deeply. So many people were affected by their leadership and the notion of walking away felt cowardly. It felt like desertion. I sensed God wanted me to stand up to the bully. But how?

I started searching for books on “how to stand up to a bully” but all I could find at first were books about dealing with bullies at school. I needed help with an adult bully who had real power over me, as well as over the people I cared about.


This blog is a brief summary of what I gleaned from my experience. Below, I list the books that guided me through a very challenging time. I recommend reading those for a much more detailed explanation on this topic.

So, what exactly is a “Toxic Person?”

Some defining characteristics are:

  • Display erratic behavior

  • Ignore others’ boundaries

  • Make others question their sanity (gas lighting)

  • Invalidate others’ feelings and stir up drama

  • Are a perpetual victim and need constant attention

I heard someone describe them as “people who leave a wake of chaos and confusion as they pass by.”

In Bullies, Tyrants, and Impossible People, Ron Shapiro and Mark Jankowski write, “Difficult people come in infinite varieties...

  • Charming, but dishonest

  • Greedy, but smart

  • Sweet on the outside, but hard on the inside

  • Intimidating

  • Coy

  • Temperamental, but kind

  • Temperamental, but mean

  • Dumb like a fox

  • Just plain dumb

  • Egomaniacal

  • Craving approval

  • Loud and obnoxious

  • Quiet and obnoxious

  • And on, and on, and on”

These people don’t care about playing nice, and they don’t care about anyone but themselves.


In Confronting the Demon: A Gospel Response to Adult Bullying, Gerald Arbuckle writes, “Selfishness, narcissism and the desire for power are at the root of bullying...”

So, what is a Christian to do with this person who is our:

  • Boss

  • Family member

  • Neighbor

  • Co-worker

  • Spouse

The typical Christian responses I hear are:

  • “We just need to keep loving them.”

  • “We just need to turn the other cheek.”

  • "We just need to pray for them.”

Those approaches are all clearly spelled out in the bible. I just have a problem with the word “just.”

The truth is, Jesus didn’t “just” do one thing with these people, and it turns out, there are very practical ways to deal with bullies, tyrants, and toxic people!

What Does Jesus Say About Bullies?

When I was in the midst of this turmoil, Christians told me I should “just forgive” (And forget. And trust again. Even though the abuse continued.) They pointed to Jesus on the cross. “He was nailed to a tree and killed,” they said, “and yet he forgave.”


“Yes,” I said. “He did do that. On a specific day. For a specific reason. But he didn’t do that every day and in every situation.” He didn’t teach his followers to roll over and tolerate abuse. He did teach us to guard our own hearts:

  • He instructs us to give up our anger toward abusers (Matthew 5:21-24).

  • He says to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:38-39).

  • He tells us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43-48).

  • He also tells us to get the plank out of our own eye, before we can help someone else with the spec in their eye (Matthew 7:3-5). So, in this context, we need to root out any bullying behavior in ourselves FIRST.

All of these things keep us from becoming a bully!

He then taught by example, and with stories, how to face bullies, and how to help those who are being bullied or marginalized:

We see that Jesus:

  • Slipped through a crowd that wanted to throw him off a cliff to his death (Luke 4:28-30)

  • Confronted racism, and told his listeners to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:30-37)

  • Confronted the unreasonable expectations of the religious leaders of his time (Matthew 23:1-39)

  • Welcomed little children (Matthew 19:14)

  • Touched and healed lepers and other outcasts (Mark 1:41-42)

  • Elevated women from a position of second class citizenship to a position of respect (John 4:7-30) (Luke 13:10-13) (Luke 7:11-15) (Luke 8:1-3) (John 20:11-18)

We need to follow Jesus’s instructions on checking our own heart, but we also need to look for practical ways to deal with the toxic people in our lives.

  • We may need to get advice from a wise and trusted friend about our issue.

  • We may need to get out of a dangerous situation (If so, it needs to be done carefully, and with good council.)

  • We may need to get professional counseling.

We need to follow Jesus’s instructions on checking our own heart, but we also need to look for practical ways to deal with the toxic people in our lives.

If we are being bullied, it helps to know we have options. Below is a brief outline of things to consider when dealing with a challenging person.

Identify Our Bully Type

As we are dealing with our own emotions, it helps to recognize the type of bully we are facing. Five common types are:

  • The Persistent Critic: nitpicks, uses sarcasm, has unrealistic expectations, and loves fault finding

  • The Skilled Manipulator: uses flattery and gossip, and causes divisions

  • The Space Invader: disrespects boundaries: physical, psychological or emotional

  • The Benevolent Intimidator: offers gifts, but then expects absolute loyalty

  • The Irresponsible Abdicator: lacks the courage to stand up to the chief bully, and then joins in on the bullying

It also helps to understand there are three ways to categorize “difficult” people:

  • The Situationally Difficult: they are reacting badly to something that happened.

  • The Strategically Difficult: they act badly because they believe it is the best way to get what they want.

  • The Simply Difficult: they act badly because that is their persona. They will even do themselves harm, as long as they can do greater harm to others.

How we deal with the bully/tyrant/toxic/impossible/difficult person also depends on whether they have authority over us, or they are a peer; a relative or a stranger; a boss or an employee; a spouse or our child.

There is a lot to consider here! This is not a one-size-fits-all topic.


There is a lot to consider here! This is not a one-size-fits-all topic.

But if we can at least identify the bully type we are dealing with, then we can use our energy wisely as we interact with them.

For example, if we are dealing with a Space Invader, we make a solid decision to stand our ground - either literally or figuratively.

This bully often gets their way simply by moving into our personal space (either figuratively or literally). Most people will step back as the Space Invader approaches, and then give in to their demands, just to regain a sense of safety and equilibrium (even for a moment).


The bully does not expect us to keep our feet planted right where they are, as we endure the uncomfortability of it. This simple act can adjust the power balance.

Map Out Our Plan of Action

After we have identified the type of bully we are dealing with, we can then focus on how to proceed. We can:

  • Neutralize our emotions. When our emotions run high, our thinking and creativity go out the window. So first, we need to breathe: quicker in-breaths through the nose; long, slow out-breaths through the mouth. It won’t be obvious to anyone else what we are doing, but it will have a profound effect on our thinking ability. When we can think clearly, we can process the encounter with a fully functioning brain, and possibly come up with some creative solutions. We aren’t stuffing our emotions - we are simply keeping them under control, getting the information we need from them, and then pivoting as necessary.

  • Change our physiology and therefore change our psychology. For example, instead of cowering in front of the bully with sunken shoulders, we can stand tall with our shoulders back. This simple act can adjust the power balance.

  • Control the encounter. For example, when setting up a crucial conversation, it will make a big difference whether we meet in that person’s office, or at a coffee shop. They feel powerful at their office, but the coffee shop is neutral ground.

  • Explore options. For example, just because they demand a meeting, we still have a choice whether or not we meet with them, or who we bring along to the meeting.

Some Do’s and Don’ts When Interacting With Toxic People

Here are a few guidelines I found to be helpful when dealing with the bully/tyrant/toxic/impossible/difficult person:

DO:

  • Treat them with respect.

  • Stay as calm as possible.

  • Speak with them privately about the issue, for starters. Bring in others if needed (Matthew 18:15-18).

  • Look for options. Can I walk away from this person/situation? Can I limit my time with them?

DON’T:

  • Shame them. Especially in front of other people. That is like throwing gasoline on a fire. Even if they don’t explode in front of us, they may retaliate in a powerful way, probably in the near future.

  • Get into a verbal fight. Be wise about when to “agree to disagree” and when to continue the discussion.

None of these things are easy to do! I have failed in each area - some more than once or twice. I have been the difficult person at times, and I have seriously struggled with the difficult person at others.

But the good news is - we have been shown a way through it, and we have some practical tools we can utilize, making our interactions more effective for everyone involved.

This hopefully gives us some relief as we navigate those more difficult people, and ideally avoid becoming one of them!


“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being...” - Alexander Solzenitsyn

If you're looking for a community in your life, we'd love for you to join us at Anchor Groups. You can find out more information here.


Sources:

  • Arbuckle, Gerald A. Confronting the Demon, (Liturgical Press, 2003).

  • Markham, Ursula How to Deal With Difficult People, (HarperCollins Publishers, 1993).

  • Peck, M. S. People of the Lie, (Simon & Schuster, 1983).

  • Payson, Eleanor D., M.S.W. The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists, (Julian Day Publications, 2002).

  • Shapiro, Ronald M. and Jankowski, Mark A. Bullies, Tyrants, and Impossible People, (Three Rivers Press, 2005).

  • Silvious, Jan. Fool-Proofing Your Life, (Waterbrook Press, 1998). Simon, George, Jr., Ph.D. In Sheep’s Clothing, (Parkhurst Brothers, Inc., Publishers, 1996).