How to Fix Toxic Relationships for the Sake of Your Dreams

Heads up...

Here’s the truth: We can’t do life alone and we certainly need other people and their support as we pursue the goals and dreams that have been put into our hearts and souls – you know, the things that you were born to do.

And I hear about these dreams, goals, projects, businesses, and life missions all the time as I accelerate people; what’s fascinating to see is that the people I coach usually have everything they need to successfully accomplish them – the problem is that they have too many relationships that are toxic to their momentum and progress forward. The have the tools but too many of the wrong relationships.

Here’s what I mean: There are well-meaning and well-intentioned people in your own personal network who have created a toxic relationship. This is a fine line to balance so hear me clearly that the idea is to not attack their character but rather the relational dynamic that’s been created. In other words, the person isn’t necessarily bad, but the situation certainly is.

These people are toxic to our progress, toxic to our happiness, toxic to our mental outlook, our self-esteem, and even our other relationships. Some studies have shown that they will even shorten the length of your life!

You probably are intuitively aware of who these people are but here are some ways to practically identify toxic relationships (and people):

  • These people slow your momentum or completely stop it.
  • These people constantly critique or challenge your dreams negatively – they do not add native and practical value to your life. They are “Debbie Downers.”
  • These people provide no explicit and pragmatic energy, excitement, or support of your projects, businesses, and even life mission. They may verbally support from a distance but are not in the trenches with you.
  • These people constantly ask for help but rarely ever give anything in return. They suck your emotional, psychological, and even physical resources for their own needs (and they may not even be emotionally aware enough to see it). They are manipulative and you spend a lot of time “managing” them, talking about them with other people, and trying to “fix” it without success.
  • These people may posture themselves as being wildly confident and sure individuals when they are actually incredibly insecure – and you (and everyone else) knows it. They are insincere, inauthentic, judgmental, and disrespectful.
  • These people are not open to change, healthy dialogue, or critique about their own projects, businesses, mission, or dreams – it is difficult to have a real conversation and relationship with them.
  • These people are often offended easily when challenged, take things very personally, and may even demonize those that challenge. They are narcissistic.
  • These people may be an “emotional rollercoaster” – with wide mood swings, deep threats then apologies, with quick “kiss and makeup” tactics.
  • These people impact your other relationships negatively – you may have even heard from your other friends, family, and relationships that these people are toxic and that you should leave them. You end up defending them or justifying their actions for them.

Sound familiar? It seems that nearly everyone that I encounter has experienced or is currently experiencing a toxic relationship. The question is why?

This is going to be tough.

The reasons could be as varied as the people I meet but generally they fall into a couple of buckets:

  • History – You’ve just been “friends” for such a long time that the historical length of the relationship is the only thing keeping it together.
  • Change – Something significant has changed in you life or their life and one or both of you have been unable to manage the change well.
  • Dominance – One person in the party is intrinsically more reserved or soft-spoken and ends up being what my mom always called “The Rug” – getting stepped on and trampled by a more dominant and demanding personality.
  • Immaturity - One of the people have not been able to mature past significant benchmarks in personal development, such as graduating college over 10 years ago but still acting like a college student in the way they conduct themselves, behave, and take responsibility.
  • Medical - One of the people does, in fact, have a medical condition that disables them from typical social norms or social graces, but has been unwilling to get treatment or help that stabilizes their relationships without destroying them.
  • Control - One of the people is intentionally keeping the other back, because of their own insecurity, jealousy, or fear of losing the relationship – the result is a manifestation of control. One typical example is one party gets married while the other now feels the pressure or shame of still being single.

There are many more categories but these are some of the more typical ones that seem to crop up time and time again.

What To Do:

Ultimately you’re going to have to intentionally make a decision to engage the toxic relationship head-on and engaging with the person explicitly. This will be an incredible challenge so it’s ok to get some help, either personally or professionally (from certified counselors).

Here’s the sad but inescapable truth: These people generally will not be able to fix the issue from their end and their behavior will continue without you taking the first step in fixing the situation. The more it continues to happen the more it will continue and studies have shown that as people get older the impact will become greater on you as well. It’s now or never, literally.

Here are some suggestions to help you move forward with the relationship and begin a process of boundary-setting that allows you to grow and thrive:

  1. Accept the fact that the relationship is toxic. Boot yourself out of denial. Take responsibility as you are part of the system that’s been created. You have, to certain degrees, allowed this to happen.
  2. Talk with others frankly about it. Get opinions that matter. Take them to heart and write them down.
  3. Affirm with yourself the positive things about this person. Give them grace because they are not perfect.
  4. List out all of the challenges that you have with the person, how they practically impact your life negatively.
  5. Identify explicitly the value of fixing the situation. Use phrases like “What would life be like if…” – begin seeing an alternate and more positive reality.
  6. Set explicit boundaries. Get help and advice from counselors or other close relationships.
  7. Engage with the person directly in a spirit of humility and love as best as you possibly can. They are not an enemy of yours but rather someone who needs help, just as you do, with this relationship. Enlist support via a third party if you feel you can’t do it alone. Share what you’ve written down and hope for the best. There’s no telling how they will react but you’re responsible for your own actions, not their reaction.
  8. Share these new boundaries with the person. This is not a conversation piece or up for debate. These are your boundaries. Then, get accountability from others after the confrontation to help keep the boundaries up.
  9. If it is necessary to completely dislodge yourself from the relationship completely expect to experience a period of grieving. This is normal and human. Seek counseling and support.
  10. Stay positive – life is too short and healing will come, in time.

None of this is easy – but it requires you to take the first step for yourself and for them. Good luck – your dreams are worth it. Don’t let toxic relationships keep you from changing the world.

[Image via Creative Commons, coltrane, bromine.]

  • Mike Zserdin

    Wow. Good stuff but, hard. Learning to disappoint others and being good with it is a big step in living out the mission. I think that’s part of dealing with the hard relationships.

    Good, tough thoughts.


    • John Saddington

      this is true!

  • Ben Terry

    This is a really helpful post.

    And the image for this post is awesome!

    • Ben Terry

      Even when thinking through building my start-up team, I have slowed myself down with who I will partner with early on. It’s always easier to add someone to the team then to remove them.

      A way that I try to gauge people when building a start-up is finding people that I know their gifts and talents, I know them well, and I trust them enough to watch my kids at their home. Yes, that may sound extreme, but when building my life around a new project/career I want to build an environment of people I trust.

      I would love to hear your thoughts, tentbloggers?

      • John Saddington


        i agree. i walk through “partnership ideals” in my coaching to help people isolate and refine who they need to work with. it’s one of the most important steps.

  • Lincoln Parks

    This can be a step by step process to dis-engage yourself from the person or people. I have had to do this and still need to do it in some areas because I find myself being non productive like some of the people around me. It drags you down and takes away your energy. This has been helpful so that I can find the ways in which I can do this. Thanks for the steps, I’m implementing.

    • John Saddington

      hope it helps. get help too.

  • Jonny Solari

    This is the reason i find it much easier to work on my own. I like knowing that my success is determined by me and i get worried when others take too much responsibility. Thankfully there are some great, positive people around and i make it my goal to surround myself by these kids of people.

    • Jonny Solari


      • John Saddington

        ah, that’s too bad. i think the solopreneur is a bad model to follow:

  • Jason Ansley

    I have a slight concern/hurdle that I am struggling with here. The title is about relationships, your intro is about relatio ships, but the examples, causes, and solutions are all about the other person. Relationships are two sided! Likewise, assuming the relationship is betwixt believers, we should take some responsibility for our part in the damaged relationship as well.

    So, how do we apply what you have presented to a relationship versus just the other party involved?

    • Kari Scare

      I agree. A follow-up article would be good.

      • John Saddington

        you’re absolutely right – no issue is completely one-sided.

        the topic is very nuanced and contextual and each situation is different. getting help (both parties) is often what I suggest. no one can work through this alone.

  • Kari Scare

    Definitely have had my share of toxic times in relationships, but have for the most part managed to work through those times and come out with a stronger relationship as a result. The approach you talk about has elements of the approaches I have used, but I think it can be highly individualized based on the people involved. For example, I have a friend who is going through a really rough time right now. I have said my peace and am now allowing the time and space we both need to work through stuff individually. Not sure what’s going to happen, but I know that I have been honest and tried to be gentle but also truthful. Anyway, what you talk about is important. I think the trend in relationships today is to not work through tough stuff becausebit’s difficult. People take the easy way out way too much anymore. Relationships either die or remain toxically stagnant that way. Good stuff.

    • John Saddington


      yup. each situation is different. there are some that need to be worked out. some that need to be let go of. it’s hard to know the difference!

  • Jessica Zirbes

    Well said, John! I think dealing with toxic family relationships are the most challenging. Now I have a few more tips on how to deal with them – thanks!

    • John Saddington

      you’re welcome!