Noah did it. So did our foreparents, Abraham and Sarah and Jacob. They all had to separate from “toxic” people. G‑d told Noah to build an ark and separate from the degenerate people around him. After Abraham destroyed his father’s idols and left his birthplace, he also had to separate from his nephew, Lot.1 That relationship was so harmful, in fact, that the commentator Rashi tells us that as long as they were together, Abraham was unable to hear G‑d’s words.2 Sarah had to banish her maidservant Hagar and her son, Ishmael to protect her own son, Isaac.3 Jacob suffered greatly during the twenty years he was with his father-in-law, Laban, and escaped at the first possible opportunity.

Just as the presence of truly kindhearted people can be healing, the opposite is also trueJust as the presence of truly kindhearted people can be healing, the opposite is also true. As much as we would like to see only good in everyone, and accept them graciously into our lives, there are some people whose insane or hostile acts bring out the worst in us and keep us from living joyfully.

Research shows that in the presence of nasty people, even our T-killer cells (the ones that fight viruses and bacterial infections) are weakened, thus leading to numerous physical ailments, especially autoimmune illnesses, not to mention the loss of self-worth and untold emotional torment. Harassment and humiliation may seem like “just words” to some, but the unseen wounds can leave victims with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), which is characterized by anxiety, insomnia, noise sensitivity and depression. Studies show that pregnant women who live or work with hostile people are more likely to have babies with weakened immune systems, lower iron levels and a higher incidence of ADHD.

Even if these “disturbed” people are sometimes friendly, charming and helpful, their lack of predictability keeps everyone in a constant state of tension, never knowing what might set them off. Although there are numerous types of toxic personalities, from domineering controllers to clingy complainers, their presence is draining, both mentally and physically. Toxic people do not feel ashamed of their actions; instead, they make endless excuses as to why others are to blame for their behavior. Their attitude is, “Since you failed to live up to my expectations, I have the right to be angry and to hurt you back.”

Unfortunately, victims often feel, “If I were truly good, it wouldn’t affect me.” When they seek help, they may be told, “Forgive and forget. Focus on the good.” If they try to pull away, they may be subjected to harassment by relatives who tell them how much the toxic person is suffering, and how they must maintain contact. This attitude makes people feel ashamed of their anger, fear, repulsion and confusion.

If the toxic person is a family member who can be devoted and generous at times, or who is highly respected in the community, the victim feels very confused and ambivalent. If he or she is dependent on the person for money, there may be no choice but to passively endure their domination and criticism.

Yes, there are certain types who seem not to be affected by people’s hostility, just as there are people sleep through rocket attacks and go about their business the next day as if nothing happened. However, the Torah forbids us from harming ourselves. If an abuser shows no regret and is not making efforts to stop the offensive behavior, and if the victim feels physically ill and emotionally crippled by the hostility, then separation may be the only way to protect oneself.

Rav Yirmiyah ben Abba said that four categories of people cannot receive the divine presence: scoffers, slanderers, flatters and liars, especially if they sow contention between husband and wife.”4 Just as we divide foods into those that are nutritious and those that are harmful, each of us must distinguish between the people who make us feel respected and safe, and those who do the opposite.

You do not need artistic talent. These simple pictures help you validate your painEven if you separate, your self-worth may have already been so damaged that you live with their negative messages inside your mind, constantly berating yourself for not being “good enough.” It will take time to internalize the message that “G‑d loves and values me no matter what others think of me,” and to learn to fight the inner voice which says, “You’re stupid and incompetent. No one could love you.” To help with this internal work, purchase a large notebook with unlined pages and thick paper that can be drawn on with magic markers.

  1. Use your non-dominant hand [the left hand for most people, or the right hand if you are left-handed] to draw a stick-figure picture of the painful incident in which you began to internalize negative messages about yourself. If there were numerous incidents, use a separate page for each picture. You do not need artistic talent. These simple pictures help you validate your pain. Using your non-dominant hand helps you to avoid being critical of your drawings.
  2. Look at that stick figure of yourself, and write down what you were feeling at that time.
  3. Now, think of yourself as a wise and compassionate adult who can enter into that scene. Write to the stick figure words of love, praise and support, for example, “You tried so heroically to cope and function despite the pain. Yes, you have battle scars, but they are proof of your strength, wisdom and courage. Good for you for not doing to others as was done to you. I love you as you are. I will always be with you and help you learn to love.”
  4. Each day, make small efforts to become more loving. For example, if you are a perfectionist, tell yourself, “I want progress, not perfection. My best is good enough.” Smile at people. Compliment them and show interest in their lives. If you are a people pleaser, protect yourself by setting clear boundaries and refusing to do things which you cannot do happily. If you are undisciplined, keep track of your small acts of self-discipline, such as avoiding junk foods. Be very proud of the smallest act you do to overcome these old patterns. Write your “victories” in a notebook. What is a huge victory for you may be nothing for someone who does not have these inner barriers.

This is not easy work. It takes a lifetime to overcome deeply ingrained patterns. Cheer every step you make to become a self-respecting and loving person.