Monday, May 4, 2009

SOME PEOPLE ARE TOXIC AVOID THEM.

From "Ten Things I Have Learned," a 2001 talk by graphic designer Milton Glaser:

the important thing that I can tell you is that there is a test to determine whether someone is toxic or nourishing in your relationship with them. Here is the test: You have spent some time with this person, either you have a drink or go for dinner or you go to a ball game. It doesn’t matter very much but at the end of that time you observe whether you are more energised or less energised. Whether you are tired or whether you are exhilarated. If you are more tired then you have been poisoned. If you have more energy you have been nourished. The test is almost infallible and I suggest that you use it for the rest of your life.
This passage is from no. 3, "SOME PEOPLE ARE TOXIC AVOID THEM" (via kottke.org).

If you're visiting from Boing Boing or elsewhere:

I posted Milton Glaser's advice partly because I'm interested (always) in what older people have to say, partly because I like the then 72-year-old Glaser's bluntness. (Older people often specialize in bluntness.) I also like the urgent, ominous, all-caps run-on — "SOME PEOPLE ARE TOXIC AVOID THEM." — which looks to my eyes like the work of an outsider artist. That's the way the sentence appears on Glaser's website, sans internal punctuation, so it has someone's okay.

I didn't call Glaser's advice good (David Pescovitz called it "terrific"). But I do think it's good advice, which is to say, useful. And I've been surprised by the many angry responses this post has elicited. I don't think Glaser is suggesting that friends are for one's use, nor do I think he's suggesting that we walk away from situations that are difficult or exhausting (a friend in distress, a relative in the hospital). A more generous reading would take this advice as relevant to everyday encounters: with the colleague who makes every run-in in the hallway an occasion of hostility, with the supervisor who makes the workplace a theater of cruelty, with the acquaintance whose conversation is a stream of belittlement and mockery.

An anonymous commenter at Boing Boing offered the example of leaving a social situation and asking "Why the hell do I do this to myself?" That question seems to me to capture the scenarios in which Glaser's idea of toxicity applies. No one (except perhaps George Costanza) would ask that question after visiting a friend or relative in need. But in everyday social settings, it's exactly the question that suggests the need to walk away.

comments: 23

Elaine Fine said...

It's easy to be fooled. A person capable of zapping your energy can appear charming at first, and even at second or at third. It is often impossible to tell if a friendship can become unhealthy until you find out through experience (and each relationship is a unique experience--there is no dependable "learning curve").

I believe it's the unhealthy relationships that you invest time in that are the dangerous ones. The short-lived, single-event toxic relationships are relatively easy to keep cordial, particularly if they are relationships with people you don't work with.

Michael Leddy said...

You're absolutely right — this advice doesn't apply to relationships with manipulative and scary types.

JuliaR said...

I found I became finely tuned to negative energy last Fall, after I was diagnosed with and had surgery for breast cancer. Suddenly, I could actually feel the energy coming off people. And I discovered that, for me at least, pity and fear was negative.

Before that, I could certainly tell the "energy vampires" from the rest. My in-laws were energy vampires. My husband finally agreed that we had to visit them less frequently when he became more aware of what he felt after each visit. But it takes a while to become aware, sometimes.

Watch some episodes of "The Dog Whisperer" (on National Geographic channel) and you will see energy in action. And it's not hocus pocus either.

Slywy said...

It can apply to oneself. Am I toxic or nourishing now, which do I want to be, and how can I become that person if I'm not?

Pepperman said...

My good friend SD says:

"98% of people will disappoint you. The previous figure is an underestimate as it is probably more."

Aoibheall said...

I don't think this is true for introverts. For introverts most interactions with others are draining, even if those others are positive forces in our lives. I've lived for years in an introvert world where even the people I love the best leave me drained and needing time alone.

Trev said...

What about real friends that tell you the hard truths that you may not want to hear [i.e. your drinking habits are hurting the people around you, those pants actually do make you look fat, you've got a humongous booger hanging out of your right nostril..]?

Yes-men that will always make you feel good about yourself but will never lend the critical advice that you may need to improve and grow.

Surely not all worldly relationship advice can be reduced to 'avoid mean people that give you bad feelings'...

Usage May Vary said...

What if you do so much more than normal with the person that energizes you, that you end up exhausted? It might help to think through your idea here.

Jeff said...

Sorry, but Milton sounds like a putz. Like most aphorisms, this sounds good in theory, but is most likely bad in practice.

You can get more unwanted opinions over at Boing Boing.

Michael Leddy said...

Glaser's advice is not perfectly sound — what advice could be? Feeling exhilarated, "alive," might mean you're in the hands of someone adept at emotional manipulation. But I think this advice can be useful in getting someone to recognize what Charley Malloy in On the Waterfront calls "an unhealthy relationship." (That would not be my characterization of Terry and Edie's relationship, by the way.)

I remember when much younger that it was common to describe certain people as bringdowns. Nothing to do with drugs — they just had the gift of making everyone around them miserable. I'd say Glaser is writing about bringdowns.

Yes, introverts might not fit Glaser's picture of things. Aoibheall, do you know Jonathan Rauch's great piece "Caring for Your Introvert"?

I found this passage at kottke.org, as noted at the end of my post. Jason should really be getting these visits.

ahwoo said...

I've known this for some time only I've always called them 'Energy Vampires"

Michael Leddy said...

Ahwoo, see the third comment.

T. said...

I LOVE that Rauch article! So true!

JuliaR said...

Thanks for the Rauch article! I found out I was an introvert after doing the Myers-Briggs, and my husband is an extrovert. After we learned of the difference, communication became so much better for us. Interestingly, I also learned as a kid to get attention by showing off so I have a need to do that. And then I have to go lie down. ;-)

Michael Leddy said...

Julia, that's funny.

I think the introvert-extrovert partnership can be a wonderful one. The Atlantic has reader comments on that topic.

Hatini said...

I think this statement is quite true, I have had friends that drain me and those that energize me. I find the draining friendships are those which are one sided, while those that energize are reciprocal friendships where good and bad are shared. I have recently had a problem with my best friend where i cannot share anything good or bad with her as shes not interested and yet anytime spent together consists of her complaining. I found this very one sided and draining. She has avoided all attempts to talk and resolve the problem. This is a good example what a toxic person can look like. It's unfortunate though that this seems to have developed, as she was not like this 6months ago.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Hatini. I hope that your situation with your friend turns back into a reciprocal friendship.

Romern Chong said...

I think the terms 'introvert' & 'extrovert' shouldn't be mixed up with 'energy vampires' & 'empath'.

Introvert is a type of people who needs to spend time alone to look inwards upon oneself and recharge..They can lose their energy by interacting with people.. On the contrary, Extrovert is a type of people who recharges by interacting with people.. lose energy if spending time alone..Statistically speaking, there are more extroverts than introverts on this earth..

Energy vampire is a type of people that likes to suck other people's energy, usually by spreading negative energy (e.g. by always complaining, criticizing you, & doing things that make u feel bad).. Empath is a type of people who easily loses one's energy.. Hence the reason energy vampires like to hang out with empaths to suck their energy..

Again, there are more Energy vampires than empaths on this earth, I think. Introvert can't be an energy vamp 'cos they look inwards to get energy, not outwards. An extroverts are most likely can be energy vamps based on their characteristics. However, bear in mind that an energy vamp can be most likely an extrovert.. but an extrovert is less likely an energy vamp.. The same goes for introverts and empaths...

Also, there are different degrees of energy vampires, empaths, introverts and extroverts. Take for example an introverts.. there may be consisted of from a mild introvert to an extreme introvert..

An extreme empath is most likely can sense people's feelings and thoughts..'cos they can receive people's energy easily.. As such, they may get easily depressed..

As life is short, we should be spending our time wisely, we should ensure that you are okay in every moment.. If u r an empath, better avoid an energy vamp, to have a good life..It's your choice..

As of telling truth to a friend, as an example, u don't need to honestly tell your girlfriend that her dress she is wearing is not pretty, on the contrary, u can suggest that other dress is more prettier.. to distract her.. in this way, she would not feel bad..

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Romern.

It seems that Milton Glaser's observations can prompt lots of worthwhile reflection on our relationships with other people.

vinn1 said...

Perhaps a law of averages. A person interests you enough to provoke a friendship. Drain and purge vs nurture and absorb. Go slow and be deliberate in your thinking, time will tell. In addition, I have enjoyed difficult friendships with very toxic people. The key to those is the enlightenment gained from the toxicity. You are responsible for your own outlook, you don't need to let your prana drain just because your friend is trying to suck it from you.

Anonymous said...

I recently meet up with a energy vampire, he seems wouldnt go away. tell him to stay away but alot of drama keep happening(he hurt himself to prove he is right), anyone who have any suggestion please reply here thank you I really need help

Michael Leddy said...

Anonymous, I would seek out professional people who can help to protect your well-being. If the other person is a danger to himself, he needs help too. My one suggestion would be not to try to manage this situation by yourself.

Krs said...

Energy is finite and can only be transfered into different forms.

It is very true that some people feed off of the energy of others but can you honestly say that you never do?

I try to take my power from nature or from abstract items but sometimes there is no substitute for basking in the glory of another.

On the other hand I allow people that need it to feed off of my energy from time to time. I see it as therapy and if I can help someone I will!

Thanks for a good post
Krs