Toxic Waste Management

by Shanna Trenholm

People, love ‘em or hate ‘em, are everywhere these days. It’s nearly impossible to go anywhere without bumping into them. They hang out at the mall, at work, the farmer’s market—hell, they’re in your living room! People seem to be out in droves, taking up space, physical and emotional, wherever they happen to be.  They try our patience, they place unrealistic demands on us, and they can be unkind.  Some treat us in ways we’d never treat mere strangers, these people in our lives do.

People, simply put, can be detrimental to your health and well-being. So what to do about the people in your life, whether on the periphery or in your close inner circle, who cause you distress? You know, those humans who make you feel inadequate and suck the life out of your, well, life?

As you may have guessed, I am pro trimming down, in order to embrace the big, bold, beautiful life that we were all meant to live. Big, bold, and beautiful is our birthright, no? To be fully human, to be our best selves, to be fed, not diminished, through the choices we make, and by those we love (or at least sorta like). So here’s my take on this people thing:

People are fragile and complex creatures, and if you’re reading this, you’re one of them (or some other type of literate sentient being [Ed. note: Please email us if that's the case; we'd love to talk with you.]). In addition to fragile and complex, the human heart and attendant emotions dwell in the gray areas of life. Few things are truly black and white. We see things from our point of view—that which we believe is true. And often, one person’s truth is another person’s malarkey. Except for gravity, pretty much everyone is in agreement about gravity.

So what to do when another’s fragile complexity gets mixed with a big ol’ heap of malarkey and then they spew the whole shebang at us? The only place where we have control over this scenario: we can decide if, on balance, the relationship feeds us, or if it harms us. Then we can make another decision that may determine the fate of our future well-being: we have the choice to either delete the offender from our life or accept the behavior and make our peace with it.

Yes, there are several hybrid permutations to this: passive-aggressive retaliation, cajoling and manipulating, hoping things will change, etc. but the enlightened way to deal with a repeat offender is to do so with swift resolve. If you chose to keep this person closer than arm’s distance, allowing them to stay in your sphere, all the while jabbing little thorns into your side, then be honest with yourself and accept that YOU chose this. Keep it to yourself—no complaining to others—and get on with your life.

But, should you desire to rid yourself from this irritation, the constant demeaning insults, the unkind and untoward behavior, being stood up, being let down, etc. well then, beautiful, you have a ripe opportunity to be big. You can lighten your load. You can live your truth. So here it is (cue sound of band-aid being ripped from flesh): you may have to say good-bye. If you have tried all the ways you can to bridge the divide, but your partner-in-opposition isn’t playing by the same rules (remember they are your rules and not necessarily his or hers), then you are doing yourself and that person a disservice by staying in the relationship.

There seems to be two main reasons why people stay in unsatisfying relationships: 1) habit, and 2) obligation. Habit, that familiar painful state of complacency that we humans seem to abhor, but do so well, is difficult to escape. Sure, we talk about making changes, ending bad habits, and starting new, healthful ones, but habits are hard to kick. Or to make stick. Most of us are just not wired to embrace change so we stay in jobs, relationships, or tacky apartments with popcorn ceilings way beyond these situations serving us well.

Obligation is Habit’s twin. Some people think that obligation is valiant, yet when people speak of their obligations, it is rarely with joy and often with a heaviness or resentment toward the responsibility. I realize that life cannot be all carefree and light, and there are things and people we must attend to, but when we have a choice to weed out toxic people from our lives and we choose to keep said toxins in our realm, then we really have little to complain about.

It may not be feasible to eradicate all of the toxic people from our lives (some situations are more difficult to do this than others), but when there is an opportunity to do so, getting significant distance from those who cause us grief and indigestion is the healthiest thing we can do for everyone. It’s sad to see relationships linger past their prime, especially when one or both parties stay in it out of habit or obligation. I don’t know anyone that would feel comforted knowing that a partner or friend stayed involved for these reasons.

So how, you ask, do I do this? Where do I begin? Since I knew you’d ask, I’ve assembled a few real-life, tested, and practical tips on how to weed out those who cause us pain:

  • Start with honesty. You have made a decision in favor of your own health and wellness, and that took some strength and bravery, don’t let it end there. If you can speak to the person, in person, then do so. But regardless of the medium of communication, be brief and to the point and exercise as much kindness as you can muster. Divorcing your wife via text isn’t akin to kindness.
  • Avoid accusatory language. Although he or she may have done you wrong one too many times, you get to be big here, remember? And that means you own your feelings. Acknowledge that you cannot change anyone; you can only be responsible for how you feel. Speak from a place of how you feel, not how they make you feel.
  • Don’t spend too much time with explanations. A simple, “I don’t feel good when we interact, so I need to end/minimize the time we spend together.” Ideally, you have made efforts before you get to this point; otherwise, the offender is likely to be shocked. Make the effort to mend the fence, first, but have the clarity to know when you have tried everything you can to make it work.
  • Ultimately, you are taking out the trash and that’s your decision. Do so with grace, dignity, and resolve and then move on. Wish the person well, and don’t answer their emails, calls, or other attempts—especially the inflammatory or hateful missives that may come your way.
  • Prepare yourself for hateful missives (see above). Realize that you may lose, or confuse, other people in your life when you purge certain relationships. Again, it’s your decision for your well-being. That’s all you need to say—no further explanation necessary.
  • Put your energy into the people and activities that feed you, not deplete you. Giving away your time and focus to toxic relationships has a damaging ripple effect on all your relationships. Vow to be good to those who are good to you and spend your time and attention there.

Since it’s just a few weeks into the new year and thus a symbolic time to make changes for the better, why not take this opportunity to be a big, bold, and beautiful new you? How about evaluating those relationships that no longer serve you, the ones that keep you up at night, and doing something about it? Because you know, sticking it out isn’t doing anyone any favors. And if it’s not good for you, it isn’t good for them, either.


Image by Flickr user “What What,” used under a Creative Commons license.

Shanna Trenholm is a writer, muse, catalyst, and yoga teacher. She is passionate about sustainability, living small [hooray tiny houses], travel, love letters, square brackets, and dark chocolate. A left-handed, redhead poet with a penchant for the delightful, Shanna is sure that counts for something. You can hire her for legal things (mainly writing) or follow her witticisms and sage commentary on Twitter, Facebook, and on her website. Photo by Lori Brookes

14 Responses to “Toxic Waste Management”

  1. Laura says:

    Loved this…you had me at “..embrace the big, bold, beautiful life that we were all meant to live.” Important and insightful!

  2. TH Montano says:

    Immediate response…”YES, YES, and YES!!! Life goes by in a blink! Someone finally said it completely.”

    Thanks for taking the time to give life to what is a perpetual death dealer for so many of us! Well done!

  3. Barbarella says:

    Fantastic piece, I love the simple and clear steps you laid out. I’m inspired to live honestly and free of toxic relationships!

  4. Bridget says:

    I like lightening the load. It’s a good thing. There are too many good people out there to waste your time with the bad.

  5. Teller says:


    As usual, Shanna … this is rich in wisdom. The whole topic resonates with me because, unfortunately, I started the new year with a painful, arms-length relationship undergoing a fracture — this time with yet another family member. Now, for whatever reason(s), I have alienated -both- my brother and my sister, and they have -both- chosen to vilify me.

    These relationships are, and have been, undeniably toxic for years and I need to not be involved with these people, even though they’re “blood.” Luckily for me, both of them live two thousand miles away.

    Thanks for your thoughts on waste management.

  6. Donna says:

    Great article. Thank you!

  7. Sugar Jones says:

    I stayed in a toxic marriage for so long. I had absolutely made peace with his behavior and accepted it. At one point, a friend asked how things were going. I finally just looked at her with what I can only imagine to be a look of pathetic resignation and said, “Quite honestly, even I’VE tired of this whole damn story. I won’t waste our time together telling you any more about it.”

    Eventually, his behavior had spilled over and I had to pick up and move on. I’m catching myself in similar patterns and pulling back more quickly now. Thankfully, I’ve learned to put my energies into more positive activities. Still… sometimes I have those moments…

  8. nasrine says:

    i am reading and re-reading this one. i too need to learn how to set the tone with many human beings, for i have failed this one tasks and am learning how to gain this skill. i am not the dalai lama however, i have too often simply ignored the behavior and just said to myself. it’s ok, i am keeping my side of the street clean. however, i have learned the hard way that MY silence set a tone, a tone, that sent a message, it’s ok, keeping on being abusive. well thank you for reminding me that i do have choices and i can break the cycle and i can stand up for myself with ease and grace. your tips and hints are such empowering resources and i plan to use them asap!

  9. Tracey says:

    Yes, people…they can drag us down. I’ve done my fair share of letting toxic/needy/crazymaking relationships go. What a relief! I love how you spelled out practical ways to do so. We all deserve to live bright bold lives and not everyone can come along for the ride. Some may call it self-centered but I call it self-care. Thank you, Shanna!

  10. I loved this post, Shanna. We so need to heed these words and stop complaining already! I especially liked Sugar’s comment on her toxic marriage: “Quite honestly, even I’VE tired of this whole damn story. I won’t waste our time together telling you any more about it.” I had a similar experience this afternoon on a phone call and I was so grateful I no longer had the need to revisit an old and tired story. Here’s to taking out the trash with grace, dignity and resolve. I’m saving this post for my upcoming REAL Dirt on Detox class. It’s going to be a prerequisite.

  11. Kimby says:

    Shanna, I left a comment earlier, but didn’t see it here now. Not a problem! This was a great post to read again, especially with the holidays looming and more chance of running into toxic folks (ironic as that sounds.) Really excellent advice!

  12. Kathleen says:

    Oh woman. Yes. Clearing my reality of people that do not serve me, and worse, treat me poorly is something that takes me a long time to get to. I love my people! And I work hard on the psychological issues that might be in the way. And… I can only do some much. It is very very difficult for me to end a relationship, especially one that has existed for many years. I finally did it and it released me in HUGE ways. And incredible new loves have entered my life. So I am grateful… even while I continue to grieve the end of a relationship that once was great.
    Thank you for your wise counsel, Shanna. Have my eye on a couple more that I may have to release.

  13. Marion says:


    What awesome advice and so so needed! I love how you’re giving people permission to step out of relationships that no longer serve us. I think we sometimes get too stuck in the love+light+compassion mode that we don’t honestly assess what’s draining us and keeping us from our own joy.

    What resonated most for me was: “Don’t spend too much time with explanations.” A lot of us try to justify our action for no longer wanting the person in our life and try to explain away the reasons why. And that’s even more draining than the relationship was!

    All my best,

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