Can You Build Self-Esteem Around Toxic People?

June 13, 2019 Britt Mahrer

A quick story about toxic people and self-esteem: Imagine you decide to plant a tiny sprout in your garden. When it flourishes, it will bring you deep joy. But first, it needs your focus and care to grow. Those who come into your garden and see your sprout give you support and space, encouraging your progress. But occasionally, a different kind of person comes into your garden. Knowingly or unknowingly, they march across the soil, step on your plants, and in the worst-case scenario, grind your tiny sprout into nothing.

These are toxic people who can lower your self-esteem. They are the ones who come into our lives and leave us worse than we were before. Can we grow while encountering destructive forces? Do we need to remove them? What if we can't? Is it possible to continue to work on building self-esteem while co-existing with toxic people?

Who Are Toxic People that Hurt Your Self-Esteem?

For the use of this article, let's describe toxic people who damage your self-esteem as the people in our lives who consistently create negativity. The amount of negativity can vary–some people are immediately identifiable as toxic, while it may take years to recognize others. Relationships also shift with time, which means a positive relationship may morph into a toxic one. This is part of what makes toxicity so complicated–it's hard to say someone isn't good for us when we know they aren't trying to cause damage.

Instead of identifying a toxic person based on their external attributes, we do better to identify them based on our internal responses. Here are three questions that help identify toxicity:

  1. Do you leave encounters feeling positive or negative?
  2. Do you feel this person wants what is best for you?
  3. Do you shield parts of yourself from this person?

Of course, nothing in this world is black and white–there may be relationships with negative pieces that are on the whole positive. It comes down to your opinion. Only you can decide if a relationship is toxic. 

How Toxic People Affect Self-Esteem

Just like our garden, building self-esteem takes time and focus. We work hard to create an environment that simultaneously allows honesty and self-forgiveness. This means digging into our most vulnerable places, something that is hard for many of us. Unfortunately, toxic relationships make vulnerability really difficult. How do we open up an area of ourselves that feels scary when we already feel the need to shield ourselves from this person?

In an ideal situation, recognizing a toxic relationship that's damaging to our self-esteem would result in ending the relationship. Yet in many cases, toxic relationships are not relationships we can simply cut off. They are bosses, in-laws, co-workers, family members, or other people that are tightly woven into the fibers of our lives. So how can we continue to build self-esteem?

Building Self-Esteem Despite Toxic People

Every gardener knows he must protect new plants–he builds fences, sprays chemicals, even makes scarecrows. Are any of these ideal? No. But they are the reality of the messiness that is life. Simultaneously, building self-esteem around toxic people means using techniques that allow you to protect yourself until your new piece is strong enough to withstand the occasional footstep. Do they make growing easier? Probably not, but they make it possible. 

Protection takes a unique shape for each of us, but a time-proven technique is the use of positive mantras. Here are a few to try:

  • I am allowed to grow.
  • I am perfectly imperfect.
  • I am strong enough.

Building self-esteem in the presence of toxic people is not an easy thing, but it's a reality of life. People will step on your garden, but they don't get to stop you from growing. 

APA Reference
Mahrer, B. (2019, June 13). Can You Build Self-Esteem Around Toxic People?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 21 from

Author: Britt Mahrer

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