How To Manage Bad Behavior In 3 Simple, But Not Easy Steps

How To Manage Bad Behavior

Toxic or bad behavior? How do you label it when someone acts badly towards you?
“Toxic” is used to characterize anything and everything these days. Why?

As Joanna Williams of Spiked says, it’s not a proposition, an argument, or a description. When you label someone as toxic, you are characterizing them in a negative way, giving yourself permission to dismiss, avoid, criticize, etc.

“It is not an argument; it is a flashing siren warning people away.”

I recommend (strongly) that you work to describe what other people do, not characterize them as toxic. To describe is to represent someone (or something) in words while to characterize is to depict someone (or something) a particular way, usually negative. Williams accurately notes that characterizing someone as “toxic” curtails all discussion—it ends any attempt to engage with the person.

We All Behave Badly Often Enough

There are three steps you can take to deal with someone acting badly towards you

(1) How am I reacting to the bad behavior?
(2) Describe what it is that you don’t like; and
(3) How do I respond in an appropriate and effective way?

1. How Am I Reacting To The Bad Behavior?

In Jane Austen’s book Emma, a young man pretended to court the main character, Emma. When she found out, she said, “He has imposed on me, but he has not injured me.” Mr. Churchill, the cad, had imposed on Emma’s time, was dishonest, and kept her from being interested in other young men. He did not injure her. She didn’t take it personally, i.e., she did not feel ‘insulted.’

This is a perfect example of how to tell when you are reacting personally to someone else’s bad behavior. Feeling ‘injured’ in such situations harkens back to a younger age; as children, we take everything personally because we lack adult perspective-taking.

When adults do wrong by us (e.g., not being attentive, not showing gratitude breaking promises, being critical, being unkind), remember they are imposing on us, not injuring us. We are not victims. If we act out being injured, 100% of the time we will act badly in return. Thoughtful judgment about how to respond to others needs to be based on the recognition that they can impose on us without injuring us.

Also, read What Is Negativity Bias And 5 Strategies To Overcome It

2. Describe What It Is That You Don’t Like

Once you have taken time to reflect on how you are feeling injured in some way, you can work on defining how the other person has “imposed” on you. You want to describe how the action does not suit you—not that person is “toxic.”

Notice that to say something does not suit you and how it does not suit you is to empower yourself. Given that you have sorted out the personal part, what you like, or dislike, stands on its own. You can act on such preferences.

3. How Do I Respond In An Appropriate And Effective Way?

How do you respond to other people when they have imposed on you? I’ll take a simple example of having a planned lunch with a friend who has kept me waiting for about 20 minutes. My first reaction (which is automatic rather than ‘normal’), is to feel ‘insulted’ (i.e., ‘injured’) by that person’s ‘rudeness.’

I take the time to ‘soothe’ the anger I am feeling and how I am labeling her as being “rude.” I remember the difference between being ‘imposed’ on and being ‘injured.’ Once I do that, I can begin to address the issue of being kept waiting.

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Catherine Aponte

Catherine Aponte is a clinical psychologist who worked with couples for more than thirty years. She writes a Psychology Today blog and contributes posts to The Good Men Project. Throughout her career, she has been devoted to helping couples create and maintain a committed and equitable marriage. Her guide to achieving a committed, equitable, and vibrant family and work-life is in her book A Marriage of Equals ( She trained at Duke and Spalding Universities and taught marital therapy courses at Spalding University as an Associate Adjunct Professor.View Author posts