Anne T. Donahue on Cutting Off Toxic People as an Act of Self Preservation

To cut someone off isn’t to wash your hands of power, it’s a means of asserting it when you feel like you have nothing left

There are people in this world who are dead to me (despite being physically alive). They have careers and partners and social media accounts, and my friends have seen them out in the world, existing (or so I hear). More or less.

Sometimes, they are nothing. They are a footnote in a conversation or, because I’m petty, maybe the subject of gossip between me and a close pal. In the immortal words of my friend Sarah, my enemies are dust. And I don’t categorize them this way as a means of being harsh or because I thrive on melodrama, I do it out of necessity. I mentally kill off the people I hate as a means of self-preservation. I cut them off in a last act of power.

It takes a lot of energy to hate a person. Especially if you’re me, who tends to hate some persons with so much enthusiasm that it’s tempting to spend nights creating conspiracy boards that borrow heavily from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. I have creeped my enemies on Instagram, scrolled through their Twitters and prayed I don’t accidentally like a Facebook post from 2012. I’ve avoided parties, dinners and areas of town where I might run into them, all while secretly hoping we will actually cross paths so I can finally deliver the speech I’ve been rewriting hourly in my head for nearly six years. It takes a long time for me to hate somebody, but when I do, I have committed. And while I’m sure you’re all very impressed by this paragraph of questionable grudge-fuelled behaviour, it’s also a real power drain.

Cutting somebody off completely often seems out of the question. To start, it makes it obvious how much you really dislike them, feeding their own illusion of power. Which is made even worse by the “give them a second chance” chorus, brought to you by those who urge you to remember that everybody has a story, and everybody’s just trying their best.

But fuck “just trying their best.” First, because not everybody is, and second, because their best still isn’t my business. If someone has taken up so much space in my life that I am seconds from spewing conspiracies about them to a stranger near the shrimp ring, they’ve served up something toxic enough to warrant banishment. Most of us are self-aware enough to take accountability for our own actions. So truly, it says something if you still wholeheartedly hate someone.

Over the spring, I was consumed with the “how dare you” mindset against someone I’d considered a friend. I felt like I’d been sold a version of that person that wasn’t accurate, and I got angrier and angrier the more I listened to their repetitive rhetoric that contrasted the way they actually lived and behaved. And that anger consumed me. I brought it to conversations with friends, breakfasts with editors and to dinners with relative strangers. I dissected our back-and-forths and Instagram posts and asked everyone I’d ever met for their take on a Twitter exchange. I wanted to ruin that person, but I also wanted to change and inspire them (I am #complex), telling myself that one day I would say all the things I’d been meaning to say and, broken by my ability to deliver biting insults so cold and precisely, they would start anew and cite me as the reason they chose to live better.

Which, obviously, never happened. Instead, I just stayed angry. And even when I did have a brief glimpse of the conversation I’d been meaning to have, it only fed my anger more because I’d wanted to sound different, cooler. So finally, I cancelled them and cut them off, silently and without them knowing (they likely still don’t), to regain some semblance of peace. Especially since by the end of the ordeal, most of my thoughts about this person were met with my friends’ follow-up question: “So why are you still talking to them?” And I was sick of having to say, “I mean . . .” before bringing up something they did back in November.

Cancelling with abandon is often construed as a bad thing—but we don’t talk about how self-preserving it can be. We don’t sing the praises of how doing so teaches us to evolve and to protect ourselves by putting up boundaries we didn’t know we needed before. To cut someone off isn’t to wash your hands of power, it’s a means of asserting it when you feel like you have nothing left. It’s you recognizing that someone is leeching off you is disrupting your well-being. It’s you saying, “No thanks.” To cancel is to rebuild your power source.

Which isn’t to say a cut-off means you can’t interact. You will come up against the people you hate at work, on the street, at restaurants, or at family functions and, because you are a professional person, you will be polite and make small talk and interact in a way that allows for the least amount of pain. The people I hate are dead to me in ways that vary from being blocked and deleted to muted to “receives only a ‘like’ if they respond to a tweet.” My animosity style is fluid, dependent on whom and why and for how long. But it exists to empower and protect. Because that’s why most of us continue holding grudges anyway. And I’ll be damned if someone who’s wronged me gets to take anything else.