A narcissistic mother. A psychopathic father. A volatile, emotionally draining friend.
When it comes to dealing with toxic people, the advice is often that you should simply cut them out of your life. Just, remove them entirely from the list of Shit You Have To Put Up With. Because generally, the best way to deal with a toxic person is to not deal with them at all. Truth.
Another common recommendation is to set up clear, firm boundaries. That slimy coworker who tries to take credit for your work? The gossipy friend who keeps stirring up drama in your mom’s group? You may speak up and make clear in blunt fashion that you are not here for their bullshit. You point out their nonsense, deal with the fallout, and move on. You make peace with the new uncomfortable understanding between the two of you. Because it’s better than being their personal doormat.
But what do you do in instances when you don’t have the option to cut a toxic person out of your life? And what about when confronting someone would only cause even more drama and backlash that you damn sure don’t have the time or emotional energy to mess with? Then what?
You might need to try the “Gray Rock Method.” This is a technique for dealing with toxic people that avoids the extremes of cutting them out or confronting them. Instead, you take what is essentially a neutral position and make yourself as boring as humanly possible. As in… as boring as a gray rock.
Emotional vampires, narcissists, and psychopaths consume drama like I consume salt and vinegar potato chips: until my mouth bleeds but I don’t care because #worthit. Salt and vinegar potato chips are super exciting. They demand your attention. They draw you back for more long after you’ve clearly had enough. And even when there is nothing left, you turn the bag inside out and lick it. Okay, so I may have carried this metaphor too far.
The point is, when dealing with toxic jerks, the key is not to be as exciting and tempting as salt and vinegar potato chips. Be a boring, gray rock. Blend in. Be forgettable. Be so unengaging that the toxic person gets absolutely zero benefit out of trying to get a rise out of you. Be flavorless and inedible.
Amplify your boringness by speaking in a neutral voice and talking about the most humdrum, mindless trivia you can think of. If the toxic person tries to goad you, resist. Make as little eye contact as possible and don’t provide any personal info. And definitely don’t act interested in anything they have to say, even if they serve up a lump of juicy gossip that, internally, you just can’t help but be a teeny bit curious to hear more about. Your goal is to disengage with this person. You can’t cut them out, so you’re going to make yourself so boring that they lose interest and cut you out.
Janet from the office who talks shit about your other coworkers and has constant drama going on at home that she feels the need to discuss with you in great detail? Janet does not need to know what an interesting motherfucker you are. You’d love to confront Janet, or even just give her the cold shoulder, but she works in HR and the last time someone gave her what for, she went nuclear and launched an internal investigation on them.
So you will handle Janet by being a gray rock. When she worms her way into your office and asks if you heard about Amanda’s divorce, you’ll shrug and tell her about your aunt’s divorce, but not really because your real goal is to weave a generous sidestory about your aunt’s lawn. “Did you know,” you’ll ask Janet in a dull monotone, “that in the summer months, it’s necessary to cut grass once per week? On account of all the heat and rain?” Unless Janet wants to hear about the ideal length to cut blades of grass in order to make sure they seed properly, she will slither her gossiping ass right out of your office.
And what about a toxic ex-spouse you can’t cut contact with because you are forced to coparent with them? Same gray rock tactic, but you have to be creative, because a malicious ex might be seeking specific weaknesses where they can needle you and rejoice in making you miserable. As hard as it may be not to respond to their passive aggressive antagonism, don’t feed the beast.
Remember: You have absolutely nothing of interest to offer this person. Not by way of your reaction and not with anything going on in your life. They don’t need to know what you did over the weekend. They don’t need to know if those shoes you’re wearing are new. They don’t need to know about work. If your ex is toxic, the only reason they’re asking personal questions is to collect ammunition they can use later to make you miserable. So don’t give it to them. Your weekend? “Eh. Read some books.” What books? “Eh. Nothing special.” Are those shoes new? “Meh. I’ve had them awhile.”
You are the most boring gray rock on an infinite beach of gray rocks. Utterly uninteresting and forgettable.
The thing about toxic people is, if you show interest in what they’re saying, you validate them and feed their need for attention. If you give them details about your life or let them know what you’re excited about, they’ll eventually use that information against you.
It can be hard not to respond to someone who is intentionally goding you or has juicy–and quite frankly, interesting–gossip. And it can be almost impossible to ignore a narcissist who is hellbent on inserting themselves under your skin. But you know these people drain your emotional energy. You know they turn you into a worse version of yourself. You know you’re better off dealing with them as little as humanly possible.
But you also know you can’t cut this person entirely out of your life. But that doesn’t mean you have to actively engage with them–you can gray rock them. Now here’s to practicing being the most boring version of ourselves (when we need to be at least).