Addition By Subtraction

Addition by Subtraction
Sometimes, it’s best to walk away.

Have you ever dealt with an incredibly difficult person before?

I know, I know. Ridiculous question, right? Of course you have.

I bet that it was a miserable experience, wasn’t it?

I believe that one of the hardest things that we have to endure in our lives is dealing with difficult people. In fact, it’s so tough that I even wrote a free guide to help you navigate through the challenges of it (if interested, you can get it instantly by subscribing to the Go Together Movement Monday morning email series.)

In this post, I’m going to take it a step further.

Specifically, I’m going to talk about the people who are, without a doubt, the worst of the worst. While it’s true that difficult people are fairly common, the people that I’m about to mention, thankfully, are very rare.

I’m talking about toxic people.

You probably know who I’m talking about. They’re the people who are emotionally draining, constantly negative, manipulative, selfish, passive-aggressive, judgmental, emotionally (and possibly, physically) abusive, and/or narcissistic. And no, that’s not an exhaustive list.

Needless to say, these folks are dangerous and have the power to destroy your life if they are not dealt with swiftly.

The only way to deal with these people is to fully embrace the “addition by subtraction” philosophy.

I can promise you that using this technique when it comes to dealing with toxic people will positively change your life in ways that you wouldn’t even imagine.

The Best Gift in the World

It took me a long time to realize this, but more isn’t always better.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against “more.”

Who doesn’t want more love, more happiness, more peace of mind, more time, and even more money?

But the “more is better” argument doesn’t work very well when it has to do with living, breathing people.

Many years ago, I used to work for an extremely toxic, bully boss. I remember a time when the company spent a great deal of money to hire a slew of new people for my boss’s department in hopes of making us more productive.

During all of it, I couldn’t help but to shake my head in disbelief and think: “if this company really wanted to see some amazing productivity out of this department, they shouldn’t spend their time giving my boss more people to bully and torture. Instead, they should simply focus on one thing: firing his crazy ass.”

Yes, sometimes, less is more.

This is especially true when it comes to dealing with the toxic people in our lives.

The effects of my ex-boss’s terrible behavior are likely still being felt to this day at my old job, and there’s no doubt in my mind that his department would enjoy much more success, happiness, and employee engagement if there was much less of him around.

But enough about him—what does this all mean for us?

A lot.

Instead of focusing on “more” as the key to happiness, there’s no doubt that the faster route to happiness is to consistently focus on the removal of the toxic people from our lives.

This is addition by subtraction—in other words, adding more good things to our lives simply by the removing the people who bring constant toxicity to us.

How much happier, productive, and clear-headed would we be if there were less of these people taking up valuable space in our day-to-day lives?

That’s why subtracting toxic people from our lives is an absolute must.

As mentioned earlier, I’m not against you buying yourself a new outfit, tickets to the game, or a fancy dinner–but if you want to give yourself the best gift in the world, do this:

Make the choice to walk away from relationships that do not honor the best of who you are.

There is no gift in the world that will make you feel better than that.

Best of all, it’s free too.

The only catch is that no one else can give this gift to you, but you.

The Cancer Within

Let’s be real though.

Even though it may be free to walk away from a toxic relationship (personal or professional) that doesn’t mean it will be easy.

Even if a particular person is making your life a living hell, sometimes it’s not as simple as packing up your things and walking away from the person forever.

What if the toxic person is your boss? Your spouse? Your highest paying client? Your most productive employee? Your mom or dad?

That makes it a lot harder, doesn’t it?

I hope that what I’m about to say will make it a little easier.

First, I’m going to make a quick assumption.

I’m going to assume that 99.6% of the people reading these words have had their lives touched by cancer either directly, or indirectly through a friend or loved one.

If you are one of the 99.6%, you don’t need me to tell you that cancer is absolutely terrible in every conceivable way.

When cancer enters the body it spreads and wreaks havoc in every cell it touches, and if left untreated—it will kill you. In some cases, even when it is treated, it can be too late if it wasn’t discovered and dealt with early on.

The toxic people in our lives are the same way.

Just to be clear, toxic people aren’t merely “annoying” or “challenging to deal with”–as mentioned earlier, these people are the worst of the worst. Similar to cancer, allowing these toxic people to remain in your life can have a devastating and a life-altering effect on your mental, emotional, and physical well-being.

Put another way—allowing toxic people to remain in your life is not much different than allowing cancer to grow in your body untreated.

The best treatment for both is complete removal.

If you have determined that the person is toxic and deeply harming your life, it is time to accept that it doesn’t matter who it is—your mom, your husband, your boss, or anyone else—they need to be removed from your life.

Their presence in your life is doing more than robbing you of your happiness, your sanity, and your overall well-being—their toxicity could be slowly killing you too.

Simply put, some people need to be loved from a distance.

Even if it isn’t easy, the alternative (aka, doing nothing) is much, much worse.

Your Best Life

All in all, I’m a very simple dude.

To me, life is all about love, happiness, fulfilling our highest potential, and helping as many people as possible to live their best lives.

I know that last sentence sounded like I’m a finalist in the Miss America pageant or something, but I believe in that with all of my heart. I also believe that it is impossible to live our best lives when we allow toxic people to remain in our lives unchecked.

As far as I’m concerned, the fastest way to live our best lives and have more of what we want is to remove more of what we don’t want.

Too simple?

I don’t think so.

  • If a company wants more engaged employees at work, they need to focus on finding the jerks, asshats, and bullies on their payroll and ask them to change or terminate them (whichever option is the quickest).
  • If a person wants more love and appreciation in her life, she should start by removing all of the people who consciously treat her like dirt and consistently take her for granted.
  • If a person wants more happiness and peace of mind, he should focus on removing all the people in his life who bring him a steady stream of mindless drama, arguments, and conflict on a daily basis.

This is addition by subtraction, and if you choose to give yourself this gift, it has the power to positively change your life.

Can you afford to put off giving yourself that gift any longer?

Your best life may depend on your answer.

Your Turn

Have you ever experienced the gift of removing a toxic person from your life? If so, was it hard for you? What positive effects did you experience once you removed him/her from your life? Jump into the comments below and make your voice heard!

19 thoughts on “Addition By Subtraction”

  1. I have struggled for many years with 2 specific siblings that are extremely challenging- as in toxic. I feel I have at times made steps and boundaries to step away from them…but it is very difficult because they are family and they do not see that they are doing anything hurtful to me (or my children) with their behaviors. It wasnt evfen until recently, I began to understand that it is okay to step aweay from toxic people–even if they are family. THANK you for addressing this topic.

    • My pleasure, Val. This is definitely isn’t one of the most enjoyable topics to address, but it is critical when it comes to living a positive life. It’s not easy to walk away from family members, but if you’ve decided that their influence over your life is a toxic, then walking away is the only decision that makes sense. Huge props to you for doing what’s necessary, even when it’s not easy to do so.

  2. Hi Shola. ❤️❤️
    So my toxic people are my sister and mom. This summer has been truth telling season for me.
    I was surprisingly kind yet firm in telling my sister ( who won’t speak to my brother ) that she and my brother are on their own now. I will stay in touch with my brother. My sister — NO.
    My mom however is another story. She is 81 and needs health help. Any suggestions ??

    • Josephine, I’m so sorry to hear about your sister and your mom–there is nothing pleasant or fun about having cut family members out of your life. But as I mentioned to Val above, if you’ve decided that their impact on your life is a toxic one, then there really isn’t much of a choice if you care about your sanity. In terms of your mom (and admittedly, I don’t have the full details of your situation), but if her influence is truly toxic on you, then if it were me, I would continue to be helpful, while also dramatically reducing my contact with her, if possible. Mind you, these aren’t easy decisions at all, but toxic people can destroy your life, and some people do need to be loved from a distance. Good luck to you, Josephine–I’m rooting for you.

  3. This is a big one, trying to remove yourself from your own child. My adult son is a drug addict, lives at home and steals from me lies to me etc. I’ve got him set up for rehab on September 1 but if he doesn’t go… I will have to turn away. This is a toxic relationship and causing problems in all of my other relationships with his brother, my husband, my mother and siblings the list goes on. Wish me luck!

    • Lynette, you’re right–this is a big one. There’s no doubt that dealing with a toxic son or daughter is by far the toughest situation of all. As hard as this is, I hope that you are being kind to yourself by realizing that you have (and continue to do) everything in your power to help your son. If he doesn’t step up and do his part on September 1st, then there really isn’t much else that you can do. Please know that I’ll be thinking of him and you on September 1st. Good thoughts and positive vibes are being sent your way!

  4. Shola, this touches my heart, because during a time when I was searching for answers, being treated horribly by my boss, I found The Positivity Solution. This blog helped me understand my right to acknowledge my worth and expect respect, that I have a right to walk away from anyone who treats me badly, and move on from such an experience with a positive attitude, and create my own positive outcomes. At the time, I had a new boss who took an intense dislike to me. She would either refuse to acknowledge me when I spoke, or would harshly contradict my words. She was such a bully, she terrorized everyone, and made my work friends afraid to even say “hello” to me in her presence. She also terrorized our management. Everyone was so intimidated, they would not intervene. I was speaking to our union, contemplating lawsuits, etc., when I discovered The Positivity Solution. This totally rearranged my thinking, and rather than stick around, drag out the misery for what could have been years, and continue the heartache, I moved on. I left a job I’d been in for 10 years, and had expected to retire from. As soon as I left, I felt much better. At my new job, I’ve been here 2 1/2 years, and I am so happy! I did love my old job, so much so that I failed to notice little hints of weak management, lack of direction, and other things, that made them susceptible to being overrun by a maniac. My new job is run by smarter, highly functioning people, and you are right, I do have more, even though I had to make a huge subtraction, of an entire career. Totally worth it! Now I run into my old coworkers in town. They are still there, and tell me how miserable they are. OMG that could have been me. Thank God for you Shola, and your work. You have made a powerful & positive impact on this life.

    • WOW Donna–your comment seriously moved me. I am blown away to know that my words have had such a positive impact on your life, both professionally and personally–thank you SO much for sharing that with me. Stopping bullies, like the one at your previous job, is what keeps me up at night and I am consistently perplexed as to why we aren’t doing more as a society to deal with this issue (that’s why I wrote my book!) More importantly, I am so glad that you made the soul-nourishing decision to move away from the toxicity instead of fight against it. One of my old friends once told me, “never get into the slop to fight with a pig. You just end up getting dirty and the pig ends up liking it.” 🙂 Thank YOU for being a perfect example of how the decision to remove a toxic influence from your life can have a very positive impact.

  5. I can relate to this so well. My toxic people are 3 of my siblings, a sister and 2 brothers, all alcoholics. Add to that an enabling mother who blames herself for her adult childrens mishaps. I have recently blocked my sister on my phone, we now have zero contact. Have very little contact with brother1 and decided to sell the home in which brother2 lives in. After reading several of your blogs and giving much thought to my own situation, I believe I have 1) given them too much power over my happiness 2) to an extent enabled their behavior 3) allowed it to continue this long. I believe in taking ownership for my part in any situation BUT I REFUSE to continue to take blame for other people’s lives. As for my Mom.. I love her to death, but I have decided that she too is a toxic person in my life. I have been called many not very nice things by her and I am seen as an awful person for not “caring” about my brothers and sister. I have tried on many occasions to explain that THEIR situation is THEIR own doing and THEY need to want to fix it and put effort into it. Yet she doesn’t understand. She blames others for my brothers divorce and refuses to admit that it had anything to do with the domestic violence for which he was in jail for. She only lives with me a few months a year and even that is becoming too much. We have been working on having her spend more time in her own home, were honestly, she is much happier. Even my co-workers have noticed a positive change in me since distancing myself from my siblings. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with the us, it serves as reassurance knowing that’s it’s ok to leave people out of your life.. Even if they are family.

    • Thank you so much for sharing that with us, Cristina. It is always so sad to see that oftentimes, the toxicity of alcohol can lead to toxicity within relationships as well. It takes strength to realize that you are not responsible for anyone else’s life, and I give you HUGE credit for refusing to take the blame for your siblings’ alcohol issues. Contrary to your mom’s belief, you are not an uncaring or awful person for not getting wrapped up in their drama. It is not up to you (or your mom) to change them–they can only change once they’re ready to change. And as you realized perfectly, you have every right to distance yourself from them until they are able to do so. Best of luck to you!

  6. I very recently, last week, walked away from a job. My mom is a “good” 90, walks two miles a day, she’s in good health and I wanted to drive her to doctor appointments and be easily accessible if she needed me. With this I’ve been looking for a part-time job that was flexible with my need.

    I interviewed with a Customer Service Manager, with whom I would be working with, mostly alone with him, for a very small business. I got the job. Immediately, upon hire, when I was on the phone with a customer, and they were checking status, in a friendly manner, about their order, the Customer Service Manager would have no tolerance and say “not so nice” remarks that the customer could hear while on the phone with me. He did this many times a day when I was on the phone with a customer. I was shocked by his behavior and tried to find ways to muffle his sound with the phone so customers couldn’t hear him.

    Within three months, I was more aware of him. I was tolerant and noticed he didn’t have any patience, tolerance or respect for people. He would slam his cordless phone on his desk violently, five times in one instance to be exact, and not sure what would set him off. Another time he went into another room, and started screaming in a “rage” and throwing things around the room.

    Within the last two weeks, his toxic behavior started to move toward me with snide remarks in front of other employees, and I knew something wasn’t quite right with him. I felt that he was in some type of mental pain. In addition, he had a masters in psychology and an undergrad in social work. I admired that he was a social worker in the past to help people.

    At this time I knew my own worth, and this wasn’t my first being bullied rodeo. I contacted the owner in the morning and gave notice. The owner liked me and the work that I provided, but said, “We know that he has a problem but he’s good at what he does”.

    The last three jobs (part-time) that I had in the past year, yes it’s a lot, I have been bullied, by a coworker that was above me. Most of the owners were aware of the behavior and didn’t say anything, even if they were in ear shot. At another job, the owner fired a woman that bullied me (after I left the job) as she worked for him for 17 years. He stated that she was always like this, bullying people that were new. They were fearful if they fired her their business would go under as she was good at her job. The owner’s wife, Office Manger, thought the woman was jealous of me and said she was threatened by the work I provided and my knowledge.

    To make a move like this, quitting with no notice, was a hard move for me. A friend told me once that I’m brave as I put myself in situations that may be uncomfortable (leaving a job) and I’m not afraid to sit in the discomfort as it too shall pass. When you sit in the discomfort it doesn’t make it any easier but does help you get through it. I have supportive friends and family, but you kind of sit alone with yourself, thinking about what happened and what could’ve been done differently. With this, I think the “sitting alone” part is when you start to get to know yourself. It can be lonely but there is a payoff each time.

    I’m really pleased that I came across your blog. Since I came upon it I have been reading it over the past three days and it has been extremely helpful to me. Thank you!

    The positive effects that I experienced over the last couple of days, reading articles about bullying to educate and prepare myself for now and the next, feeling courageous and strong, despite what the norm should be. Realizing that there will be other bullies in the future. Each experience of being bullied is setting me up to set better boundaries, to be educated on the subject and to become aware of my self and what I will allow and not allow.

  7. Shola,
    Thank you for your willingness to take seriously the problem of toxic relationships at work. I have been in search of good advice for a number of months and found only articles that assumed the employee needed to ‘see things from your employer’s point of view.’ The assumption seems to be that anyone who says they have a bully for a boss is either immature, unprofessional or just too sensitive. I am still reading through your posts and finding lots of good stuff! (Almost) all bosses have a boss of their own. I am learning to manage my situation with a toxic boss, but also I’m learning to be a better boss myself. Again, thank you.

  8. It took me a long time to realize that I had to use “Addition by Subtraction” in my life.
    I worked for a “bully boss” like you, who was manipulative and emotionally degrading to one type of her employees: myself and 3 others that I know of. She would make my best friend have to leave work crying a handful of times.
    I was at that job for 7 years, then found a reason to get out when my second child was born and got to stay home. But now as I want to re-enter the workforce I realize that woman will never give me a good reference even though all of the clients LOVED me. So I may be in for a hard time, but I will do my best.
    The OTHER toxic person in my life for the last 9 years is my MIL. I won’t go into the whole story, but I’ve tried to make it work forever and it wasn’t getting anywhere. I started having physical symptoms of anxiety including convulsions, panic attacks and irregular heart beat and chest pains. So of course I have since ceased all communications with her.
    Thank you for your article, as it doesn’t make me feel like such a terrible person for needing to escape from these people.

  9. I loved what you said about more being less with the people in our lives. If we truthfully want to succeed in life, we need to surround ourselves with positive and like-minded people. The most people that our in our lives, the more diverse the interests are. While it is good to have social interaction, there also needs to be a fine line between not having enough people in your life, and having too many people.
    I feel that when we have too many people in our life, we won’t be able to correctly see our purpose. There are going to be so many ideas all around us that we wont be able to focus. When you have few but not too few people in your life, you can still see your thoughts clearly while having a good amount of diversity in your life.

  10. I think perhaps the most toxic person in my life is myself. I tend to dwell on negative feelings and thoughts, and often feel like life is pointless. I don’t self-harm, and I have no intention of starting, but I feel miserable most of the time. I have stopped watching the news, and no longer use Facebook, but I still manage to learn of so many instances of bigotry and hatred. I feel disgusted by the human race. I haven’t been keeping up with your blog, but I plan to do so now. I do try to stop negativity from taking over, but as you say – it’s hard!

  11. Hi Shola,
    Wow. You give voice that encompasses my feelings towards all bullies and I am so glad to know someone out there is doing more than thinking it. You are an ispiration. It always amazes me that people act like those posters that say zero tolerance on bullying are anything other than fictional. I have a special needs child and have dealt with the heartache when people are mean to her. Now, I have s bully, 2 actually, at work and there are just 3 of us. I have been distraught about it and was feeling pretty isolated. Your words just gave me the courage to be thankful because I am reminded that I would rather be bullied and a kind person than fit in in a position where bullying goes unnoticed, or rather, unchecked, without thinking of the devastation it unleashes on a person. Thank you for reminding me that it is okay to expect people to be civil at least. As educators, we should be the example. You reminded me today that it is worth it to never let abuse slide even once.

  12. Hi Shola. I read your article and I’m left wondering that what if I myself am toxic? What are some signs that one should search for within oneself? Below is my little life story.
    I was a very happy, social, kind, driven and overachieving student up until my early adulthood. My mother was negative and aloof towards me but overly attached to her maternal relatives while my father was loving but overprotective and occupied with providing for the family and his relatives. An older brother whom I idolized was very condescending and critical of me. I had seen a rift within my family because of the relatives and I sought comfort in my friends’ families, teachers and studies. My only wish was attend my country’s most prestigious Journalism university while my father pushed me towards Engineering.
    At 17, I tried to attempt suicide afraid that my parents will not let me pursue Journalism away from my hometown. Father was distraught and my mother and brother didn’t care. I left my secret boyfriend and circumstances became that I had to drop, then repeat my senior year. My friends had moved on to top colleges and I was left smothered in my home amongst my lowlife relatives . By 19, I had became a silent, ashamed, stigmatized, stupid, depressed and lonely person. I was attending a community college and my personal growth had stunted. I stopped seeking romantic partners. I din’t drink or socialize at all. My life had halted and you can say that I was dead inside. I had replaced my life and education with useless books, educational shows and internet. I fell into a loop of blaming and treating my parents like garbage and then hating myself for becoming this immensely horrible person. I felt guilty for wasting their money to support myself. I cut myself off from everyone and decided to kill myself at 23 if I couldn’t be financially independent by then.
    I don’t know how I pulled myself together and started working hard for higher studies. At 22, my post- graduation candidature was cancelled by a reputed university on grounds of lack of funding. I started spiraling back into my severe depression. I had 8 months left till my 23rd birthday.
    6 months later, I had somehow managed to secure a seat in another university but at this point my only joy was in looking for ways to terminate my existence. Meanwhile, my brother had become an Engineer from a college equivalent to Harvard and secured a well paying job with my country’s federal bank. My schoolmates were settling in their lives and I was living in my past.
    I was essentially uneducated, unskilled and inexperienced. I decided to leave university to seek my brother’s help in getting any job. I am 23 and a half and crumbling under the literal deadline and pressure I put on myself. My brother allows me to stay with him for two months but clearly refuses to help me in any manner. I fail every recruitment exam and personal interviews during my stay with him. I was at my family’s mercy as I had no network of friends. I had alienated myself from my social circle when I was 17.
    Two days before a very important recruitment exam (my last hope), a fight ensues on a very trivial matter. Things get heated and my family corners me on my rudeness, aloofness and unemployment. I’m shown my past 6 years from their perspective where I’m an abusive tainted blot on their family name. They bring me back to my hometown against my will. Have you ever read about the phenomenon of brainwashing? I hated myself and my reality to the such extremes that I isolated myself indoors for nearly a year and underwent complete psychological regression. My speech, cognition, memory and mental capacity has declined. I look 5 to 10 years older and I am physically unhealthy. I am 25 now and I have become a prisoner in my own mind. I do not know if I am the victim or the perpetrator of my own destruction. This is my life. And I want out but I have no courage left to end it all. What should I do?

  13. Would like to read an article on the Positivity Solution. Looking for a short read for a staff retreat. Thank you.

  14. I worked for someone who I had known since we were teenagers. He had even worked in my family’s business as a teenager. After college and graduate school, I helped out in our family business for a number of years. When I was ready to move on, he contacted me about working for him. When I started it was great, but years down the road his attitude changed, in general. He was less kind and empathetic to people and became much more “me” focused. We were like brother and sister at one time which is what made all that followed so much more distressing. He was involved with other family businesses and when he was frustrated I felt that I bore the brunt of his bad moods. Others did too sometimes and the one person in particular would go right back at him. That typically was not my style, but when I became more forceful and stood up for myself it just got worse. Our communication became through email primarily even though he was just down the hall from me. Along with him ignoring me or not checking in if I needed anything from him if he was going to be out of the office even when he checked with others. No raises, lack of respect. I had taken on a part-time job that I loved. I am not a job hopper and am loyal, sometimes to a fault. However, it was time to move on. I began looking and let my part-time employer know I was looking providing them with the requisite resume and cover letter. It was about 4 months, but they found something for me and I went to work for them full-time. While it was stressful to go in and give my two weeks notice, it was also very liberating. I felt such relief because I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. My days as his figurative “punching bag” were coming to an end. While I missed the rest of my co-workers, it was the best decision. I felt as though the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders and that I could breathe again. It was only then that I fully realized how much stress I had been operating under now that it was gone.


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Hi! I am Shola

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Over a decade ago, I was drowning in the despondency of yet another workday. My success as the top regional performer had been numbed by a culture of incessant workplace bullying. And, I’d recently made the situation worse by filing a formal complaint. In short, I was collateral damage in a company without the process or intention to address my experience.

Exhausted from the drama, with an unrecognizable version of myself at the wheel, I intentionally swerved off the interstate in an attempt to take my own life. But in that half-second, my reflexes responded, and I yanked the wheel away from disaster. As I clipped the guardrail on I 405, something changed...

I uncovered a power within myself

...a burning desire to reverse a trend that happens daily to sixty-five million people in this country alone. This catalyst has since become Go Together™ Movement - a transformational roadmap of mindset, behaviors, and tools that transform workplace cultures and drive results.

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