A few years ago I visited the San Diego zoo with my family, and one of the highlights was seeing the tigers. There is something so amazing about being so close to these giant cats and knowing how powerful and dangerous they are. I became acutely aware of how defenseless I was and started to imagine what would happen if I found myself in that pit with them. (Sometimes it doesn’t pay to have an active imagination.)
After a few moments of trying to imagine what I would do, how I might survive or escape, and generally working myself up into a mental lather, I realized that none of that was actually happening. I was scaring myself for no reason. Nobody was climbing into the tiger pit that day.
Lately I have begin to notice a correlation between this feeling and our work and social environments. Everyone has most likely met someone who is legitimately dangerous to be around (if not physically then at least emotionally), either because they are toxic, negative or violent. I know a fair number of people (myself being one) who have spent a lot of time and energy talking about and worrying about those people and I have begun to realize how they are like the tigers at the zoo.
Now unlike being in an actual jungle where there are real dangers to consider and the possibility of a tiger hunting you is a legitimate possibility, not a imagination-driven fear, the tigers at the zoo are in an enclosed environment, safely separated from us by concrete and bars.
And, unless you live in a really chaotic environment where social expectations and rules don’t apply, those people who are negative and toxic also have their place. Sometimes avoiding them can be as simple as not seeking them out (or not climbing into the tiger pit).
For example, if you find that every time you ask a particular person for feedback, she tears you down and makes you feel small, ask yourself, Am I required to engage with her? If the answer is no, then ask, What would happen if I didn’t seek her out?
Most likely nothing.
The goal here is to empower us to recognize that we don’t have to climb into that pit with someone who is not good for us. This doesn’t mean that we won’t encounter these types of people in our life, but we can take some reassurance that, for many people, interacting with toxic people who drain our courage and make us feel small is a choice.
If you find that much of your day is filled with thinking about negative people, just check in with what your role is in those interactions. Identify ways that you can take your power back. Work with a coach or get a mentor you trust who can guide you through those interactions.
The goal of a zoo after all is to learn about the world we live in, not to become lunch.