Story highlights

If you're the person everyone vents to, you may be a toxic handler

Being a toxic handler can turn unhealthy, without you even knowing

Experts weigh in on how to stop being a toxic handler without losing friends

CNN —  

You are that one person who family, friends or co-workers call first to dish about the latest drama, vent about their troubles or seek help about a serious issue.

If this is routine in your life, you might be what’s known as a “toxic handler,” and not even realize it.

“Absolutely anyone can be a toxic handler,” said Sandra Robinson, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business, who co-authored an article about toxic handlers in the Harvard Business Review in November.

“Toxic handlers are those who help others deal with their trials of everyday life and process their strong emotions. They may also work to constantly fix others problems directly or indirectly, much like a professional therapist, but without the training, especially with regards to helping but without taking on the pain of others,” she said. “If you are the person who goes to bed at night with others’ problems or acutely feels the pain of those around you, it may be a problem.”

The good, the bad, and the toxic

On the other hand, toxic handlers can play a valuable and fulfilling role in both personal and professional relationships, Robinson said.

In their Harvard Business Review article, Robinson and co-author Kira Schabram of the University of Washington examined how toxic handlers can play an important role in the workplace.

“Toxic handlers absorb the negativity in day-to-day professional life and allow employees to focus on constructive work,” Robinson and Schabram wrote.

In other words, toxic handlers – sometimes called “toxin handlers” – “serve as a shield for some of the negative emotions of the workplace, keeping dysfunction and upset from affecting their coworkers, often the coworkers below them,” said Andrea Bonior, a licensed clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Georgetown University, who was not involved in the article.

However, for a toxic handler, taking on the stress of others can have negative consequences too – especially if the toxic handler is experiencing toxic venting.

Judith Acosta, a psychotherapist based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had a friend a few years ago who constantly vented about his boss and his work – and he suddenly quit his job. She described him as a toxic venter.

Though Acosta said that she never chastised her friend for his decision, when she asked about how he planned to support himself moving forward, he became defensive and irate. One telephone conversation ended abruptly when he hung up on her, and Acosta said she never heard from him again.

That was the end of their friendship.

“I wasn’t saying what he wanted me to say, and I wasn’t agreeing with what he wanted me to agree with,” said Acosta, who wrote a blog post about this toxic venting experience in The Huffington Post in 2011.

Even as a therapist, Acosta said, she didn’t realize she was in the role of a toxic handler until she wrote about it.

“The full kind of awareness came as I was writing the article and putting it together and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s what that was,’ ” she said.

“I love my friends, and I’m happy to be there for them, but there’s something else with toxic venting that happens. It’s the sensation of being used and of being inconsequential, except insofar as you contain their dumping,” she said.