How would you know a person is “toxic?”
What about them or their behaviors would signal to you that they are toxic?
For me, a toxic person is someone who makes you feel a way that you are not, who undermines and mistreats you, and who may come across as kind to others and truly is very unkind to you.
A toxic person is someone who “infects” (like a disease) your thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behaviors in ways that are not good. They may be envious of you, they may try to limit or undermine you, or they may simply ignore any kind of progress you make. A toxic person can be anyone, even a person with a mental health challenge, a close friend, a confidant, and/or a family member.
If you are like most people, you will find it almost impossible to spot and detach from a toxic person because they can come across as charming, kind, and trustworthy. It is necessary that I make it clear we are not talking about a narcissistic person per se, but rather a person (generally healthy), who cannot maintain a positive relationship with another person.
This article will discuss characteristics of a toxic person. Next wek I will discuss how to say goodbye.
When I am speaking with clients about unhealthy relationships, a common practice for me is to listen and identify “toxic behavior” that may be underlying the relational instability. For example, if a teen client comes to me about his or her poor communication with a parent, I listen very closely to determine if the problem is the parent or the teen. In most cases, it is a combination of the two. But in some cases, it is the teen who is influenced by toxic social relationships. Toxic relationships may include but are not limited to:
- jealousy or envy
- control and manipulation
- fear and anxiety
- “flip-floppy” emotions and behaviors
- avoidance and denial
- physical, sexual, or psychological/emotional abuse
- triangulation (typically includes more than two people and is used to confuse all individuals involved)
Sadly, many of us can become victims of a toxic relationship. We have to know when to say “enough” and move on. It is certainly easier said than done, which is why I often suggest exploring your values, turning to your faith or “anchor,” relying on people who truly know you and you trust, and/or seeking therapy to get another perspective. Some ways to back out of a toxic relationship without completely rocking the boat include:
- Observe their MO (Modus Operandi): Take time to examine how they operate and question their motives. Not everyone is out to get you, use you, or manipulate you. But some are. Examine how the person asserts themselves toward you, how you feel when they are around you, and question what they could possibly want from you. It’s a sad thing to think but some people only like you because you can offer them something.
- Figure out how to plan for the attack: Toxic people are not just a pain. They can be dangerous. By dangerous I mean manipulative and controlling. Some toxic people have a history of stealing, lying, cheating, or using others. Once you identify the person’s tactics, ways of thinking, and inappropriate behaviors, figure out how you should react, cope, or say goodbye.
- Re-route your expectations and goals: Sadly, toxic people literally “pull” you into a relationship of some kind with them. They may want to become your spouse, your best friend, or your work partner. You have to be able to determine, based on what you know about them and how you feel around them, if you need to re-route your goals and expectations of the person. You would not want to set up long-term goals or expect great things from someone who simply wants to use you. If the person truly cares or likes/respects you, you’ll know.
- Avoid mental filtering: Mental filtering is what mental health professionals consider cognitive distortions or thinking errors. It is a “skewed” way that we see reality. Mental filtering is ignoring other aspects of something and picking out only one detail or a small detail. If you find yourself picking out the positive aspects of the person and ignoring ALL of the bad, stop. It’s not going to help you. It’s hard, but worth it.
- Consider your mental health: If the person is making you feel depressed, self-conscious, “stupid,” or any other negative emotion, move on. Some people, despite how kind you are, have an arrogant and detached demeanor that can offend others and make them feel less valued.
- Consider those you love and their needs: If the toxic person does not seem to mix well with those you love or makes those you love feel negative vibes, you may want to question why. Sometimes those we love can pick up on things much faster than we can.
- Seek therapy or counseling: Some toxic people, especially if they have been in your life for a long time, can ruin almost everything in your life. Some people come to therapy for the simple purpose of “taking back” their lives after freeing themselves from a toxic spouse, parent, or friend. If you feel your relationship with the toxic person is heavily weighing on you, you might benefit from therapy to help you sort out what to do.
- Give up the “yo-yo” pattern: Toxic people are often problematic people with behavioral and mental health problems. A toxic person may be so unhealthy mentally or relationally that you begin to feel threatened or confused. When this happens, make plans to say goodbye, escape, or move on. A “yo-yo” pattern can include the person making you feel loved one moment and undermined the next, respected for a few weeks and disrespected during other weeks, praised one moment and demeaned the next.
- Be determined to get out/move on: An unhealthy relationship of any kind is dangerous. It’s unhealthy for a reason. Unhealthy relationships often have no clear boundaries, little-to-no respect, no positive goals or aspirations, immature patterns of communication or relating, and little-to-no positive characteristics. Getting out or moving on can be so very difficult. You might even begin to miss the person once they are gone. But you will have to figure out how to explore and work through this if the relationship is not worth you missing the person.
- Understand it is more than love/attachment/habit: Toxic relationships can feel like a “power” over you and that “power” does not always have to be love, attachment, or pure habit. Some people relate to this “power” as control, abuse, or manipulation. In other cases, some people refer to this power as a “spirit,” “sin,” or “evil power” that makes it hard to move on. From a Christian view, an “evil spirit” or “sin” can be very difficult to free yourself from unless you turn to God for strength.
What has been your experience with “toxic people”? Do you have a family member, friend, co-worker, or someone else in your life who fits the descriptions of this article?
As always, looking forward to your insights.
All the best
This article was originally posted 10/5/16 but has been updated to reflect comprehensiveness and accuracy.
Photo by leventali