Do you know someone who infects your day with misery – leaving you angry, defensive, hurt, or simply feeling miserable? Not just once, but over and over again? People who have this effect on others are defined as “toxic.”
What is a toxic person? The Oxford dictionary defines toxic as “poisonous.” A toxic person poisons the people and environments they encounter. The word itself comes from the Greek word toxon, meaning “bow.” Imagine someone pulling back on a bow and firing poisoned arrows at those around them.
If you have ever experienced behavior that feels like someone is shooting poison into your heart, mind, or soul, then you’ve experienced a toxic person.
A challenge here is that we’ve all been toxic people at some moment in our lives. It’s easy to look outward and point our fingers at people who have hurt us. But the truth is, they aren’t the only ones who have shot poison arrows. We have too.
We’ve all acted in ways that have hurt others. We’re human. Does that mean we’re all toxic? That’s a troubling thought. What if, instead of labeling everyone (or that one special person) as toxic, we look at toxic behaviors instead? Jodie Gale, a psychotherapist and life coach in Sydney, Australia says, “It’s not that the whole person is toxic. Rather, their behavior is toxic or your relationship with the person is toxic.” By looking at behaviors specifically, we can more clearly pinpoint the problem and move toward safety.
Toxic behaviors are dangerous. They can destroy relationships, minds, hearts, even souls. When a person regularly chooses harmful behaviors or acts out of habits that hurt another, they are choosing to be a toxic person.
So what are some toxic behaviors that, if chosen continually, lead to becoming a toxic person?
Toxic behaviors often come from a deeply wounded place. Sometimes they are the result of childhood abuse and trauma that have created harmful coping mechanisms. Other times, they are borne out of selfishness and a deep lack of regard for the feelings and experiences of others. At times, they may be the result of clinical mental health challenges.
Regardless of their origin, there are some key toxic behaviors that may be infecting your friendships, relationships, and life. Whether you are experiencing the harm of a toxic relationship or wondering whether you are the one infecting your relationships with toxicity, here are some behaviors to look out for.
Meanness & Cruelty
The most obvious behavior that may be displayed by a toxic person is an intentional desire to inflict harm on another person or creature. When a person makes a choice to use their words & actions to destroy or harm another human being without remorse, then they are far worse than toxic – they are sadistic. The clinical definition of sadism is a person who derives pleasure from the pain or suffering of others.
Fortunately, only a small portion of the population suffers from criminal sadism. There have, however, been recent studies that have discovered an everyday level of sadism.
In her recent study on everyday sadism, Dr. Erin E. Buckles writes, “Some find it hard to reconcile sadism with the concept of ‘normal’ psychological functioning, but our findings show that sadistic tendencies among otherwise well-adjusted people must be acknowledged. These people aren’t necessarily serial killers or sexual deviants, but they gain some emotional benefit in causing or simply observing others’ suffering.”
Toxic people actually enjoy causing a level of pain and discomfort to those around them. This may be an abusive spouse who hits his wife and enjoys it. Or the parent who destroys the beloved toy of a child in order to make the child suffer. Or think of Cinderella’s step-mother, stripping Cinderella of her identity and replacing it with a new, subjugated one. This type of toxic behavior goes far beyond selfishness and into intentional cruelty with a desire to harm another person or to deprive them of something good.
While sadism is the worst of the toxic behaviors, there are a number of less obvious, though still damaging, behaviors that may be negatively impacting your relationships and emotional health.
Selfishness is exactly as it sounds: putting oneself above others even at great cost to another. This is a fairly common struggle, as most of us ultimately want good things and experiences in our lives. However, when the cost of something we want harms a person or relationship, it crosses into the territory of toxic behavior.
Sometimes selfishness is subtle – it may look like choosing the best seat or leaving the dishes for someone else to do. Other times it is glaringly obvious. Think multiple affairs, child neglect, or the car that rudely edges into line at the front of a traffic jam. Choices that completely disregard the effects on other people are selfish.
Recurrent selfishness can degrade a relationship and create a toxic environment for both partners. If your partner or friends constantly choose their best interests over yours or your relationship, it may be time to consider whether your relationship has turned toxic.
Fortunately, people can learn not to be selfish. If not, we’d all act like grown children for the span of our lives, demanding our way and what we want at all costs. We know people who do. However, most selfishness can be addressed. People can learn to value the needs and feelings of others, even when it means putting their own wants or needs temporarily aside. With practice, people can learn to enjoy meeting the needs of others as well as their own.
If you are in a relationship with a person who thinks only of himself or herself, you need to create healthy boundaries, which you can scroll down and read about later in this article.
Lying is a common attribute of some toxic people. Lying can be used as a means to get something they want, avoid consequences, or attempt to appear better than they are. Whether the intent behind a lie is benign or harmful, lying erodes trust in a relationship. If a friend consistently lies, makes excuses, or tries to deceive or exaggerate, the very foundations of the relationship can begin to crumble.
So what does lying, or being dishonest, look like? According to Darlene Lancer, an author and licensed marriage and family therapist, “Deception includes making ambiguous or vague statements, telling half-truths, manipulating information through emphasis, exaggeration, or minimization, and withholding feelings or information that is important to someone who has a right to know.” In this sense, lying is really a form of controlling another person through misinformation. Without an ability to know the truth, a deceived person cannot make informed decisions about the relationship.
Lying is bad for everyone in the relationship. The lying person may begin to withdraw from or avoid the person they are deceiving. If they have something to hide, unpleasant feelings of guilt may arise. In order to avoid those feelings, the lying person becomes distant, distracted, or increasingly busy. Over time, the effects of the lie grow bigger. They begin to crowd and complicate the life of the lying person, most often damaging their relationships and harming those they love.
A person who has been deceived suffers too. Lancer notes, “The victim of deception may begin to react to the avoidant behavior by feeling confused, anxious, angry, suspicious, abandoned, or needy. They may begin to doubt themselves, and their self-esteem may suffer.” The lied-to person feels disoriented, even if they can’t pinpoint why. In a casual relationship, this can feel odd or confusing. In an intimate or important relationship, being lied to can be devastating. A person’s sense of reality can be fractured or upended. Lancer says, “Often, victims of betrayal need counseling to recover from the loss of trust and to raise their self-esteem.” (source)
Control & Manipulation
Lying to someone in a relationship is one way to control them. Skewed or withheld information, exaggeration, and deception distort reality. A lied-to person cannot act with the knowledge or freedom to make clear, informed decisions for themselves or for the relationship. The ground grows unsteady.
A person who seeks to control a relationship takes away level ground. The controlling, or manipulative, person aims for the upper hand in every interaction. Over time, the controlled person feels increasingly submissive, powerless, even worthless.
In her article about controlling behaviors in relationships, Dr. Andrea Bonior writes, “Often a controlling partner has a way of using you as a weapon against yourself, by planting seeds of doubt about whether you’re talented or smart or hard-working enough to make good things happen in your life.” Bonior also says that a controlling person takes away another person’s autonomy. The controlled becomes more and more submissive to the controller and susceptible to manipulation.
Why do people seek to control others? It’s hard to say. Many factors can contribute to controlling behavior – insecurity, jealousy, past abuse, and poor coping strategies. People can control others intentionally, or without even realizing it. Many of us have behaved in this way on one occasion or another in order to get something we wanted. But a habitually controlling friend or partner can cause great damage over time.
Some characteristics of a controlling relationship, according to Bonior, can include isolation from friends and family, threats, keeping excessive score, spying, accusations, and paranoia, or lack of respect for personal time. Whatever the behavior, a controlling person gains power over time. The controller dictates reality. And the controlled person loses – quite possibly – everything.
A person in a toxic relationship has every reason to point their finger in the direction of the arrows. However, each one of us can be mindful of the ways we respond to other people.
The arrows are flying: what will we do? Will we respond with knowledge? Or will we react out of fear or pain? Often, our reactions to injuries can make them feel even worse.
“What feels toxic to you has to do with your reaction to the interaction,” says Amy Tatsumi, a psychotherapist and art therapist in Washington, D.C. “Your reactions might include feeling betrayed, withdrawing, numbing yourself or being overly accommodating.” This often happens “when healthy boundaries are crossed and we let go of our values.”
When we let go of our values, we can behave in ways we don’t even recognize. We can give undue power to others. Or we can start behaving badly ourselves, like becoming defensive, aggressive, overwhelmed and avoidant.
When we act defensively, for example, we can feel like we’re protecting ourselves from an attack. But defensiveness never works over the long haul. It often creates more problems. “Defensiveness,” according to the Gottman Institute, “will only escalate the conflict if the critical spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner, and it won’t allow for healthy conflict management.” When we begin a battle of the blame, no one wins.
Another unhelpful reaction to toxicity is stonewalling. The Gottman Institute explains that “stonewalling occurs when the listener withdraws from the interaction, shuts down, and simply stops responding to their partner.” For example, “people who stonewall can make evasive maneuvers such as tuning out, turning away, acting busy, or engaging in obsessive or distracting behaviors.” Usually, someone who tunes out to this degree is simply too overwhelmed to respond to their partner. The need to stonewall usually develops over time and can become a toxic habit.
Being in a relationship with a toxic person is difficult enough. Learning how to respond to toxic behaviors, rather than react to them, can do a world of good. Responding with self-control in a toxic moment can protect your dignity and give you the space you need to make good decisions for yourself.
How to Not Be a Toxic Person
Becoming aware of toxic behaviors is key to living a healthy life with healthy relationships. We are better off when we can name poisonous arrows for what they are. Recognizing harmful dynamics, behaviors, and habits helps us better protect ourselves from harm – or get out of dodge altogether.
But have you ever wondered, perhaps even while reading this article, if you might be toxic? Do you treat others in ways that do harm, rather than good? It’s courageous to ask the question. None of us is perfect. We all choose the lesser way from time to time. Whether we habitually treat others in toxic ways or not, we can all look at what we bring to our friendships and relationships. If you’re looking to bring more health and less poison, here are some things to consider.
1) Be aware of yourself.
Take a moment to stop and listen to yourself. Are you angry, hurt, fearful, wounded? Notice how your body feels when you want to fling arrows. Is it tense or painful anywhere? Ask yourself what your needs are. Is hurting another person going to help meet that need? We most often hurt others because we are hurting or feel we are lacking something. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “wounded people wound.” If we live only in the stress or the wounds without being aware of their reality, we’re going to hurt people whether we even realize it or not.
In her book Fierce Conversations, author Susan Scott talks about the effects we have on others. She writes, “Each time we speak, each time we send an e-mail or text, we leave an emotional wake. We soothe panic attacks or cause them, leave people feeling charred or uplifted. Our individual wakes are larger than we know.” Whether we like it or not, we affect others. Awareness of our influence can help us begin valuing others, instead of piercing them.
2) Take care of yourself.
It’s hard to treat others well when we’re feeling wounded or overwhelmed. Often, a little self-care will do the trick, even in the midst of a stressful situation. The Gottman Institute suggests taking 20 minutes to allow your body and mind to calm down. “Do something alone that soothes you – read a book or a magazine, take a walk, go for a run, really, just do anything that helps to stop feeling flooded.” Once you’ve calmed down, you can return to that conversation as yourself. Not as a wound-up arrow slinger.
3) Think about your own needs and goals.
Are you frustrated that you haven’t finished school, gotten that job, achieved that goal? Do you feel like others don’t consider your needs? When we neglect ourselves and the things that are important to us, resentment builds. When we feel frustrated or resentful, we can lash out at others in anger. Negative feelings that build over time erode our sense of worth and quietly poison the way we see ourselves and treat others. Spending time caring for yourself and working toward meaningful goals can build a sense of self-worth and confidence. When you treat yourself like you matter, insecurity shrinks. And so do toxic tendencies towards others.
4) Get the help you need.
Maybe it’s a professional. Maybe it’s a helpful book or a new life-giving practice like yoga or running. Whatever helps, helps. Caring for yourself and working to meet your needs will help you feel your own value. When you feel valuable, you will feel a whole lot better. And so will your stance towards others.
5) Do the opposite.
Sometimes toxic habits are so ingrained, we do them without thinking. As we become more self-aware, we can begin to notice when we tend to do harm. In those moments, we can do the opposite. Catch yourself. Do you want to criticize someone? Try praising them for something they’re good at instead. Do you assume the worst of someone’s motives? Try assuming that they intend good for you, and see what happens. Little experiments like this may lead to big internal shifts. And much healthier relationships.
6)The Golden Rule.
It’s really so simple: Treat others as you want to be treated. Enough said.
Healing from Toxic Relationships
Healing from a toxic relationship can be a long journey. Stepping away from a person that has poisoned your life with lies, manipulation, and control takes courage. And healing requires patience – with yourself and with the process. Ongoing pain and trauma may accompany you. Take the journey one day at a time, and don’t go it alone.
Rayne Wolfe, of Toxic Mom Toolkit reminds us that “with grace and kindness, anything is possible.” Even healing and building new, healthy relationships over time. Part of experiencing a new sense of safety is getting with safe people. Who are the people in your life who genuinely love you and want to support you? If you have a hard time answering that question, you may want to see a therapist to discuss building a safe community. Or join a support group, like Co-Dependents Anonymous. Gathering with others in a structured environment can provide the safe space needed to deal with emotional trauma and pain.
As mentioned above, take care of yourself. Notice your needs. Notice where it hurts. Treat yourself how you need to be treated: with respect, love, gentleness, and care. If you can, put healthful food in your body. Exercise. Caring for your body will communicate to your heart and mind that you are loved.
Be honest with yourself. Allow yourself to feel all of your feelings without judging them. Be clear and gentle with yourself. Acknowledge the bad. Hope for the good. And enjoy good things, as they come. In the toxic relationship, you may have been led to believe that you are worthless. As you allow yourself to enjoy moments in life – like the feel of warm sun on your skin, the play of light over water, or the warmth of a cup of coffee – you can begin to feel the goodness of life. You can begin to feel that your own place in life is good.
Seek spiritual guidance and connection. Studies have shown that people who tend to their spiritual lives do better in the long run. A spiritual journey towards a loving creator can help you begin to experience yourself as loved, no matter how others treat you. Walking through spiritual wholeness can lead you on the journey of healing and help foster forgiveness – for the other person and for yourself.
As you heal, your expectations of others will change. As you surround yourself with supportive, healing people, you will begin to feel the goodness of relationship again. No one will be perfect. But you can expect good from others and from yourself.
The journey may be long, but goodness and help will come along the way, even in the midst of pain. Shannon Thomas, author of Healing from Hidden Abuse, reminds us, “no matter where we might find ourselves, we can make slow steady changes that will add up and get us pointed in a new and healthier life direction.” Keep to the path, dear traveler.
Preventing Toxic Relationships
If we don’t know the arrow is poisonous, we might not know how to effectively protect ourselves when it comes. You may not be able to prevent contact with toxic people. You may be related to them. But knowing the types of toxic behaviors can help you detect them and protect yourself from their effects. In addition to building awareness of toxic behaviors, there are some things you can do to prevent yourself from being pulled into a toxic relationship.
Listen to yourself. What are you trying to tell yourself? Often, our bodies will react before our minds catch up. Take a listen. How do you feel in this relationship? Is there pain in your body when you’re with a certain person? Does your chest get tight? Or perhaps you have a stomach ache or a headache. Pain can indicate where the arrows are hitting home. It takes courage to be honest. Especially if the toxic person is telling you that everything is fine. Take this conversation with yourself seriously. It may be one of the most important conversations you will ever have.
Once you’ve heard yourself out, one of the most helpful things you can do in your relationships is to set healthy boundaries. Co-Dependents Anonymous tells us, “throughout the recovery process, we constantly rediscover that our first responsibility is always to ourselves. Boundaries help us to clarify where our responsibilities end and where other people’s begin. By establishing healthy boundaries, we slowly learn to take care of our issues and recognize that others have the same privilege.” Boundaries apply to every aspect of our lives.
Similar to not being a toxic person, preventing toxic relationships includes caring for yourself. Pursuing your health, needs, hopes and goals will help you notice when others try to sabotage them. Toxic relationships are tricky. None of us are perfectly wise. None of us can precisely predict the actions of others. When we decide to trust someone, we assume risk. How they treat us is ultimately up to them. How we respond is up to us. The more we value ourselves, trust that we are loved, and recognize toxic behaviors, the less susceptible we are to being pierced by them.
Has anything in this article troubled you? Do you want to learn more about something? There are many useful tools, books, and programs that aim to bring health and healing into people’s lives and relationships. A few of them are linked above. If you feel you are in danger, you can reach out to www.thehotline.org for live help. Wherever you may find yourself, hope waits.