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How to stop being a toxic person: 6 key steps

Have you ever wondered if you may be a toxic person?

If so, it’s important to go through these key six steps. They’ll help you to stop being a toxic person so that you can more meaningful and fulfilling relationships in life.

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.

So what are some toxic behaviors that, if chosen continually, lead to becoming a toxic person?

Toxic behaviors

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.

1) 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.

2) Selfishness

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.

3) Lying

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)

4) 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.

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Written by Elisha Catts

Elisha Catts is a writer, tea-aficionado, and a lover of good books and conversations. Elisha graduated with a degree in Political Science and International Studies and loves deep philosophical discussions about the meaning of life and the universe. You may find her chasing her tribe of children, picking up hitch-hikers, dancing in the rain, or curled up with a good book and a cup of tea.

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