Unfortunately, most of us have toxic people in our lives. They can be extremely difficult to deal with, especially when you’re around them more often than not. In an ideal world, you would be able to distance yourself from a toxic person, but that isn’t always easy.
Sometimes we find ourselves stuck in situations with people whose attitude and behavior strikes a nerve. It might be a toxic relationship, an incessant coworker, or even a parent.
If you’re dealing with a toxic person and you’re not sure what to do about it, this article is for you. Below we have outlined some common traits and characteristics to help you identify the toxic people in your life, followed by some steps you can take to prevent them from bringing you down and impacting your mental health.
What is a Toxic Person?
A toxic person is someone whose unhealthy behavior brings about feelings of negativity in your life. Dealing with toxic people can be challenging because they may not even know how their behavior is affecting others.
Often, these people are not intentionally trying to be negative, but the way they have learned to survive and get their needs met has been maladaptive, and led them to engage in unhealthy behaviors that impact others’ well-being.
For example, a child who did not get their needs met by a caregiver in their early years might seem like a toxic person because in an adult relationship they depend on their partner for emotional support and for validation.
They don’t mean to hurt their partner, but the emotional void deep within them, left by their caregiver makes it hard to accept love and trust others, which can manifest as clingy or obsessive behavior and other symptoms of poor mental health.
Being with such a person romantically would likely lead to a toxic relationship if they haven’t done the inner work and learned how to contain and process their emotional issues.
The experiences we have in our early childhood are highly formative. Other than neglect or lack of affection, a person may have lived with an over-protective, smothering parent. As such, they may avoid intimacy, and blame you for being too emotional when you want to talk about something that’s upsetting you. Again, this is a learned behavior. The ‘toxic’ person may have learned to suppress their openness and need for intimacy because similar feelings in childhood were too overwhelming.
Nonetheless, it is our responsibility to ourselves to work on our issues and prevent them from getting in the way of our adult relationships – romantic, social, professional, or familial. If someone’s behavior is toxic and is getting in the way of your happiness and well-being, then regardless of their backstory, you’re entitled to cut them out of your life.
Even if you don’t want to completely remove them from your life, you may want to set some healthy boundaries and let them know that you won’t tolerate their toxic behavior. You deserve to prioritize your health and happiness above all else.
How to Recognize Toxic People
Toxic behavior isn’t always obvious. Sometimes it’s so subtle that we don’t notice it immediately, but we still feel some negative energy. Feeling negativity but not knowing where it has come from is confusing and can bring our mood down even more.
Below we have outlined some obvious and subtle signs of toxic behavior to look out for. It’s important to understand what toxic behavior looks like so you can take some necessary steps and distance yourself from it as much as possible.
Examples of Toxic Behavior
1. Constant Blaming
Toxic people look for external causes of their issues. They seem to constantly blame other people, and rarely own up to their own mistakes or shortcomings. Blaming others may divert their attention away from their wrongdoings, but blaming others is rarely productive. Listening to someone blame others or even you for things that are about them can be exhausting and is highly unproductive.
2. Unhelpful Criticism
Toxic people often criticize others non-constructively. They might focus heavily on someone else’s appearance, behavior, or personality, self-righteously pointing out other people’s flaws and idealizing themselves.
Even if you are confident and assured in yourself, receiving constant unhelpful criticism from someone is likely to bring you down and damage your self-esteem.
3. Passive-Aggressive Behavior
Part of what makes someone’s behavior toxic is that they go about expressing their feelings and getting what they want indirectly. For example, they might exhibit passive-aggressive behavior. They feel angry or upset by something you said or did, but instead of confronting you about it in an open and healthy way, they get out their anger through backhanded compliments, feigned ignorance, or false promises.
If you try to call this person out on their passive aggression, they’re likely to deny it and make you feel confused about what you noticed. This behavior is extremely detrimental to all of the person’s relationships.
4. Excess Negativity
All of us are a bit negative from time to time. Perhaps you’ve had a long day at work, you got stuck in traffic for hours, or you’ve come down with the flu. Being negative every now and again isn’t all that bad, and hopefully, the people in your life will understand your shift in mood and support you through it.
However, constant negativity is a problem. Some people seem to put a negative spin on everything and can seem as though they’ve never experienced joy. When other people are happy and excited about things in their life, the person will offer cynicism and a pessimistic outlook.
For example, if you’re excited to go on a holiday to Spain, the person might point out that the city you’re going to will be full of tourists this time of year. If you’re happy about getting into a new relationship, they might bring up your past unsuccessful relationships and point out a pattern.
5. Manipulative behavior
Manipulation is a defining characteristic of toxic behavior. For example, a toxic parent might emotionally manipulate his or her children by breaking up the emotional bond between siblings through gossip and criticism.
The reason for this is that they don’t want the siblings to realize how toxic the parent’s behavior is, which they might realize through frequent communication and trust.
Another example of manipulation can be seen in romantic relationships. One partner might notice that the other offers extra love and affection when the first is feeling bad. In an attempt to gain more affection, they might pretend to feel bad or upset.
Such behavior doesn’t happen in healthy relationships, so if you notice it, it’s time for a reassessment.
If someone constantly makes you feel guilty or threatens to do something that will upset you, they’re toxic. Such people are bad for your mental health, and what’s worse is that you might not always notice when they’re doing it.
For example, in a relationship, one person might suggest that they’re going to cry or hurt themselves during the night if their partner goes and stays out all night with their friends instead of staying at home to spend time with them. The partner obviously doesn’t want that to happen, so they might neglect their friends just to keep the other person happy.
Toxic people know how to make you feel guilty, and use that power when they want to get their emotional needs met. The power of blackmail is such that it can make you feel awful about yourself if you don’t comply. It takes a lot of emotional resilience to overcome the power of blackmail in a toxic relationship, but it can be done.
How to Deal with Toxic People
1. Don’t Take the Bait
Some people always play the victim. No matter what happens, it’s never their fault, or so they claim. Mistakes are rarely owned up to, and instead, the blame is placed on someone else. When recounting a story of conflict, their narrative will always paint them in a positive light.
You might fall into the habit of agreeing with them even if you don’t believe them. You might feign emotional support because it’s easier than calling them out on their overly self-righteous and clearly biased narrative. However, this causes more frustration for you in the long term because if you take the bait, they’re likely to keep coming to you for that support.
Try not to take the bait. You don’t have to confront them outright, but try saying something like ‘You could also look at it this way..’ or ‘It seems more like..’. They might get angry or upset with you for not taking their side, but it’s important that you speak your truth. Furthermore, if they know you’re not guaranteed to agree with them, they are less likely to look for that support from you in the future.
Not falling into the trap of constant agreement is especially important if the toxic person is a family member and the subject of their story is another family member. If you enable their self-victimization, you may cause a rift between you and the relative in question because the ‘victim’ is likely to claim that they have your support.
2. Confront their Behavior
If someone’s behavior makes you feel uncomfortable, talk to them about it. You have a right to speak up about how you feel – just make sure that you call them out on a specific behavior, not their entire personality.
For example, if a co-worker is always gossiping about other co-workers or causing unnecessary drama, they might not fully realize the impact their behavior is having on those around them. If you speak to them with openness and honesty about how their gossiping or exaggeration makes you feel, they might become more aware of that behavior and reduce it. They also might make you the subject of gossip, so make sure that you’re comfortable and self-assured if that does happen.
3. Prioritize your Well-Being
Always put yourself first when you believe you’re dealing with toxicity. Understand that someone’s behavior doesn’t have to be abusive or aggressive for it to be toxic. Such as, the person might call on you at an unreasonable hour to help them get home after a night of drinking.
Perhaps they come to you with their problems and you listen, and when you have something to talk about they tune out. Maybe they tell you how upset they’ll be without you, just before you go out to meet some friends.
Toxic behavior shows up in many different ways. It’s important to recognize it early on, so that you can take the necessary action to maintain your health and well-being.
4. Set Boundaries
Boundaries are how you let other people know what you will and will not tolerate. It is important to note that a boundary is not someone else’s responsibility to uphold for you. For example, if you set a boundary around your boss shouting at you, it’s not their responsibility not to shout at you, it’s yours to take action if they do.
The action could be getting up and walking out of the room or waiting until they calm down before you respond. Eventually, they should learn that if they want to communicate with you, they won’t be able to do it through shouting.
Similarly, if you have a coworker who exaggerates stories and gossips about others, you could let them know that you like talking to them, but you get uncomfortable when they speak negatively about someone else in the office, and that if that happens you’re going to leave the conversation.
Set boundaries to prevent other people’s toxicity from bringing you down. Boundaries can be hard to set at first, especially if you’re not used to confrontation. but they become easier with practice. If you fail to set boundaries, you’re going to be faced with a lot more toxic energy than necessary.
5. Ground yourself
If someone else is making you feel uncomfortable by the way they’re acting, you might want to leave immediately. However, that’s not always going to be easy, especially if you’re at work or at an important event. If you can’t get up and leave, all hope is not lost. Try some grounding techniques to stay calm and keep your peace of mind when someone’s toxicity starts to bother you.
- Take deep, slow breaths.
- Allow your muscles to relax – your frustration might make your shoulders tense, so bring your attention to the tension in your body and try to release it.
- Distracting yourself is always possible – turn your attention to something or someone else in the room, or simply direct your attention toward your breathing. This is especially helpful if the other person is making you feel anxious.
The Bottom Line
It’s not always easy to completely cut toxic people out of your life, even if they’re really bothering you. To keep your well-being in check, try not to take other people’s behavior personally. Toxicity usually stems from a place of insecurity, so it’s usually more about the other person than it is about you or anyone else they might be speaking about.