April 22, 2011

Identifying and Dealing with Toxic People

I didn't really understand the concept of toxic people. It used to make me upset that people would look at other people and call them toxic. Everyone is trying their best and using what tools that have at the moment. I used to think that toxicity was a way to not be responsible for our own behavior and attitudes.

Then, well, I met a toxic person. I mean a really toxic person. Actually, looking back, now that I understand better what they are, I can see that I have had my fair share of toxic relationships, but had no idea what they were, and chalked it up to misunderstandings or my not being able to express myself clearly.

So I met a toxic person, and I was forced to deal with this person for a long time before the toxins became too strong and I had to extract myself from the relationship. I was becoming toxic myself. I was also becoming the shell of who I once was. I felt old, and worn out. I had to leave the relationship to heal and regain my strength.

But I want to be careful here. Although I believe there are toxic people, I do not believe they are "bad" people or that they are purposefully trying to do other people harm.

In every relationship, even with toxic people, we are responsible for 50% of the relationship. Now that I've had this experience, and I can look back and see what happened in some of my previous relationships, I can identify both the things toxic people do, and how I let them do it to me.

Toxic people aren't toxic to everyone. They need people to let them inject their toxins in order for them to do their (unintentional) damage. I can't change the toxic people in the world, but I can immunize myself, and take care of myself. One way to do that is to know what a toxic person is and how they make me feel, so as soon as I identify this kind of relationship, I can back away emotionally before anyone gets hurt. So far, so good. 

Identifying Toxic People

There are several key elements to identifying when people are toxic to us. The first list is a series of behaviors that toxic people tend to exhibit. The second list is how we let these behaviors hurt us. The third is a list of tools I've found to be helpful in dealing with toxic relationships we find ourselves in.

What Toxic People Do

- Make drama. Life has natural drama, and dealing with that is hard. Sometimes we have to talk about things we don't want to, or do things we don't like. Toxic people make drama where there is no drama, and make the natural occurring drama worse.

- Use passive aggressive communication. We all do this once in a while. Toxic people do it often enough that it's part of their normal communication, especially when they are upset. Toxic people rarely speak directly about what is annoying them. With one exception...

- Lash out. When they aren't using passive aggressive remarks, they are lashing out. Lashing out can be yelling, cursing, raging, making fun of people, complaining, listing off your faults, even throwing or hitting things and making threats.

- Play victim. When they cannot get their way, instead of asking questions and finding out what is going on, toxic people play victim. They play the role so convincingly, it takes a person with a strong sense of self not to really wonder if they were indeed a really bad person. Again, we all see ourselves as victims from time to time. A toxic person uses this as a regular tool in their toolbox, and in conjunction with other actions on this list.

- Hot and cold. Sometimes you're on their good side, other times on their bad side. You never know. You have to tip toe around them and test the water each time to have a conversation with them. Their list of who they like and who they don't like is constantly changing.

- Play people against each other. Because they cannot simply ask for what they want, they use other people's wants and desires to get what they want. If that means playing them against each other, so be it. They take people aside, tell them what's wrong, split up friendships, and challenge your loyalty. They will often pick one person out as the scapegoat, and direct all ire at that person to distract you, especially if you are starting to question them about their behavior.

- No apologies. And if they do, you often wonder if they really apologized or not. "I'm sorry if you feel that way. I'm sorry that my personality bothers you. I'm sorry if you're an idiot."

- Refusal of responsibility. They slip and slide around answering questions that require them to be responsible (unless they have an answer that makes them look good, then they'll take great responsibility). If they are on the hook for something and they don't do it, they will not own up to it and instead find a way to weasel out of it.

- Blame. There is always someone to blame, and a toxic person always knows who it is. (And it's not them, or their friends, by the way.) Sometimes, it's clear who is at fault and whose responsibility it is to fix something. But a toxic person blames as a matter of course. Even when it's not important, there is always something or someone to blame. "Why is there so much traffic? Which idiot had an accident and is messing up my commute?" "Who stole my pen? I'm sure it was Joe, he's always stealing pens." "If you hadn't asked about the weather, it wouldn't be raining right now." If they blame people for little things, it's not a surprise what they do when big things happen.

- Prefer to work alone. Toxic people don't like how other people do things (except for their favorites, of course), and so really prefer to do it all themselves. They don't like anyone looking at what they are doing, or asking them for a report, or sharing. These are the kids who want the sandbox to themselves, and put a "members only" sign up, and they get to decide who is a member - for everything.

- Never, ever give up. Resilience and tenacity are a good trait in most people. By itself, and in conjunction with positive relationship traits like teamwork and work ethic, being willing to go the distance can be all the difference in a project. But with toxic people, they never give up on being right, being the winner, and never ever give up a position or ownership of a project. Unless it's a threat (fine! you want me to quit?) or it's been ripped from their cold, dead hands (I can't believe they forced me out and stole my project from me!), no matter how much people are saying what they are doing is hurting the group, other people, the project, or themselves, they don't give up. Again, they don't like to share, and they blame others, so why would they ever give anything up unless they were forced to?

What We Do to Allow Toxic People to be Toxic

- We give them the benefit of the doubt for too long. Once is a mistake, twice is bad luck, and three times is a pattern of behavior. Yet, those of us who want to keep the peace, we tend to overlook these "mistakes" until it's way too late. This is especially true if we are on their "good" list. We look at people's behavior, they look at people through the lenses of their approval, so we give them the benefit of the doubt even when we aren't being given the same courtesy. It's good to give people the benefit of the doubt, but also to remember moderation in all things.

- We are afraid to stand up to them. Toxic people are often the life of the party, but that also means they are vocal, unpredictable, and not easily embarrassed. If we stand up to them, we better be ready for a fight. Most of us don't want a fight, so we back down, and try to smooth things out. Switching to standing up for ourselves, instead of standing up to them, allows us to keep our boundaries while also not making it about the other person changing. We might still have to deal with a fight, but it's only one-way, while we simply state what we want and believe without fighting back.

- We get caught up in their story. Most people don't make up stories to protect themselves, so we assume that people aren't going to do that. So we believe their stories. Why wouldn't we? Without a healthy sense of doubt and willingness to ask for clarification and open communication, we are putting out a welcome mat for toxic people. They like people who don't challenge them, or ask them to be up front with what they are doing. They are also usually very strong story tellers, so it's easy to believe what they say about other people. If they expect you to believe them, and don't leave room for you to form your own opinion when we are on their good list, imagine what they will do when things aren't going well.

- We don't look at their history. They are more than willing to tell us their side of the story, which is always a good side, of course. They are victims, they had hard times, they were treated badly. Their history of who they've worked with, how they left the groups they worked with, and how much bad feeling was left after they left is something to pay attention to. Also, find out what the other side said. Not everyone is toxic if they had a rough history. But this is a strong indicator. Who are they working with now, who are their friends, how do they talk about their friends? Do they tell you about their ex-friends repeatedly? Do they look for sympathy about their family to everyone? Do they have any stories of people who they do treat well, and who treat them well, and people they've worked with who like them and where they have been successful? These are important questions to ask - when working with someone, forming a friendship, or dating. It's not conclusive to know their history, but if we don't ask, and take their side of the story without question, we are setting ourselves up to be in a potentially toxic relationship.

- We make assumptions about their intentions. When we assume their values are the same as ours, or that we have the same goals, we might be good in the beginning when things are pretty casual. But as time goes on, if we go along assuming we have the same goals and it becomes apparent that we don't, it's up to us to clarify that, even if it risks them not liking us anymore. Also, if it's a person who we never really liked, and we are always at odds, this assumption of common goals can make things worse, as a toxic person will assign another person's intentions as part of their discrediting scheme.

What Can We Do to Handle Toxic Relationships?

Toxic people are not fun to be around, but I'm learning, we don't have to be helpless.

- Remember that their toxicity is not about us. It might look and sound like it's about us, but it's not. We're just lucky enough to be their current target. Or, we let them push our buttons. But they will be who they are with or without us. (Look back on your toxic relationships. Did this person change and suddenly become a non-toxic person after you were no longer in the picture?)

- Let them be toxic. We aren't responsible for their actions or emotions. We are only responsible for ours. If they are toxic, it reflects badly on them, not us. If we let their actions get to us, that's where our work begins.

- Recognize when we have become toxic, too. It's easy to pick up toxic "fleas." The behaviors of a toxic person are human. It's the frequency and regularity of the behaviors that make it toxic. If we didn't use passive aggressive behavior very often before, but we find ourselves using it more and more now, we've allowed ourselves to start mirroring the very thing we don't like.

- Remember who we are and what we believe. They might be spiraling out of control, but we don't have to.

- Remember they are people, too. They might be hurting us, but they are people who are probably hurting more inside. We may never be able to be good friends, but we won't take it personally and be able to forgive them if we can see how they are hurting themselves as much as everyone else.

- Protect and regenerate ourselves. Emotionally and physically. Take care of our bodies, exercise, engage in hobbies, talk to people about topics other than the toxic person's encroachment on our lives, keep a clear and consistent gauge of our boundaries.

- Be willing to walk away. Know when enough is enough. Avoid threats of walking away, but simply know in our own minds what we can handle and what we can't. If we can't handle it, it doesn't mean we're not strong, even if they throw insults our way as we walk out the door. In fact, walking away can be one of the strongest things we can do.

- Learn to recognize and deal with emotional blackmail.

Toxic behavior is so frustrating, but when we learn to recognize it early, when we know how we invite it in, and when we know how to better deal with it, we aren't trapped anymore. We can change the world we live in by reducing the number of toxic relationships we have, and by not letting toxic people turn us into toxic people, too. All in all, this makes our lives easier, and the world a better place.



Tom Armstrong said...

Wow, Tammy. A great post, with a lot of meat [that is of the walnut variety; I'm a mostly-veggie guy] on it.

I think you are very perceptive and from my experience on target. I am aided by your analytical skill, here.

I may be timid, but some of what you've written I choose -- perhaps in error -- to continue to believe that people are doing the best they can. And that the toxic behaviors you identify are in large part beyond others' awareness.

BUT people, unless they have a very low IQ are able and tend to think about their thinking and do have a real responsibility to be socialized and find their compassionate heart.

I think -- I hope -- that we can do a lot to avoid becoming toxic ourself or avoiding others who are emotionally destructive. We can, with practice, stay clean, even with the fleas of toxicity all around. There are my ideals, anyway. I work on myself, always wanting to be better, but it is a hard hard slog.


Anonymous said...

What if I'm a toxic person?

Blue is the color of ?????? said...

I liked your post a lot. I feel that I am engaged to a toxic person and that I am also a toxic person. I have decided to leave the relationship in order to work on myself and hopefully he will do the same. Enough is enough and I don't like the person I have become. I also realized today (that's why I'm glad I was guided to your post) that I have taken all that I can stand and would rather be alone to work on me.

Blue is the color of ?????? said...

Thank you for your post. I am a toxic person and I am engaged to a toxic person. I've decided to leave this person and fix me. I hope he will work on himself in the process.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for a great post!! It's helping me deal with a toxic situation right now... I think you're spot on about the traits of a toxic person, but I think sometimes they DO apologize, if only to play up their victim role or to make it seem as though their behavior isn't habitual... they'll apologize, but they don't mean it, and they don't change.

Anonymous said...

This was an amazing description, but more importantly provided such great tools for coping with the toxicity.

As for me, I was raised by someone (who ws raised by someone) that exhibits the most severe of these traits. Although I don't believe my friends would label me as such, I think I might have a slight flea infestation and am going to try and "collar" it now.

With heartfelt thanks to you, Tammy, and to all the other posters.

Anonymous said...

Awesome article, and very inspirational to someone dealing with a toxic person! I especially appreciated your pointing out of the fact that toxic people aren't, deep-down, bad people. They usually have severe problems of their own, and are really hurting, as you mentioned.

My Mom is an extremely toxic person, though 99.9% of her toxic behavior is directed at my Dad. I've struggled in identifying it, because it wasn't directed at me. I know that my Mom loves me and my sisters. But her behavior towards my Dad is so toxic that it's toxic to other people as well.

Anytime the world isn't perfectly right for her (which is often) she screams at my Dad, goes into tirades, threatens to kill herself, and completely destroys the peace. Consciously or not, she yells so that everyone can hear her, know that she's upset, and be upset along with her. So, in many ways her toxicity is directed at everyone, even though my Dad is taking the brunt of it. She's a lot like a skunk in that respect, where I think your typical toxic person is more of a spitting cobra who targets a single victim at a time.

Again, my Mom isn't a fundamentally bad person, but she has some serious emotional issues that she won't deal with. And as much as I know she loves me and my sisters, we all avoid spending much time around her, knowing it's just a matter of time until her next eruption.

Point being that IMO toxic people can affect you indirectly, as well as directly.

Anonymous said...

Some of my family belive I am toxic, however, that is not a label they place on my behavior. They only say I am negative when I ask what makes them feel this way, they never have an explanation. My question for you is what are your credentials - what makes you an authority on the subject?

Tammy said...


I have found that toxic people, when told they are toxic, get really upset. They blame, accuse, and counter-attack. Co-dependents, when they are told they are toxic, self-doubt, think they are a horrible person, and go on validation-seeking binges. Healthy people when told they are toxic, ask questions, contemplate the relationship, and give the other person space to deal with their issues.

Nobody is 100% healthy all of the time, and when we are triggered, we either fall towards the side of bullying or codependent to get our unresolved needs met.

Toxic people are triggered easily and stay in that triggered, unresolved space for a long time, doing damage to all they contact along the way.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I am so glad to have read your post here. It really clarifies the situation I am in. It's a little scary to be involved with someone like this. I will concentrate on not letting it rub off on me and not discussing it. I can either get away from it or stop thinking about it.

Andrew Piera said...

You are spot on with your evaluation of both sides of the relationship.

However, I do have a question...

I am in my early stages of studding Buddhism, specifically from HH The Dalai Lama. HH discusses the wisdom of forgiveness and compassion.

When dealing with the toxic person, especially a close relative like a parent it seems contrary to my studies to completely remove myself from the contact of this individual. However when dealing with the toxic person you open the door a crack and that person will try to push the door wide open.

Do you have any advice?

Tammy said...

Good question Andrew. I've had the same question many times over, and still ask myself that question often. How much to we allow toxic people in our lives and how does removing ourselves from their presence line up with the compassion and understanding perspective of Buddhism?

For me, I have to remind myself to give compassion and understanding to myself, as well as the other person. I am not developed enough in my journey to be able to remain equanimous in the presence of someone who is highly manipulative or abusive. I am still very effected by the strong emotions and bullying of others.

However, I have grown a lot, and I find myself being able to notice these behaviors early on, allowing myself distance from a much earlier stage, while still being in contact. That helps me be around toxic people simply because I have not allowed them to get close enough to me to spread their toxins.

With family, however, they are automatically close. Or at least the expectation is there. And they we also have a long history with them. So it's not an easy thing to balance the compassion we have for ourselves for not wanting to be around them with the compassion we have for them for being in so much pain or needing something so badly from us.

Everyone is different, but I think it's possible to line up keeping someone who is highly toxic, even a family member, out of our circle of influence with the teachings of buddhism, while we develop our equanimity and self-compassion. We also have to remind ourselves that there is a lot of space between never seeing them and them being an integral part of our lives. We can figure out a way to put a lot of distance between us and them emotionally, and only see them once in a while, and not shut them out entirely, avoiding black/white thinking.

It's a good question, and one I think that never totally gets answered. We have to decide for ourselves what we can live with, and what makes sense to us, while keeping true to what we believe, and being kind to everyone, including ourselves.