Therapy Blog

Understanding Toxic People

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I have seen an uptick in toxic people becoming more resentful and toxic due to total abandonment by good people that are good friends completely pulling away. Almost always, these people have tried repeatedly to help the toxic individual become better friends, but after some time, they see no option but to either get sucked into the negative vortex or pull away and protect their own healthy life. There are other options, but you must know when it is time to let go.

In my next post, I have assembled some useful tips on how to deal toxic people by protecting yourself and by not feeding into their toxicity. Please know, there is no guarantee that these people will change since they are often very entrenched in their toxic thoughts behaviors, and these behaviors were developed as survival skills, often in toxic families; the result can be a very rigid behavior set that is difficult to pull out of . . . but not always. Now add to this that many “toxic” people are struggling with some level of depression and/or anxiety. Both depression and anxiety frequently lead to toxic thoughts and behaviors, especially when not managed with therapy, meditation, mindfulness, exercise, nutrition, and in some cases, medication.

Behind the toxic behaviors

Most toxic people are perfectly nice people underneath all of the negativity; you may even see occasional blips of that person that you’d like to be friends with. Sometimes, toxic people are able to maintain a temporary healthy presence but eventually succumb to their darker side. It is important to know that this is not the behavior of a happy, confident person; it is the behavior of a person that is suffering terribly and often doesn’t want to infect others with their own negativity, but their intense loneliness drives them to be around people, but in ways that push those people away, thereby verifying the toxic person’s self-concept of being unlikable. Remember that toxicity often arises from genetic conditions like depression and anxiety, and from circumstances that lead to Post Traumatic Stress and the resulting depression/anxiety, and certainly when genetics collide with trauma. While these things are not under the direct control of the toxic individual, it is still their job to step up and manage the behaviors; you can be part of the solution, but it is important that you not task yourself with ‘fixing’ them.

It is a paradox that the likable features of the toxic person are typically the very features that represent openness, and therefore vulnerability. And it is this vulnerability that the toxic individual protects with a tough, toxic exterior.

How to recognize toxic people

Please remember that all of these difficult traits were developed as survival skills, often picked up from parents and other highly influential people in the developmental years. The toxic person may seem to gloat, but make no mistake, they are suffering in a way that many people do not understand. This does not obligate you to tolerate it though. But you may be able to help if you decide you’d like to (that’s the next article).

It is important to briefly cover how to recognize toxic people. Here are a few, but not all, features of toxic people:

  • FIRST OF ALLPlease understand that we are talking about patterns, not isolated examples of these behaviors. And we are usually talking about people that show a pattern of several of these traits, not just one or 2. We are ALL toxic sometimes. Do not think that you are ‘toxic’ if you can relate to some of these. If you aren’t sure, talk to your friends and family that you trust to be honest, or get in touch with me, I will be honest with you and if it seems like you may carry excessive toxicity with you, we will discuss how to overcome it.
  • Consistently negative – sometimes the toxicity takes the form of extracting negativity from almost any situation. They extract rejection or failure rather than seeing reality they way healthier people do. They may also anticipate rejection before anything has even happened (“Oh she/he would never go out with me”).
  • Delighting in revenge – Toxic people seem to think that other people will delight in stories of “teaching people lessons.” And while there is a sliver of truth in this, it is taken to extremes and seems to dominate much of their conversation.
  • Stirs up drama – Whether it is through gossip or blatant dishonesty, the toxic personality will go to great lengths to drag people into the same vortex of misery that they find themselves in; the trouble is that they often don’t even realize that they are doing it.
  • Excessively self-centered – Everything seems to be about them. The toxic person will talk about how they have been wronged, how they are smarter and more experienced than other people, etc. When a group is talking about one person’s trip to the beach, they will interrupt with their beautiful trip to another location. Again, they may think that they are simply relating and participating in the conversation, but it becomes clear that they cannot allow the conversation to remain on others for very long.
  • Very selfish – This is a different slant on toxic people being self-centered. Rather than volunteering to get people’s drinks or meals, the toxic individual may go to great lengths to point out how somebody did not put in their fair share of the bill. Their focus on justice and equality in all respects crosses into selfishness.
  • Need to be right – In order for some toxic people to remain in control of the pain, they will work extra hard to prove that they are always right. This frequently looks like narcissism and can be one of the most off-putting traits; at the same time, it is the very trait that helps some toxic people feel good about themselves, except it really doesn’t work as their increasing isolation inevitably leads to severe loneliness.
  • Frequently dishonest – You’ll notice that many of these traits seem to be inter-related. You’re right. Some of these traits prop up other traits. Dishonesty helps the toxic individual to mask their true feelings. Manipulating the truth creates circumstances where they may try to show how they are always right (see the trait just above this one). Remember, this is not the behavior of a healthy and happy person; rather, it is the behavior of a person who is suffering at very deep levels. Certainly, when it comes to toxic people, compassion is truly the highest form of loving-kindness.
  • Victim mentality – Bearing in mind that a toxic personality is an elaborate set of self-protect mechanisms, we can see that they typically see themselves as being the victim of many injustices, usually across their lifetime. You may hear them tell their story over and over, sometimes in veiled heroic terms about how they have overcome adversity. And they likely have survived turmoil that most people are not familiar with. Keep this in mind, but remember that you must not allow yourself to get dragged down by their story, veiled guilt trips, etc. I will review how to insulate yourself in the next article on how to deal with toxic people.
  • Carry grudges – Sometimes these grudges are “generalized.” This means that if an authority figure hurt them in their youth, they may carry that grudge against ALL authority figures in the future. They may even twist the truth in ways that prove how they are correct about having been wronged, often to the surprise and hurt of a perfectly wonderful boss, for example. The other place that we commonly see grudges is in personal relationships, both platonic and romantic. You may have actually done something, as we all do sometimes, that offended them, but they will carry that anger for months and even years. This is not your fault, and the best thing to do is not to play into it. See the next article for how to manage this.
  • Mistreat other people – Since they often carry grudges that are generalized to innocent victims, toxic people may seek to consciously or unconsciously “punish” the people they see as hurting them. This also extends to people who may simply symbolize the hurt they endured in the past. A husband treating his wife with contempt because his ex- cheated on him would be an example.

The next article is about how to deal with toxic people without simply abandoning them completely.

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