How would you know that a person is “toxic?” Would you know that a person is toxic right away?
The word toxic is a very common word in today’s society. It’s even more popular online where you can find millions of articles on relationships and ways to survive in them.
Sadly, despite frequent searches online about this topic, it’s easy to struggle to identify the behaviours of a toxic person until it is way too late.
A toxic person is someone who “infects” (like a disease) your thoughts, emotions, feelings, and behaviours in ways that are not good. They may be envious of you, they may try to limit or undermine you, or they may simply ignore any kind of progress you make.
A toxic person can be anyone you come across in daily life, live with, work with, or see from time to time. The sad part about most toxic people is that they don’t always see themselves or their own toxicity. As a result, when you walk away they end up shocked, and sometimes confused.
Toxic characteristics may include but are not limited to:
Jealousy or envy
Control and manipulation
Fear and anxiety
"Flip-floppy” emotions and behaviours
Avoidance and denial
Physical, sexual, or psychological/emotional abuse
Triangulation (typically includes more than two people and is used to confuse all individuals involved)
Sadly, many of us can become victims of a toxic relationship. We have to know when to say “enough” and move on. It is certainly easier said than done, which is why I often suggest exploring your values, turning to your faith or “anchor,” relying on people who truly know you and you trust, and/or seeking therapy to get another perspective.
Sometimes the only thing we can do is manage the behaviour.
Some ways to manage a toxic relationship include:
1. Observing MO (Modus Operandi): Take time to examine how toxic people operate and question their motives. Not everyone is out to get you, use you, or manipulate you. But some are. Examine how these people assert themselves toward you, how you feel when they are around you, and question what they could possibly want from you. It’s a sad way to exist but some people only like you because you can offer them something.
2. Planning for the attack: Toxic people are not just a pain. They can be dangerous. By dangerous I mean manipulative, controlling, abusive, and demeaning. Some toxic people have a history of stealing, lying, cheating, conning, using charm to succeed, or using others. Once you identify the person’s tactics, thinking, and inappropriate behaviours, figure out how you should react, cope, or say goodbye.
3. Re-routing your expectations and goals: Toxic people literally “pull” you into a relationship of some kind with them. They may want to become your spouse, your best friend, or your work partner. You have to be able to determine (based on what you know about them and how you feel in their company) if you need to re-route your goals and expectations. You would not want to set up long-term goals or expect great things from someone who simply wants to use you. If the person truly cares or likes and respects you, you’ll know. If not, you’ll know that too.
4. Avoiding mental filtering: Mental filtering is what mental health professionals call cognitive distortions or thinking errors. It is a “skewed” way that we see reality based on emotion, incorrect ways we think about things, or skewed perceptions. Mental filtering is ignoring other aspects of something and picking out only one detail. If you find yourself picking out the positive aspects of the person and ignoring ALL of the bad, stop. It’s not going to help you. It’s hard but worth it.
5. Considering your mental and emotional health: If the person is making you feel depressed, self-conscious, “stupid,” or any other negative emotion, move on. Some people, despite how kind you are, have an arrogant and detached demeanour that can offend others and make them feel less valued.
6. Considering those you love and their needs: If the toxic person does not seem to mix well with those you love or makes those you love feel negative vibes, you may want to question why. Sometimes those closest to us can pick up on problems much faster than we can.
7. Seeking therapy: Some toxic people, especially if they have been in your life for a long time, can ruin almost everything. Some people come to therapy for the simple purpose of “taking back” their lives after freeing themselves from a toxic spouse, parent, work partner, or friend. If you feel your relationship with the toxic person is heavily weighing on you, you might benefit from therapy to help you sort out what to do.
8. Giving up the “yo-yo” pattern: Toxic people are often problematic people with behavioural and mental health problems. A toxic person may be so unhealthy that you begin to feel threatened or confused. When this happens, make plans to say goodbye, escape, or move on. A “yo-yo” pattern can include the person making you feel loved one moment and undermined the next, respected for a few weeks and disrespected during other weeks, praised one moment and demeaned the next. It’s not you, it’s them.
9. Being determined to get out/move on: An unhealthy relationship of any kind is dangerous to your self-esteem. Unhealthy relationships often have no clear boundaries, little-to-no respect, no positive goals or aspirations, immature patterns of communication, and little-to-no positive characteristics. Getting out or moving on can be so very difficult. You might even begin to miss the person once they are gone. But you will have to figure out how to explore and work through this if the relationship is not worth the frustration you must tolerate.
10. Understanding it is more than love / attachment / habit / dedication: Toxic relationships can feel like a “power” over you and that “power” does not always have to be love, attachment, or loyalty. Some people relate to this “power” as control, abuse, or manipulation. In other cases, some people refer to this power as a “spirit,” “sin,” or “evil power” that makes it hard to move on. So many of my former clients claim they were “held hostage” in their abusive relationships.