There is much talk about toxic relationships, about toxic people, and this is no wonder. If so far people have tolerated or accepted more easily the dysfunctional and destructive behaviors of those around them, and especially those of family members, step by step people start to understand that this is not okay, that we shouldn’t “accept” anything of what we don’t want, and that we don’t have to compromise, especially for the sake of some people who don’t value us, but just seek to use us in one way or another.
Even if you couldn’t precisely define what a toxic person means, because there isn’t just one typology, you can identify certain features that will make you think. A toxic person can be someone who is always trying to have control (they would like to control what you say, what you feel, what you think, what you do), who can’t accept that things can be different from the way they see them, who doesn’t respect your opinion and tries to persuade you to think like them or to see things like them, who makes you feel bad if you have certain beliefs, values or principles with which they don’t resonate; who will try to convince you that they are right and that you have to do like them, who will turn to a whole arsenal of nagging you until you give up and you agree with them.
A toxic person can also be a person who is so self-centered that you simply become an instrument by which they reach their goals.
A toxic person can be that kind of person who is extremely pessimistic and negative, who finds a problem at any solution, who spreads their negativity on those around, who can cast doubt, worry and fear on most insignificant things.
A toxic person can also be someone who always victimizes and complains, who believes that others are responsible for the way they feel or live, who expects others to assume responsibility for their wellbeing, who has plenty of needs that expect others to meet them.
The first red flag which should draw your attention concerns the way you feel around that person. Although perhaps you can’t tell how you got to this point (especially if the relationship or the person was or seemed a positive one at the beginning) or you don’t understand very well what happens (because you’re being manipulated) it’s certain that that person’s presence in your life has a negative impact - maybe you feel sad, angry, nervous, unconfident, powerless; perhaps you feel that you’ve lost your confidence; perhaps you fear to act one way or another lest that other person gets upset / mad / criticizes you / judges you / tries to make you change your mind.
Toxic people generally block your evolution or, by their attitude and actions, make you doubt yourself. They don’t want you to succeed because this would put them face to face with their own weaknesses, or because your change might involve changing your relationship, something they don’t want. It’s certain that such a person will never bring you anything positive, and if someone’s presence in your life is neither positive nor neutral, but on the contrary negative, why do you allow them to be part of it?
Next we will enumerate the most important characteristics of toxic people:
They manipulate, lie repeatedly and want to have control over you - for them it doesn’t matter how you feel, what you want or what you need, for them it’s important to achieve their goals at any cost, even if it means to use people, to step on people, to lie, to manipulate. It's always just about them. They expect to give them what they need without offering anything in return - there is no reciprocity. They use people to attend to their interests, but they often take a victim's attitude to earn their sympathy (or pity). They give you the impression that you owe them something, that although they often don’t respect you or do things that harm you, they would actually do those things for your own good (this happens frequently when one person has more power than another). For example, at work, your boss can burden you with all sorts of tasks that aren’t yours (and perhaps even take credit for your results), he can constantly ask you to work late or work the weekends telling you that this way you have the opportunity to learn / acquire new skills / to build your path to a certain promotion.
They aren’t constant - like chameleons, they change their attitudes and behaviors depending on what they want to get from others or what they want to happen. Sometimes they can be extremely “kind”, warm and gentle to a person if they know this way they can gain their trust, and other times they can become extremely cynical, indifferent, selfish and even cruel to the same person. One day they can be very nice to you, and the next day their attitude can change completely, making you wonder what have you done wrong, and most likely, feeling guilty. In this situation, the tendency is to try to make them feel better, to make efforts hoping that they will change for the better again. But by doing so, you actually take on you a responsibility that isn’t yours. Because the way others feel isn’t your responsibility, and it's not normal to try to continually please a person who blames you for the way they feel.
They give you the feeling that you always have to prove them that you deserve to be around them, that you deserve to be trusted, that you deserve to be treated nicely. In a way, they think little of you from the beginning, even if you have done nothing wrong to them, and they do it just so you feel you have to do as much as you can (of what they want) to prove them wrong. By analogy, any person should be given the benefit of the doubt until the contrary, but in their case any person is guilty until that person demonstrates the contrary. Around them you can often feel “on guard”, ready to defend yourself at any time, even if you haven’t done anything wrong, or you can feel the need to change your behavior in such a way as to avoid being hurt again. Anyway, this kind of relationship is a toxic one, because you will always feel unworthy, small or worthless, and you will try at all costs to prove that you are not like that - by pleasing them, making sacrifices and compromises. You may end up giving up important relationships in your life for their sake, to isolate yourself from your loved ones, to give up what you want in order to do what they want.
They aren’t happy for you - it's as if the others’ happiness upsets them. If you want to share with them your good news, they will find a way to shade your joy or make the discussion about them. If you are excited about something, they will find and point out the negative aspects or potential scenarios of what might go wrong.
They will use against you the things that they know about you, that is, they will attack you where it hurts the most, if this way they get what they want.
They need others to give them all their unconditional attention, to please them, to show their admiration - people who constantly need others to validate them actually don’t feel good in their own skin and doubt themselves. A relationship with such a person can easily turn into a toxic one because they will often try to sabotage you so they can remain in the spotlight or discourage you, try to make you lose your confidence to prevent you from standing out.
They repeatedly violate your limits and personal boundaries - even if you tell them that you are bothered by certain things, they don’t take that into account and continue to behave the same way. They don’t respect your personal space and time or your privacy, and they consider themselves entitled to barge into your life whenever they want.
They don’t take responsibility and they victimize themselves - toxic people find ways to place responsibility for their actions and lives on others. They don’t take responsibility for what they feel, projecting their own feelings to others, and if you point that, they will deny it vehemently, and they will fiercely try to prove that you are wrong. They make excuses and find explanations, they rationalize, they blame others, they expect to be understood, pitied and helped. They don’t admit when they are wrong, they never apologize and they always want to be right.
They judge others and they always find something bad to say about others - because they’re “perfect” and don’t take responsibility for their weaknesses or mistakes, they’ll criticize, devalue or underestimate others with the greatest of ease. By doing so, they also manage to keep their self-image intact and even inflate their ego - comparing themselves to others this way, they will always win. They’ll exaggerate their own achievements and minimize others’.
What can you do if you have to deal with such people?
It’s not wise to expect or to hope for the change to come from the other person. Once you realize that a person's influence in your life is toxic, you are the one who have to change things. Set clear limits and interaction boundaries or remove that person from your life. You don’t have to explain or to justify yourself in any way because you’ve done nothing wrong, on the contrary. Anyway, more often it happens that the person tries to convince you that you’re wrong, to make you change your mind. But you know that what you do it’s for your own good and no one is in position to tell you that is wrong to feel that way. This process of becoming distanced from that person or separate definitively may take some time because if a toxic person doesn’t respect your limits and boundaries now, the less they will not respect them afterwards, so be aware that there will be attempts of reconciliation on their part, but remember not to fall into their trap. Your decision isn’t negotiable, so avoid engaging into controversial discussions or quarrels. You can’t make someone understand that they have mistaken you or that their presence in your life hurts you as long as that person doesn’t want to take responsibility for their actions and as long as their actions and intentions have been deliberated.
The same thing applies to family members. If someone in your family is a toxic person, you have no obligation to accept their dysfunctional and harmful behaviors just because they’re your relatives. The more you shouldn’t accept, especially because your family has a greater influence on you (even in an indirect way) than the rest of the people in your life. By becoming emotionally distant, you understand that the irrational rule their actions to a great extent, so you don’t have to play their games, respond irrationally and become overwhelmed by your emotions. Notice their actions and act accordingly, but don’t lose yourself in “how this makes me feel." Stop allowing them to be in control of your emotions or to overshadow your joy.
You deserve to have in your life people who respect, accept and love you for what you are, with which you can evolve and who support or encourage you, not devalue you, discourage you or make you doubt yourself and destroy your self-esteem and self-confidence.
Dr. Ursula Sandner