Does someone in your life continually leave you feeling confused, frustrated, or guilty? If so, you might be dealing with a toxic person. Here’s how to cope.
The word “toxic” is used to describe a myriad of health, social, and environmental issues. From toxic waste to toxic workplaces, this buzzword is used so often that in 2018, it was named Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year.
In human behavior, toxic is used to describe someone who causes distress in others through negative words and actions. However, it isn’t always easy to identify a toxic person, as their behaviors can be subtle.
For example, you may have a person in your life that repeatedly causes you confusion, anxiety, and stress, but you’re not sure why.
So, how do you know if someone is “toxic”? And how can you cope? Here are some tips on recognizing toxic behavior and how to cope with them.
The word toxic can mean different things to different people. Scientifically speaking, toxic is a label placed on substances that can cause harm, such as poisonous chemicals. However, it’s also a term used to define behavior that is unpleasant or malicious towards others.
Often the phrase “toxic person” is used to describe someone who is subtly or outwardly manipulative, self-centered, needy, or controlling.
These behaviors may manifest from underlying feelings of low self-esteem and mental health conditions such as narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), childhood trauma, or other deeply rooted personal issues.
In addition, research suggests that some people who behave in toxic ways may have certain “dark core” personality traits. These traits manifest as a tendency to put their goals and interests above all others while justifying their behavior to avoid guilt or shame.
However, just because there may be a reason behind the toxic behavior doesn’t make it less impactful. And if you’re experiencing this from another person, it can be confusing, hurtful, and may even make you feel like you’re at fault.
There are several signs to look out for that may indicate you’re dealing with a person whose behaviors could be considered toxic.
Relationship woes? Our advice columnist wants to hear from you!
Submit your anonymous questions here for Sex, Love, and All of the Above from Psych Central sex and relationships writer Morgan Mandriota. Then subscribe to our weekly newsletter to find out if your question is featured.
Recognizing a “toxic person” may be more about identifying how they make you feel rather than what they do or say.
If you’re interacting with a person with toxic behaviors, you may:
- feel confused and unsure of yourself
- leave the interaction feeling drained, angry, or full of anxiety
- feel bad about yourself in some way
- continually feel the need to help them
- notice that your boundaries aren’t being respected or you’re being manipulated
- experience guilt for saying “no” or feel they won’t take “no” for a final answer
- feel like you’re “walking on eggshells” around them
- frequently change your behavior to adapt
People who tend to have toxic behaviors might not be easy to spot. But aside from noting how they make you feel, there are a few signs to look for that indicate a person may be toxic.
These signs include the following:
- Drama may follow them everywhere they go, and their life may seem to have the storyline of a TV soap opera.
- They can be masters of manipulation, yet you might not notice this until you witness them doing it to someone else.
- They might constantly judge others, including you.
- Their neediness may be suffocating, yet when you need them, they disappear.
- They may not see themselves as the problem — it may be everyone else’s fault.
Or, in the case of toxic positivity, they may be so positive about everything, they refuse to admit when challenges genuinely exist.
If you’ve determined that you’re dealing with toxic behaviors, there are ways you can lessen the impact these behaviors may have on your mental health and well-being.
Set boundaries even if it creates guilt
When dealing with toxic behavior, knowing where to draw the line is critical. The challenge is eliminating the guilt and exercising the self-determination needed to place appropriate boundaries and stick to them.
For example, if the toxicity comes from a parent, you may experience feelings of guilt if you establish boundaries with them — even if it’s in your best interest to do so.
Hesitation in setting boundaries may also stem from fear of how the person will react, especially if they typically use angry outbursts to manipulate the outcome of a situation.
However, maintaining clear limits as to what you will or won’t do is a necessary step towards moving on and healing from the toxicity you’ve experienced.
Even though this step may create guilt, it’s helpful to remember that no matter how much effort you put into the relationship, it’s may not be enough.
Avoid getting drawn into the drama
A common denominator in toxic behavior is drama, which can appear to infiltrate every aspect of their life. Even a trip to the grocery store can result in a situation where something negative happens to them — and it’s never their fault.
Still, it’s easy for others to get pulled into their drama because of curiosity.
Simply put, human nature may make us feel drawn to hearing about other people’s troubles. But when dealing with toxic behavior, this can quickly lead to over-involvement and difficulty separating yourself from their problems.
To avoid getting swept up in the chaos, consider ignoring your curiosity when necessary and communicating with them about their troubles on a need-to-know basis only.
Talk with them about it
Sometimes a person who exhibits toxic behavior might not be aware that what they’re doing or saying is harming you. If this is the case, consider having a heart-to-heart conversation about what you’re experiencing.
Still, some people may have an underlying personality disorder or unaddressed mental health condition that may make effective communication challenging. In that case, encouraging them to talk with a mental health professional about your concerns might be more beneficial.
Resist trying to fix things
The desire to help another person when they’re having difficulties can be overwhelming. This is especially true when you feel you have good advice that might help fix the situation.
However, attempting to help might turn into a frustrating cycle of listening and advising with no solution ever reached. To avoid this, it may help to remember the expression, “Not my circus, not my monkeys,” and try to remain as uninvolved as possible.
Limit your time around them
If the relationship is causing you a great deal of stress and harm, you might want to consider cutting ties and moving on.
However, this may not be possible if you share a workplace or co-parent with them. In that case, it’s OK to do your best to avoid contact, limiting yourself to dealing with them only when necessary.
Above all, ditch the blame
Remember: You are not at fault, no matter how hard the person tries to convince you otherwise.
The negative feelings like anger, guilt, or anxiety you may experience are not yours to bear. Instead, these feelings are owned by the person who is projecting them onto you to help them fulfill unmet needs.
If you’ve noticed these behaviors in people around you, you may be dealing with a “toxic person.”
Understanding why this person makes you feel the way you do can help you overcome toxicity and move on from it in a healthy way.
Still, if you’re not sure the person in question is behaving in a toxic way, seeking another opinion from a mental health professional might not be a bad idea. Talking with someone about the situation might help you find the clarity you need.
Once you’ve recognized that you may be dealing with toxic behaviors, consider setting healthy boundaries, identifying ways to lessen your time around them, and working towards healing from any harm their behavior has caused.