What is a “toxic” person?
Sometimes in life, we come across people who defy our natural belief systems about how people “should be”. While we assume that most people follow the golden rule of “treat others the way that you would like to be treated”, there are definitely some individuals who are not guided by this principle and regularly break this rule.
These people may be considered “toxic” because their behaviours leave a trail of destruction behind them wherever they go. This is usually in the form of other people who are left feeling distressed, confused, isolated, trapped, depressed, angry, afraid, guilty, grieving, and potentially traumatised about how they have been treated. And that’s not to mention the financial, social, occupational or legal consequences that can arise from an interaction, encounter or a relationship with a toxic person.
A toxic person has no real concern for anyone apart from themselves, except for how other people could help or hinder them from being able to get what they want, physically or emotionally. The three main ways that they will try to emotionally manipulate others into doing what they would like are through a sense of fear, obligation, and guilt (FOG).
Anytime that you notice that FOG is being used against you to try and get you to do something you don’t want to do, look out. A loving person will encourage us to be the best that we can be. A toxic person will instead help us to be what they need us to be, which may be very different to what is actually in our best interests.
Worse still, toxic people will typically:
(a) not admit to having done anything wrong, even when presented with the facts,
(b) honestly believe that they haven’t done anything wrong or haven’t intended to do so, and instead blame you or someone else for how they felt or what they did, and
(c) try to convince others of their innocence too, even if this involves a real stretching of the truth or outright lying.
Unfortunately, many of the clients that I see have been affected by toxic people, including:
- The boss, who dangles the promise of pay raises and promotions over their employees to motivate them to reach a goal, and then once that goal is achieved takes the deal off the table
- The boss, who forces his workers, often vulnerable immigrants on working visas, to work for less money than the minimum wage or to be on call and work overtime without any extra pay or time in lieu
- The alcoholic father, who verbally and physically beats his wife and children
- The competitive father, who is afraid of his children surpassing him and therefore won’t give them any praise or actively minimises their accomplishments
- The narcissistic father, who views his children as an extension of himself and thus tries to live out his unfulfilled potential through them, often in regards to school, sports, and career
- The narcissistic mother, who makes her children lie about their school grades or lie about where they live, who they are or what they do so that she looks better to her friends and family
- The self-centred mother, who is afraid of her children no longer need her and therefore does whatever she can to prevent them from becoming independent. This might be doing all of the chores for them, to nitpicking and criticising their choices in jobs, partners and anything else that could reduce the amount of influence or power that she has over them
- The abusive mother, who locks her children away in a room by themselves and beats or neglects them further whenever they do not comply with her wishes
- The cheating girlfriend, who compulsively lies about her own behaviour and then is jealous of their partner talking to a girl and questions their fidelity and faithfulness
- The hypocritical boyfriend, who disappears for days on end on drug binges, and then calls and messages his partner every five minutes when he knows that she is out having fun with her friends
- The ex-partner, who earns a lot of money and still refuses to pay any child support or see the children so that they can get back at or hurt the other parent for leaving them
- The self-centred friend, who consistently demands assistance with the ongoing crises they have in their life, and then is nowhere to be seen when their friends are in need of support
I have seen or heard about all of these traits in individuals through both my personal and professional life and this is barely scratching the surface. There are many other stories that I have heard that are even more severe, and it really is disheartening to think that there are people out there who are capable of committing such horrible acts on a regular basis without ever questioning their behaviour or feeling guilt.
Even though I have a better rational understanding of why this behaviour occurs through studying Psychology for the past 11 years, it still doesn’t make sense to me on an emotional level. I don’t get how someone can hurt the person that “they are meant to love” (societal expectations) and “say that they love” (individual expectations) when their behaviours are precisely the opposite.
The reasons why someone might treat others in a harmful way include:
- They are psychologically very unwell and need to be properly treated and/or medicated. Consisting of the Axis I disorders, this includes severe Major Depressive Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety Disorders, Eating Disorders, Substance Abuse Disorders, Bipolar Disorder, or Schizophrenia. Although these individuals can engage in toxic behaviours, if the symptoms of the psychological disorder are successfully managed or treated, the toxic behaviour is likely to significantly improve.
- They have a personality disorder and could improve their symptoms with appropriate treatment and management. Consisting of the Axis II disorders, including Borderline Personality Disorder (PD), Obsessive Compulsive PD, Antisocial PD, Avoidant PD, Dependent PD, Histrionic PD and Narcissistic PD. Research suggests that some of the symptoms of personality disorders can also be managed through treatment, such as Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT) for Borderline PD. However, personality disorders are generally lifelong conditions that impact the individual across several different areas of their functioning, including their interpersonal effectiveness skills. Therefore the likelihood of toxic behaviour increases, especially with Narcissistic and Antisocial PDs.
- They are a Psychopath or a Deviant and are therefore unlikely to change, even with treatment. Sometimes known as ‘The Dark Triad’, Machiavellians, Narcissists and Psychopaths all share the common trait of lacking empathy for their victims or anyone that they take advantage of to get what they want. There is little evidence that treatment is ever successful with Psychopaths and people who are Sexual Deviants (e.g. serial offending Pedophiles), and sometimes the best thing that society can do is to lock up these individual’s in a maximum security prison to minimise the harm that they can inflict upon others. However, many Narcissists and Machiavellians (who believe that the ends justify the means) are unlikely to be arrested or incarcerated for their behaviours and are therefore most likely to be the toxic people that inflict the most damage on others without any remorse for what they do.
How to Successfully Manage Toxic People
The following information borrows heavily from the non-PD toolbox at the website Out of the FOG. It is a website that I recommend for client’s when they are living with and/or having to deal with someone who is consistently acting in a toxic way towards them.
What NOT to do when dealing with toxic people:
- Abuse Amnesia – Do not try to forget or suppress previous episodes of abuse or boundary violations that have been perpetrated by the toxic person.
- Amateur Diagnosis – If you believe that the toxic person has a psychiatric diagnosis or personality disorder, do not share this information with them in the hope that this will improve the situation and/or the relationship.
- Avoidance – Do not withdraw from other relationships to reduce their risk of exposure to the toxic person and the potential criticism and rejection that comes with this. Avoiding other people will only further isolate you from your support and positive relationships, which you will need if you have to regularly deal with a toxic person.
- Circular Conversations – Do not engage in repetitive, cyclical arguments with toxic people that cover the same issues endlessly without any resolution. You are unlikely to get a different resolution using the same strategy that hasn’t worked in the past.
- Denial – Do not try to deny that a toxic person is engaging in certain behaviours or that these behaviours are not having severe adverse consequences if they are. It will still be damaging you even if you are typically strong and resilient. It is essential to allow yourself to accept what is happening and how you feel so that you are more likely to do something about it.
- Enabling – Do not try to absorb the abusive behaviour of the toxic person without challenging it or consistently enforcing personal boundaries. This will only “enable” them to continue the behaviour without any fear of repercussions.
- Fix-It Syndrome – Do not try to take responsibility or compensate for the toxic person’s behaviours. Do not try to clean up their messes or fix the problems created by their actions. They need to be responsible for what they do if they are to learn from it.
- Fleas – Do not try to imitate or emulate the toxic person’s behaviour or stoop to their level. This is tempting, but it is much better to act consistently with your values than “catch fleas” and act in a toxic way too. You will not have as much practice as them in doing what they do, and will often then get criticised by the toxic person and be told that you are the one with all of the problems if you try.
- Lack of Boundaries – Do not allow the toxic person to break the guidelines and limits for acceptable behaviour that you have set. They must be made clear and consistently reinforced, or the toxic person will usually keep pushing and escalating the situation until they get what they want from you without having to change their behaviour.
- Imposed Isolation – Do not allow yourself to become isolated and cut off from your family and friends and other supports, even if the toxic person is trying to intimidate you or coerce you into doing this.
- JADE – Do not try to justify, argue, defend or explain or it is likely to end in a circular conversation.
- Learned Helplessness – Do not believe that you have no control over a situation. A toxic person will sometimes want you to think this, but there are always options and supports available if you wish to leave a situation or relationship involving a toxic person.
- Obedience – Do not just blindly follow what you are being told to do by a toxic person because you think it will lead to less confrontation. Decide if what they are asking from you is really in your best long-term interests, and delay giving an answer straight away so that you can have the time and space to think about it properly.
- Rescuer Syndrome – Do not try to rescue the toxic person or compensate for their behavioural issues. The toxic person will only change when they are ready to, with the additional assistance of recommended treatments by qualified professionals.
- Self-Doubt – Although it is difficult, try not to let what the toxic person says to you impact how you see yourself, your mental health or your moral compass. Believe in yourself, seek support, and query other friends or family about any doubts you have.
Although many people have tried these strategies, sometimes over and over again, they have been shown to be less effective than the strategies that are recommended.
What TO DO when dealing with toxic people:
- The 3 “C’s” Rule – Do repeat this mantra when thinking about the toxic person and their behaviours: “I didn’t cause it, I can’t cure it, and I can’t control it.”
- The 51% Rule – Do consider your own needs just a little more than the toxic person (at least 51%) if you would like to be able to effectively help them.
- The 50% Rule – Do realise that any relationship is about the dynamic between two people. Therefore, if we focus on our part in the relationship (the 50% of the relationship that we are responsible for), it can positively change the overall dynamic. Often much more than focusing on what the toxic person does (which is the 50% that is out of our control, and therefore not our responsibility).
- Boundaries – Do set clear and consistent guidelines and limits (that are reasonable and safe) for acceptable behaviour with toxic people. Let them know how you will respond if they cross these boundaries and consistently reinforce these consequences when they do so.
- Clean Up Rule – Do allow the toxic person to clean up their own messes and deal with the external consequences of their actions. You are only responsible for cleaning up your own messes, not theirs.
- Emotional Intelligence – Do work on effectively understanding, recognising and regulating your own emotions, and develop empathy and social skills in dealing with the toxic person’s feelings without fixing their problems for them.
- Get Support – Do find supportive people who are likely to be able to empathise with you and understand what you are going through. If they have an understanding of mental illness, personality disorders and toxic people, it will be more likely that they will be able to give you the support you need.
- Journaling – Do write down whatever it is that you are thinking and feeling about the toxic person and your relationship or troubles with them. If you can do this without censoring yourself, taking a break or worrying about what you are writing, then it can be even more therapeutic. If you can keep this in a safe place, do so, otherwise delete it or dispose of it in a way that it is unlikely to be seen by the toxic person.
- Make Good Choices – Do devote your energy focusing on what steps you can take that will help and that is under your control. This can reduce stress a lot.
- Medium Chill – Do try to disengage through distraction, relaxation, meditation and other arousal reducing strategies if direct contact with the toxic person or their behaviours is unavoidable.
- My Stuff/Your Stuff – Do clearly define and remind yourself what is your concern (“my stuff”) and what is actually the toxic person’s concern (“your stuff”), regardless of what they say to you.
- No Contact – Do think about going “No Contact”, and cutting off all forms correspondence and contact with a toxic person if they are consistently not respecting your boundaries or being deterred by your other consequences. No one deserves to be abused, and this cannot take place if there is no communication.
- Personal Safety – Do keep a list of actions that you can follow to prevent situations from escalating into verbal, emotional or physical abuse. This should be put in place as soon as any form of violence is likely to happen. First try to stop the conversation, secondly, try to leave the room or the area, and thirdly call the police.
- Put Children First – Do make decisions based on what is in the best interests of the children. Their needs and especially their safety and protection from abuse must come first.
- Therapy – Do seek help if you are struggling to protect yourself or emotionally detach from the toxic people in your life, or if you want to learn more about yourself or build up other skills and capacities in your life (assertiveness, self-esteem, compassion etc.).
- Work on Yourself – Do allocate time, energy and focus for yourself so that you can restore a good sense of balance with work, leisure, personal growth and socialising regardless of what the toxic person does.
If you are interested in reading more about this, I recommend checking out the Out of the FOG website or reading the book ‘Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation and Guilt to Manipulate You’ by Susan Forward and Donna Frazier.
Dr Damon Ashworth