Does somebody in your life continually and intentionally distract you from who you need to be and what you need to do? Can you identify people who—whether in-person or on social media—seem to enjoy pestering you, guilt-tripping you, and manipulating your emotions. If so, you might be dealing with a toxic person (TP)—a person who is toxic for you.
In human behavior, “toxic” is a word used to describe a person who continually and intentionally distresses you through their negativity. However, it’s not always easy to know if a person is toxic to us because their words and behaviors can be subtly, rather than overtly, toxic. So, how can we know if a person is toxic to us? Here are ten external signs:
1. A toxic person never asks forgiveness for their toxic words and actions. They’ll evade, lie, and twist things to make you feel like you’re the one who’s wrong. But they’ll never issue a genuine apology. When they do issue an apology, it will be very general in nature and usually will somehow position themselves as a hero or a victim. In other words, any “flaw” they admit to somehow becomes a heroic flaw.
2. A toxic person often purposely keeps you on edge by alternating which version of them you’re getting. One day, they’ll be kind and reasonable. The next day, they’ll be passive aggressive or stormy. And there isn’t anything that explains the change of demeanor.
3. A toxic person likes to manipulate. As this article explains, “The notion of manipulation carries with it the idea of one person trying to control another person, and infringing on that person’s autonomy while doing so…. This is a form of heart theft in which the manipulator tries to change the conditions of the encounter in order to engineer a change in the other person that the person is not aware of, would not agree with, or does not desire.”
4. A toxic person is self-righteous and judgmental. They like nothing more than to take something they’ve done wrong and twist it to somehow blame you. To take something small you’ve dong wrong and exaggerate it out of proportion; to take out of context something you’ve said or done and accuse you of bad intentions.
5. Toxic people often make sweeping statements. Their favorite ways to address you include sweeping negative statements about you that begin with, “You always” and “You never.” Or, sweeping positive statements about themselves that are preceded by, “I always,” “I never,” “But I only want to.”
6. A toxic person often uses kind words or phrases but with a toxic tone. Their words, in and of themselves, are neutral or positive, but their demeanor and tone convey negative intent.
7. Toxic people regularly put you on the defensive. They make statements such as, “If you really cared about me, you’d….” Or, they select some aspect of your personality that is not your strength and then press in on why you’re not consistently superior in that trait.
8. Toxic people never show a vested interest in your success or share your joy. They never adjust themselves to you, consider your best interests, offer unsolicited help, talk you up to people, or get excited when you succeed.
9. Toxic people specialize in foregrounding irrelevant facts into a discussion or debate. If you’re trying to resolve issue “A” with a toxic person, they will respond to your reasonable points by distracting from them. They’ll bring up something you did or said in the past, and then try to force you into a corner to defend yourself.
10. The toxic person uses opportune moments to focus on ambiguities rather than specifics. For example, if you are discussing a contested issue with them, and you make a reasonable point in a reasonable way, they might distract from your comment by accusing you of having a negative tone, demeanor, or choice of words.
In addition to these external signs—things you can identify by watching the TP in action—there are some signs internal to you. In other words, sometimes the quickest and most intuitive way to know another person is toxic for you is to notice the effects that person has on your inner life. If you’re interacting with a toxic person you might:
- Feel like you’re “walking on eggshells” around them.
- Frequently feel the need to change your behavior to suit them.
- Feel confused or guilty after your interactions with them.
- Notice that your boundaries are violated.
- Feel manipulated.
- Feel bad about yourself.
- Feel drained because you’re always being asked for help.
In summary, these 10 external signs and 7 internal indicators can help you discern whether a particular person is toxic for you. And if so, you’ll want to make a plan for how to respond to their presence, their words, their actions. But before we explore some ways to respond to TPs (Toxic People 104), the next installment will briefly profile seven “styles” of toxicity (Toxic People 103).
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It’s worth noting that a specific “toxic” individual might not perform all ten actions. I know some people who are genuinely kind and generous overall, and who would see themselves as sweet individuals. In at least one case, she sees me as being the problem, and if she were still in my life and I were to send her this article, she’d respond and “prove” that I was guilty of all ten. It’s actually her insistence that every conversation must include examples of my own “manipulation” toward her that broke the relationship. Two years of being told how manipulative you are (by someone who is actually very manipulative) is enough to destroy any relationship.
But she would tell herself that she is only trying to help me be a better person and learn not to manipulate other people, and since in her own mind that is really and truly her motive, there were aspects of the relationship that didn’t feel toxic and items on this list that might or might not fit. A person doesn’t have to display all ten, in other words, nor does a person have to be cruel and generally disliked by other people. An individual can be a genuinely nice and thoughtful person, with others and maybe even sometimes with you, and still be toxic.
CJ, thank you. Very good point.