I write a lot here about things like cultivating acceptance and compassion, finding meaning in your flaws, and building deeply fulfilling, supportive relationships. These activities and others that we discuss here reinforce each other and help you build a rich and fulfilling life.
But, let's face it: the rest of the world doesn’t always cooperate with your efforts. There are a lot of people who don't share your goal of having a Right Life and who operate in a manner diametrically opposed to happiness and healthy functioning—theirs and yours.
If you have several of these people in your life, you probably feel unpleasant emotions quite a bit, and you may have become so accustomed to those emotions that you don’t realize other people have something to do with them.
Or, you may be fortunate to have a healthy social environment except for that one person whose negative influence stands out clearly among the positive connections you have.
In our society, where we're quick to separate people into opposing camps, these people are often called “toxic,” implying that the other side is "non-toxic."
I’m not generally a fan of labels like these, and as we explore the issue you might agree that they’re a bit simplistic and even misleading. However, let’s go with them for now as convenient shorthand.
What are toxic people and how do they affect you?
Describing the many types of personalities that might be described as toxic and the dynamics that give rise to them is way beyond the scope of this article.*
Generally, though, when someone seems toxic to you it’s because they’re either behaving in a way that disrupts a state of equilibrium—in which you’re feeling basically happy and fulfilled, and meeting challenges that are within your capacity to cope with them—or disrupts your progress toward such a state.
For instance, let’s consider toxic people who get in the way of your progress. Some of these might actively subvert you by spreading gossip or lies, or trying to manipulate you to serve their needs.
Others might undermine your efforts without ill intent. An example would be “Negative Nellies” (or Nelsons), characterized by pessimism, a lack of self-efficacy, and the belief that the world is not conducive to personal growth. You can “catch” their worldview if you have enough contact with it.
They might even discourage you in your efforts, not in an attempt to thwart you but to protect you from the disappointment they believe is inevitable.
People who disrupt your existing equilibrium can also take many forms; what they have in common is that they interrupt your satisfaction of your needs. I’m referring especially to the intangible human needs you satisfy through your interaction with others, which enable you to thrive. Things like the need for close, secure, supportive connection with other people; to feel competent; and to feel worthy of, and receive, others’ positive regard.
Toxic people might withhold their acknowledgement or support of you because they perceive themselves to be superior to you in some way or feel threatened by you. Others may form cliques that leave you on the outside looking in, or abuse the intimacy you offer.
An example of the latter would be people who fluctuate between showering you with positive regard and then, without warning, withdrawing it or even vilifying you. For you, the person who had connected with the person from a soft and vulnerable spot within you and trusted the other person to do the same, those swings can hurt quite a bit, like repeatedly tearing bandages from a wound.**
As disruptive as a toxic person can be in the moment, worse is the cumulative impact that those disruptions can have on you over time. Generally, a toxic person’s behavior is underlain by a poor self-image and, not coincidentally, your contact with the defensive behaviors they enact to compensate for their self-image can impact yours as well.
Things like your basic trust in others, self-esteem, and self-confidence can all take a hit. Worst of all, in an effort to protect yourself from further injury you might keep your guard up excessively, stifling the expression of your core self. Locked in your “panic room,” nothing can get in to hurt you, but the walls will start to close in on you over time.
Techniques and pitfalls of working with toxic people
Really, the basic techniques of addressing a problem in a relationship with a toxic person aren’t that different from those you’d use with a non-toxic person.
Let the other person know if something they’re doing isn’t acceptable to you, using “I” statements (e.g., “when you ridicule me, I feel embarrassed”) to express and own your feelings. Then, listen to the response with an open mind and a willingness to acknowledge any part you play in the situation.
Communicating this way with the non-toxic people in your life is a relative piece of cake. They probably aren't harming you on a regular basis and, if they are, they stop doing that once they're made aware of it. Working on your relationship with them is like practicing your karate routine with a partner, with each of you knowing what move to expect next and trusting that the other person isn’t out to hurt you.
With toxic people, it’s a bit of a different landscape. Because of their poor self-image, they feel things like shame and insecurity strongly. To acknowledge their flaws would only amplify their negative feelings about themselves, so they tend to avoid the issue, consciously or otherwise.
Even when people—toxic or non-toxic—do have insight and acknowledge their problematic behaviors, it still takes concerted effort to change ones that stem from deep-seated personality traits, so a toxic person needs considerable motivation in order to effect change.
The “Negative Nellies” I described are probably more amenable to change than most toxic people. More mild-mannered in the first place, they might make a mental note to be more positive (or at least less negative) around you in the future. Once that starts to yield positive responses from you and others (and because they’ll feel better themselves), they might even start to do it in other settings.
Generally, though, toxic people aren’t very responsive to your feedback, at least in a positive way. Returning to the example of the intimacy-abusive/emotionally volatile toxic person I gave earlier, such people tend to feel insecure in relationships in direct proportion to the intimacy of the relationship.
They are hyper-alert for any sign of abandonment (real or imagined), so your expression of having been hurt can readily trigger a flood of intolerable negative emotion in them, along with emotionally-charged, hurtful responses such as righteous indignation or victim-blaming.
Hold on a minute . . . am I toxic??
So, the behavior of toxic people stems from the frustration of underlying needs, such as feeling secure and competent, and being held with positive regard—even being loved—by others. Yet, everyone has those needs. And when those needs are frustrated in a toxic person, they tend to feel strong feelings of shame and insecurity . . . but don't we all feel ashamed or insecure sometimes?
As for the secondary reactions that emerge when the needs of toxic people are frustrated—things like anger, jealousy, pessimism, small-mindedness, or emotional volatility—well, is there anyone reading this who hasn’t felt or displayed some or all of these?
Since I also mentioned that toxic people frequently lack insight into their own toxicity, a perfectly reasonable question might be occurring to you: am I a toxic person and just don’t realize it?
Well, you’re probably toxic sometimes. Most of us exhibit, from time to time, dysfunctional behaviors and personality traits that oppose well-being and negatively affect other people. However, you can probably relax.
If you’re asking yourself that question, and reading things like this blog, you’re displaying the willingness to develop insight into yourself. Introspection and investing energy in things like personal growth, including having healthy relationships, are signs of non-toxicity.
You probably realize that we all have things we can improve upon to benefit ourselves and others. Working with, or at least acknowledging, the less attractive parts of your personality is probably something you’re open to doing.
On the other hand, a toxic person tends to take the Ostrich Approach, avoiding or denying input that would expose their underlying pain—and facilitate change.
Instead, they might employ strategies like the aforementioned righteous indignation or victim-blaming, and curating social circles in which their behavior is tolerated, if not enabled.
But maybe you've done those things, too! It seems toxic and non-toxic people have more in common than not. So, what is the difference between the two, then? Well, there may be less of one than you think.
To be continued . . .
Sure, toxic people hurt you, but how useful is it to consider them within an Us vs. Them, toxic vs. non-toxic framework? So far, we’ve found a lot of common ground between these supposedly opposing camps. Perhaps casting people as toxic is a red herring, causing us to overlook more important issues.
Next time, in the concluding Part Two, we'll explore what really makes the difference between toxic and non-toxic people, how that insight might affect the way you approach your relationships with them, and what you need to consider when your efforts to address your problems with them have failed. Stay tuned!
* Readers familiar with psychology might think of toxic people in terms of personality disorders, and that makes sense. Many of the people who are most disruptive to your pursuit of well-being have the kind of personality traits which, of sufficient type, quantity, and severity comprise a disordered personality.
Certainly, the so-called "Dark Triad" of personalities—Machiavellian, sociopathic, and narcissistic—are pretty toxic. However, not all "toxic people," at least as I’m talking about them here, have a diagnosable personality disorder.
Also, note that even among personality disorders, there is often significant overlap between types. Any effort to lump baskets of traits together is inherently subjective, and real people usually reflect more variation than labels are able to capture. The intent here (and in Part Two) is to convey that it's helpful to hold all of these labels lightly.
** As with progress-disruptive toxic people, the equilibrium-disruptive type may or may not be causing you difficulty intentionally. We’ll return to the issue of intention in Part Two.