We spend a lot of time and energy trying to pinpoint the toxic people in our lives, but how often do we look inward during our search? The truth is, there are times when even the best of us exhibit toxic behaviour or patterns without realising it. Here’s exactly how to tell if you’re a toxic person, what toxic really means, and how to stop being toxic.
WHAT IS A TOXIC PERSON?
A toxic person is someone who regularly displays actions and behaviour that hurts others or otherwise negatively impact the lives of the people around them, and they’re usually the main instigating factor of a toxic relationship.
Of course, there’s a difference between being toxic and acting toxic. The first is when it’s ingrained in our personality, and we actively enjoy hurting others; the second corresponds to aspects of our behaviour. Sometimes without knowing it, these toxic behaviours can take us over. Think about it as a muscle into which you’re unknowingly pumping metaphorical steroids, and soon it looks like The Hulk.
The good news is, with a little self-reflection and asking for feedback from others, we can become aware of these habits and eradicate them so we can become better people. Here are a few of the most common behaviours that even good people can develop that might actually be hurting those around them—as well as how to change course for the better.
SIGNS OF A TOXIC PERSON
1. They’re Always Sarcastic
The clever retort that’s accompanied by raucous laughter – we’ve come to think that’s a good thing. But the truth is, what’s funny on The Big-Bang Theory isn’t necessarily funny in real life when you’re on the receiving end. It can hurt.
It’s easy for this to be your default mode if you work in an industry that’s all about acting tough and masking emotions or if you grew up in a family where 99% of your conversations are sarcastic quips, “I told you so’s,” or remarks designed to one-up another person.
While I never advocate Pollyanna-esque naïveté or echoism, people who only look for the negative can be incredibly draining to be around in the long run; the teasing, even in good jest, will start to feel like carefully cloaked animosity.
The Fix: We all know how terrible it feels to be the target of such remarks, especially when we’re in a vulnerable state. So before you open your mouth, ask yourself, “How would I feel if I were sharing something about my life or thoughts and someone gave me that sort of response?”
2. They Deal With Conflict In A Roundabout Way
Conflict is uncomfortable. We don’t like to deal with tricky situations directly, and so we devise ways of getting around them. But if you’re always beating around the bush and then secreting hostility via sullen behaviour, stubbornness, and subtle insults, it just amplifies the problem and turns a single conflict into a larger issue. No matter how logical our arguments or how upset we might be over what’s happening, passive-aggressiveness is painful and not helpful to anyone.
The Fix: Know that difficult conversations are scarier in our heads than in reality – you simply may not have had enough practice. The more you have these conversations, the easier they become. Suggestion? Ask yourself, “How can I say this in a way that is kind and useful?”
3. Everything Is A Competition
Telling someone how you went through a similar experience they did is different from trying to show how you’ve had it worse. The first is where you show you resonate with the other person and use empathy to connect. The second is competing.
Sometimes we’re filled with indignation if we’ve had “worse” experiences and think, “How dare they?” Or sometimes, we genuinely believe someone is being weak and should just “suck it up” because that’s what we’ve done.
We need to be aware of these biases and to realise that pain isn’t a competition. Regardless of a person’s diagnosable condition or lifestyle, pain is pain. When we try to convince them their situation isn’t so bad, we are effectively invalidating their experiences and alienating them.
The Fix: Be aware of why you feel the need to “compete” – is it because this is the only way you’ll feel validated or feel some respite from your experiences? Sometimes, honesty is the best gift we can give ourselves, no matter how scary it is. This way, we can truly have empathy for ourselves and others.
If you find it hard to express compassion for someone else, perhaps ask yourself, “What would I want someone to say to me if I was in that position?”
4. You Turn Everything Into A Joke
We’ve all met that person who ends every line with “haha” and has to make a joke out of everything—even the most serious and saddest stuff. Maybe it’s because they don’t know how to deal with the situation, or they feel uncomfortable as it rips open old emotional wounds, so they try to escape via light-heartedness.
The Fix: It’s OK. You don’t need to have the answer to everything right now. Simply say, “I feel a little uncomfortable and uncertain because I’m not used to this.” This is a lot more respectful than laughing and can help your loved one and you deepen your relationship as you navigate the complications of being human.
5. You Want To Fix Everyone And Everything
Some of us are natural rescuers and fixers – maybe we’’ve been trained to pre-empt and solve problems, or we unconsciously get drawn to similar relationships to fix a dynamic we were helpless in when we were younger. Or maybe we simply love to provide solutions. But this is a form of emotional labour, and as the work piles up, so does our distress and resentment.
Put simply, other people aren’t our projects, and just because we can solve a problem doesn’t mean we should. The responsibility is squarely in the hands of the issue-holder, who may not even see it as a problem.
The Fix: Here’s the deal. Sometimes people aren’t asking for solutions or even for a listening ear, but we unwittingly create trauma from non-existent wounds by probing. What we can do instead is ask, “Do you want to talk about it?” If they say no, offer to be there if they change their minds. And if a person did not ask for advice, simply say, “I have a suggestion. Would you like to hear it?”
Additionally, recognise that you don’t need to fix everyone. Learn to accept people’s flaws, help them when asked, and if necessary, withdraw from relationships where the person’s behaviour is seriously affecting you in a negative way. There’s no need for you to shoulder every single person’s problems and accompany them on all their development journeys.
You Tell Everyone To “Just Change” Their Mindset
Someone told my friend Karla to “just be more proactive” when her professor had forgotten the deadline for her scholarship application, even though Karla had repeatedly reminded the professor for months. Karla was frantic and sad and then furious with said friend.
We often tell each other to just “cheer up,” “stop thinking that,” or “be logical” – effectively applying cognitive Photoshop to our “negative” emotions because these feelings are uncomfortable or socially unpalatable. But it is irrational to put a rational filter over everything.
The Fix: The only way to master your emotions and difficult situations is to feel them. We must wholly acknowledge their part in our lives as signals and sources of wisdom rather than to “just suck it up.” Unfortunate situations happen, and they don’t just get reset by the push of a mental button or a mindset transplanted into our heads. Instead of telling someone to simply change the way they’re thinking, sit down with them and be a source of emotional comfort. Let them earnestly convey their emotions out loud to you without judgement. Sometimes this is all that’s needed for them to regain some semblance of emotional equilibrium so they can tackle their problems.
You Push Your Truth Onto Others
When we discover a solution, especially after feeling stuck for a long time, we want to shout it from the mountaintops. Whether it’s the secret to weight loss or finding spiritual salvation, we hope our loved ones will reap those benefits. And then there’s also another deeper subconscious drive that spiritual author Paulo Coelho writes about: We believe that an extra person subscribing to our truth makes it more valid.
Especially if we’re watching our friends’ lives deteriorate, we feel compelled to proselytsze. But this backfires in the end: Forcing our truths down someone else’s throat feels just as uncomfortable and invasive as the metaphor suggests.
Moreover, just because something’s worked for you doesn’t mean it’ll work for someone else—solutions must be tailored to someone’s personality, experience, and situation for maximum success.
The Fix: Remember that you’re their loved one, not their doctor or coach. Your role isn’t to heal or save them. Simply be the best example for them. When they are ready and start asking you, you can gently open the conversation.
WHAT CAUSES PEOPLE TO BECOME TOXIC?
We’re fundamentally copycats – we learn behaviour by modelling others, and sometimes we use the wrong role models.
At other times, we run into a bad spate in life, get jaded, and see the world through a pessimistic lens, so our toxic behaviour grows.
But pinpointing the root cause of what’s going on for us, and committing to personal growth, can help us find our old selves again or create a new self that is stronger.
Understanding our own toxic behaviour develops empathy for why we do the things we do, hones our self-awareness, and helps us to become better people. Acknowledgment is the first step on that journey.