“People inspire you, or they drain you—pick them wisely.” – Hans F. Hansen
The term 'toxic relationship' is a perfect way to describe a poisonous environment. Whether it's a personal relationship or a work scenario, it can be a situation that sneaks up on you entangling you and making it difficult to escape. It's a situation that makes your stomach turn and can really make you sick.
At some point, we all make stupid decisions, hurt the people we love, say things that are hard to take back, and push too hard to get our way. None of that makes us toxic. It makes us human. We mess things up, we grow and we learn. Toxic people are different. They never learn. They lack the capability to self-reflect and they don’t care who they hurt along the way.
Toxic people are smart but they have no emotional intelligence. They intentionally hurt people. It’s no accident that they choose those who are open-hearted, generous and willing to work hard as their victims.
If you’re in any sort of relationship with someone who is toxic, chances are you’ve been bending and flexing for a while to try to make it work. STOP. Just stop. You can only change the things that are open to your influence and toxic people will never be one of them.
Toxic people use tools of manipulation and power. These behaviors are ways of exerting control over you and are signs of an imbalance of power in a relationship. Some of them are more obvious than others but the real key is whether or not you’re calling them out for what they are or whether you’re pleasing, rationalizing, denying or making excuses. We all need to take responsibility for how or whether we tolerate behaviors that shouldn’t be a part of anyone’s emotional landscape.
Here are some personality RED FLAGS to look out for:
Laughing at you or telling you that he/she doesn’t care what you think, or that your feelings are unimportant or perhaps laughable. Or that your thoughts are wrong—based on fuzzy thinking—or that you’re “too sensitive” or
“too emotional.” These are manipulations, pure and simple.
The Name Caller
It’s one thing to complain about someone’s action or inaction—how he or she failed to deliver on a promise, kept you waiting for an hour, didn’t take out the trash, etc. It’s quite another to criticize someone’s character, replete with examples. These criticisms usually begin with the words “You never” or “You always” and what follows is a litany of everything the other person finds lacking or wrong about you. This is not okay, ever. If this is a pattern in the relationship and you feel denigrated or put-down most of the time, do not rationalize the other person’s behavior by making excuses. (“He only called me names because he was frustrated with me” or “She really didn’t mean what she/he said. It was just the heat of the moment.”) By making excuses, you encourage the behavior and, yes, normalize it.
This is a power play, used by people who perceive the other person in the relationship as weaker or easily manipulated. Parents do it to children, using the force of their authority, as do adults who are intent on control.
The gaslighter calls the other person’s perceptions or vision of reality into question by denying that something was said or done and then suggesting that you’ve made it up or misunderstood. The gaslighter preys on what he or she knows about your level of confidence in your perceptions as well as your insecurity and games or both.
Mockery, laughing at you or displaying physical gestures like eye-rolling to communicate contempt for you, your words and your actions is never okay and always aimed at exerting control over you. Every healthy relationship requires mutual respect and the absence of contempt should be a hard-and-fast rule for everyone.
Rather than own his or her feelings and take responsibility for them, this type of toxic person projects his/her feelings onto you—trying to make his or her anger yours, for example. This shifts the balance of power in a subtle way because while you can see the anger—the fists are clenched, the jaw muscles working, the face is flushed—now you’re on the defensive, saying that you’re not angry.
This ploy is akin to gaslighting but goes further to shut you down, stop you from speaking out, keeping you contained and controlled. With this behavior, he or she takes advantage of the knowledge they have about you—that you get nervous when someone gets angry, that you’re likely to back down if you’re challenged strongly enough, or that a stray comment about your weight will make you docile and apologetic, for example—and uses it to make sure you stay in line. This can be harder to see - but if it’s a pattern, you’re floating in a toxic sea.
A refusal to listen or even discuss an issue you’ve brought up is one of the most toxic behaviors of all; both frustrating and demeaning at once. The worst thing you can do is take responsibility for someone’s refusal to communicate, especially by falling into the habit of self-criticism or blaming yourself for picking the “wrong time” to initiate discussion and the like. This is a highly toxic and manipulative behavior—that’s the bottom line.
The ancient Greek mythological figure Narcissus was famous for his preoccupation with himself. Upon seeing his reflection in a lake, he fell in love with himself and eventually wasted away because he would not stop admiring the mirage.
The Narcissist is obsessed with gaining total control of a situation...and that means you. They will demand your undivided attention and attempt to convince you that you need to join their camp. In their way of thinking, they know better than you. They’re right. You’re wrong. And you need to do what they say. This kind of toxic person will think nothing of invading your space and may try to isolate you from others you are close to. Extreme narcissism can cross over into a mental illness called narcissistic personality disorder, where a person is driven by a need for approval and neither understands or cares about the feelings of others. A Narcissist is a very dangerous person and can easily crossover to a psychopath.
Setting boundaries with toxic people is key to controlling your own emotional environment. Maintaining emotional distance requires awareness. You can’t stop someone from pushing your buttons if you don’t recognize when it’s happening. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in situations where you’ll need to regroup and choose the best way forward. This is fine and you shouldn’t be afraid to buy yourself some time to do so.
The bottom line is if you feel bad about yourself as a result of a relationship with another person, it’s time to sit down and assess the issue. They may be unlikely to change, but you can. Sometimes trying to control a bad situation is pointless and you must listen to your instincts, listen to your body, listen to your gut. Weigh the pros (if there are any) and the cons, make a decision to limit your time with this person or end the relationship. When it's time to cut your losses; be definitive, be courageous and get out. Plan it. Have support. You will endure, you will survive and you will THRIVE.