Tips on how to recognise and deal with a toxic person
By: Lorraine Hackett, Shauna Gavin
Updated: 03 February 2020
Most of us have probably come across one or two toxic people in our lives. Depending on how close we got to that person, we will in the future be able to recognise the traits of someone like this. However, for a younger person who may be meeting different types of people for the first time, recognising a toxic person can be difficult at first. They can be initially quite skilled at hiding their toxicity, whatever it may be.
For someone like this to have the personality structure that they do, they are very likely dealing with some very big and very negative emotions. Fear and pain in early childhood, or in later life in the form of trauma, coupled with a person’s inability to deal with these feelings in a healthy manner, can cause someone to develop traits that attempt to push the pain that they are masking on the inside out onto their external relationships. Making someone else deal with their negative feelings is a choice that this person will have unconsciously decided upon at some point in their lives. They understand pain and fear as something that they need to create a barrier from. This barrier can come in the form of barbed comments, alienating behaviours or out and out toxic attitudes towards the people that they are surrounded by. The other piece within this structure is that this person is very likely witty and intelligent. These pieces often get heightened within this defensive structure, in order to allow the person to maintain relationships and form new ones. Anyone can be drawn to a person who is merging their toxic attitude towards negative emotion with a compelling and engaging interpersonal attitude.
Someone like this can seriously affect your emotional state negatively and leave you feeling drained of all your energy and time. These are such important resources for our wellbeing and happiness so it is vital to recognise when someone is affecting you negatively. Here are ways to spot a toxic person in your life.
They don’t seem to have any other real friends.
This is a classic indication of a toxic person that makes perfect sense when you look back in retrospect. Most people will have, at the very least, a small circle of people close to them. Red flags should go up immediately when you’re getting to know someone who has no one close to them at all. People like this will have had many relationships and friendships over the years that dwindled away to nothing and nine times out of ten the common denominator is the toxic person. Picking fights that they know they can win is a classic trait of this personality type. If they have a pattern of forming relationships with people more vulnerable and perhaps less cognitively manipulative than they are, then they will be able to fight and ‘win’. This creates a space where they no longer need to spend time with a person that they have tired of, but they also get a great anecdote about how negatively this other person treated them.
They try and create chaos in your life (and ENJOY it!).
Whether it be chatting up your partner in front of you or trying to pit you against them and make you angry at them, they have no issue with making you upset. Some may even get a thrill out of it while some may try and project some of their negative emotions onto you so they don’t feel alone in their negativity. This kind of behaviour will only leave you feeling horrible about yourself when there was no need for it to begin with. A toxic personality type will feel compelled to create emotional content within their relationships and if this emotion is animosity, then this suits them as they have a wealth of experience in dealing with conflict and pain.
They have no interest in your life.
There is nothing more frustrating than when you’re having a conversation with someone and when your turn comes to speak, you can literally feel the person counting the seconds until you stop talking. It’s not only frustrating but also extremely disrespectful. You know full well that they’ve taken in nothing of what you’ve just said. “Oh cool, yeah, that’s mad, anyway back to xyz...”. Does this sound familiar? For a toxic personality, it is likely that they have become so hardened to the big, negative emotions that the smaller interpersonal ones are less available to them. This person has no interest in your life. To a point, it’s not their fault. However, as someone spending time with this personality type, it is not acceptable for them to have zero empathy within a relationship.
They make everything about themselves and expect you to fix their problems.
This leads on from the last point about how they ignore you in a conversation. There is no give and take with a toxic person, they only know how to take and expect the world in return. They spend half an hour talking about themselves and the only questions they ask you are in relation to their own situation. When you chime in with something about yourself to counteract, it is barely even acknowledged. This is not how a normal conversation between two people works!
So now you hopefully have a better idea about how to spot someone like this. However, sometimes getting away from a toxic person is not as simple as just walking away from them and cutting off contact. Sometimes a toxic person may be a family member or you may be in a relationship or have a child with one. In cases like this we must learn to deal with the toxic person.
Ways to deal with a toxic person:
First of all, recognise what is happening. This is the first step in making any of this feel real and make sense to yourself. Next, ask yourself whether you want to salvage the relationship, or simply move on from this person. If you are going to address it with the hope of continuing the relationship, it needs to be done in a sensitive manner. What you are essentially asking them is to tell you what the pain or fear is that is underneath their behaviours and attitudes. This space is likely only going to arise within a position of vulnerability and will require time and emotional investment from you. As you are asking someone to undo many years of personality structure, there is every possibility that they will resist this and it may take many attempts before they open up to you.
The alternative is that you move this person out of your life. This can be a safe and healthy way to deal with a person who is doing your emotionality and psyche no good. Create a strong boundary between you and this person. Address concerns that you have about their behaviour within the moment that they arise and in as non emotive a manner as possible. Continue to do this and you will both encourage the toxic person to want to leave you and you will create a distance within your dynamic that allows this to happen more easily.
Whether you want this person to be more intimate with you, or you want them to leave you alone, a healthy boundary will always be useful within a relationship with someone like this. Try not to be dependant on them, emotionally, financially or socially. If you are, attempt to make changes to this part of your relationship. If you do try to help this person, remember that you are only you and it is not your job to save them. If this person opens up to you in a real way, this is brilliant, but allow yourself to know when you are being overly drained or cannot support any further. For a toxic person to recover their full emotional capacity and deal with their fears and pain will require work within a therapeutic environment. Even if this work begins within a relationship, a professional will be required at a point to help the person to move fully into the work.
As with most matters of mental health, awareness is the most important thing. Know what is happening and then make a real choice on what you want to do about it.
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