Chances are high you have encountered a person in your life who demonstrates toxic qualities. There is an equally significant possibility you still remember how they made you feel and when someone else has toxic traits, they can hurt you.
Positive relationships calm us, delight us, and empower us. They help families flourish and organisations succeed. They make us better versions of ourselves and bring happiness and meaning into our lives.
And then there are toxic relationships that consume us and leave us drained. The ones that cause us daily stress, where our best intentions fall by the wayside, and we become embroiled in behaviours that are uncharacteristic at best. And that’s because toxic people defy all reasonable attempts at compromise and collaboration.
So, what exactly makes a person toxic?
In order to detoxify our lives, we first need to be able to understand and spot a person with toxic qualities.
People with toxic qualities sow chaos wherever they walk through with negative habits that include:
- using others
- creating drama
Types of Toxic Traits
Once you understand what toxic traits look like, it will be easier to spot them in your professional and personal relationships.
They think they are superior to others.
They may perceive themselves as more important than others.
They may place their desires over other people’s need for safety and well-being.
This attitude can manifest itself in many ways, such as:
- Two-faced behaviour (treating people differently behind their backs than to their faces)
- Prioritizing their wants over other people’s needs
- Abusing their power
- Speaking badly about those who disagree with them or call them out
They do not apologize properly
They may avoid responsibility for their behaviour with an apology that minimizes their actions. For example, they may say, “I’m sorry you feel that way” or “I’m sorry, but…”
If someone uses one of these apologies on you, you can call it out. People are not always aware they are not practicing empathy or compassion.
The Drama Magnet
They do not understand how their behaviour makes others feel.
They may not realize or care that their actions negatively impact others if they lack emotional intelligence.
If someone is unaware their actions hurt others, try addressing the problem with them. If they refuse to listen, you may need to set boundaries or stop spending time with them.
The Compulsive Liar
They gaslight or lie to you – gaslighting is a type of manipulation where the gaslighter tries to make you question your version of events.
They may cover up their behaviour by lying to you.
They make you feel unsure of your feelings or insecure in your knowledge.
However, there is a difference between someone disagreeing with you and gaslighting you.
The Green Eyed
They see themselves as a victim of their own behaviour
They may have a fixed mindset about their behaviour
A fixed mindset says, “I can’t change.” In contrast, a growth mindset says, “I can change my behaviour with hard work and a powerful sense of self.”
If someone only views themselves as a victim of their own life, they likely have not accepted responsibility for their behaviour and are not ready to change it.
Cleansing toxicity and steering clear
Toxicity in the workplace takes the difficulty to a whole new level. Unlike family, we are less willing to forgive because we are not bound by blood. Unlike friends, we cannot see them go like passengers on a train because it is not our call. But does this mean we need to tolerate their presence while our blood boils, or cringe every time we pass them in the break room?
Someone else’s behaviour is not a reflection of you, and you are not responsible for fixing it. People with toxic personality traits are the only ones who can take responsibility for their actions and change however we can take steps to produce a more enduring plan to deal with this type of behaviour.
Do not Suffer in Silence
Be honest about how the toxic trait impacts you.
This does not mean actively starting a campaign against those who are toxic! It means seeking support to help you stay strong, relieve stress, and maintain a healthy perspective.
Many people do not realize they have toxic traits. Telling someone that their actions have hurt your emotional well-being may help them understand they need to change.
You might like to try this template to start the conversation:
“When you do or say (action), I feel (emotion). I understand that you don’t intend to make me feel (emotion), but I would like it if you tried to stop doing (action).”
Sometimes, an honest conversation can help someone turn a toxic relationship around.
However, do not fall into the trap of burdening your healthy relationships with talk of the toxic person. An occasional laugh or sigh is fine—and often needed—but constantly having them at the top of your conscious awareness drains your emotional energy and leaves little for more positive pursuits.
Look After Yourself
Negative (and positive) emotions are contagious. To save yourself the grief of being pulled into their negativity, pay special attention to what helps you feel positive and energized.
Remember: It takes a lot more of the good to counter the bad, so do not be stingy about the time you spend out in nature, pursuing your passions or engaging in activities that make you feel alive.
Limit Your Exposure (to the Best of Your Ability) – Set boundaries
Do what you can to limit your exposure to your toxic colleague. Setting boundaries with someone can reduce the impact of their behaviour on you.
Do not feel compelled to initiate a conversation simply because they walk into the kitchen while you are filling up your water bottle.
A polite “hi” is all that is needed and if they engage you in conversation that is turning hostile, talk slowly and deliberately—it reassures your mind that you are safe and keeps you from getting embroiled in needless negativity.
Spin Your Own Story
Given the stresses of present-day workplaces, it is not easy, or risk-free, to have a heart-to-heart with the toxic person. The next best option is to spin your own story around their behaviour by assuming that it is a consequence of past hurt. This is a form of reappraisal that helps change your perspective on them so that they stop getting on your nerves.
The tyrant at work can suddenly look like a victim who needs your empathy more than your wrath.
Understand that it is not about you
When someone else’s behaviour makes you feel insecure or sad, you may feel tempted to blame yourself.
DON’T. Other people’s toxic traits reflect their struggles and insecurities, not you. You can only control your own actions, self-esteem, and mental fitness.
Watch out for signs you are JADE-ing their behaviour. When you JADE, you “justify,” “argue,” defend,” or “explain” someone else’s behaviour to minimize its impact.
Try not to react
If someone treats you poorly, reacting with anger, aggression, or annoyance may worsen the situation. Instead, start by taking deep breaths, counting to twenty or leave the situation if possible and practice self-care.
Depending on the behaviour, you can also use grey rocking. When you grey rock someone, you act dull or emotionally unresponsive to make it harder for the person to engage with you.
Seek help from others
Someone’s toxic traits can harm the social well-being of your friend group, family unit, or team. Naturally, you may need to seek support from others. This way, you can work together to approach the person about their behaviour and develop a better relationship.
If someone at work is behaving poorly, you may also need to report their toxic behaviour to superiors or Human Resources.
The VERY Last Resort
If you have tried all of the above for some time and nothing seems to work, you can revert to what may have been your initial reaction—fight or flee. You may decide to change your job if the emotional drain is affecting your health and your relationships.
Or you can take them on by standing up for yourself, after you’ve evaluated the power dynamics, documented everything, and sought adequate support.
Remember, though, that leaving is rarely required—and fighting back has its own set of negative consequences. What works best is the two-pronged approach of avoiding them when you can and reappraising their behaviour when you cannot.
Others can become hell when their presence consumes us and drives us toward behaviours that bring out our worst qualities. But without relationships that help us feel seen and appreciated, we suffer and spread suffering. And that is what transforms someone into a toxic person in the first place.
Take time to heal and get positive
Removing toxicity from your life is only part of the battle and you will also have to give yourself time to heal.
Even though a sizable weight will be lifted off your shoulders, a lot of emotional (and sometimes physical) damage has taken root in these relationships. You need space from the individual and events that caused you the pain and that takes time.
Learn from that experience and listen to your heart to make your own choices going forward. And if you need a little help? That is perfectly OK. Be proud of yourself and all the steps you have taken to make your life better.