As a therapist, I don’t often see toxic people in my office. They don’t like the scrutiny of looking at themselves and their behavior toward others. The people I see in my office are often their friends or family members who have been hurt and wounded time and time again and often come for help thinking that they are 100% of the problem; they are the reason their friend or family member or members can never seem to be satisfied.
I tend to define toxic people as those individuals who share some common harmful characteristics. Toxic people tend to:
- Use others for their own needs and benefits, regardless of the impact on the other person
- Lie easily and frequently to shape reality to serve their own wants and interests
- Pit one person against another in a “divide and conquer” manner to keep control of others
- Create chaos and conflict during which invariably others are to blame and they are the faultless victims
- Completely lack empathy for others, even, and especially, when the toxic individual themselves have caused the harm
- Frequently find fault with people who threaten them or disagree with them, in order to discredit the other person.
Toxic people can tend to appear quite friendly at first and can often form an intense initial bond with others. It is more painful then when the toxic behaviors begin and the trusting friend or family member begins to be confused by the things they are noticing or hearing from others.
Very often people in relationships with toxic individuals will begin to notice things like plans being cancelled, with or without notice, and instances where they have rearranged things to accommodate someone and having that person simply disregard or forget their engagement. Toxic people will be available and interested as long as others are serving a purpose for them, but when that is no longer the case, they are no longer available.
Toxic people will also invariably begin to try to manage other people’s impressions, both of themselves and others. If there are people who are unwilling to allow the toxic person to control them or manipulate them, these people often become the target of smear campaigns which can become quite vicious and hurtful.
Toxic family members are not above sacrificing one of their own in order to maintain the illusion of their being “right” or even being the victim of the horrible member of the family who is simply speaking their own mind and trying to live honestly. Toxic family members cannot tolerate not having center stage, not having control of others, or being challenged in any way. I have seen toxic sister vilify brother for simply calling her out on her dishonesty and asking for a needed change in their relationship. I have seen parents cut off adult children whose “crime” was to seek truth and honesty in relationships and to draw boundaries around their parents’ hurtful behavior in order to protect themselves.
What we cannot control, unfortunately, is the behavior of others, good or bad. What we can control, however, is how we conduct our own lives and relationships and whether, and how, we allow the behavior of others to impact us. Toxic people share the characteristics, I believe, of essential dishonesty and unwillingness to accept any responsibility for their behavior, therefore repairing relationships with toxic people is challenging at best, and often impossible.
When two generally healthy people wish to improve their relationship, the task is to be open and vulnerable, to talk about where the problems are, what needs improvement, and to make a plan to achieve that. If one of the two has a toxic personality, there will be only blame instead of vulnerability. There will be lies instead of honestly. There will be manipulation instead of openness.
If you are in such a relationship, whether with a family member or a friend, you have undoubtedly suffered confusion, pain, and betrayal. You may have reached out to the other person repeatedly asking for some resolution or even just a conversation about what is going on. If you have, you have probably been rebuffed, refused contact, or manipulated into believing you are just making problems where none exist, but chances are you have not been able to get very far in resolving anything.
If you have, fantastic, maybe your friend or family member isn’t really toxic. If you haven’t, it may be time to look at moving into a different way of relating with them altogether. Your first decision must be, “Is this relationship hurting me more then benefitting me?” If it is, and if you have tried unsuccessfully to make change, your next decision is “How can I create a healthy boundary in order to protect myself and my family?”
Creating these boundaries is simple, but not always easy. It means having to say no to the toxic person. It means having to limit, or end, contact with them if the contact is often harmful. This can be difficult, especially with family members, but sharing DNA does not come with an entitlement to be hurtful and dishonest. If anything, it comes with a responsibility to love, to heal, and to support.
There will be backlash when you set these boundaries; versions of the story of “what happened” will likely make you out to look pretty bad, and these stories will be told far and wide. The important thing to remember is that people who truly know you will probably not believe the stories anyway, and anyone whose relationship is worth having will at least check it out with you.
It isn’t easy to rid yourself of the impact of toxic people in your life, especially if they are family members, but if those relationships are hurtful to you despite your attempts to improve them, your choices are to continue to be hurt or set the boundaries. It’s as simple as that.
Chris Lewis, Ed.S., LPC is a therapist who specializes in Marriage and Family Therapy in Denver, CO. She provides individual, couples, and family therapy through Maria Droste Counseling Center.