Toxic is a word that’s thrown about a lot these days.
But how do you know if you are a toxic person?
What are some things that you might do that cause you to be a toxic influence in the lives of others?
That’s what we’re going to explore.
What Does It Mean To Be Toxic?
In the general sense of the word, something that is toxic is harmful to a person upon exposure.
There are varying levels of toxicity. Some things are instantly lethal. Others cause harm over time.
Regarding people, the definition doesn’t change much.
A toxic person is one who causes harm to others through their words and actions.
They leave others worse off than before they met or interacted with them.
Sometimes this harm is felt instantly. Other times, it builds slowly with time and repeated exposure.
With this in mind, how can you tell if you are the toxic person in your life?
Here are some of the signs you can look out for.
1. People feel worse about themselves having spent time with you.
While this one is not always easy to identify, it covers everything that follows.
When a person is left feeling unloved, unappreciated, or unworthy having spent time around you, there’s a good chance that you have exhibited toxic behaviors toward them.
Of course, you can’t know what is going on inside their head, but if you spot someone’s body language becoming visibly more closed off and negative, they are probably feeling rotten.
If their eyes drop and they seem embarrassed or ashamed by what you’ve said or done, you’ve inflicted some harm to their feelings.
You have hurt them.
2. People avoid you or disappear out of your life for good.
Perhaps the clearest sign that you are toxic is the way other people avoid coming into contact with you.
Do your friends always seem to have other plans or make excuses for why they can’t meet up with you?
Do they never initiate contact with you?
Do people seem to exit your life not long after they entered it?
Do your work colleagues try to avoid involving you in social events?
Do people find ways to cut short conversations with you?
When people enjoy another person’s company, they actively find ways to spend time with them, but the opposite seems true for you.
This is evidence that you are causing some form of harm to them.
3. You are highly critical and think you are superior to others.
You find it difficult to accept other people as they are and will regularly criticize others for what you see as their faults.
You use shame as a weapon to make others feel bad and yourself feel better.
You insist that people should have done something another way.
You belittle their choices, you poke fun at their accomplishments, and you seek to make them believe that you are the ‘better’ person.
Because you sure as hell believe that you are superior to everyone else.
4. You are controlling or emotionally manipulative.
You seek to make others your pawns and have them do as you wish.
This ties into your superiority complex and your belief that you know what is best in any given circumstance, for you and for them.
You boss people around and use various forms of emotional blackmail to ensure you get your own way.
Subtlety is not your forte. You can be very blunt and rude to the point where it shocks other people.
5. You never apologize or admit wrongdoing.
Sorry is not a word that often passes your lips.
After all, you know best.
Even when it is obvious to all around who is at fault, you strongly defend your position and refuse to apologize.
Instead, you make excuses for why something happened the way it did or for how you behaved.
Which leads to…
6. You seek to blame others for everything.
Since you do no wrong, when something doesn’t go to plan in your life, you instantly look to shift the blame onto other people.
Nothing bad is ever your responsibility, but the result of mistakes made by other people…
…or simply by virtue of life being unfair and working against you.
Some of those you blame will take it very seriously and begin to doubt themselves.
If you repeat this again and again – if you make somebody your defacto whipping boy/girl – you foster a very negative self-belief in their mind.
7. You take advantage of other people’s kindness.
The world is full of kindness, but you see this as an opportunity to make personal gains.
You take every available bit of help you can get without offering much in return.
You don’t even show much appreciation for the people who have shown you such kindness.
In a world of give and take, you do very little giving and a lot of taking.
This one-sidedness stems from a mindset of scarcity and the belief that you need to hoard resources – people’s generosity in this case.
But what happens to these people who keep giving? What happens when you take too much?
First they hurt. Then they run.
This comes back to point #2 and how people seem to disappear from your life.
If you will take advantage of them, they will soon come to their senses.
8. You humiliate people to gain the favor of the crowd.
Have you ever made fun of someone in order to make others laugh and like you more?
Have you done it while that person was in the room?
While good friends can handle a bit of friendly banter, if you make a habit of putting others down in front of a group, it’s no longer banter, it’s toxic.
And this is all the more apparent to others if your friendly ‘banter’ is in fact a personal attack on an innocent victim.
That person will be left feeling horrible about themselves, which, as we have discussed, is the hallmark of a toxic behavior.
9. You hold a grudge.
When a person does something that upsets you, there’s no way you’re letting them off the hook.
Even if they apologize, you’ll hold their wrongdoing over their head for years to come.
And you’ll make it known to them that you have not forgiven nor forgotten.
It doesn’t matter how close you are to this person or how much you claim to care about them.
Maybe you’ll refuse invitations from them as a point of principle, or perhaps you’ll bring up the incident with them over and over to remind them of how they are a bad person.
One way or another, you’ll make them pay for what they did to you by causing them harm.
10. You make things personal.
Disagreements are a normal and expected part of life, but things get very personal very quickly when you’re involved.
You are not afraid to attack your opponent in the conflict and single out specific things about them that you believe will hurt them emotionally.
You may bring up their past, take aim at their character, ridicule the way they look or speak, become racist, homophobic, or abusive in some other way.
Of course, when all is said and done, you blame them for making them behave the way you did.
11. You don’t celebrate the success of others.
When something goes right for other people, when they achieve or succeed at a goal they were aiming for, you don’t celebrate with them.
You do not utter any congratulations or show that you are pleased for them.
You might even downplay their win as insignificant or claim that they got lucky in some way.
In doing so, you rob that person of many of the positive feelings they may be having about the event itself.
And this hurts them.
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- How To Show Respect For Others (+ Why It’s Important In Life)
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12. You threaten repercussions if people don’t fall in line.
You make it clear to people that if they cross you, they’ll pay for it.
Often times, these are specific threats that you know will have the desired effect and make a person act how you want.
These typically aren’t physical threats (though they can be), but rather threats to someone’s mental or emotional well-being.
Or they may be threats to cause the person some great inconvenience if they go against your wishes.
Perhaps you use sex (the withholding of) as a weapon. Maybe you threaten to end a relationship. Or you might even use the threat of self-harm to manipulate someone into doing what you want.
13. You never compromise.
This ties in with #4 and your controlling behavior.
When your needs and wishes are stacked against those of other people, you are not willing to compromise.
You must get your own way or you will kick up such a fuss as to make the lives of the other person(s) miserable.
Whether it’s deciding which restaurant to dine at, how to decorate your home, or where to send your kids to school, you have to have the final say.
And if somebody else suffers as a result, you don’t really care.
14. You cannot be trusted to keep a secret.
Being open and honest with someone close to us is an essential part of a healthy relationship, whether romantic, friendship, or otherwise.
But nobody wants to open up to you because you do not keep the secrets of others.
Instead, you flippantly reveal these secrets at times when you think they can be leveraged to help you in some way.
Whether that’s winning the favor of third parties by gossiping about someone behind their back or using them as part of a smear campaign if someone crosses you.
If someone divulges anything of consequence to you, they will almost certainly pay the price through your treachery and betrayal.
15. You make snarky, passive-aggressive comments.
Not a day goes by without you taking little digs at people thinly disguised as neutral comments.
You say things such as:
“That was really good for someone of your ability.” – which is merely a backhanded compliment.
“Why are you getting so upset?” – which is implied criticism of your handling of a situation.
And then there’s the never helpful “Fine” in response to someone asking how you are.
These sorts of comments are designed to put the other person on the back foot. They cast doubt in their minds.
That’s a little toxic, isn’t it?
16. You use peer pressure to make people do things they don’t want to do.
You aren’t afraid of calling on the pack mentality of a social group to put pressure on one member to do something they’d rather not do.
You are the ringleader who initiates things and goads the unwilling participant into going against their wishes.
Whether it’s getting a person to drink more than they normally would or convincing someone to take a risk that could have serious consequences, you are willing to push them as hard as required.
This makes the other person feel weak, whether or not they end up complying.
17. Your moods are volatile.
This last one is slightly less clear cut in that some people experience mood swings for understandable reasons.
The difference is that you use your unpredictable moods to keep a person on the back foot.
Since they do not know which version of you they will be dealing with, a person is forced to walk on eggshells in fear of triggering you.
And when they do something to displease you, this poor person is likely to face both barrels.
This comes back to the control and power you wish to exert over others.
How To Stop Being Toxic
If you can relate to and accept any of the points above, you have already taken the first and hardest step…
…you have acknowledged that you exhibit toxic behaviors from time to time.
Don’t underestimate this.
Many people who you might describe as toxic are oblivious to their own behavior.
They do not realize the harm that they are causing to others.
And remember that this harm is what defines something as toxic.
To move forward and reduce, then eliminate these undesirable actions, there are several things you can do.
1. Understand that ‘YOU’ are not toxic.
While we have discussed many ways in which a person’s words and actions can be toxic and harmful to others, it is important to stress that a person is not, themselves, toxic.
No individual can cause harm to another individual merely by existing.
What you have to work on is your behavior.
It is what you do and say that can be labelled as toxic. So by addressing these things, you can stop being toxic.
No, it won’t always be easy, especially when behaviors are deeply ingrained in your unconscious, but with concerted effort and the help of trained counselors or therapists, it is possible.
2. Recognize which toxic behaviors you exhibit.
It’s easy to dismiss many of the points above and deny that you may sometimes, unwittingly perhaps, be guilty of them.
If you ever wish to address your toxic behaviors, you must know what they are.
You need to be able to identify when you have caused another person harm and how you have done so.
Writing in a journal can help you to keep track of your interactions throughout the day, particularly those where conflict arose and where there was potential for you to hurt another person.
If you spot a pattern of similar behaviors and arguments cropping up time and again, you’ll know that these are things you need to work on.
3. Understand that life is not a zero-sum game.
If you look again at the points above, you’ll notice that many of them have roots in the belief that in order for you to win, someone else must lose.
This is known as a zero-sum game. It is the idea that there are only so many resources on offer, and to increase your share, another person’s share must be reduced.
So you criticize, you control, you blame, you take advantage, you make threats…
…all to ensure that your slice of the overall pie of life either grows or is not shrunk by the actions of others.
But life is not a zero-sum game.
In fact, it is almost the complete opposite.
Life is about synergy and working together to maximize each person’s share of an ever-growing pie.
Those people who are most satisfied, and most happy with how their lives are going, are those who contribute to the lives of others in a positive way.
They know that the best way to ‘win’ at life is by helping others win too.
Sure, this may not always be true in the cut-throat world of business, but in a wider, more important context, it can be seen and felt by those who live this way.
So whenever you find yourself believing that you somehow gain by harming others, stop and remember that in the world of emotional well-being and relationships, 2 + 2 = 5.
4. Always ask whether you’re harming another.
The most critical part of addressing any toxic behavior is to first consider what effect your actions are having on others.
If there is any risk of harm, it is a sign that this behavior should not be continued.
This means stopping to think before you speak or act.
It means taking the feelings of other people into consideration whenever you do something.
It involves a level of empathy to really understand the consequences of your behavior on those around you.
Always ask: will what I’m about to do cause harm to anyone?
This is by no means an easy task. Many times we act without thinking.
But even if you have to think of the consequences in hindsight at first, you will soon make a habit of considering the other people in your life before acting.
Some people may exhibit toxic behaviors because that is what they think they should be doing.
They see other people doing it and believe that this is the right way to act.
Or they simply fall into a pattern of behavior because they can’t see an alternative.
Often, this different path is hidden because they don’t know themselves and what they stand for.
When you don’t know what your true values are, it is easy to act in ways that betray them.
But if you start on a journey of self-discovery, you will realize what matters to you and you will be able to live your life accordingly.
It might take years to truly find out what you believe in deep down, but you will get there and this process will often involve tackling toxic behaviors head on.
Be kind to yourself in the meantime. You will undoubtedly continue to hurt others as you learn what is and isn’t the right thing to do in any given circumstances.
Don’t punish yourself for these slip ups, but see them as valuable learning opportunities.