Toxic people thrive on keeping you on your toes and use emotional outbursts to do so. You never know what type of mood they'll be in, and you have to watch what you say around them.
By Grace Cherian
You’ve most likely encountered a toxic person in your life. You may have even realized this “friend” or family member was no good but it can often be hard to distinguish between feelings of love and friendship and feelings of guilt and manipulation.
We approached Nancy Irwin, PsyD (Doctor of Psychology), as well as author, and therapist, Shannon Thomas, LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker), to help us spot the toxic people in our lives—and learn how we can separate ourselves from them.
What exactly makes a person toxic?
One way to tell you have a toxic person in your life: Every time you encounter or hang out with them, you feel exhausted, emotionally drained, and negative.
Irwin describes a toxic person as anyone who is abusive, unsupportive, or unhealthy emotionally—someone who basically brings you down more than up. “You may begin to feel dependent on him or her for their opinion, doubting your own,” she says.
“Toxic people are draining and leave you emotionally wiped out,” Thomas says. “They want you to feel sorry for them and responsible for all their problems—and then fix these problems too.”
Are you dealing with a toxic person?
The best gauge of whether you’re dealing with a toxic person is to check our emotional and physical reactions after interacting with someone. Consider whether you’re more tense, anxious, or angry after seeing that person or talking to them on the phone.
Is the person constantly judgmental, obsessively needy, and/or refuses to take responsibility or apologize for their actions?
“This could be someone who uses drugs or drinks excessively, lies or asks you to lie for them, is controlling, or belittles what you do,” Irwin says. She also says the life of a toxic person is often out of control financially, professionally, physically, personally, and/or interpersonally.
How does being around a toxic person affect your life?
“Toxic people have the ability to affect all areas of our lives, and we are often blind to this,” Thomas says. “We make excuses for them. We believe and internalize the lies they feed us. And, in turn, that affects how we view ourselves and our worth. “Toxic people receive pleasure from taking joy away from the things we once loved, such as work, friendships, hobbies, and even our love for ourselves.”
“If you feel unheard or unseen, and feel used or coerced into doing things that are really not ‘you,’ you may be influenced by a toxic person,” Irwin says. “Toxic people can cause you to doubt yourself or do things you ordinarily would not do. You may feel a desire to ‘be cool’ or fit in or get their approval. Every case is different, but toxic people can negatively influence others by manipulating them to do things. They tend to create chaos through negative habits: using lying, stealing, controlling, criticizing, bullying, manipulating, creating drama, etc.”
Signs You’re Being Manipulated
So what are the red flags—the actual, concrete signs that someone is manipulating us? Thomas breaks it down into the following three categories:
1. The Blame Game
No matter how many painful situations a toxic person deliberately puts you into, he will never apologize for them. He will constantly find ways to make you responsible for his actions.
Have you noticed that you no longer spend time with other people? A toxic person will demand your full attention and shame you if they feel like you’re not giving them enough of yourself.
3. Walking on Eggshells
Toxic people thrive on keeping you on your toes and use emotional outbursts to do so. You never know what type of mood they’ll be in, and you have to watch what you say around them. Or you’ll receive dozens of text messages about a minute problem along with a laundry list of all the reasons you’re a terrible person.
“The best way to remove a toxic person is by implementing no contact,” Thomas says. “While this path has its own set of challenges, once the removal of toxicity has occurred and the dust has settled, having no contact is the most concrete way of moving forward and away from a toxic person.”
Irwin recommends giving yourself some distance before you start tapering off the contact, noting that this is harder if the person is your current partner or a former partner you have kids with. If they’re an ex, lose their email/phone number.”
Take time to heal and get positive.
Removing a toxic person from your life is only part of the battle—definitely a big part, but you’ll also have to give yourself time to heal.
Ultimately, it’s the right decision to end your relationship with this person, but that doesn’t make it easy—and it can be a process. “It’s all about healing in stages and realizing it will not happen all at once,” Thomas says. “It’s important to take it day by day, celebrate the little victories, and have patience as you overcome the minor setbacks. Surround yourself with supportive individuals who love you and are on your side.”
And remember to be generous—to yourself. “Forgive yourself for being taken in by a skilled manipulator,” Irwin says. “Learn from that experience and listen to your heart to make your own choices going forward.” And if you need a little help? That’s perfectly okay. Be proud of yourself and all the steps you’ve taken to make your life better.
Kari Langslet is an avid dater, impulsive adventurer, unofficial therapist to friends and family, and animal lover. Stalk her on Instagram and Twitter @karilangslet.