Like a lot of other terms in our era of self help, the word toxic gets tossed around pretty easily (sometimes too easily!). This can take away from what it actually means & can cause us to either become desensitized to it or to overreact by labelling things immediately as “toxic” & using that as an excuse to paint ourselves as a victim or to avoid putting in effort to deal with certain things.

While this term can be relative, it’s important to note the difference between toxicity and incompatibility. There will be people who we simply don’t get along with, whose decisions or values we don’t agree with, who don’t behave in a way we think is appropriate or who just aren’t very nice to us. This is not necessarily a sign of toxicity. That girl who gives you dirty looks, that guy who never calls back, or that rude colleague, while unpleasant, are not necessarily toxic.

It’s also important to note that there is a difference between a toxic person and toxic behavior or a toxic relationship. Sometimes the people involved aren’t toxic people but they are having a moment where they’re not at their best OR where the dynamic of the relationship you have with them is toxic.

The term toxic can be best described by thinking of chemicals. The toxic ones are those that we should be cautious about because they’re dangerous. The same concept applies when we use it to refer to people or situations, we are saying that they are potentially harmful to themselves & others. The term toxic refers to those that negatively impact the wellbeing of other people through various levels of emotionally (or even physically!) abusive or manipulative tactics to get what they want.

Toxic people come in various forms:

  1. The Freedom Thief. They’re always right & have to control everything, including you. They get upset if you disagree with them, they tell you how you should feel, think, act & will push you to comply.
  2. The Black Hole. They’ll suck you emotionally dry because misery loves company. They always have something negative to say or complain about. The want to bring you down with them.
  3. The Perpetual Victim. They want you to support them by validating their victimhood, they don’t want your advice or your solutions, they just want to complain. They always have a problem & need rescuing, and once one goes away, BOOM another appears but of course they’re never the issue.
  4. The Critic. They can’t truly be happy for others. They constantly judge & put others down to make themselves feel better, They’ll consistently criticize your actions, decisions & you overall.
  5. The Serial Liar. They embellish or lie about so many things big & small to get their way, that you end up questioning everything they say.
  6. The Center of the Universe. They don’t care about how their actions & words affect others, as long as they’re the center of attention & that they get what they want, even if what they want is just to lash out. When others are going through something they’ll find a way to make it about them.
  7. The Challenger. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING is a contest & a chance to prove that they’re better than other people. You’re constantly in competition with them without even knowing it.
  8. The Tornado. They perpetually create problems or conflict in an effort to feel important & expect others to simply sweep it under the rug or even worse to clean up the damage left in their wake.

Still not sure ? Here are some signs you might be dealing with a toxic person:

  • They make you feel bad about yourself or inadequate.
  • They drag you into their problems or drama & it affects you mentally & emotionally.
  • You’re in a vicious cycle trying to rescue them or fix their problems.
  • You lie to cover for their behavior.
  • They make excuses to justify not respecting your boundaries.
  • You walk on eggshells around them.
  • You feel drained & exhausted after speaking with or seeing them.
  • They bring out the worst in you & make you compromise your values.

If you’ve established that you’re dealing with a toxic person & not just an incompatibility. Here’s what you can do :

  • Don’t fight fire with fire. Don’t stoop to their level by engaging in similar behavior.
  • Don’t feed into the behavior by giving them the reaction or attention they are manipulating for.
  • Don’t blindly trust their words. Be vigilant that their actions consistently back them up over time & about microaggressions.
  • Reflect on your role in the relationship & where the toxicity is coming from. (you, them or both?)
  • Tell them clearly how they’re making you feel & how their behavior is affecting you (if the situation permits)
  • Set clear boundaries to protect yourself & have a plan of action for when they try to break them.
  • Stop making excuses & covering up for them. Let them take responsibility for themselves.
  • Focus on taking care of yourself & making yourself a priority, instead of on trying to change them.
  • Most of all stay consistent with all of the above !
  • If all else fails, you may have to limit contact wherever possible.
  • Know when to completely walk away, even when it’s uncomfortable or difficult.

Unfortunately there is no magic solution for changing a toxic person, they have to be willing to admit they have a problem and to do the hard work it takes to change. BUT if a person’s toxic behavior persists and it is having too much of a negative impact on your life, you may have to wish them well and continue to move on with your life without them in it, in order to preserve your wellbeing.

Cutting ties might be difficult. Sometimes circumstances don’t allow enough space, or history & emotions may be involved. They may even try to make you feel guilty for setting boundaries or try to find clever ways to keep ties with you, even if you made it clear that you feel that they’ve become a harmful presence in your life. This is where it’s most important to reinforce your boundaries.

There are times where it’s not possible to fully walk away but using the tips above to limit the amount of physical and mental space you allow them to occupy in your world will allow you to make more room in your life to nurture more healthy relationships and connections, including the one with yourself.