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How to spot toxic people (and what to do about them)

· Reflections,Relationships

If I ask you, "Do you have a toxic person or relationship in your life?" who pops to mind?

The truth is, too many people are in toxic relationships

It may be in your romantic relationships, family, friends, acquaintances or people you know through work. As human beings, we are relational beings and toxic relationships cause much of the pain we experience in our lives. They hold us back from living more fulfilled lives. Yet we're probably reluctant to call out a relationship in our lives as toxic, even if we know deep down they cause us so much more misery than joy, especially if they are those closest to us - family, friends and partners.

Why? It's painful. It's painful to admit that people you care about are a harmful influence on your life. Because if you admit that, you know you will have to let them go (we'll talk more about what this "letting go" looks like later) and despite everything you still love them.

Disclaimer: I talk about "toxic relationships" more often than "people" as the person in question may not necessarily be toxic to everyone. In most (but not all) of the questions below, I refer to this in the context of a relationship, where a relationship with this particular person has a toxic impact on you. It may be the case that this person is the cause of toxic relationships with multiple people. And it's certainly true that the toxic person in your life has a person who's a toxic influence on them too. So in most cases I hope to avoid pointing fingers and demonising anyone, but as individuals we are responsible for our own fulfilment and that involves taking responsibility for identifying and letting these toxic relationships go.

How do you go about spotting toxic relationships?

One way is by asking yourself that simple question I used to start this blog post. A particular someone popped to mind, didn't they? Often we know our truths but we are just afraid to look at it.

Yet to label a relationship with someone as being toxic to you, which will lead you to letting that person go (however that may look), is a huge deal. In the heat of the moment we might feel that people around us are toxic, and it may not be justified. So we need some further tests. I'll propose some of my own below, but these are by no means a definitive list. Do keep in mind that just because you see one of these characteristics in a relationship, does not mean it's a toxic one (more on that below)!

Note: abusive relationships is a related but more serious issue and I won't address that right now.

1. They drain you.

Time spent with this particular person leaves you feeling drained. They have a unique way of sucking your energy like no-one else can. Perhaps it's a disparaging comment when you are talking about a new venture or project that you're considering (note that this is often disguised as "encouragement" or "advice"). If they even listen in the first place. Nothing they say edifies you - even when they compliment you they sound patronising.

Sometimes you can't quite put your finger on what it is they do, but you just know you feel damned exhausted (or feeling like crap) when you manage to extract yourself from whatever social interaction you're having with them.

2. They are self-centred

Most of us are self-centred most of the time. It's just how we're wired. We see the world through our own personal lenses - so much so that people say that each mind creates its own universe. Yet as human beings we've also learnt a higher way of being in recognition of that fact. To sometimes see from others' perspectives and tame our own ego. That's part of growing up.

Some scholars of childhood development say that babies think the world around them is an extension of themselves. That they are the world and the world is them (and perhaps there is a profound spiritual lesson that we could learn from that). Yet as we get older, some of us grow into a twisted version of this - that the whole world revolves around them.

Now picture your candidate that you think might be toxic. Do your conversations revolve around them telling you about their life? How much of time is spent talking about you? Do they consistently butt into group conversations and try to make it about themselves, even if it's unrelated? If you get a chance to tell them how they're hurting you, do they acknowledge their actions or do they turn things around on you (even after the heat of the argument has died down)? Is self-righteous a word that others might use to describe them?

3. They talk about how kind and generous they are (they're not)

This is somewhat related to the previous test as well as the one to follow.

Does this person often go on about how generous they've been to you and others around them (which may or may not be true)? Do they out of the blue remind you about the favour that they did you a year ago? You remember them helping out with something but they make it sound more impressive than it was?

They do this (a) because they are self-centred and (b) because they want you to feel indebted to them, aimed at keeping you around them.

4. Manipulative and calculating

Do you know someone who seems like they're always looking for a way to benefit from your relationship with them?

It could be for their financial or political benefit. Or perhaps more subtly for their social validation. You feel like you are part of a number. Maybe they call you out constantly to gatherings and meetings with their other "contacts".

Another warning sign is if you notice them constantly name-dropping influential or powerful "friends".

5. They are overly demanding (they do not respect your boundaries)

Another sign of a potentially toxic relationship is that the person is overly demanding on your time.

They want you to drop everything at a moment's notice, and impose on your own plans. Of course, setting your own boundaries is something that you are responsible for, but this person will rebuff any attempts at this and make you feel guilty if you say no to them. Your protests fall on deaf ears and they refuse to see how their action could affect your physical, emotional and mental health.

This one is a quite common one found in relationships, whether with parents, friends or romantic relationships.

6. They talk shit (gossip) about others

This is one that can go unnoticed, because it's not directed to you. You'll notice them talking badly about people when they're not there.

You have to watch out for the difference between this and merely complaining to a friend about something that happened (which is just what friends do). If you notice them telling surprising stories about people you know that portrays this person in a negative light, it could be a warning sign. If you notice them making negative comments about everyone's characters around you, it could be a warning sign.

I think you know the difference between shit-stirring, which has malice behind it, and innocent complaining.

If they're doing it about someone else, they're probably doing it about you too.

A word of warning

Keep in mind with these questions that we are all fallible people and many of these characteristics above may occasionally be displayed by us too in some of the relationships we have with others. They're things that can be worked on as we become more conscious of areas for improvements in our lives.

So what do we do about it?

The ideal situation is that you are able to talk to this person you suspect that you have a toxic relationship with and work towards a better one. But sometimes that's not possible or even for the best.

You may no longer be able to deal with this person as the relationship is taking too much of a toll on you and those you care about. The person may be unwilling to change. At some point you realise that this person is just not a great influence in your life and you're actually doing both of you a service by walking away.

It helps to not think about this as "punishing them" for being a toxic influence in your life. Rather, it's a detached realisation that this person is not a healthy influence on your life. It's the same as the decision to cut out sugars, alcohol or cigarettes from your life. You realise it's not healthy for you. You don't judge it and you don't judge others for engaging in them either. You just make a conscious decision to take a step back and say, "This isn't good for me. I need to remove myself from engaging with this person."

It doesn't have to be a nasty confrontation. It doesn't even have to be explicitly said, necessarily (e.g. "I can't hang out with you anymore because you're a toxic influence in my life"). What it does require though, is a real decision, with a real commitment from you to live by that decision.

It won't be easy. You may even need to grieve over the end of this toxic relationship - whether it's the good times or the fact that you let yourself suffer in this toxic relationship for so long. But that's the process of life. You have to let things die and grieve in order for new and better things to grow.

The removal doesn't have to be permanent. There is room to reconnect in the future, which is hopeful in the case of family members. Maybe in the future you will be better equipped to deal with them. Maybe in the future they'll change. But they might not, and this is something you're going to have to deal with.

Who in your life is toxic?

What are you going to do about your relationship with them?

How will you do it?

Do it. Now.