Am I Toxic? 9 Signs You're A Toxic Person & How To Stop
We spend a lot of time and energy trying to pinpoint the toxic people in our lives, but how often do we look inward during our search? The truth is, there are times when even the best of us exhibit toxic behaviors or patterns without realizing it. Here's exactly how to tell if you're a toxic person, what toxic really means, and how to stop being toxic.
What is a toxic person?
A toxic person is someone who regularly displays actions and behaviors that hurt others or otherwise negatively impact the lives of the people around them, and they're usually the main instigating factor of a toxic relationship.
Of course, there's a difference between being toxic and acting toxic. The first is when it's ingrained in our personality, and we actively enjoy hurting others; the second corresponds to aspects of our behaviors. Sometimes without knowing it, these toxic behaviors can take us over. Think about it as a muscle into which you're unknowingly pumping metaphorical steroids, and soon it looks like The Hulk.
The good news is, with a little self-reflection and asking for feedback from others, we can become aware of these habits and eradicate them so we can become better people. Here are a few of the most common behaviors that even good people can develop that might actually be hurting those around them—as well as how to change course for the better.
Signs of a toxic person.
You're always sarcastic.
The clever retort that's accompanied by raucous laughter on a comedy—we've come to think that's a good thing, and perhaps even aspire toward that. It's gotten to the point that people who don't know how to be "clever" believe they're terrible, dull conversationalists. But the truth is, what's funny on The Big-Bang Theory isn't necessarily funny in real life when you're on the receiving end. It hurts.
It's easy for this to be your default mode if you work in an industry that's all about acting tough and masking emotions or if you grew up in a family where 99% of your conversations are sarcastic quips, "I told you so's," or remarks designed to one-up another person. While I never advocate Pollyanna-esque naïveté or echoism, people who only look for the negative can be incredibly draining to be around in the long run; the teasing, even in good jest, will start to feel like carefully cloaked animosity.
The fix: We all know how terrible it feels to be the target of such remarks, especially when we're in a vulnerable state. So before you open your mouth, ask yourself, "How would I feel if I were sharing something about my life or thoughts and someone gave me such a response?"
You deal with conflict in a roundabout way.
Conflict is uncomfortable. We don't like to deal with tricky situations directly, and so we devise ways of getting around them. But if you're always beating around the bush and then secreting hostility via sullen behavior, stubbornness, and subtle insults, it just amplifies the problem and turns a single conflict into a larger issue. No matter how logical our arguments or how upset we might be over what's happening, passive-aggressiveness is painful and not helpful to anyone. It's a cancer in relationships.
The fix: Know that difficult conversations are scarier in our heads than in reality—we simply haven't had enough practice. The more you have these conversations, the easier they become. The rule of thumb you can subscribe to is to ask yourself, "How can I say this in a way that is kind and useful?"
Everything is a competition.
Telling someone how you went through a similar experience as they did is different from trying to show how you've had it worse. The first is where you show you resonate with the other person and use that empathy to connect. The second is a competition.
It's true that many people have been conditioned to have some sort of seemingly objective metric of what's worse—we prioritize physical health ailments over mental health difficulties, and for anyone who appears to be living comfortably, we dismiss it with the label "First World problems" over someone who is in abject conditions. Sometimes we're filled with indignation if we've been through "worse" and think, "How dare they?" Or sometimes, we genuinely believe someone is being weak and should just "suck it up" because we have done so ourselves.
Importantly, we need to be aware of these biases and to realize that pain isn't a competition. Regardless of a person's diagnosable condition or lifestyle, pain is pain. When we try to convince them their situation isn't so bad, we are effectively invalidating their experiences and alienating them.
The fix: Be aware of why you feel the need to "compete"—is it because this is the only way you'll feel validated or feel some respite from your experiences? Sometimes, honesty is the best gift we can give ourselves, no matter how scary it is. This way, we can truly have empathy for ourselves and others.
If you find it hard to express compassion for someone else, perhaps ask yourself, "What would I want someone to say to me in my position?"
You turn everything into a joke.
We've all met that person who ends every line with "haha" and has to make a joke out of everything—even the most serious and saddest stuff. Maybe it's because we don't know how to deal with the situation, or we feel uncomfortable as it rips open old emotional wounds. So we try to escape via lightheartedness.
The fix: It's OK. You don't need to have the answer to everything right now. Simply say, "I feel a little uncomfortable and uncertain because I'm not used to this." This is a lot more respectful than laughing and can help your loved one and you deepen your relationship as you navigate the complications of being human.
You want to fix everyone and everything.
Some of us are naturally rescuers and fixers—maybe you've been trained to pre-empt and solve problems, or we unconsciously get drawn to similar relationships to fix a dynamic we were helpless in when we were younger. Or maybe you simply love to provide solutions. But this is a form of emotional labor, and as the work piles up, so do our distress and resentments.
Put simply, other people aren't our projects, and just because we can solve a problem doesn't mean we should—the responsibility is squarely in the hands of the issue-holder, who may not even see it as a problem.
The fix: Here's the deal. Sometimes people aren't asking for solutions or even for a listening ear, but we unwittingly create trauma from nonexistent wounds by probing. What we can do instead is ask, "Do you want to talk about it?" If they say no, offer to be here if they change their minds. And if a person did not ask for advice, simply say, "I have a suggestion. Would you like to hear it?"
Additionally, recognize that you don't need to fix everyone. Learn to accept people's flaws, help them when asked, and if necessary, withdraw from those relationships where the person's behaviors are seriously affecting you in a negative way. There's no need for you to shoulder every single person's problems and accompany them all on their development journeys.
You secretly crave disaster because of the care you receive from it.
When we want to make a change, there are usually two sides of us in conflict. One side desires transformation, but the other doesn't—because it has something to gain from the status quo. Much as we hate to admit it, a part of us may enjoy the attention from the drama and the subsequent pity parties we throw. Tough times happen, and we get stuck in a Groundhog Day rut.
A sign that we love the attention from pity parties is that we ask for solutions only to shoot them down. It's a way of opening a conversation with someone else, bathing in their attention and care, and convincing ourselves we're seeking help—but things never shift. While this might feel good for ourselves, it puts a lot of strain on our friends who need to continue picking up after us. We should of course feel free to lean on our network when we need help, but constantly injecting negativity into their lives just because we enjoy feeling the extent of their love is not fair to them.
The fix: If you feel a part of your life has become a consistently deteriorating train wreck, where the majority of your interactions are centered around getting this attention, it's time to get it together. Commit to stop managing the problem and its symptoms and to instead start actually mastering the situation by mastering yourself. Think about a time when things were good, when you were in control, and when you liked who you were—your integrity and your energy. Tap into how that feels, and use that energy to propel your momentum and strategy toward finding that person again.
You think pointing out someone's flaws will help them to change.
One of the most mortifying situations is when someone well-intentioned gathers others to shame you for a flaw, thinking this will whip you into action. We hear of such stories in families, where the flaw may be a mental health difficulty or bad skin day. If you do this, know that it's hurtful and alienating. Most of us are aware when we're a shadow of our old selves, and if it is sliding in the wrong direction, we are busy trying to adjust or even mourn the loss of our old selves. Adding salt to the wound only triggers more shame and anxiety.
The fix: What you could say instead would be something like, "I've noticed this change in you, and I'm here for you if you ever want to talk." Then leave the ball in their court.
You tell everyone to "just change" their mindset.
Someone told my friend Karla to "just be more proactive" when her professor had forgotten the deadline for her scholarship application, even though Karla had repeatedly reminded the professor for months. Karla was frantic and sad and then furious with said friend. We often tell each other to just "cheer up," "stop thinking that," or "be logical"—effectively applying cognitive Photoshop to our "negative" emotions because these feelings are uncomfortable or socially unpalatable. But it is irrational to put a rational filter over everything.
The fix: The only way to master your emotions and difficult situations is to feel them. We must wholly acknowledge their part in our lives as signals and sources of wisdom rather than to "just suck it up." Unfortunate situations happen, and they don't just get reset by the push of a mental button or a mindset transplanted into our heads. Instead of telling someone to simply change the way they're thinking, just sit down with them and be a source of emotional comfort. Let them earnestly convey their emotions out loud to you without judgment. Sometimes this is all that's needed for them to regain some semblance of emotional equilibrium so they can set out to tackle their problems.
You push your truth on others.
When we discover a solution, especially after feeling stuck for a long time, we want to shout it from the mountaintops. Whether it's the secret to weight loss or finding spiritual salvation, we hope our loved ones will reap those benefits. And then there's also another deeper subconscious drive that spiritual author Paulo Coelho writes about: We believe that an extra person subscribing to our truth makes it more valid.
Especially if we're watching our friends' lives deteriorate or worried about the afterlives of our loved ones, we feel compelled to proselytize. But this backfires in the end: Forcing our truths down someone else's throat feels just as uncomfortable and invasive as the metaphor suggests. Moreover, just because something's worked for you doesn't mean it'll work for someone else—solutions must be tailored to someone's personality, experience, and situation for maximum success.
The fix: Remember that you're their loved one, not their doctor or coach—your role isn't to heal or save them. Simply be the best example for them—live your life the way you'd like someone else to have been your role model. When they are ready and start asking you, you can gently open the conversation.
What causes people to become toxic?
We're fundamentally copycats—we learn behaviors by modeling others, and sometimes we have the wrong role models. At other times, we run into a bad spate in life, get jaded, and see the world through a pessimistic lens. And so our toxic behaviors grow.
But having them in one chapter of our lives doesn't mean we're condemned to them forever. Instead, pinpointing the root and committing to personal growth can help us to find our old selves again or create a new self that is stronger, having integrated the wisdom of a difficult chapter in our lives. As you start to detox, take pride in your growth.
Just because we've had some bad behaviors isn't cause for shame. Rather, knowing that we've transcended them is actually cause for pride. Understanding our own toxic behavior develops empathy for why we do the things we do, hones our self-awareness, and helps us to become better people. Acknowledgment is the first step of that journey.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.