15 Toxic Traits To Watch For In Relationships, From Psychologists
The word "toxic" gets thrown around a lot these days—but what does it really mean? And further, what actually counts as a toxic trait?
To answer these questions and more, we got the lowdown from relationship experts. Here's how to spot toxic traits in relationships, and in yourself.
What it means to be toxic
Toxic traits can be defined as any persistent pattern of behavior that is undermining or harmful to others, according to psychologist and toxic family expert Sherrie Campbell, Ph.D.
As she tells mindbodygreen, this can be anything from manipulation to selfishness to generally lacking empathy. "We all have the capacity to manipulate in some way, but toxic people do it persistently—not just when they're mad—and there's always an agenda," she explains.
And as doctor of clinical psychology Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, previously wrote for mindbodygreen, someone doesn't necessarily have to be a toxic person to engage in toxic behaviors. "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," she writes.
15 examples of toxic traits:
They're abusive, physically or emotionally.
First, the obvious: Any form of abuse is definitely toxic. While you might be quick to think of physical abuse, emotional and verbal abuse also count, whether this person bullies you, invalidates you, gaslights you, screams at you, or worse. Abuse should never be tolerated, and if someone is abusing you, they are toxic and should not be in your life.
Manipulation encompasses a number of different behaviors—all of which are toxic, and some could even be considered abusive. As Campbell tells mindbodygreen, some common examples include gaslighting (when someone makes you question your own reality and feelings), projection, guilt tripping, stonewalling, never-ending arguments with no closure, and more.
Who among us wants to be constantly criticized or judged? Judgmental people can be toxic to your well-being by quietly (or not so quietly) undermining your sense of self, according to Campbell, who adds that their judgment will often come from a place of projection and hypocrisy (i.e., judging you for something they do too).
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They're generally unkind.
Sometimes toxic traits are more subtle, such as a general unpleasantness that you can't quite put your finger on. Most of us understand the importance of kindness and social graces, but with toxic people, Campbell says, they are simply not nice. Whether it's gossip, pressure, or nasty comments, being mean is toxic in its own right.
From secret-keeping to lying, dishonesty is a toxic trait, according to Campbell. Perhaps you've caught this person in a lie—or many lies—and you don't feel like you can trust them, or they're a pathological liar who seems to compulsively fib. In either case, Campbell explains, that behavior is almost always at the expense of another person's well-being, and therefore toxic.
They lack empathy.
Empathy allows us to connect with other people by feeling for them when they're going through a hard time, or on the flip side, celebrating their wins alongside them. As Campbell explains, it's toxic when someone can't empathize with you for better or worse, especially if they hurt you in some way and cannot find it in themselves to empathize with you, instead taking your hurt feelings as a personal affront to them.
They don't respect boundaries.
Basic respect for others' boundaries is a sign of a healthy, mature individual, so disrespect, on the other hand, can be considered a toxic trait. And as therapist Anna Marchenko, LMHC, Ed.M., previously told mindbodygreen, even if it's not intentional, it's still painful (and therefore toxic) to have friends, family, or partners cross your boundaries.
She notes that this is actually common in codependent relationships, when two people become so enmeshed that they lack appropriate separation and autonomy. "When boundaries have slipped, the intensity of one's connection to another can escalate to an unhealthy level for both individuals," she explains.
They're a "fair-weather friend."
To be a fair-weather friend means you only stick around when the friendship is convenient for you, and this can apply to romantic relationships and family dynamics as well. As psychotherapist Annette Nuñez, Ph.D., LMFT, previously told mindbodygreen, an inability to hold space for loved ones can be very isolating, whether the person displays toxic positivity, goes cold whenever you're upset, or tries to fast forward through difficult conversations. This is a type of friend who doesn't genuinely have your best interests at heart.
They're overly competitive.
An overly competitive spirit might be prized in the working world, but it has no place in our relationships and can introduce dysfunction. According to both Nuñez and licensed marriage and family therapist Tiana Leeds, M.A., LMFT, it's a major red flag of a toxic friend if someone is competitive with you, which can look like jealousy, one-upping you in conversations, or trying to undermine your accomplishments.
They can't be serious.
If you've ever dealt with someone who could not handle conflict, you probably know how much that negatively impacts your relationship. Of course, some people are naturally more peaceful and may try to avoid conflict when they can, but in this case, we're talking about people who deflect issues, make sarcastic remarks, or just generally won't hear you out when you have a legitimate problem with their behavior.
It's emotional immaturity, Campbell notes, because they cannot handle any questioning of their own image.
They see people as problems to be solved.
According to Neo, another example of a toxic trait is constantly trying to "fix" people. As she previously wrote for mindbodygreen, "Sometimes people aren't asking for solutions or even for a listening ear, but we unwittingly create trauma from nonexistent wounds by probing," adding that simply put, no one should be treated like a project that needs to be solved or fixed.
They play the victim.
Playing the victim is a super-common toxic trait, according to Campbell. As she explains, emotionally healthy people understand that if you hurt someone's feelings, you have to own up to it and work to make right your wrongdoings.
But with toxic people, any issue you may bring to the table becomes an attack on them, and they'll play the victim card with phrases like, "I can't believe you would say that about me," or they may even punish you by withholding affection.
"They're above reproach, and just have a morally superior attitude—so there is no coming back to center, and there is no desire for closure," she adds.
(Here's our full guide to victim complexes.)
There's nothing wrong with having a different point of view from someone else, but it becomes toxic when they try to push those views onto you. According to Campbell, selfishness and love cannot coexist, and dogma essentially happens when someone has "main character syndrome."
"They're looking down their nose at your truth. They just obliterate it with their moral superiority. They stand with such audacity that no matter how ridiculous it is, they get away with it," Campbell says, adding, "The most toxic person in any dynamic is often the least confronted."
They refuse to grow.
Sometimes we outgrow people, and there's nothing wrong with that. Things can become toxic, however, when we have to keep ourselves small around certain people who are not growing or refusing to grow.
As Nuñez previously told mindbodygreen, even if your friend isn't explicitly doing "toxic" things, the very fact that you've outgrown each other can result in repeating old patterns and hindering your own growth.
"As we get older," Nuñez explains, "our dynamics and what we value in friendships may change. It's OK to not feel bad for having a long-term friend and not necessarily being that close with them."
The ups and downs of the relationship are cyclical.
Last but not least, Campbell touches on a common cycle she sees a lot with toxic people, in which they engage in a pattern of idealizing someone, devaluing them, then discarding them, only to suck them back in.
This cycle of building someone up only to break them down can repeat itself over and over, "and each time you fall down," Cambell says, "you lose more of your self-worth, and you develop more shame."
Effects of toxic traits
Toxic traits impact our relationships in a myriad of ways, whether you think you might be the toxic one, or you're dealing with a toxic person in your life. If you're the toxic one, you can bet your relationships are going to suffer for it. People will only put up with toxicity for so long, and at some point, you will lose them if you cannot change.
On the other hand, if you're the one experiencing toxicity from a family member, friend, or partner, it can impact your sense of self, your self-worth, and your attachment style. Campbell tells mindbodygreen that toxicity can cause you to doubt yourself, people-please, feel shame, question your own thoughts and feelings, and so much more.
How to deal with toxic traits
Just because you exhibit toxic behaviors does not make you a toxic person (though we can't rule that out—only you can!). The good news, according to Neo, 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."
Be sure to look into our guide to changing toxic behavior in yourself, as well as our breakdown on how to spot and fix your own red flags.
Start by simply noticing your thoughts and behaviors to catch when your more toxic tendencies start to rear their heads. Allow yourself grace and acknowledge that you're trying to be a better person, and don't be afraid to lean on support from mental health professionals or your support system.
The more you check your own behavior, the more you can change it.
In relationships & friendships
If you're dealing with a friend or partner who's exhibiting some toxic traits, it's always in your power to start a dialogue, set and enforce boundaries, and speak your truth. If you're lucky, they may try to adjust their behavior in order to salvage the relationship.
However, Campbell says, there's one major caveat: Truly toxic people usually don't want to hear it.
While you could take the high road of tolerance and forgiveness, is it really worth it? According to Campbell, it's often not, and many of us would be far better off walking away before any more damage is inflicted. For example, she says, "If you tell a toxic person where they've hurt you and you go to set a boundary, you've just given them information on where to further hurt you."
She adds that if you're someone who finds yourself in relationships like this a lot, you might be a sensitive and compassionate person who doesn't want to "give up" on others or hurt their feelings. But what about when they hurt you? "You don't owe anyone an explanation for your need to take care of yourself—get out sooner than later," she advises.
In the workplace
Sometimes we can't avoid toxic people and their less desirable traits, such as at the office. In cases when you have to be around this person, Campbell is a big proponent of the grey rock method. With this method, you "literally become the most boring rock in the pile, deflecting all the conversation back to them," she explains.
After all, toxic people want to get a rise out of you, so by "becoming a rock," you're not giving them the emotional payoff they're looking for. For example, if your co-worker slams your latest project in a group meeting, rather than getting defensive and emotional, simply say blankly, "Thanks for the feedback." Eventually, your toxic co-worker will likely pick a new target.
What are the most common toxic traits?
Some of the most common toxic traits include abusiveness, manipulation, being judgmental, dishonesty, and being generally unkind to others.
How do I stop my toxic traits?
If you think you're exhibiting toxic traits and want to change for the better, the first step is to start identifying the behaviors you'd like to change, which requires mindfulness and honest reflection. Seek support from a mental health professional to help you get to the root of your toxic traits.
Can a toxic person change?
It is possible for a toxic person to change, yes, but it will require a lot of work on their part—work that they have to be willing to do. Just know that you do not stick around while they do that work.
Having healthy and supportive relationships—whether romantic, platonic, or familial—is a huge factor in your overall well-being, and anything less can be detrimental to your sense of self. By identifying toxic traits when they happen, you can figure out which relationships in your life are worth keeping, and which you'd be better off walking away from.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.