Do you know someone who consistently brings conflict and stress into your life? You might think of them as being challenging, difficult, or maybe even toxic. There’s a difference in what these terms mean and here’s how to distinguish them:
Understanding and Dealing with Difficult Individuals
A “difficult” person exhibits challenging or demanding behaviors, but they do not necessarily have harmful intentions or engage in manipulative tactics. They likely have personal issues or struggles that make it challenging for them to interact positively with others. These issues may be permanent or temporary.
On the other hand, a “toxic” person consistently engages in manipulative, controlling, or abusive behaviors that harm others. They intentionally seek to undermine or emotionally, mentally, or even physically harm others.
Traits of toxic people can include manipulative behavior, a lack of empathy, constant criticism, controlling tendencies, a tendency to gaslight or invalidate others’ feelings, a need for constant attention and validation, a tendency to blame others for their own actions, and a lack of accountability for their behavior. It is important to note that these traits can vary from person to person, and not all toxic individuals will exhibit all of these traits. (webmd.com/mental-health/signs-toxic-person)
It is important to recognize the difference between the two and take appropriate action to protect yourself in toxic situations.
Identifying “Toxic” Individuals
Some individuals have a talent for creating negativity and upset, causing emotional and sometimes physical pain to those around them.
When identifying people with toxic behavior, pay attention to signs that highlight their harmful conduct. These signs can help differentiate between someone going through ups and downs and someone consistently exhibiting toxic traits. Here are common signs of toxicity to watch out for:
It’s crucial to note that toxicity in people is not considered a mental disorder. However, there may be underlying mental health difficulties, such as a personality disorder, that contribute to their toxic behavior.
Traits to Look Out For
Demanding attention: Whether it’s incessant phone calls, text messages, or unannounced visits, these individuals require a lot of emotional support. But they will rarely reciprocate that support to you. They have an elevated level of self-interest, endlessly seeking validation. This behavior is often associated with narcissistic personality disorder.
High drama: Have you ever noticed that some individuals are always surrounded by drama? This is not a coincidence. Toxic people thrive in chaotic situations that fuel emotions and provoke conflicts. These individuals derive pleasure from “stirring the pot,” as a therapist so aptly described it. These folks are just not interested in doing the necessary work to maintain stable and healthy relationships.
Inconsistent behavior: Toxic individuals often display erratic behavior and fail to follow through on their commitments or promises. Their actions can be unpredictable, making it challenging to establish a stable and reliable relationship with them. One moment, they may be elated and supportive, but the next, they may completely turn on you.
Ignoring boundaries: One of the telltale signs of a toxic person is their lack of respect for boundaries. Despite your repeated efforts to communicate your needs clearly, they continually disrespect you. Healthy relationships are built on trust and the ability to honor boundaries, which toxic individuals cannot do.
Abusing substances: This behavior becomes particularly toxic when it consistently harms not only the individual but also those around them.
Manipulating: Toxic individuals delight in manipulating those around them to serve their own desires. They resort to lying, distorting the truth, exaggerating, or omitting information in order to manipulate your actions or opinions of them. They are willing to go to great lengths, even when they know it will hurt others.
Lack of apology: Lack of apology can be a clear sign of a toxic dynamic in a relationship. When someone consistently refuses to apologize for their actions, it shows a lack of accountability and respect for the other person’s feelings. It can create a cycle of hurt and frustration, as the person who is hurt is left feeling invalidated and unheard. This lack of apology can also indicate a power imbalance, where one person feels entitled to their actions without considering the impact on others. Overall, it can be a red flag for a toxic relationship.
If you find yourself constantly waiting for an apology that never comes, it may indicate a toxic dynamic, which is a red flag.
Defensiveness: Defensiveness can be a sign of a toxic relationship because it often indicates a lack of open communication and a refusal to take responsibility for one’s actions. When someone is defensive, they may become overly protective of their own image or unwilling to admit any wrongdoing. This can create a hostile and unhealthy environment where issues are not addressed, and conflicts are not resolved. In a healthy relationship, both parties should feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment or retaliation.
Triangulation: Triangulation is a manipulative tactic that can be a sign of a toxic relationship. It occurs when one person manipulates the relationship between two other people by controlling the amount and type of communication they have. One person controls the narrative, which can generate rivalry between the other two parties. It is a way to “divide and conquer,” playing one person against the other. This can create a sense of confusion, tension, and even competition between the two individuals being manipulated. Triangulation is often used as a way for the manipulator to maintain control and power. Because it can be emotionally damaging and can lead to feelings of insecurity, mistrust, and isolation for those involved, it is a red flag. It is important to recognize this tactic and address it in order to maintain healthy and balanced relationships.
Exclusion: Exclusion can be a form of emotional manipulation in a toxic relationship. When someone withholds affection and attention, shuts us out, or makes us feel like an outsider, it can be a sign that they are trying to control or manipulate us. This behavior can be very damaging to our self-esteem and overall well-being. It is a red flag.
Tools for Healing
How to Recognize a Narcissist
How to use the Grey Rock Method
Recognize what verbal abuse does
Break free from shame
Free yourself from resentment
Protect yourself: set boundaries
Know what the narcissistic abuse cycle looks like
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Lemon Moms: A Guide to Understand and Survive Maternal Narcissism, by Diane Metcalf
For as long as I can remember, there was something “different” about my mother. She wasn’t like other mothers.
My mom didn’t hug or kiss, smile at, spend time with, or play with me. She never seemed happy to see me. She didn’t ask about my school day and wasn’t interested in knowing my friends. She seemed to have no interest in me or anything that I did. My mom called me hurtful names and obscenities, and at times, she ignored me, not speaking to me for days, weeks, or even months. When she felt sad I was expected to emotionally care-take her. When she didn’t feel like parenting, I was responsible for my siblings. When she lost her temper she hit. When I was disobedient, there were bizarre punishments.
I was not allowed to express feelings, ask questions, or show initiative or curiosity. My feelings were discounted, minimized, or invalidated. She re-wrote my memories, and I was expected to believe her version. I was to obey, stay quiet, and not question.
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About the Author
Drawing from her personal experiences of growing up in a dysfunctional household, Diane Metcalf has developed effective coping and healing strategies. With the assistance of professional therapists and mindful personal growth, she has honed her skills and now happily shares them with others who are interested in learning and growing.
As an experienced advocate, speaker, and writer, Diane is well-versed in topics such as narcissism, family dysfunction, abuse, and recognizing warning signs. Her extensive knowledge is drawn not only from her personal experiences, but also from her work in human service fields, including domestic violence, partner abuse, and court advocacy. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Science in Information Technology.
Diane’s transformational books on healing and personal growth, such as the highly acclaimed “Lemon Moms” series, offer emotional support and guidance in understanding narcissistic traits and healing past wounds. Her approach emphasizes self-awareness, intention, self-care, and establishing healthy boundaries as essential components in the healing process.
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This website is intended for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional therapy.