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6 Common Behaviors of Toxic People

The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.


Let's talk about six common tactics that narcissists and other toxic people use. There are others, but these are among the most common.

1. Gaslighting

Gaslighting is denying, invalidating or attempting to alter another person's reality, such as claiming things didn't happen when they did, or that things were said or agreed to when they weren't. It also involves things like claiming a person has motivations or feelings that they don't have. Gaslighting can be related to projection and they are similar. However, gaslighting is done on purpose, whereas projection is often unconscious. Gaslighting is a very childish method of manipulation; in fact, we often see toddlers and young children engaging in it. However, there is nothing childish about its effects on other people. People who have been subjected to gaslighting over a long period of time often become confused and unable to trust their own feelings or perceptions. One of the most difficult things about dealing with pathologically narcissistic people can be recovering from the gaslighting, because you've been dealing with someone who was continually trying to force you into a reality that did not match actuality. It is especially damaging when it is done to children, because children will automatically doubt themselves if an adult tells them they are wrong.

2. Stonewalling

Stonewalling is making it so that honest, authentic communication cannot happen. This can include refusing to answer reasonable questions, answering a question with a question, deflecting questions, throwing red herrings or otherwise changing the subject in an attempt to derail the conversation, walking away and refusing to speak, refusing to listen, pretending not to listen or distracting one's self while the other person is talking, giving vague answers or non-answers that don't really answer the question, and more. Stonewalling often includes blame-shifting. Stonewalling is a very toxic behavior because not only does it thwart communication, it has escalation built into it. When someone refuses to answer questions or engage in honest communication, the other person becomes very frustrated and often angry. They feel dismissed or treated unfairly. This often escalates the conversation to an argument.

It's important to clarify here that stonewalling and the Grey Rock Method are not the same thing. The Grey Rock Method is not about refusing to engage in honest communication or answer reasonable questions. The Grey Rock Method is about not responding emotionally to deliberate provocations and attempts to argue or insult. It's controlling your emotional reactions. Not repressing them. Controlling them. It's about responding instead of reacting emotionally. It's not about stonewalling the other person because you don't want to talk about something. These are two very different things.

3. Blame-shifting

Blame-shifting is refusing to take responsibility for one's own actions or words by blaming something or someone else for them. It is related to denial. For example, someone might blame another person for their own ability to wake up on time by saying the other person didn't set their alarm. Or they might blame someone for the mean things they've said by saying the other person made them angry, so it's their fault. We often see this kind of blame-shifting in domestic violence, where the abuser places blame for their actions on the victim by claiming the victim's actions were responsible for the abuser's violent behavior. Blame-shifting can also include blaming things and circumstances as well. For instance, when someone says, "I was drunk when I did that," or "I can't help it. This is how I was raised." Many things can contribute to a situation, but ultimately, we are all responsible for our own actions. Chronic blame creates a situation where people can feel that they can do nothing right, or that everything they do is hurtful to others somehow. It can create a paralysis where people are afraid to do anything or make decisions because everything they do results in a harmful consequence.

Blame-shifting is very toxic on many levels, and not just for the person being blamed, either. The person who is blaming others instead of talking responsibility for their behavior is robbing themselves of their own power in the situation by claiming others have this power instead. Usually, this is because the person does not want to take the blame for the situation their actions have created or contributed to. It's important to remember, though, that blame and responsibility are two different things. Taking responsibility for something doesn't mean it's your fault. For example, it's your responsibility to address your wounds, even though they are not your fault. Everyone has choices - always - and taking responsibility enables us to learn and make better ones in the future. Assigning blame only creates a situation where growth is not possible.

4. Projection

Projection is when someone takes their behavior and/or feelings and motivations and attributes these things to someone else. For example, someone might accuse another person of hating them because they hate that person -- or because they hate themselves. Or they might accuse the other person of jealousy because they themselves are jealous. They may accuse someone else of sabotage because they are trying to sabotage the other person.

Projection is often associated with negative emotions, but projection of positive emotions occurs all the time as well. For instance, people often give someone the benefit of the doubt even though reality has proven that the person probably don't deserve it because they themselves would try to do better in the same situation. Or they may feel someone just doesn't understand the situation because they themselves would not behave the same way in the same situation if they understood. It is for this reason that we could say projection is really the opposite of empathy. Empathy is the accurate understanding of another person's feelings. It is seeing how others feel. Projection is seeing how you feel. This is one reason it's important to assess people based on what they are actually doing and actually saying, not what you think these things mean. Behavior truly does speak for itself.

Projection is toxic and harmful because not only does it prevent people from truly seeing each other, it can be very confusing and frustrating to try and defend things you don't feel or aren't doing. Or on the flip side, if you are the one projecting, it can be hurtful when people don't act or react how you believed they would.

5. Deflection

Deflection is when someone changes the subject or otherwise focuses the topic of the conversation on something else because the original topic of the conversation is one they are trying to avoid. This can occur in many different ways: twisting the focus of the conversation to the other person, arguing semantics and meanings of words so that the conversation cannot proceed, constant interruptions, asking the same question over and over again even though it's been answered or has nothing to do with the subject, making circular arguments or points that go nowhere, deliberately misinterpreting what's been said, playing dumb and/or pretending not to understand, strawmanning (pretending someone has made a point they didn't or holds a position that they don't and attacking that) and much more. Deflection is very toxic because it creates a situation where the other person never feels heard and nothing can ever be addressed or resolved. It breaks communication down completely.

6. Dogwhistling

Dogwhistling is when someone makes comments to a group of people that have a different meaning to one or some of the people. For example, a person may make what seem like innocent or innocuous comments at a party but which actually have a threatening meaning for their spouse. This is a term we usually see in politics, but it is often be done in relationships as well. A person may bring up a topic, name, story or example in a group atmosphere that is designed to trigger, harass, upset or embarrass the other person, even though those in attendance don't realize this is happening. So-called "vagueposting" on social media can fall into this category as well, if it is known that the intended target will see it and will know it's about them, thereby causing them embarrassment or to be upset.

"Dogwhistling" got it's name from a dogwhistle, because everyone can see you using the whistle, but only specific targets can hear it. Dogwhistling is often about control, but can also be about passive-aggressively trying to punish or get back at someone. It is insidious and toxic behavior. It isn't talked about very often as far as how it pertains to relationships but I'm betting many people recognize it, even if they didn't know what it was called.

So there you have it. Six of the more common behaviors that toxic people use. There are of course many others, like triangulation, smear campaigning, hoovering and more, but the more we learn about them, the better-prepared we are.