Laura writes from the Pacific Northwest where she enjoys reading, researching and writing on relationships, social issues, and psychology.
I was sitting in my "Abnormal Psychology" class as the teacher lectured on personality disorders. Jokingly, he added that we'd diagnose ourselves and everyone around us by the time we were done with the course.
It's true in a way. Personality disorders such as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Borderline or Antisocial Personality Disorder all consist of toxic traits and behaviors. We all know toxic people and we have our own toxic behavior at times as well.
Some toxic behaviors include, passive-aggressiveness, silent treatment, intimidation, self-centered, argumentative, and dishonesty.
There's a spectrum of toxic behavior ranging from a bad day to a negative person all the way to a personality disorder.
What's The Difference Between Narcissists and Toxic People?
Many toxic people are accused of being narcissists when in fact that's not the entire picture.
Everybody at some point has succumbed to toxic behaviors in some parts of their lives and in some of their longest or closest relationships. The key word being, "sometimes" while narcissists overwhelmingly and consistently have specific toxic behaviors, across most or all areas of their life, with most people, extending over the course of their lifetime.
The extent to which toxic behaviors affect the individual's life and their relationships, is the degree to how dysfunctional or disordered their personality is.
In both toxic people and narcissists, you won't see a lot of change or personal growth. They are usually manipulating people and situations around them to their suiting, instead of working on their personal issues.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is listed in the Diagnostic Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), while toxic behavior in itself is not a mental disorder.
Some traits of toxic people mirror those with NPD such as lack of empathy. A Narcissist will lack empathy for everyone they know. Their brand of empathy is false and used to fulfill their own agenda. This is why they have deeply troubled relationships.
A toxic person, for instance, could have increased empathy for their family members, but maybe not their friends or for one person but not another. Several factors vary with toxic people while toxic behaviors are markedly more consistent in someone with a personality disorder.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
- Narcissistic personality disorder - Symptoms and causes - Mayo Clinic
This mental health disorder includes an inflated sense of importance, a deep need for excessive admiration, lack empathy, fragile self-esteem and troubled relationships.
Relationships With The Toxic Person
Chances are you know a toxic person or are in a relationship with one. Encounters and relationships with toxic people and narcissists are frustrating, because not only do they have hurtful behavior, but they don't seem to understand when or how they've hurt you, adding insult to injury. That's because their emotional intelligence is very low.
They lack empathy and self-awareness, and they have a hard time understanding how their behavior affects others.
They're primarily focused on themselves in any given relationship or situation. They are me-first people and that's their default mode. The intent may not always be to hurt you, so that can seem confusing, but instead you're just collateral damage in getting their wants and needs met.
They will automatically focus on what they want, even in relationships, and that's what makes their lack of emotional intelligence so frustrating as healthier individuals expect relationships to be reciprocal. They may be the person that needs to consistently dump on you, never mind how that affects you or that you have problems too.
A genuine connection with both Narcissists and toxic people is next to impossible.
If you try to communicate emotions and feelings- aspects of being human and connecting- they won't understand. Next time your computer acts up, try explaining to it that you're already having a bad day. Could it please take it easy and be more willing to work with you? You're not going to get anywhere because a computer has no emotional intelligence.
Toxic people lack emotional intelligence because they weren't modeled healthy relationship values and communication as children. They had unfulfilling early relationships and will always look to others to fulfill them as such an emotionally neglected man will look for a partner who cares for him more like a child than another adult. Their needs take precedence. Everything else does not compute.
Giving is supposed to feel good; it doesn't with the toxic person!
Even healthy people can be toxic in the ways they've overlooked their past and traumas, that either were needs not fulfilled in childhood and/or not adjusted to adulthood and how to meet those needs themselves, such as self-soothing and self-respect.
A healthy person may have been taught to give, but it becomes unhealthy when giving from a place of gaining self-esteem or giving so much, you hurt yourself in the process.
A toxic person demands more than gives. They may demand respect from others without giving respect. A healthy person realizes respect is earned and reciprocated. It's not a demand. Healthy people also cultivate their own self-respect and do not fulfill that need solely through others. They do not need to have children to boss around or subordinates to order around, to boost their sense of self.
You are basically filling a hole in the toxic person that they have not learned to fill themselves. They either believe they can't fill it themselves or they feel entitled to others filling it for them.
Toxic people do not get to know someone for the sake of connection, collaboration, or closeness. Getting to know someone must benefit them in some way or fulfill a gnawing want and need. Never enough.
Toxic individuals typically view people as what they can get from them; not how they can help them, get to know them, show they care, or any other mutual or reciprocal attributes of a human relationship. They seem to have a bottomless pit of requirements from others. They also have to have a reason or role for you in their life.
Your role in the toxic person's life is huge, but they'll treat you small.
If they do compromise or concede in the relationship, it will come with pushback, attitude or outright retaliation. You never really win. This sense of entitlement is a distinct narcissistic trait.
They require the ratio or give-and-take to be in their favor because they view a lot of what you give them as an expectation they are entitled to. They are truly unhappy people so the minimum they require to be happy is much higher than most people you'll encounter. This is also due to the fact that they haven't learned to meet many of their own needs.
Narcissists and toxic people lump their wants and needs altogether. Wants may seem like needs to them- the bottom line is that they feel good but feeling good is often fleeting so this is tricky.
In addition, they disregard or minimize your wants, needs, thoughts, and feelings. If someone has "too many" wants and needs, toxic people will not engage with them. Sometimes, if you're giving to yourself, even self-care, they'll view that as time and energy that could be given to them, or you need to over-extend yourself to give to them and fulfill yourself.
They may even consider your thoughts, feelings, wants and needs to be too much, ridiculous, confusing, a burden, or irrelevant.
From Healthy to Toxic
When your boundaries are consistently being over-stepped by a toxic person, it can make you feel off-balanced. Your own behavior and the relationship itself can go from healthy to toxic.
Boundaries can be the deciding factor in whether people or relationships are healthy or not. Toxic people don't understand boundaries and often ignore them. This has to do with not being able to understand or attune to your wants and needs because they are always focused on their own.
Good people can be made to feel "bad" (by toxic people) when they speak up for themselves or assert boundaries. Good people can even resort to toxic behavior in order to deal with a toxic person. We need significant time away from toxic people to balance ourselves and clear our head.
They may laugh, scoff, roll their eyes, mock, ignore, or become outright angry with your boundaries. Their inconsistency will make it hard for you to stay consistent with your boundaries. They will make boundaries seem like your problem.
Your patience will be worn thin. All your good qualities will be used against you. This feels like a slap in the face! They value themselves, not the relationship. If you have value for yourself, stick with boundaries.
Toxic parents groom (and condition) their children to be very kind and caring individuals that seem healthy, but this makes it much easier for us to be manipulated. We are the ones who stay longer than necessary in relationships with toxic people.
This is why you may seemingly have healthy behavior on the outside, but rage on the inside, and ultimately the entire relationship becomes toxic in nature.
A truly healthy individual may even find themselves looped into the toxic crazy-making behavior. If you notice, a toxic person communicates in circles. Remember when you were a little kid, and the kids on the playground would say, "I know you are, but what am I?" And that could go on forever? That's what it's like communicating with a toxic person. It's very easy to get hooked and find yourself on the merry-go-round.
Most of their behavior will "push the envelope" or push your buttons until you "give in". That's why they can be exhausting to the average person, and especially an empath.
Toxic Behavior... Stay Away!
The overall theme in a toxic person or narcissist's childhood is dysfunctional or lack of consequences. Some were punished harshly for small things, others were neglected or spoiled.
With having so much early experience with unfair or non-existent boundaries and consequences, they were deprived of healthy relational lessons and behaviors.
Many of their responses to healthy behavior or communication, are contemptuous, childish, and/or dismissive. They are either mimicking their parents or reacting like a child. Their relational development was arrested very early in life.
They see no need to have healthy dialogue because that has never gotten them as far as manipulation and other toxic behaviors. They only use what works, and they had to find what works when they were children so their behavior can seem underdeveloped for their age.
What's confusing about toxic people is that the average toxic person is not quite a sociopath or even have NPD so it can seem like there's times when they are loving or caring, but often this is a means to an end, with the result benefitting them somehow.
Signs of a false sense of love and caring:
- The loving or caring behavior is not consistent or doesn't last very long.
- It's an act. They act like they care only in the presence of other people.
- Acts of love are generic, meaning the way they show love to you will not be based on your specific wants, needs, and likes, but what they want to give, because it's related to the bottom line- their wants and needs being met somehow.
- Whatever they give comes with expectations and strings attached.
- You give a lot, and they may give a little, but act like it's a lot. This is also referred to as "breadcrumbs".
- They join in on your negativity, which may seem like they're listening to your bad day, but they simply thrive on negativity.
- Their actions are more robotic than sincere.
- They turn everything into something about themselves- if they don't give enough to you, they're somehow the victim.
- Actions don't match their words, so they'll say something caring but not follow through or display the behavior.
There are many other ways to identify a toxic person:
- You are defending yourself or explaining yourself to them often.
- You feel on edge (like a bad vibe) around them.
- They use some form of intimidation; not always physical but giving short one-word answers so you never really know what's going on, withholding information, or they keep you guessing.
- They're completely unbothered by the big things that bother you.
- They’re not interested in solutions because solutions provide little to no wiggle room for their manipulation. Unhealthy conflict and unresolved issues are the most hospitable environments for manipulation.
- Drama and/or conflict seems to follow them.
- There's a lack of equality in your relationship dynamic- the odds seem to be in their favor.
- Rarely learn from mistakes or are not interested in growing as a person.
- They get easily defensive. You're pitted as the enemy. Before trying to understand or communicate, they will quickly get defensive.
- Childhood behavioral problems.
- They can't take constructive criticism. They avoid honesty and honest conversations.
- They hint a lot- they'll find a way to get you to do what they want without asking you directly.
- They elicit overly strong emotions in you- this is them pushing your buttons.
- Maybe racist, womanizer/chauvinistic, or very judgmental.
Why Toxic People Don't Change
The reason you can’t simply talk a toxic person out of their manipulation, dysfunctional or hurtful behavior, or how you’d like them to consider acknowledging or changing something is that, contrary to popular belief, manipulators and even narcissists are not actually aware of their toxic behavior as anything out of the ordinary.
If it gets them what they want, then where's the problem?
They may think others are doing the same thing. There's always an underlying paranoia in toxic people- like others are out to get them. This is why their guard is often up and they easily become defensive. If they view you as winning, then that means they lost.
Their behavior is not as purposeful or thought-out as you may believe (or what's portrayed in the movies and YouTube videos).
There are many people who describe narcissists as mastermind evildoers who purposefully plan the demise of as many kind people to suffer as possible. It's not as intentional as that. It’s learned behavior that gets their wants and needs met.
If they want power to feel good, then others will suffer. They don't actually think of the other suffering. They have power (or whatever their agenda is) on their mind and that's it.
While there's good reason to stay away, it's often not as easy as that. But we can protect ourselves.
95% of what we say, think, and do is repetitive. It’s an automatic script from the subconscious (past learned behavior). Basically, 5% of a toxic person is consciously aware and they may seem genuine and authentic, but the dysfunction and manipulation is their 95% default mode.
They are doing what works for them. It's learned behavior. It's like a subconscious script. The fact that they don't consider you seems personally hurtful, but that's not really the main goal. It is ALL about them and whether you can improve their life or give them what they want.
This can feel like you're playing a specific role in their life and diverting from this role will cause friction. They expect you to be a certain person, with a certain role, for them.
Like a narcissistic parent who always needs to be right and be the authority. When their child grows up, and they grow out of the convenient role of "child", this will be met with conflict between the toxic parent and adult child. Toxic people will be less likely to adapt or adjust to the new role.
Toxic people do not purposefully plot or plan on a conscious level, but rather their behavior is based on subconscious learning- what works or doesn’t work. It's as natural as learning to read or write. This is hard for people to accept because if there’s a part of the manipulator that could be aware of what they're doing then there’s a chance they can change.
It's difficult to accept we can't change them or appeal to their better nature. We can't wake them up from their trance. This is what makes it so frustrating. We try everything to wake them up to their hurtful behavior- to acknowledge, to care, take responsibility, or change.
This would make it easier for other people, but not them. Their ways work for them.
You can't talk sense into them any easier than talking a blind man into seeing. They're in a trance, because this behavior was learned on a subconscious level, very early in life. As children, it was likely a survival mechanism.
If certain manipulative behaviors work, then they just repeat them so often that it becomes "natural". Unlike a healthy individual who would seriously have to conspire to come up with something as elaborate as a narcissist, chronic manipulators don't have to plot or plan very deliberately.
We have to think circles around what they're up to or why they do what they do, because it's not natural for us. The field of psychology is dedicated to learning more about the unnatural phenomena of toxic behavior.
They’re not consciously aware of their manipulation so you can point it out all you want but they won’t understand. And that’s where defensive and toxic behaviors like gaslighting and stonewalling will come into play. It’s automatic behavior. They have no awareness of it so don’t bother trying to make them aware of it. They’ll look at you like you’re an alien.
Just like we aren't aware of everything we do or say, even though our default mode is probably conscientious and collaborative, toxic people and narcissists are not aware of their dysfunctional behavior.
And on top of that, they identify with their toxic behavior so much so that they can’t separate it from who they are. This becomes a personality disorder or at the very least a dysfunctional ego state.
If you call them out on their behavior, they'll become defensive as if you insulted them for having brown hair. Asking them to stop their bad behavior is like asking them to cut off one of their arms; it's part of who they are. You will never separate them from it. That would mean the death of who they are.
A Personal Story
When I first met my ex-partner, he would joke around about taking my chocolate mints that I brought to the college class we shared. This slightly annoyed me, but still seemed harmless. And at the same time, I suppose I enjoyed the attention. Soon, I started bringing in extra mints for him.
I also noticed when he tried to get someone in class to change his oil for free. There were other "small asks" that seemed innocent enough. Looking back, I know this wasn't conscious behavior on his part- he was just doing what works for him. Small subconscious things.
This was as natural to him as fish swim- it was his way of testing the waters.
I never would've thought anything of it had it not led to more intrusive and abusive behaviors.
As our relationship developed, he'd want whatever I had, from the food off my plate to sharing my money. This continued in little ways. I'd do things for him, but he'd retort, "I never asked you to do that", and proceed to act ungrateful. However, he would use intimidation tactics to get what he wanted (but never asked for).
I found myself angry and resentful until I hardly noticed who I was anymore.
It built up until I saw that he truly would never have any insight into his behavior or be able to reciprocate in a give-and-take relationship. From his childhood, I learned that he had to take what he wanted if he got anything. I honestly believe at times, he wanted to change, but his toxic behavior was too ingrained and a part of who he was.
He was a taker, and I was a giver. A good match for him, but not for me!
Heal from a Toxic Person
Your own self-awareness is paramount in your healing. We spend a lot of time trying to figure out the toxic person's behavior that we forget about our own.
It's as if we want them to change so that we don't have to face ourselves. Turn the focus back on yourself for a while. Pay attention to what you're doing and how you're feeling.
If you believe you are involved with a narcissist or toxic person, keep a journal.
Begin to write down your encounters with this person. Believe me, after just a couple of weeks you will start to see the patterns. And then you can't unsee it! You may find it both devastating and freeing, but 100% worth it.
As you become more self-aware, you'll have to be more self-disciplined too. You must watch your reactions, emotions, your time spent with the toxic person, enforcing boundaries, and not getting sucked into their charm, confusion, or crazy-making. It definitely requires some discipline!
Some toxic people are family members or partners that we are connected to for the time being, or in some way must come into regular contact with. This is where I like to introduce energy work. It's not as complicated or mystical as it sounds.
Suppose you can't leave your partner tomorrow; you can begin to separate from them on an energetic level. For instance, in a "cord-cutting" meditation, you're guided through a visualization of breaking the bonds/cord between you and the other person. You'll feel some relief!
Toxic people feed on the energy you give them (Read, "Dodging Energy Vampires" by Christiane Northrup).
Every time they occupy your thoughts, whenever you over-explain yourself to them, communicate the same things over and over, get emotional about them, or try to fix them, you're giving away your precious energy.
Search for "cord-cutting guided meditations" on YouTube or visualize a symbolic separation while closing your eyes in meditation. This will help put the focus back on you, where it belongs.
I imagined a fiercely beautiful and wild stallion standing between me and the toxic person. I meditated on this several days in a row until I could see the bold horse, sense its powerful energy, standing its ground between that person and myself whenever it was needed, as if letting me know when and where to draw the line, and giving me the courage to do so.
Also playing with energy, you can simply notice what's your energy and what's theirs. You can do this with anyone. Are you being drawn into their drama? Are you matching their mood instead of feeling grounded in yourself? Your energy can become entangled with others if you're not aware of it.
Of course, you have to set boundaries, but most of all stay consistent with them. Understand why you want certain boundaries. Knowing why they're in place will give them meaning to you and consider your values so you're more likely to stick with them.
I've had encounters with toxic family members that when I have to engage with them, I am noting in my head, "that's theirs", "this is mine". When the toxic person is close to us either by proximity or relationship, it becomes hard to separate what's ours (wants, needs, emotions, thoughts) and what's theirs.
This may also indicate codependency. I suggest reading, "Codependent No More" by Melody Beattie or "Codependency for Dummies" by Darlene Lancer. A loss of self is always involved when you've been affected by a toxic person.
Pay attention to how you feel around them. Toxic people can make you feel off-balance, inferior, irresponsible, untidy, incapable, nagging, complicated, underserving, and unlovable. Once you realize how you feel rather than keeping up with their demands that you read them and know them, you'll begin to get a sense of self back.
Acceptance: I call this reality! If you were to accept this person for who they are, and they would never change, what then will you do? It helps to take action on what is rather than what could be. The human heart is plentiful in hope, but hope doesn't heal a toxic person.
Acceptance is the most powerful tool you have against a toxic person- acceptance of who they are. They really don't want you to see who they are. If you did, you'd expose their truth and leave them alone. That's why they have crazy-making behaviors like sometimes show you love, to get what they want. Or pretend to listen but continue their hurtful behavior. They want to keep you guessing yourself, so you don't see them for who they are.
Truly see who they are so that you can see yourself again, for the beautiful soul that you are.
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
© 2022 L Izett