A few days ago, we found out that a friend tested positive for Covid. While this is certainly scary, she only has mild symptoms so far, and I am hopeful that this will prove to be a mild case.
She has two small children, and I originally connected with the family because her (now ex) husband is a fellow vet. Several years ago he and I hung out quite a bit, and talked frequently about our military experience, struggling with PTSD, and our hopes for the future. It felt like we were both on a journey toward healing, and I thought that he was a well meaning guy trying to find his way.
I was wrong.
His ex (who is still very much a friend) told us that when she found out she was Covid positive that she was hoping this guy would be willing to let the kids stay with him. Although she had only mild symptoms, having the kids stay with their dad would help them be safer, and giver her the time and space she needed to get better. He refused. He didn’t want them to come stay with him because they had been “exposed.”
Looking back, it was clear in hindsight that this guy had always been toxic. The signs were there from the first moments I interacted with him.
All of this happened a few days after another person in my extended circle made a publicly toxic ass of themselves. In that case, I knew they were toxic. But there is nothing quite like seeing someone confirm that loudly and publicly, hurting dozens of people in the process. I have seen it happen a few times now, and it is always heartbreaking.
All at the end of 4 years under the “leadership” of perhaps the single most toxic person to ever rise to high political office in this country. And there is a lot of toxicity to choose from in our history.
One of the things I think about a lot is how to recognize toxic people, so that I can take steps to either avoid them or protect myself. The challenge for me is that having a narcissist parent warps your sense for these things. I haven’t always been good at recognizing toxicity, and I have been even worse about drawing boundaries when I did recognize it.
As I have thought about the nature of the toxic people I have interacted with, however, a few consistent attributes emerged. There are some things that all toxic people do, red flags that indicate that they are not someone who can or should be trusted.
It should be pointed out that these are things that could describe all of us at various points of our life. If we are being truly honest with ourselves we all know that there are times that we are not our best selves, and there are people and situations where we have been, if not toxic, at least very unpleasant. What makes toxic people different is that they are relentlessly difficult, over many situations and in many different relationships. Second chances don’t really matter when you are toxic. You could get 100 chances and the outcomes won’t change. Fortunately, most of us aren’t like that.
Here are the 5 Signs Someone is Toxic.
1st Sign Someone is Toxic
Drama surrounds them.
There is an apocryphal saying that is frequently called a Chinese proverb or curse. It’s not. There is no evidence in the phrase appearing in any Chinese literature, and there isn’t even a direct Mandarin translation of the phrase. Nonetheless, “may you live in interesting times” has lodged itself in our collective cultural memory.
And for good reason. There is something uniquely distressing about living in an interesting time. The last year will be one written about and studied for decades to come. It doesn’t mean that it has been pleasant to live through. The deeper truth is that all times are interesting. We are human beings. We just kind of find our way into dramatic situations. And if they don’t exist naturally we’ll make ‘em up.
And there is a difference between the busyness and the cacophony of an interesting life and the drama that surrounds people who are toxic. They seem almost enveloped by it, and every situation that they are a part of becomes fraught with conflict and challenge even - and this is an important distinction - where there is no need or place for drama.
If someone consistently derails routine staff meetings, turns day care pickup into Peyton Place, or infuses the church potluck with rumor and innuendo, chances are they are toxic, or have toxic tendencies. Toxic people thrive on chaos. They need it like most of us need air. They can’t live without it.
If someone is constantly surrounded by drama, be concerned.
2nd Sign Someone is Toxic
They don’t take responsibility. Ever.
We all screw up. We all make mistakes. We all do things we wish we hadn’t or say things that hurt. We lose our temper, we show our ass (in some cases literally), and we generally behave poorly. And when we do, we apologize.
When I was still in the “bad choices” phase of my life, I developed a ritual. I would wake up early, hung over. I would make a cup of coffee, walk upstairs to the bedroom, and wake Barb up for a 5am confession of sins. I would apologize for whatever crazy shit I had done the night before and promise to be better. I always meant it. I was always genuinely sorry. It just took a while for it to take.
Healthy people (or even those on the road to healthy) take responsibility for their bad choices. They apologize when they hurt someone. They make an effort to be better. That doesn’t mean that they always succeed. But they try. And they own their mistakes.
People who are toxic don’t. They do not take ownership or responsibility for failure. At all. Ever. They will show up if credit is being given, often loudly and out front. They never miss a spotlight. But of there is blame to go around, they will always find a way to avoid it.
If you are in a relationship with someone who constantly says “it’s not my fault” to every possible situation and avoids culpability like I avoid clowns, then I would be extremely cautious.
Toxic people are allergic to responsibility.
3rd Sign Someone is Toxic
They are always the victim.
Toxic people do more than just avoid responsibility. They actively deflect blame onto others. Toxic people are professional victims.
Not only is nothing ever their fault, but in every situation a toxic person will claim to be the wronged party even when they are the one doing something wrong. Toxic people are able to do blame judo, transforming any allegation into someone else’s responsibility.
One of the biggest indicators of this victim mentality is the inability of toxic people to say that they are sorry. Most of the time it is because they are truly not sorry. They legitimately believe that they are the ones who have been wronged.
When someone constantly claims to be the one harmed, hurt, harassed, or belittled, be cautious. It may very well be that they are a good person who is on a really shitty run of bad luck and needs extra love and care. It could also be that they are toxic.
4th Sign Someone is Toxic
They are inconsistent and unpredictable.
I am an alcoholic. Today, I have been sober for 1770 days - assuming I make it to the end of the day, which I have every intention of doing.
There are many things that come with having an active addiction, but the one that probably does the most damage is that you are simply unstable and unpredictable. We all have natural fluctuations in our ability to connect, get things done, and be present. Sometimes we function pretty well, sometimes less so, but most of us stay within a fairly narrow band. The rails that help guide you into that band are obliterated by addiction. You are pinging from one thing to the next constantly. There were days where I was one of the best people in the world. There were days I passed out in the neighbor’s front yard. Addiction and unpredictability go together like biscuits and gravy.
You know what else goes with unpredictability? Toxicity. Toxic people are constantly pinging between being relatively capable and completely dysfunctional. In fact, one of the things that can make people who are toxic hard to deal with is that there are times when they seem okay. They seem to be working on themselves, getting better, finding stability. So you trust them and give them a second chance, only to end up burned again and again.
When you are dealing with a toxic person you may do something on Monday that causes them to give you attention and praise and gratitude, then do the exact same thing on Thursday and get anger, rebuke, and criticism.
If you have someone in your life who is like a box of chocolates, be concerned. They may be toxic.
5th Sign Someone is Toxic
Dealing with them is deflating.
My daughter Liz is an introvert. My wife and I are both extroverts, and while introvert and extrovert exist along a spectrum, Barb and I are both pretty outgoing most of the time. Liz tends to be much more closed off.
For a long time this created a lot of difficulty and tension. We had calibrated our parenting around the idea that extroversion was normative. We just kind of expected that the things that motivated and appealed to us would motivate and appeal to our kids. And that mostly worked. Until Liz.
We read the books Quiet and The Highly Sensitive Child, and that helped remind us of a truth about introverts that we had forgotten. We as extroverts find social interaction energizing. Talking to people fills us up. For Liz, as an introvert, it was the opposite. Talking to people, navigating social situations, and constant interactions were draining. They took away her energy.
When I talked to her about it, I shared this insight, and I promised to work harder to understand her perspective. She told me that it wasn’t every interaction that drained her. She truly enjoyed seeing her friends and the people she loved. It may have been most, but it wasn’t all. She helped remind me that everyone has relationships that fill them and build them up.
One of the surest signs that you are dealing with someone who is toxic is that they leave you feeling defeated and deflated. Talking with them drains you of energy. You can feel exhausted and emotionally worn out after talking to them - even when the conversation goes well. Obviously, there are some conversations with even wonderful people that may leave you feeling that way, especially if they are about something emotional or heavy. But if you find yourself dreading a call or a conversation with someone about something that should be simple, basic, or routine, be aware. You may be dealing with someone who is toxic.
We all have toxic people in our life. They are all around us. Some may not even realize that they are toxic. They may be suffering from addiction or mental illness. And those people can find help. It is possible for some toxic people to reduce or even eliminate toxicity.
For many, that is not a possibility. They are simply unable to recognize or admit the need to change. They will continue to be toxic and do hurtful things no matter how many chances they are given. These people should be avoided insofar as that is possible.
Someone else’s toxicity is not your fault. Even more importantly, it is not your responsibility.
The good news is that you get to choose who you surround yourself with, and you can always choose to go a different way.