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How to Recognize Toxic Individuals and Toxic Relationships

Learning how to avoid toxic individuals can increase your happiness.

Kristen Fuller
Source: Kristen Fuller

Lately I've been reflecting on some of my toxic relationships, past and present. From friends and boyfriends to co-workers and even relatives, I have witnessed a lot of toxic and hurtful behaviors among a few individuals in my life who, at one time or another, have professed that they truly cared about me. Over this past weekend, I also saw spiteful behaviors and heard very hurtful words that made me take a step back and question some individuals who are in my life.

Throughout my medical training and journey through life, I have learned how to easily recognize red flags, cut ties with toxic people, and most importantly forgive those who have hurt me, even if they are not aware of their actions. Letting go, loving yourself, and moving on is sometimes the best recipe to exit these toxic relationships.

For those who are wondering if they are surrounded by toxicity, I offer lessons in psychology about recognizing toxic individuals and toxic behaviors.

The term toxic is defined as “containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation,” according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The word is often used to describe chemicals, but it is also commonly used to describe people and relationships.

Most of us have been involved in a toxic relationship at one time or another in our lifetimes. We all have been in the company of others who did not act for the greater good of anyone besides themselves. Toxicity comes in all forms: name-calling, physical abuse, lying, gossip and all the internal turmoil that results from being in an unhealthy relationship. Whether it is a personal relationship involving a family member, lover or a friend, or a professional relationship involving a co-worker or a boss, toxic relationships can damage and leave long-lasting effects on the person involved in one.

Why it matters

Relationships are two-way streets that involve helping each other throughout the journey without any expectation of gaining anything in return except for a lending hand when the tables are turned. Many people assume the word "relationship" refers to a romantic relationship between two people. This assumption is false as relationships can be between any two people and toxicity can be presented between siblings, co-workers, friends, or lovers.

As humans, we are social beings who thrive on companionship and deteriorate on loneliness, according to psychological studies. Entering into a toxic relationship can result in severe inner conflict that can potentially lead to anger, depression or anxiety. It is important to recognize the red flags associated with toxic individuals and toxic relationships in order to prevent any unnecessary emotional and mental turmoil.

How does this individual treat others?

Look at how the person treats the people closest to him or her. Does he or she speak badly about family members, or display signs of aggression toward parents, friends or co-workers? Is the person in constant conflict with other people? You may feel as though this person is always coming to you complaining about others, whether it’s a constant fight with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or an inability to get along with his or her mother. Is this person using you as an emotional punching bag to take out his or her frustrations and conflicts with others on you? If so, then you may want to take a step back to gain insight into this situation and re-evaluate the purpose of this relationship. The best decision may be to walk away if the person lacks insight and is unwilling to change.

How does this individual deal with conflict?

In general, most people do not enjoy dealing with conflict. It can be difficult to communicate your feelings and make yourself vulnerable in a relationship when you have disagreements. However, relationships do grow as you learn to deal with and resolve conflict. If a person refuses to address issues or refuses to communicate or apologize for his or her actions, then the individual may be portraying toxic behavior. Additionally, if this person acts spiteful after the conflict and spreads rumors or speaks poorly about you, then that is a major red flag. A person who truly cares for you will try to make amends and not sever the relationship. You can learn a lot about someone’s character by observing how he or she deals with conflict.

How does this individual make you feel when you are together?

When you are together, does this person talk about himself or herself the whole time? Does he or she verbally put down others or gossip? Does the person make you feel happy about spending time together, or do you feel burdened? Are you walking on eggshells because you are scared to upset this other person? Take a moment to reflect on the time you spend with this person to determine how you feel after each experience. If you feel more miserable than happy when you spend time together, then you may need to set personal boundaries and take a step back from this person in order to protect yourself. This is not selfish, but rather an act of self-love.

Does this individual make you feel important?

Does this person go out of his or her way to cause you grief, or does the individual hurt you when you are already down? Does the person trivialize things that are important to you? Does he or she ignore your requests and needs? If you are having more stressful and bad moments than good moments when you are with someone, this may be a sign of a toxic relationship.

Kristen Fuller
Source: Kristen Fuller

Red flags associated with a toxic relationship

  • Lying
  • Apathetic
  • Narcissistic personality
  • Refusal to deal with conflict
  • Unapologetic
  • Not willing to admit their mistakes
  • Constantly blaming others
  • Any form of abuse
  • Talking poorly about others
  • Controlling
  • Manipulative
  • Refusal to listen to your concerns

No easy solutions

Recognizing and admitting that you are in a toxic relationship may be difficult, as many people are blinded by love and temporary happiness. Additionally, many people feel they may be lonely without that friend, lover or sibling. They might even intellectually recognize a toxic person or situation, but their emotions end up having more influence over their decisions than their intellect.

In fact, many people who grew up in toxic homes find it hard to accept loving relationships, because they’re not familiar with them. In these cases, familiarity breeds comfort rather than contempt. It is easier for others to see the toxicity.

One of the most difficult therapeutic problems I see is helping patients who have been preyed upon, or “toxified,” to accept a kind and loving experience without fleeing. They are attracted to what is familiar, more toxic relationships, which they often experience as normal. It may be scary for them to cut these ties. It’s sad, but true, that they may even believe what the toxic person said about them, that they’re stupid, ugly, worthless, or whatever. The good news is that this toxicity can be reversed with therapy, self-love, setting boundaries, establishing positive relationships, and self-help groups.

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