I usually don’t write a follow-up blog but the topic of toxic people seems to be an important issue for many people given the thousands of views and the numerous comments the blog received. I want to say how much I appreciate the thought-provoking and heartfelt comments that were posted. I’m very impressed that people took time to report their experiences as well as commenting on what others said. And I’m very grateful that all of the comments were respectful, given so many different points of view and experience. This makes for very meaningful dialogue, something we can all learn from.
Let me just say that any article or blog should never be taken as the definitive final word. Writing on any one topic could fill several books and I believe that any one article or blog is meant to give the most general overview of a topic. I know that may be disappointing to some who are looking for answers and at times, people have been downright angry because their expectations for what they hoped to find in a given article/blog fell flat in their opinion. I make no claims to know it all but rather hope to give some good information and perhaps, as with this particular blog, provoke discussion.
“Toxic” is obviously not a formal psychological term but rather is descriptive of how people often feel when dealing with certain individuals. Toxic describes interactions where boundaries are often blurred, where individuals themselves and/or their behaviors are felt to be difficult, challenging, demanding, often adversarial. Toxic relationships are not fueled by mutual care and support but are often skewed to accommodate an individual’s needs and demands. Needless to say, these are not healthy relationships and often, whether meaning to or not, toxic behaviors chip away at the equality of the participants and corrupt whatever could be good in a relationship.
There were several comments about personality disorders that fit these traits “to a tee”, as many noted. It wasn’t my intention to single out specific personality types. For sure, these traits may be evident in certain personality disorders but they can be seen in many other situations and may be the cumulative result of upbringing and early conditioning, beliefs, life circumstances and past experiences (especially with relationships), etc.
I’d like to comment on some of the points made in order to clarify some issues and perhaps, shed some more light on this topic.
In no way did I mean to imply that individuals who exhibit toxic traits are not human beings who deserve the same understanding and compassion we would all want to receive. Unhealthy traits should not define the people who exhibit them, but unfortunately, these traits do get in the way in relationship. While we all need to be sensitive to the fact that many of these people may have had and/or are having a hard time in life, we also need to balance this with the consequences their behavior has upon those with whom they are in relationship.
People with big problems deserve attention, but past experiences and dramas don’t absolve them from making the effort to work on their problems instead of attempting to pull others into their issues and dramas. Obviously, this takes some kind of insight which is not always there. As some noted, people may display “survivor behaviors” and that may explain why they behave the way they do and why they feel justified to behave the way they do. However, making people responsible for someone else’s past is clearly never the solution.
The idea that we can fix someone else, and/or the idea that people displaying these traits believe you can and should fix them is inherently a bad idea, no matter what the circumstances. Understand, it may take years to work out problems. Some people don’t even recognize they have problems to begin with and some may refuse to address them at all even if they do acknowledge problems exist. Staying involved with people who constantly try our patience, attempt to involve us in unhealthy interactions, undermine our own beliefs, and demand allegiance to their own cause above all else is a painful and exhausting ordeal, to say the very least. If you feel bad about yourself and/or your interactions around certain people most of the time, or you dread having to interact with them at all, that’s a big red flag.
Certainly, if you are able to change the way you perceive and process behavior that is challenging, you can modify how you interact with people who are difficult to be around in order to better suit your own needs. As long as you are able to have a some kind of dialogue the relationship may benefit. Obviously, certain situations and relationships warrant continued work because it’s not so easy to just up and walk away. These include family members who may be difficult to divorce or break away from, or colleagues at work when you need a job to live.
Stay compassionate if you’re able, but leave the hard work to the professionals. People are capable of change but you don’t have to stick around until they do. That’s not your job or obligation. Sometimes it’s even hard for therapists to treat people who have little insight about themselves and are unwilling to change. It’s an interesting thing that when a therapist is first starting out they will often take on as many new patients as they can, often without understanding what they may be getting into; in other words they get in over their heads. And often referrals are made to young therapists just getting started, of patients many seasoned therapists won’t take on because the more experienced professionals have worked with their fair share of patients like this and experience has taught them that enough is enough. Of course, there are some therapists who work beautifully with these patients and succeed with them when others don’t.
As for parents teaching their children about how to deal with difficult people and unhealthy relationships, well, that’s a complicated issue. Frankly, many people don’t know how to advise their children about people and situations they may encounter through life. In an ideal world, parents’ life experiences and insights about themselves can be helpful to their children. Open dialogue/discussions within a family can teach children about various life situations they will encounter and useful ways to deal with different people and situations in the real world.
We all have our own personal issues and problems. The hope for many of us is that we are able to work out what troubles and prevents us from living our best life. We are grateful when we find ourselves in relationship with people who are willing to help, support, and encourage us. And we want to do the same in return.
When the word “toxic” is used it often describes the more extreme end of the spectrum. It’s when we’re engaged with people who continue to challenge us in a big way, who are unwilling to entertain a point of view different from their own, who are incapable of imagining what it’s like to walk in our shoes, and who demand our undivided attention, that we need to recognize that a line has been crossed, that our boundaries have been violated. Sociopathic and psychopathic behaviors take us to the very end of the spectrum where lying, stealing, cheating and manipulating are the norm and we are no longer in control of the relationship, and often, of our own life.
While compassion is always in order, it’s essential to understand when it’s time to end a relationship that leaves no room for us. How long will you allow yourself to stay in a relationship that won’t nurture you and is often downright abusive? How much is enough?