Toxic People, Part III

Revisiting the conversation.

Posted Jan 19, 2019

I sometimes revisit articles I’ve written in the past, especially when the topic has interested many people and, even more so, when the article has sparked debate. 8 Things the Most Toxic People in Your Life Have in Common, Part I was just such an article. In fact, Part II was written to address some of the issues raised by those who read the first article and had an opinion or point of view they wanted to address.

As I recently read over these two articles I realized there was a lot more I wanted to say about the topic and I also felt that there were some misunderstandings and misinterpretations because important information hadn’t been included. So, Part III. And if there’s still more after this article, I hope you’ll let me know and I will address those issues.

Somewhere along the line, some comments indicated that some people believed that toxic people referred to certain personality disorders, most specifically borderline personality disorder. The only personality disorder I referred to briefly was narcissistic personality disorder. “Toxic,” as it was used, does not equate with a personality disorder.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, “a personality disorder is a way of thinking, feeling and behaving that deviates from the expectations of the culture, causes distress or problems functioning, and lasts over time.” As you might expect, personality is influenced by one’s environment, experiences, and to some degree, may be inherited. While we all have our own unique personality, and we are each different from the next person, that in itself will not cause dysfunction and/or distress. Yet, many people have enough difficulty dealing with how they think about and relate to themselves, how they relate to others, how they emotionally respond and how they are able to control the way they behave that it does cause distress and dysfunction in their lives and relationships.

For the sake of clarification, let’s briefly review the 10 personality disorders. These 10 can be grouped into 3 very general categories: suspicious, emotional and impulsive, and anxious. The “suspicious” category includes schizoid personality disorder where one chooses to be alone, detached from others, and has difficulty expressing emotion; schizotypal personality disorder where one has a hard time getting close to others and is often described as somewhat “odd” in their beliefs, behaviors, and/or speech; paranoid personality type trusts very few, if any, assuming people are out to deceive and harm them; and antisocial personality disorder is just what it sounds like, going against the norms of society, often lying and deceiving others.

The “anxious” category includes obsessive compulsive, avoidant, and dependent personality disorders. The obsessive compulsive personality type is preoccupied with perfectionism and control in much of what they do, so much so that there may be little time for anything or anyone else; avoidant personality disorder sounds like what it is — people limit their social involvement because of feelings of inadequacy and fear of rejection and criticism; and the dependent personality type can’t make crucial decisions and often feel helpless to live life on their own.

The “emotional and impulsive” includes histrionic, borderline, and narcissistic personality disorders. The histrionic personality type often demonstrates exaggerated emotion and constantly seeks to gain attention; borderline personality disorder shows “a pattern of instability in personal relationships, intense emotions, poor self-image and impulsivity.” The narcissistic personality type demonstrates the need for attention, less because they are needy but rather have an exaggerated sense of self-importance, a feeling of grandiosity and entitlement. However, the favor is not returned to others since there is often a lack of empathy.

So the point is, it’s a very complicated issue; there isn’t any one personality disorder that explains or equates with “toxic.” And to further complicate matters, an individual may display characteristics or qualities of more than one personality disorder.  In addition, each personality disorder runs the gamut from mild to extreme. So not one size fits all and we have to be very careful not to define a person by the traits/characteristics that describe any psychological/emotional disorder. These are simply guidelines. As someone commented, people are still people regardless of what disorder they have.

Which then leads to my next point. While there were many who commented that limiting relationships with hard-to-impossible people, people considered toxic to the relationship (meaning the relationship was deeply strained, painful, and stressful) was essential to maintaining one’s own stability and sanity, others felt this was a very harsh way to treat another human being, one who probably needed kindness, patience, and understanding the most. On the side for limiting contact with, or walking away from, certain difficult individuals is the argument that, although we are all selfish from time to time, there’s a big problem if a person can’t see beyond their own needs and is not able or willing to walk in someone else’s shoes. That lack of empathy or just not caring is a big red flag.

There seems to be agreement by many that challenging (toxic) people are treatable only if they believe they have a problem — which, many feel, they rarely do. There is a general sense that they have no interest in therapy or change. In fact, they often see themselves as innocent and frequently play the victim. Rather than continue to engage difficult people who can test your patience on an ongoing basis, many feel it’s best to cut your losses, break your ties after everything they can do has been done, and try to live your life without constant stress and aggravation.

On the other hand, some vehemently defend those demonstrating “toxic” behavior. They feel that putting up boundaries isolates these individuals; that categorizing them as “toxic” only serves to separate them from others. Some feel that these individuals have sustained trauma, that they have been affected by toxicity themselves and that they suffer from a “stigmatized disorder,” as someone referred to it, when in fact, they are in most need of professional help and caring.

So, what can we do to change the conversation and the perception? What can we do to help? What is your experience? Success stories? I’d like to hear from you.