Whether in social situations or the workplace, we will encounter people who exhibit toxic behavior. Ironically, we know the signs, but even The Psychotherapist's Guide to Neuropsychiatry: Diagnosis and Treatment Issues has no mention of such behavior in the table of contents.
What comes closest to defining the behavior, however, can be found under "The Anxious Cluster of Personality Disorders," (p.353). With toxic behavior—whether stemming from tendencies that include obsessive-compulsive disorders or passive-aggression, for example—there are recognizable scenarios. People with toxic behavior will often be disrespectful of boundaries. They may speak critically of others or rudely to others. Some may frequently interrupt people who are in conversation. The worst will likely manipulate others to meet their own needs, or undercut colleagues or friends to their own advantage.
First, in her PT post, "8 Things the Most Toxic People in Your Life Have in Common," Abigail Brenner, M.D., says:
"Toxic people are manipulative. Their modus operandi is to get people to do what they want them to do. It’s all about them. They use other people to accomplish whatever their goal happens to be. Forget what you want; this is not about equality in a relationship—far from it.”
How Toxic People Affect You
Dealing with toxic people at work can be a challenge, particularly in a workplace with a toxic boss. There have been major studies assessing the problems of toxic environments and what leaders can do to address the problem which—if it remains unchecked—leads to reduced workplace productivity (e.g., "An Empirical Study Analyzing Job Productivity in Toxic Workplace Environments").
For many years, women struggled in the workplace and often found themselves sabotaged, frequently by another woman. An all-too-familiar scenario occurred when someone cozied up to a co-worker, plied her for secrets, and then shared the secrets with others in the department. In Sisterhood Betrayed, there are many interviews with women who were undercut by colleagues. The stories portray women "who feel the need to take from another a hard-earned position or place, who feel that in order to succeed, it is necessary to manipulate rather than create, to take rather than earn" (p 198). Women who are victims of this should be aware that such behavior can be manipulated by men behind the scenes.
How can a toxic person be handled? Confront without being confrontational. Point out the facts to the person. Remain free of emotion. Then walk away.
Protecting Yourself From a Toxic Personality
From a social perspective involving family, friends, and neighbors, most people rely on their instincts or a careful decision-making strategy. When encountering toxic people, here are six suggestions for dealing with them before resorting to the ultimate solution—cutting them out of your life.
- Understand how the person affects you. In many cases, the person is intrusive and annoying and has no problem interrupting when you are speaking to someone else. Be aware of this and do your best to avoid the person.
- Confront without being confrontational. Privately take this person aside. State the behavior that you find disturbing. Firmly point out that there will be consequences if it continues. Then, walk away before getting into a harmful exchange. This is effective when you catch a person being rude to others. When you see this, call them on it. (But know that they will deny such behavior and even lie about it and manipulate the story.)
- Be prepared for their drama. People who are needy and toxic almost always have a family drama to report and a list of ailments or perceived slights that they use as a way of evoking your sympathy. When they come into your space, put an immediate stop to the situation. Kindly but emphatically say, "I wish I had time to talk to you right now, but I don't. Maybe we can catch up another time."
- Make it a point to avoid toxic people. When the conversation is unavoidable, keep it short and then walk away. (You often will not need to engage in conversation, because toxic people prefer to hear themselves talk and are not really interested in what you have to say. However, when caught in a situation meant to tear at your heartstrings, offer sympathy and move on. )
- Set up firm boundaries. Remind people to call you before visiting. And when they disrespect your wishes, you may have to open the door and say, "I'm sorry. This is not a good time for me."
- Build a wall around yourself to stay safe. If you wish to remain in the friendship (or it's a working relationship and you have no choice), be prepared for frustrations. You may feel sorry for the person and want to help, but this is rarely possible.
Keep in mind that people with toxic personalities will not take “no” for an answer. They will quietly harass you until they get what they want from you: your friendship, time, or information. Sometimes such a person will just want to get enough information about you so as to use that information to gossip to others about you, as a way of pretending or imagining that you are "close friends."
In one of my books, I wrote: "If you see yourself in any of these scenarios, you probably should not admit to it." That said, the toxic person will not admit to seeing themselves as others do. There are many theories about toxic people and those who have a wish to help them. But according to Dr. Brenner: "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” (e.g., "Toxic People III").
Copyright 2019 Rita Watson
Ellison, J., et al, (1994) The Psychotherapist's Guide to Neuropsychiatry: Diagnostic and Treatment Issues 1st Edition, Washington, DC, and London, England, American Psychiatric Press. 1994
Anjum, A et al, (2018) An Empirical Study Analyzing Job Productivity in Toxic Workplace Environments, International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 2018 May; 15(5): 1035
Barber, J., Watson, R. Sisterhood Betrayed: Women in the Workplace and the All About Eve Complex, St. Martin's Press, New York, 1991.