Why Toxic People Drive You Mad
They'll drag you down as long as you let them.
Posted September 11, 2014 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
In toxic relationships, one party often feels wounded by the other. Such dynamics exist in families, romantic relationships, and among friends, co-workers, and bosses.
Toxic people hurt others with their worlds, often unintentionally but sometimes on purpose. They may feel bad about themselves, so they make other people around them feel bad, too. Misery loves (or deserves) company, they seem to feel.
Toxic relationships are often characterized by hurtful remarks, constant sarcasm, belittling behaviors, or passive-aggressive interactions. The hallmark of being in a toxic relationship is feeling bad after being around the other person, though not always knowing quite why. If you feel a sense of dread when you see a friend's number appear on your phone, or feel uneasy when required to meet with a certain co-worker or supervisor, because you always feel fearful, angry, or frustrated after you talk, that's a toxic person for you. They may lack empathy and can be narcissistically-entitled, meaning that if you feel bad as a result of an encounter with them, they'd say it's your fault, not theirs.
How do toxic people invade your life? Slowly at first, then all at once. Some relationships degrade over time into toxicity because of a conflict, but others are toxic from the start, with those on the receiving end rationalizing their poor treatment as just the other's personality quirk or eccentricity. They may say, "I like this person, except when he does X or Y," but those things actually happen quite regularly. Others may ask them, "Why do you let her treat you that way or say those things?" but they don't have a good answer.
People are social creatures, especially in the workplace, where the need to fit in and have friends and colleagues you like or at least can tolerate is a necessity, since we spend so much time with them. Most of us start out wanting to feel good about other people. We can misread our own intuitive signals about the possibility of toxicity in another person, in the interest of wanting to be friends or at least to co-exist.
In dating relationships, the old adage is generally true: If it's bad in the beginning and bad in the middle, it's going to end badly. It's rare that people who couldn't stand each other at the start of a relationship live happily ever after.
Toxic people cause stress in others, through shouting, losing their temper inappropriately, or being mean and saying horrible things, which they often apologize but later say again anyway. This stress can manifest itself in those on the receiving end as headaches, neck aches, back pain, stomach problems, general anxiety, nagging illnesses, or eating and sleeping problems.
When you say, "My horrible relatives are coming to town for the weekend. I'll bet it's going to be a lousy time," it typically turns out to be just as bad as you predicted. We don't have such expectations about positive, supportive, empowering people; we look forward to their visits.
The mind-body connection between stress and our physical health is clear: Stress on the inside causes stress to manifest on the outside. People having trouble managing stress may hurt themselves with food, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, or prescription or illegal drugs. They can grind their teeth, become sleep-deprived, and even develop autoimmune or digestive issues.
Someone in a toxic relationship is like a person in a small boat that's sinking; the more he or she tries to bail out, the faster the boat goes down. There is little sense in hanging on and waiting for the other person to change—without consequences for their behavior, a therapy intervention, or actual signs that they are willing to save the relationship by acting differently immediately. All motivation is self-motivation. If toxic people don't see reasons to change—such as the threat of losing their job, spouse, kids, friends, or family—they won't.
There are options for people dealing with toxic relationships at work: Accept the situation and the other person's behavior as toxic, rise above it, and don't let him or her grind you down; confront such colleagues with direct feedback and ask them not to say or do certain things around you that you find hurtful; or ask your boss or human resources representative for a consultation about how to work more effectively with such co-workers or supervisors. Some people just transfer or quit, and feel better the moment they do.
Many organizations have Employee Assistance Program professionals to help with the stressors that come from toxic home or work relationships. Getting help from a licensed clinician can help you feel empowered and back in control of your life. It helps to have patience and to embrace perspective: I know I'm a good person and that this is not about me; it's about the toxic person.
What’s the long-term impact when toxic people finally leave you alone or leave your life? Longtime friendships or work relationships that have derailed because of toxic behaviors can be painful. Some people feel angry at themselves that they let the relationship go on too long, or that they rationalized bad behavior in the hope that the other person would change. Others feel sad that they wasted time, energy, and bad feelings on someone who did not treat them with respect.
We always feel better when have the courage to let these people out of our lives.
Dr. Steve Albrecht can be reached at DrSteve@DrSteveAlbrecht.com or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht.