Toxic People: How to Recognize and Avoid Them
Narcissists, frenemies, and chronic complainers cause interpersonal disasters.
Posted Nov 03, 2019
Early in my career, I was collaborating with a senior colleague to write a research grant. As we discussed previous research, I was particularly critical of other researchers. My colleague, who was also an early mentor in other aspects of my life, brought an abrupt end to my comments. In a supportive but rather blunt way, he simply said, “There are two types of people, those who contribute and those who detract. You must learn that the best way to build your career and your life is through your own achievements, not by attacking the achievements of others. People will always remember what type of person you are, and they will trust or distrust you accordingly.”
Seldom have I heard words that were truer or more genuinely wise. People who have only criticism to offer are soon forgotten—those who contribute in a constructive way become part of history. This admonition applies not only to how we conduct ourselves, it has important implications for how we choose our friends and those we choose to trust. In planning the course of your life, surround yourself with those who are kind and supportive in presence and possess a good heart. Above all things, avoid those people with toxic personalities. Based upon the work of the great personologist Dr. Theodore Millon, we can gain insight into who those people might be.
Pick Your Friends Carefully
“Friendship makes prosperity more shining and lessens adversity by dividing and sharing it,” according to the philosopher Cicero. Research has consistently shown that the support of others is the single best factor predicting human resilience. But choose your friends carefully. As Max Ehrmann famously noted, “Exercise caution…for the world is full of trickery" (Max Ehrman, 1927, Desiderata). Betrayal is a pain that lasts a lifetime. Those who betray others will betray you. So, be selective when choosing your friends.
Consistency of behavior can be a clue in picking reliable friends. As a psychologist, I have been trained in the diagnostic assessment of people and their behavior. This often means that I have to assess a person’s integrity, honesty, and trustworthiness as part of a job application or security clearance. I’ve spent thousands of hours refining my skills, but the most powerful tool I ever learned was taught to me in a 5-minute conversation.
Dr. Henry Murray was a biochemist and physician who founded the Boston Psychoanalytic Society. He chaired the Harvard Psychological Clinic and developed the Thematic Apperception Test, one of the most widely used psychological tests in the world. Though he had invented this powerful psychological test, he once confided to me, “There is nothing more powerful than the well-phrased question.”
Let me share with you the two most helpful questions I’ve learned to assess the actions of another person. If someone does something that is highly questionable, seems inappropriate, or just plain wrong, rather than immediately offering an excuse for them and dismissing the action, simply ask yourself these questions:
- “Have they ever done this before?” The answer to this question will help you distinguish an honest mistake from an enduring pattern of behavior. Everyone makes mistakes. A mistake is what they did. Repeating the same behavior several times is no longer a “mistake,” it may be who they are.
- Then ask, “What type of person behaves like that?” In other words: “What type of person does what that person just did?” The answer to this question gets to the core issue of whether this is the type of person you want as a friend, acquaintance, business partner, or even as a spouse!
I will suggest that the answers to these questions can tell you a lot about whether this person is potentially a toxic personality or one who actually deserves your friendship.
Warning: Avoid Toxic People!
Just as the environment has its toxins, humanity includes people who consistently do toxic things. Recognizing and avoiding toxic people is an essential skill to learn as early in life as possible.
Toxic people can spread unhappiness and personal suffering. They ultimately poison things with which they come in touch: other people, careers, businesses, marriages, and especially children. These people are often virtually immune to insight, remorse, or lasting positive change. I’m not talking about people with criminal personalities, but rather people who live and work with us every day.
There are at least four basic types of toxic people: the narcissistic-aggressive person, the “frenemy,” the negative-complaining person, and the seductive, overly-dramatic person. Let’s take a closer look and see if you can recognize any of these folks in your daily life.
The Narcissistic-Aggressive Person
Aggressive and selfish individuals tend to be adventurous and risk-taking. They are superficially charming, glib, and exciting. Inclined to be possessive, verbally abusive, and sometimes even physically abusive, they tend to be controlling and intimidating towards other people. They seek out friends and partners of the opposite sex who tend to be needy and look up to them. They tend to see themselves as assertive, rather than aggressive. They have a sense of entitlement that leads to remarkable selfishness. As a result, their entitled selfishness extends to usurping the rights of others as if it was their God-given prerogative.
Rules, and sometimes even laws, are acceptable only if they do not keep them from doing something they want to do; otherwise, such rules and laws are seen as not being applicable to them. People who have low self-esteem are often targeted by, and sometimes even attracted to, these types of people because they see them as protectors. The protection soon wanes and verbal and physical abuse often follows.
The frenemy is a person who seems like a friend, but is not. They will often act like a friend, especially when you are in times of need. But beware. Their desire to help is not based upon altruism or true concern for others, rather, they derive a sense of self-worth and often superiority from assisting others who are worse off. The frenemy reveals themselves when you experience happiness and success. Frenemies will then often become jealous, passive-aggressive, and intolerant when faced with the happiness and success of others. They may even try to sabotage your happiness, or they will simply distance themselves. It appears in reality frenemies are insecure and enhance their own self-esteem by surrounding themselves with people who are worse off.
The Negative-Complaining Person
The negative/complaining person never seems really happy. Nothing is ever good enough for them (that’s the negative part), and they are more than willing to let you know about it (that’s the complaining part). They appear pleasant on a superficial level, but the longer you know them, the more erratic their behavior becomes, and it is often interspersed with an obstinate or manipulative quality. They have mastered the use of passive-aggressive behavior as a means of making everyone else as unhappy as they are (“misery loves company.")
Passive-aggressive behavior is aggression that is masked so as to avoid retaliation. For example, a person might say, “Gee, I really like your new dress. That style was popular 5 to 10 years ago, wasn’t it?” Even though the negative person has insulted someone with a new dress by suggesting it is out of style, if challenged they can always say, “But, I said I really liked it.” In general, these people are cynical and pessimistic.
The Seductive, Overly-Dramatic Person
The seductive, overly-dramatic person can be great fun. Often the life of the party, they are usually physically attractive, charming, and exciting. They do things to attract attention, which might include sexually flirtatious, seductive actions and dress. They are often risk-takers.
Sadly many of these individuals are painfully insecure, and this pattern of behavior is actually a way of compensating for their insecurity. These people are usually quite superficial. They judge themselves and others by external criteria, such as what they have, how they look, and who they know. Unfortunately, the classic mid-life crisis is inevitable. The craving for attention, as a remedy for insecurity, becomes obsessional and self-destructive, but not until they have consumed and discarded the people around them.
By seeking true friendships, you will avoid the toxic. Here are some simple guidelines that may help you avoid toxic people. Look for people who show true friendship and remember the following:
1. Friendship is based upon mutual trust.
2. Friendship is based upon fidelity. Promises don’t have expiration dates!
3. Friendship is based upon kindness. People are often judged by the manner in which they treat others, for as one treats others, so they will treat you.
4. Friendship is based upon loyalty. People will eventually hear whatever is said about them. Friends say kind things and are complimentary especially in the absence of the other person. One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those who are not present. In doing so, we build the trust of those who are present. (Stephen Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People).
5. Friendship is based upon honoring others. One of the greatest gifts one can give another person is to honor them and help them feel important.
6. Most importantly, friendship is based upon being of assistance when needed. Thus, friendship means assisting others in times of need and expecting nothing in return. Friendship means giving that which is difficult to give and to do so without resentment or regret.
So by now, you’ve discovered you have very few friends and a lot of acquaintances. That’s very common. What’s most important is avoiding interpersonal toxicity. Keep these principles in mind when next considering whom to embrace as a friend.
© George S. Everly, Jr., Ph.D., 2019.
Millon, T. & Everly, G.S., Jr. (1985). Personality and its disorder. New York, NY: Wiley.