A toxic person is incredibly hard to spot, even if you’re in a relationship with one. Toxic people are often so dangerous because they come in disguise.
So you might ask…
What is a toxic person?
There are many people with who have cluster B personality disorders and they don’t even know it. But anyone who has dated someone with an untreated cluster B personality disorder will tell you that surviving and getting out of such relationships is unimaginably difficult.
Dr. Jordan B. Peterson says about personality disorders:
People with personality disorders can have an uncanny effect on you, which is to say if you have a personality disorder you have a really potent expectation about how someone else will behave, usually like a son of a bitch. And if someone with a personality disorder encounters someone who doesn’t act like that, they’re a challenge to their belief system. People with personality disorders are very good at turning everyone they meet into the same person they already met. They do that, I think, by exchanging very subtle covert reinforcements. If you’re engaged with me and I have a personality disorder, every time you act properly I’ll ignore you or say something contemptuous or look away or do something quite subtle and every time you act like a miserable bastard I’ll at least pay some attention and possibly even reinforce you covertly. And you’ll find, if you get close to me, it’s almost like you’ve been distorted by a gravitational field where your behavior gets pulled in all these strange directions.
Typically toxic people have a narcissistic element to their personality.
The DSM-5 indicates that persons with NPD usually display some or all of the following symptoms, typically without the commensurate qualities or accomplishments:
- Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from other people
- Fixation on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
- Self-perception of being unique, superior, and associated with high-status people and institutions
- Need for continual admiration from others
- Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
- Exploitation of others to achieve personal gain
- Unwillingness to empathize with the feelings, wishes, and needs of other people
- Intense envy of others, and the belief that others are equally envious of them
- Constantly demeans, bullies and belittles others
Any of these feel familiar?
I recently read a book called Psychopath Free: Recovering from Emotionally Abusive Relationships With Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Other Toxic People. The ideas in the book are terrifying but barely talked about.
At the beginning of the book, the author lists 30 red flags found in toxic relationships. Take a look at this list, and ask yourself if you act in these ways, or have been in a relationship where these red flags were present.
These red flags do not exist in healthy relationships, period.
30 Red Flags in Toxic People
1. Gaslighting and crazy-making.
They blatantly deny their own manipulative behavior and ignore evidence when confronted with it. They become dismissive and critical if you attempt to disprove their fabrications with facts. Instead of them actually addressing their inappropriate behavior, somehow it always becomes your fault for being “sensitive” and “crazy.” Toxic people condition you to believe that the problem isn’t the abuse itself, but instead your reactions to their abuse.
2. A toxic person cannot put themselves in your shoes, or anyone else’s, for that matter.
You find yourself desperately trying to explain how they might feel if you were treating them this way, and they just stare at you blankly. You slowly learn not to communicate your feelings with them, because you’re usually met with silence or annoyance.
3. The ultimate hypocrite.
“Do as I say, not as I do.” They have extremely high expectations for fidelity, respect, and adoration. After the idealization phase, they will give none of this back to you. They will cheat, lie, criticize, and manipulate. But you are expected to remain perfect, otherwise, you will promptly be replaced and deemed unstable.
4. Pathological lying and excuses.
There is always an excuse for everything, even things that don’t require excusing. They make up lies faster than you can question them. They constantly blame others—it is never their fault. They spend more time rationalizing their behavior than improving it. Even when caught in a lie, they express no remorse or embarrassment. Oftentimes, it almost seems as if they wanted you to catch them.
5. Toxic people focus on your mistakes and ignores their own.
If they’re two hours late, don’t forget that you were once five minutes late to your first date. If you point out their inappropriate behavior, they will always be quick to turn the conversation back on you. You might begin to adopt perfectionist qualities, very aware that any mistake can and will be used against you.
6. You find yourself explaining the basic elements of human respect to a full-grown man or woman.
Normal people understand fundamental concepts like honesty and kindness. But a toxic person often appears to be childlike and innocent, but don’t let this mask fool you. No adult should need to be told how he or she is making other people feel.
7. Selfishness and a crippling thirst for attention.
They drain the energy from you and consume your entire life. Their demand for adoration is insatiable. You thought you were the only one who could make them happy, but now you feel that anyone with a beating pulse could fit the role. However, the truth is: no one can fill the void of a toxic person’s soul.
8. A toxic person accuses you of feeling emotions that they are intentionally provoking.
They call you jealous after blatantly flirting with an ex—often done over social networking for the entire world to see. They call you needy after intentionally ignoring you for days on end. They use your manufactured reactions to garner sympathy from other targets, trying to prove how “hysterical” you’ve become. You probably once considered yourself to be an exceptionally easygoing person, but an encounter with a toxic person will (temporarily) turn that notion upside down.
9. You find yourself playing detective.
It’s never happened in any other relationship, but suddenly you’re investigating the person you once trusted unconditionally. If they’re active on Facebook, you start scrolling back years on their posts and albums. Same with their ex. You’re seeking answers to a feeling you can’t quite explain.
10. You are the only one who sees their true colors.
No matter what they do, they always seem to have a fan club cheering for them. The toxic person uses these people for money, resources, and attention—but the fan club won’t notice, because this person strategically distracts them with shallow praise. Toxic personalities are able to maintain superficial friendships far longer than relationships.
11. You fear that any fight could be your last.
Normal couples argue to resolve issues, but a toxic person will make it clear that negative conversations will jeopardize the relationship, especially ones regarding their behavior. Any of your attempts to improve communication will typically result in the silent treatment. You apologize and forgive quickly, otherwise, you know they’ll lose interest in you.
12. Toxic people slowly and steadily erodes your boundaries.
They criticize you with a condescending, joking sort of attitude. They smirk when you try to express yourself. Teasing becomes the primary mode of communication in your relationship. They subtly belittle your intelligence and abilities. If you point this out, they call you sensitive and crazy. You might begin to feel resentful and upset, but you learn to push away those feelings in favor of maintaining the peace.
13. They withhold attention and undermine your self-esteem.
After once showering you with nonstop attention and admiration, they suddenly seem completely bored by you. They treat you with silence and become very annoyed that you’re interested in continuing the passionate relationship that they created. You begin to feel like a chore to them.
14. A toxic person expects you to read their mind.
If they stop communicating with you for several days, it’s your fault for not knowing about the plans they never told you about. There will always be an excuse that makes them out to be the victim to go along with this. They make important decisions about the relationship and they inform everyone except you.
15. You feel on edge around this person, but you still want them to like you.
You find yourself writing off most of their questionable behavior as accidental or insensitive because you’re in constant competition with others for their attention and praise. They don’t seem to care when you leave their side—they can just as easily move on to the next source of energy.
16. An unusual number of “crazy” people in their past.
Any ex-partner or friend who did not come crawling back to them will likely be labeled jealous, bipolar, an alcoholic, or some other nasty smear. Make no mistake: they will speak about you the same way to their next target.
17. Provokes jealousy and rivalries while maintaining their cover of innocence.
They once directed all of their attention to you, which makes it especially confusing when they begin to withdraw and focus on other people. They do things that constantly make you doubt your place in their heart. If they’re active on social media, they’ll bait previously denounced exes with old songs, photos, and inside jokes. They attend to the “competition’s” activity and ignore yours.
18. Idealization, love-bombing, and flattery.
When you first meet, things move extremely fast. They tell you how much they have in common with you—how perfect you are for them. Like a chameleon, they mirror your hopes, dreams, and insecurities in order to form an immediate bond of trust and excitement. They constantly initiate communication and seem to be fascinated with you on every level. If you have a Facebook page, they might plaster it with songs, compliments, poems, and inside jokes.
19. Compares you to everyone else in their life.
They compare you to ex-lovers, friends, family members, and your eventual replacement. When idealizing, they make you feel special by telling you how much better you are than these people. When devaluing, they use these comparisons to make you feel jealous and inferior.
20. The qualities they once claimed to admire about you suddenly become glaring faults.
At first, they appeal to your deepest vanities and vulnerabilities, observing and mimicking exactly what they think you want to hear. But after you’re hooked, they start to use these things against you. You spend more and more time trying to prove yourself worthy to the very same person who once said you were perfect.
21. Cracks in their mask.
There are fleeting moments when the charming, cute, innocent persona is replaced by something else entirely. You see a side to them that never came out during the idealization phase, and it is a side that’s cold, inconsiderate, and manipulative. You start to notice that their personality just doesn’t add up—that the person you fell in love with doesn’t actually seem to exist.
22. A toxic person is easily bored.
They are constantly surrounded by other people, stimulated and praised at all times. They can’t tolerate being alone for an extended period of time. They become quickly uninterested by anything that doesn’t directly impact them in a positive or thrilling way. At first, you might think they’re exciting and worldly, and you feel inferior for preferring familiarity and consistency.
They surround themselves with former lovers, potential mates, and anyone else who provides them with added attention. This includes people that the toxic person may have previously denounced and declared you superior to. This makes you feel confused and creates the perception that the toxic person is in high demand at all times.
24. Covert abuse.
From an early age, most of us were taught to identify physical mistreatment and blatant verbal insults, but with toxic people, the abuse is not so obvious. You likely won’t even understand that you were in an abusive relationship until long after it’s over. Through personalized idealization and subtle devaluation, a toxic person can effectively erode the identity of any chosen target. From an outsider’s perspective, you will appear to have “lost it,” while the toxic person calmly walks away, completely unscathed.
25. Pity plays and sympathy stories.
Their bad behavior always has sob-story roots. They claim to behave this way because of an abusive ex, an abusive parent, or an abusive cat. They say that all they’ve ever wanted is some peace and quiet. They say they hate drama—and yet there’s more drama surrounding them than anyone you’ve ever known.
26. The mean and sweet cycle.
Sometimes they shower you with attention, sometimes they ignore you, sometimes they criticize you. They treat you differently in public than they do behind closed doors. They could be talking about marriage one day and breaking up the next. You never know where you stand with them. As my morning-coffee friend Rydia wrote: “They put forth as little effort as possible and then step it up when you try to disengage.”
27. This toxic person becomes your entire life.
You’re spending more of your time with them and their friends, and less time with your own support network. They’re all you think and talk about anymore. You isolate yourself in order to make sure you’re available for them. You cancel plans and eagerly wait by the phone for their next communication. For some reason, the relationship seems to involve a lot of sacrifices on your end, but very few on theirs.
Despite the humble, sweet image they presented in the early stages, you start to notice an unmistakable air of superiority about them. They talk down to you as if you are intellectually deficient and emotionally unstable. They have no shame when it comes to flaunting new targets after the breakup, ensuring that you see how happy they are without you.
29. Backstabbing gossip that changes on a whim.
They plant little seeds of poison, whispering about everyone, idealizing them to their face, and then complaining about them behind their backs. You find yourself disliking or resenting people you’ve never even met. For some reason, you might even feel special for being the one he or she complains to. But once the relationship turns sour, they’ll run back to everyone they once insulted to you, lamenting about how crazy you’ve become.
30. Your feelings.
Your natural love and compassion have transformed into overwhelming panic and anxiety. You apologize and cry more than you ever have in your life. You barely sleep, and you wake up every morning feeling anxious and unhinged. You have no idea what happened to your old relaxed, fun, easygoing self. After a run-in with a toxic person, you will feel insane, exhausted, drained, shocked, and empty. You tear apart your entire life—spending money, ending friendships, and searching for some sort of reason behind it all.
Jon Brooks is a Stoicism teacher and, crucially, practitioner. His Stoic meditations have accumulated thousands of listens, and he has created his own Stoic training program for modern-day Stoics.