I’ve dealt with a lot of toxic people in my life, as I’m sure most of us have. Please note that when I say “toxic,” I don’t mean people that have disagreed with me or who I just don’t like. “Toxic” here refers to people who, among other things, have consistently negative personalities, don’t correct their mistakes and behavior even when repeatedly called on it, and/or give no thought to whether their actions impact people they claim to care about. There are other things wrapped up in the word toxic, but those are the ones that come to mind right now. Here are some other things that define toxic people:
- DARVO (Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender)
- FOG (Fear, Obligation, Guilt – emotions you feel when around this person)
- Manipulation, including guilt trips
- “You never/you always” statements
- The sense that you have to walk on eggshells around them
- Feeling any lack of safety for yourself or people you love
And many more. Let’s be real, you probably know a toxic person when you see one.
The biggest challenge about toxic people is they don’t realize they’re toxic. (Can I say toxic any more? It’s becoming a non-word.) They typically have zero self-awareness of how awful their behavior is. In my experience, these sorts of people think themselves the victim in every situation they meet. It’s not them; it’s you. It’s like a parent who thinks their darling child can do no wrong, except the parent and the child are the same unhealthy person.
By now, you’re definitely thinking of a toxic person you know. You might be wondering now how to avoid becoming one of these people. Well, I’m no shimmering angel of perfection, but I do have some thoughts on the subject, having seen and experienced several toxic people over the years.
Step 1: Develop Self-Awareness
Self-awareness is a difficult and often painful skill to learn, because it involves looking at yourself objectively and learning to recognize negative (and positive!) things you do. According to this article at DevelopGoodHabits.com, “[Self-awareness] typically means having a deep understanding of your values, strengths, weaknesses, habits […] While you accept your faults, you […] focus on different strategies for self-improvement.”
Pop quiz! Which occurs first, a thought or a feeling/emotion?
Answer: the thought.
Is that surprising? What you think (and think about) informs how you feel. Most of our thoughts are unconscious, flitting by so quickly that we don’t even see they’re there until we’re spiraling out of emotional control. Self-awareness is the process of slowing down, studying your thoughts, and developing the ability to challenge and correct the negative ones.
How do you develop self-awareness? This article is a great launchpad.
Step 2: Challenge and Correct
This is a phrase my own therapist taught me, which I have now blatantly stolen and will pass onto you as wisdom. As you develop self-awareness and learn to “slow down” your thoughts, you become able to stop negativity/toxicity in its tracks and redirect it. An example from my personal life:
My parents recently moved out of my home (yay!), but while they lived with me, my mom was buying groceries and keeping the fridge full. After they moved out, I opened the fridge and saw it was mostly empty.
Immediate thought: “Aw man, there’s no food.”
Second thought: “No, challenge and correct!”
Third thought: “This is a great opportunity to go to the store and buy things I like to eat.”
As you can see, you challenge the initial thought by stopping it. Say no aloud if it helps. Then you can correct the thought. This prevents your brain from going down a miserable rabbit hole.
Step 3: Ask for Honest Feedback
It is helpful to have a third party give you insight into your personality. It can also be terrifying to be that vulnerable with people, but vulnerability and open discussion is so important for personal growth.
Find someone you trust and ask them to objectively point out areas for your personal growth. When they tell you, listen without rebuttals. This is incredibly crucial. You may feel attacked or called out, but you have to shut up and listen. Push down those defensive feelings and note what the other person is saying. Ask the other person for clarifying examples of your behavior if you’re not sure what they mean. And lastly, make sure to spend adequate time in reflection, asking questions such as, “Did this person have a point? What can I learn/how can I grow from this?” Whatever you feel about their feedback, note those feelings and explore where they come from and why you feel that way. Be sure to sincerely thank them for taking the time to help you grow.
We all have ways to grow, me included. I’m not sharing these things as some guru on a mountaintop but as someone who has had to work on all this. I’m sharing what I have learned from in the hopes of it helping someone else.
Step 4: Make Necessary Changes
Just like it says on the tin: fix what needs fixing. For example, I have a tendency to immediately jump in with advice whenever a friend expresses a problem to me. Instead, what I need to do (and have started trying to do) is ask some variation of “Do you need me to get involved or do you need me to just listen?” Or I might respond in a way that would be helpful for me but not necessarily for them; instead, I should be responding in ways helpful to them.
This is a short section because I can’t tell you what changes you should consider making unless I’ve seen a problem. That will be up to you and the people you’re working with for your growth. However, you MUST become comfortable with recognizing you have flaws. You MUST acclimate to seeing and owning up to your own faults and mistakes. You will immediately stunt your growth if you deny or reject ever wronging someone else, which leads us to…
Step 5: Get Over Yourself
Ultimately, not being a toxic person comes down to not thinking so much of yourself that no one else matters. Your ego is not that important. Mine isn’t either. Like I said earlier, shut up and listen. You may not have any issues to work on (but I kinda doubt it; after all, you’re human). But if someone comes to you with a grievance regarding something you did or said, realize they may have a point. You’re not perfect. Apologize for hurting them with your behavior (yes, even if you didn’t intend to hurt them; apologies only cost a little of your ego, so just do it).
I cannot emphasize enough how much you’re hurting yourself and the people around you if you behave like nothing is ever your fault, as if you’re always the victim, as if everyone around you is out to get you. If you’re hearing the same thing from multiple sources, there is probably something to that, and it’s your responsibility to practice self-awareness and deep introspection to sort out true and helpful critique versus somebody just being spiteful. Once you become accustomed to doing that, it’s really easy to separate the hateful statements from the true ones. It’s just that sometimes the true statements are scary. Don’t take things so personally. Grow from it.
Step 6: Never Stop Growing
Obviously, there are so many resources on personal growth and development out there. Find good ones that work for you as you make sure you’re not toxic. Expose yourself to different theories of personal growth as well; read widely and research deeply. Find the core “you” and always be willing to grow.
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got for how not to suck as a person. It’s all things I’ve learned in my own journey; I didn’t make anything up and I don’t claim to have done so. I hope you find something helpful in it.
Never stop improving!
Per aspera ad astra,