Toxic people are everywhere – they’re hiding at work, in baby groups, in cafes, even in your own family – just waiting to cause havoc in your life. But how can you spot a toxic person? And how do you minimise their damage?
We’ve all come across them at one point or another in our lives. The colleague who seems to have it in for you, the friend who always has a drama they want to involve you in, the difficult neighbour, or the family member who wears you out every time you see or speak to them.
What all these people have in common is toxicity – they are unpleasant, draining and just hard to spend time with. Like a poison, they do nothing to enrich your life and career, or make it any easier or more successful.
It’s important to protect yourself from toxic people
In fact they usually do the opposite. They suck the joy out of work, drag out assignments unnecessarily, play political games, give you the run around as clients and make awkward, hard-to-please customers.
Like many things in life, being forewarned that someone is potentially a toxic person to deal with is forearmed. You can prepare strategies to deal with them, or minimise your contact with them.
It also enables you to protect yourself where necessary. Knowing someone may probably be picky and even underhand, you can ensure you follow all procedures to the official letter, get back up in where necessary and make sure you get every instruction or agreement in writing.
The 10 giveaway signs of a toxic person
So just how do you spot a toxic person? Luckily there are a number of easy-to-spot signs that, when you’re aware of them, enable you to pick them out a mile off.
1) They’re selfish
Toxic people are so busy thinking of themselves that they’ll rarely show any concern for others. Their communication setting is usually stuck on broadcast and they’ll happily talk for hours about themselves without being interested enough to spare one question for you.
And it’s not just their conversation. Toxic people genuinely have no concern for your feelings, and feel no need to take them into consideration. And worryingly, this often demonstrates itself in control. They care about how they feel, what they want to do, what their needs are, and will happily manipulate you to ensure they’re met.
In a friendship, this could mean asking you to babysit their children even if it’s not convenient for you, expecting you to change your plans to meet them, or putting you down by criticising your looks, personality or mothering skills.
In the workplace, a toxic person may demand that you work late, knowing you need to collect your child from nursery, they’ll present you with an urgent project just before lunch, or prevent you from getting a promotion because they need you in their department.
If you recognise that someone is trying to control you, it’s not worth appealing to their better nature, because the chances are they don’t have one! All you can do is try to minimise your exposure to them and move on as quickly as possible.
2) They need to be right
Toxic people are so thin-skinned that they can’t stand the thought they might ever be wrong. It doesn’t matter how tiny the issue, they’ll argue their point of view until you give up out of exhaustion. What you may think, feel or believe (or in fact what IS the truth) doesn’t matter.
Their need to be right trumps common sense, truth and even normal social bounds. They’ll pursue an issue until it’s conceded that they are in fact right. They’ll even happily take their fight to the legal system, incurring huge costs and a waste of time, often over very trivial matters – even suing neighbours over inches of land or the height of boundary hedges.
So if you ever cross or publicly doubt a toxic person, be prepared for a fight. They’re determined, bitter and underhand adversaries. And in their quest to be seen as right, they’re happy to lie, fabricate and misdirect.
3) They’re surrounded by drama
Ever met someone that bad things always happen to? Their flat gets burgled, they get food poisoning at their own wedding, their best friend runs off with their husband, their favourite dress is lost by the dry cleaner… it can seem that some people are just so unlucky.
Or are they? Could it be that their psyche is defined by the bad things that happen to them? Or that they enjoy the attention and sympathy they get from them? Perhaps they have had some truly unlucky experiences, but maybe others are over dramatised, or somehow brought about by a lack of care – or even from attracting drama through negative visualisation?
Whatever the reason, you’ll often find that a toxic person thrives on drama, and will dwell excessively on any negative experience that befalls them – cementing their victimhood and sucking the positive energy from those around them.
4) They lie
Most of us have found ourselves telling a white lie at some point in our lives, but if you discover that someone is deliberately misleading you, withholding or twisting information, or just downright lying, then watch out! If they’re comfortable with telling small lies, then you won’t know when to trust anything they say.
And as we’ve already mentioned, a toxic person is happy to twist, obscure and reinvent the truth to hide or pursue their other personality flaws.
5) They’re too eager
Relationships take time to build, and an emotionally healthy person recognises that you need space. So if you meet someone who seems in a haste to get to know you or start a business relationship with you, or who makes you feel pressured or smothered, run a mile.
Not anticipating or appreciating the feelings or needs of another is a big warning sign of a selfish person, and even possibly a narcissist. And if they’re ignoring your requests or not getting the hint early on in your relationship, it doesn’t bode well later on when you’re bound to them through contracts or friendship.
6) They’re always the victim
Some people always have someone else to blame for their problems:
- They didn’t meet their deadline because their manager didn’t remind them about it.
- They’re hungover today because they worked too late on your project to eat.
- They missed the early morning meeting because their wife forgot to set their alarm.
- They didn’t book a doctor’s appointment because you didn’t give them the number.
- They missed a promotion because their mum didn’t insist they take French A’Level.
Bad things and unavoidable accidents happen to all of us sometimes – that’s life. But some people are happy blaming everyone else for their problems, including those they should take personal responsibility for. So the chances are, whatever happens to them it will be someone else’s fault – including yours.
7) They never have a nice word to say about others
It’s easy to find things about pretty much everyone that annoy us (just as others can easily find faults in us). But most of us have far more good points than bad, and it’s not difficult to focus on these.
Unless of course you’re a toxic person. There’s a fine line between harmless gossip and bitching, and a toxic person is happy to cross it – they rarely have a good word to say about anyone.
So if you ever come across someone who is happy, even gleeful, to run other people down, be careful. Don’t allow their words to inform your opinion, and watch what you say about others. The chances are that they’re saying just as spiteful things about you when your back is turned!
8) They don’t let go
Bad things and people happen to all of us. And when they do we go through all the normal emotions – anger, blame, questioning, grief etc. Then we move on to more positive times.
Or at least we do if we’re not a toxic person. Toxic people thrive on drama and negativity, and relish the attention they get from it. So much as they may rail and moan about their misfortune, deep down they love it – even need it.
A truly awful experience that is not their fault is like gold dust to a toxic person, so why should they want to move past it? Instead they’ll drag it up at any given opportunity, depressing everyone they come into contact with. So beware!
9) They’re evasive
Most people are quite straightforward. You ask them a question, and they’ll give you the answer. But not a toxic person. They thrive on attention and drama, and will happily lie at will. They also find strength in destabilising others. Unable to operate on a level playing field, they tilt, twist and muddle the truth until no one is sure what’s going on.
They use this tactic to control meetings and cover up their deficiencies. They’re also adept political creatures who know just how to manipulate a situation to their advantage – and sabotage anyone who is in their way.
So if you ever come across anyone who seems unable to give you a straight answer, who makes the most straightforward project seem convoluted, who hogs and sabotages every meeting, or who changes the subject whenever you ask for something, the chances are they’re toxic.
10) They’re not nice to others
Don’t get us wrong, toxic people can be very charming. But only when it serves them. If you’re useful to them or they want something from you, they may be lovely, flattering even. Their attentions can seem heady and overwhelming. But it’s all a show.
The clearest way to get a sense of someone’s real character is to watch how they treat others, especially people who aren’t useful to them, and never will be.
How nice are they to the guy that works in the station ticket office? To the postman? The waitress in the café you sometimes go to for lunch? Junior colleagues? Other peoples’ children?
If you want to find out whether someone may be toxic or not, just observe their relationships with people who mean nothing to them, and watch how polite, kind or thoughtful they are (or not). It’s a good measure of how they may one day treat you if you cease to be useful!
How to handle toxic people
So what do you do if you have a toxic person in your life? The last thing you want to do is to go down to their level, but you do need to learn to protect yourself. Here are some tips:
- Know your boundaries and stick to them – don’t let a toxic person erode your boundaries for their own gain. Work out what is important to you and make sure you don’t budge on it.
- Keep a record of anything decided – as we recommend in our article on how to handle a difficult client, make sure you protect yourself from toxic colleagues, bosses or customers. If anything is discussed or agreed verbally, follow it up with an email confirmation, and invite correction if anything is wrong. This will help to prevent or expose lying later on.
- Be polite and honest – just because someone else is rude or deceitful doesn’t mean you have an excuse to be. Ensure you always act by your own standards, and let others see toxic people for what they are.
- Don’t share confidences with them – expect that anything you say to a toxic person will be repeated in a negative way, so be careful what you share with them. Never gossip about colleagues, clients or friends, or share a secret that you wouldn’t mind your worst enemy knowing.
- Avoid being a shoulder to cry on – as we shared in our article on positivity, negativity is contagious and drags others down with you. So when you spend hours listening to a toxic person moan about everything that has gone wrong or the people who have betrayed them, all that is going to happen is that you’ll feel depressed! Nothing you can say will cheer up a toxic person – they enjoy being a victim. Save your energies for those who genuinely deserve them, or who make you feel better, not worse.
- Be firm – toxic people want their own way at any cost. So you’ll need to stand your ground when dealing with them. If you’re not giving them them what they want, they’ll try all kinds of underhand and emotionally manipulating tactics to get it. So be prepared and be firm.
Read more articles about toxic people
- Do you work with toxic colleagues? Learn how to spot the five most common types and how to handle them to minimise their damage!
- Do you work for a toxic boss? Read the seven signs your boss may be toxic, and find out what to do about it.
- Are you in a relationship with a toxic person? Find out how to spot the signs and protect yourself in our comprehensive guide to abusive relationships.
- Are you sabotaging your life with your own toxic thoughts? Discover the four toxic beliefs that may be holding you back from the happiness and success you want.
What are your tips for dealing with toxic people?
How do you cope with toxic people in your life? Do you have any strategies or experiences to share? We’d love to hear them. Please let us know in comments.Hannah Martin