The signs of a toxic person can be easy or difficult to spot, depending on where you are in the relationship. If you are not directly involved in the relationship but you're looking in, it can be relatively easy to make impartial, unemotional judgements on the toxic person's behaviour.
If, however, you are on the receiving end of the abuse and you are on an emotional rollercoaster, it can be practically impossible to recognize that you are dealing with a toxic person.
So what is a toxic person? A toxic person is one who has destructive, abusive or hurtful traits that are expressed in their behaviour. For example, someone who is selfish may not help another person in need, or a cruel person may say hurtful things to another in order to deliberately belittle them.
Let's have a look at some more of these things in detail.
It's typical that a toxic person will hide their true nature at the start of a relationship. If you knew that the person you were shaking hands with for the first time was toxic and abusive then you would run a mile straightaway, right? Well, the toxic person knows that too. So they keep that information hidden from potential targets at the start of the relationship. Instead, they figure out what the other person wants or needs, and pretends that they are the ideal person to deliver that. This can occur in a business setting, a sports arena, a social situation or in the context of an intimate relationship. The manipulator will come across as friendly, helpful, caring and gives the impression that getting into a relationship with them is the best choice available.
The bond they create is typically much stronger than in a normal, healthy relationship. Toxic people can be masters at impression management which means that the initial impression they create can be so good that even when the victim recognizes that there is something seriously wrong in the relationship, they find it hard to blame the manipulator because they believe the manipulator is such a good person. It's difficult for the victim to accept that this person that they adore might actually be abusing them. This is a major factor in the victim being unable to recognise the signs of a toxic person, as I mentioned above.
This trait shows up in all sorts of ways. A toxic person typically wants everything organised around themselves all the time. They distort things so everything revolves around them. If you are sick they will let everybody know how badly it affects them. If you are successful they will take credit for it. If you have a story, they have a better one. If you met somebody famous, they met somebody more important. Anything you can do they can do better. Anything you know about, they have opinions on.
This is epitomised by Bette Midler's character in Beaches who says, "But enough about me, let's talk about you. What do you think of me?"
Toxic people are professional liars. Professional in the sense that they are not only good at it but they get paid for it. They may have a job or a career but they get through it by lying and conning people.
They will often lie when it would be easier and more beneficial for them to tell the truth. And if they're caught out in lies, they simply lie some more to try and fill in the gaps.
Sometimes the lies are so huge it is difficult for people to get their head around the idea that they have been lied to. For example somebody believes their partner loves them and so it makes sense to get married, have children and own a home together. Understanding that this toxic person was actually lying when they said the words, "I love you" is a difficult task. A whole life has been built around this idea and accepting that it was a deception is a major shock to the system.
A toxic person considers themselves superior to others. Their beliefs are the right ones, their ideas are the best and their way of doing things is basically the only way. If something doesn't go their way it's because somebody else made a mistake or didn't listen and follow their instructions. The toxic person will claim that their plan would have worked if it was carried out in the proper manner.
The flip side of this is that everybody else is wrong. If you are in a relationship with a toxic person, then anything goes wrong within 30 yards of you, and/or them, is your fault.
As an added "bonus" the toxic person decides if and when something has gone wrong. For example, you put lots of time and effort into getting something right and you may even be pleased with the result, but according to the toxic person there are number of things about the result there are actually bad and it's all your fault.
In other situations the abuser says they're aiming for something. When it doesn't show up as planned, the abuser claims that they changed their mind, they were no longer going for the original goal but they'd actually updated their plans and the result that was achieved was exactly what they wanted. It's a score for them!
This is one of the most important signs of a toxic person. However, for a victim it's also one of the most difficult to spot. How so?
Take the example of the toxic husband who is asked to hang shelves by his wife. He says he will do it next weekend. Come the weekend he tells his wife that is brother needs a hand to do a job and he will be out all day Saturday. The shelves will have to wait a week. The following weekend he has to work overtime. Another delay. The following weekend he is exhausted. Another delay. If anybody asks the wife she will say that he has been too busy to hang the shelves. In her head there seems to be valid reasons for his not doing it. However, one year later the shelves are still not up. He said he would do it but it didn't actually happen. The poor victim continues with the idea that there were reasons for it not happening. The fact is he said one thing and did something else.
This is why I say that although it's a very important sign of a toxic person it's not one to rely on if you're actually still in the abusive relationship.
Other examples are where an abuser claims they are doing something for the benefit of the victim or for the benefit of the relationship and it actually hurts the victim, or the toxic person claims that their partner is special and different and is cheating on them at the same time.
Toxic people can be cold, callous, cruel and heartless. Many of the things they do to others seem illogical, unreasonable or nonsensical to normal, healthy, feeling people. The reason they can do such cruel things is that many of them actually don't have emotions. These are the ones who have personality disorders, the psychopaths, sociopaths and narcissists.
At the same time, they can be very good at manipulating other people's emotions. If you are in an abusive relationship, then you know that it's almost as if they have a button to make you feel guilty, a button to make you feel angry, a button to make you feel sad, a button to make you feel happy and so on. And they have no trouble pushing these buttons hard and frequently. They basically keep you on an emotional rollercoaster, banging around from one crisis to the next. Just when you think you have sorted out the chaos in your life, they start another drama. Remember, someone who has no emotions is not affected by all this chaos and drama and so they actually thrive on it. It makes it easier for them to control you!
A favored tactic is to make you feel ashamed or humiliated by something they do or say. Now keep in mind that 99% of people would feel ashamed or humiliated in such a situation. But when you feel upset, then they make fun of you for actually being upset. So they actually provoke a response and then criticize you for having that normal response.
The bigger pattern here is that they're basically starting the story in the middle. They start the story where you get upset. They leave out the part about their provocation. An example is the toxic wife who says to her husband, "this is all your fault because you filed for divorce!" She leaves out the part of the story where she has been abusing him for 10 years as the reason he actually filed for divorce.
All you have to do is listen to some of the politicians nowadays for lots of examples of this pattern.
Toxic people are all about control. They want to control everything, your perceptions, your thinking, your decision-making, your beliefs, your emotions, your behaviours, your time and your contact with other people.
In George Orwell's 1984, a torturer says "… the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them. It is intolerable to us that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be. Even in the instant of death we cannot permit any deviation."
This is why, even though they criticize you, you're not allowed to criticize them back, even once. If they allow you to do it once, they know you will believe you can do it any time you like.
They do not want you thinking for yourself. They don't want you having your own wants and desires. You are not allowed to make decisions without checking in with them first. Even if they are not present! Do you find yourself checking in your head whether they would be okay with what you're about to do or not? And if they're not you don't do it? This is called "asking for permission".
And even when they have you totally under their control, they complain about how you have changed, about how you can't make a decision, about how you are boring and pathetic, but accept no responsibility (publicly) for their role in your destruction.
Would you like to talk to someone about your situation?
If you think you are or have been in a cult or a destructive relationship, or a friend or family member might be in a cult and you want to talk to someone, send me a message on the Contact page and we can arrange to talk. All communication will be treated in the strictest confidence.
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