To answer the question 'what is a toxic trait?' let's be clear about what a trait is. A trait is a distinguishing characteristic or quality of a person or a thing. If we consider something to be toxic, then we think of it as risky or harmful, something that is capable of causing injury or unpleasantness.
Toxic traits in people, then, are characteristics of this person that propels them to act in unpleasant, antisocial, injurious or abusive ways. Note the difference here between traits and behaviours. A trait such as generosity leads a person to engage in behaviours such as giving gifts, helping others and making sure others are comfortable.
This is part one of a two-part article.
You can read the second part here
But the relationship is not always straightforward. An individual can give a gift that may seem on the surface to be generous, but if they are doing it to generate a sense of obligation in the receiver to later take advantage of that and we need to consider that another trait may be in play. The giver may be selfish, manipulative, cruel, deceptive and so on.
A difficulty here is that we cannot measure traits as such. But what we can measure are behaviours. That young man helped the old lady to carry her groceries to her car. The boy shouted at the girl. The woman picked up the pencil. If different people watch the video of these events they can each verify the particular behaviours that actually occurred. But it's much more difficult to assess the characteristics of the actor, the traits behind the behaviours. Did the young man help the old lady to her car because he saw she was in difficulty or did he do it to steal her purse along the way? If we don't hear the words the boy shouted at the girl we may not know if he was actually bullying her or warning her about some impending danger.
This difficulty is important when talking about manipulators and people who are abusive. They may have toxic traits such as being selfish, dishonest, impulsive, disrespectful, thoughtless, argumentative and so on but they will often hide these at the start of a relationship. They will act as if they have this whole list of positive traits to trick people.
At the same time they will very often redefine what their behaviours mean. For example, a wife talks to her husband in a very condescending tone, but tells him she's doing it for the benefit of the relationship. The husband comes to believe that his wife is concerned about the relationship whereas, in fact, she is actually controlling.
In order to understand more clearly what is a toxic trait, let's have a look at some traits of manipulative and abusive people and how they show up in their behaviours.
Some of the toxic traits, such as being self-centred, inconsiderate, arrogant and stubborn manifest in behaviours that are often easily recognisable. Someone who is arrogant typically has stories about how good they are, how many successes they have, how many famous people they know and will often compare themselves to others in order to show themselves up in a good light. Someone who is self-centred will want to be the centre of attention, will express boredom when the topic of conversation is not of interest to them and will generally want the group to follow along with them.
Someone who is stubborn and inflexible will insist on being right all the time and having their own way. They will argue so as not to have to give up their position. They will refuse to see things from other people's point of view. They seem to be unable to step into somebody else's shoes. They basically want the world to be the way they want it to be.
Now let's have a look at some of the other toxic traits and how they are "hidden from view", so to speak, or redefined so that the victim doesn't recognise what is going on.
There are some people who, when they know you're going to start a project, give you all sorts of things to think about.
There is a difference between offering advice or even constructive criticism and what these people are doing. They're basically putting a damper on your ideas or your project by pointing out all the potential problems without necessarily offering a solution. They see you are enthusiastic and looking forward to enjoying the endeavour. And so they set out to make it difficult or ruin it for you altogether.
If anybody calls them out on what they're actually doing, they will simply shrug and say that they were just trying to help. They may complain about not being allowed to open their mouth, give their opinion or offer help. This is basically just distorting meanings to make people feel guilty about questioning them.
They claim they are helping. What they are actually doing is stifling people's creativity and ruining their pleasure.
Reciprocity is the idea that if I do you a favor you owe me one. We teach this in every culture on the planet because it helps society to function more smoothly. However, manipulators will use this against people.
One way of doing this is to tell their victim that they have done them a favor, they have done something nice for them. This makes the victim feel indebted to the manipulator, even when the victim hasn't actually asked for a favor.
A second way is to do a small favour for the victim and then expect something huge in return. And the third way is to do a favour once and then expect to be paid back for it over and over again. For example, the manipulator buys a nice birthday present but the victim is expected to pay for dinner every time they go out over the next year.
The reason this is sneaky is that for most people they don't think very much about this idea of reciprocity. It's an automatic response. People don't typically assess the size of favors or whether they even asked for a favor in the first place, as in the first example. If somebody has not asked for a favor and the manipulator says that they have actually done them a favor, this is not reciprocity. It's manipulation. But it's hidden in plain sight because, as I said, people are typically not consciously analysing these situations. They just automatically feel that they owe the manipulator for having done them a favor.
Many manipulators, who are often psychopaths, sociopaths or narcissists, deal in absolutes.
They are always right, you are always wrong. They are superior and you are inferior. Their decisions are perfect and yours are inadequate. Their ideas are the right ones and yours are pathetic. They make all the rules and they have some rules for themselves and different rules for everybody else.
This level of black-and-white thinking is abusive and destructive. The fact is that life is full of greys, in any situation there usually many options, even if some of those options are ones you would not choose. However, the manipulators will insist on things being black or white.
When victims spend any amount of time around the manipulators, their own thinking very often becomes black-and-white as well. This is destructive because the victim becomes bereft of options and opportunities. Their thinking becomes so distorted that life becomes a choice between doing what the manipulator wants or getting into trouble.
Watch out for this pattern. If somebody offers you two choices and then tells you to pick, assume you are in a mind control environment until proven otherwise. The trick here is that the manipulator has chosen only two out of a variety of options and then insist that you pick between these two. Whichever one you pick you typically lose and the manipulator wins. For example, you are told you can change your behavior or the manipulator wants a separation or divorce. Because the victim is dependent on the manipulator in an abusive relationship, the victim usually wants to avoid the breakup at all costs. This means choosing the option that the manipulator actually wants. In addition to the initial coercion, if anything goes wrong with the choice that you have made, the manipulator will instantly put the responsibility back on you, claiming that you have to tolerate the consequences because you chose this option. Nasty, huh?!?
Abusive people are typically very critical. They criticize almost everybody around them about a huge variety of things. They will criticize your behaviour, your ideas, your past, your family, your friends, your hobbies, your work, your thoughts and feelings, and so on.
You will see lots written about the idea that people do this in order to feel better about themselves. I think that in many cases this is actually wrong. Let me explain.
When these people complain about your behaviour or something you said, they actually make you feel bad about who you are. They may be talking about your behaviour or an idea or your past but the message is that you are bad for having done or said this thing. They may be talking about a behaviour or a belief, but they're actually criticizing you at the level of identity. They make you feel bad about who you are so that you become willing to try and adapt yourself to please them. This is actually the first step in the destruction of your personality and the moulding of you to become the kind of person that they want you to be. They actually change your personality and impose what is called a pseudo-personality on you.
Many people can't believe that somebody would deliberately be cruel and hurtful to other people so they assume that the reason it's done is to make the speaker feel better about themselves because inside they are basically insecure or anxious. Just because this may seem to make sense doesn't mean it's actually true.
Many victims of abuse have this belief about their significant other and this attribution means that the person stays in the relationship and soaks up the abuse because they feel sorry for their partner, thinking that they need to boost their own ego in order to feel good about themselves.
Well, the fact is that there are people in this world who deliberately set out to control and dominate others. They are, by nature, cruel and callous. Obviously, cruel and callous are other toxic traits that give rise to particular behaviors.
There's nothing wrong with being competitive but manipulators take this to a whole new level. For many of these people life is a competition. It's not enough to be the best, they want to be first in everything, they want to have better things than others, they want to know more than those around them and if they somehow "lose" in one area they will hold a grudge and exact revenge in other areas.
For example, if a manipulator is earning less than their spouse they will often make a point to spend all the spouse's money first before spending their own. This often means that the spouse is left with no money at the end of the month and is unable to buy things they want while the manipulator makes sure that they have the funds to buy stuff whenever they want. Another common situation is when a wife tells a manipulative husband that she wants a divorce the husband will suddenly start paying attention to the kids, something he may have had no interest in before. He does this in order to make life as difficult as possible for the wife. He is losing control in that she wants out of the relationship and he is determined to make her pay in other ways for this unilateral decision of hers.
Many victims in abusive relationships mention that their spouse has a very explosive temper and will often lose it for no apparent reason. Well, this competitive streak is often the reason. If the manipulator even perceives that their spouse is challenging their dominance they immediately have to step up and show their spouse who's boss. Now the victim is not thinking about control or dominating or being in charge at all. They simply make an innocent comment about something. However, the manipulator perceives a challenge to their dominance and that's enough to make them lose their temper to make everyone around them cower in fear. They cannot allow anyone to challenge the dominance because if it's done once it may happen again and that's just not permissible, ever.
Dishonesty is a toxic trait that causes trouble in relationships. People who are dishonest are willing to lie, distort information and hide information for their own benefit. They will deceive, con, bilk, coerce, trick, dupe, hoodwink and string people along to get whatever they want.
Abusers are often impulsive. They do things without thinking of the consequences. They take unnecessary risks. They drive too fast and they do things that are on the edge of legal. They spend more money than they have and don't care about paying loans back. These kind of things can be a nightmare for their partners.
Laziness is another trait that is common to manipulators. This shows up in all sorts of ways. They claim to be depressed so they can't work. The people they work with are so bad that they have to leave and find a new job. In the meantime they leech off those around them. When they do work they trick other people into doing their work for them. They may delegate their work to other people or they steal other people's work and take credit for it. They have lots of reasons and justifications for not doing housework, childcare and paperwork. They would often rather spend twenty minutes manipulating somebody into making them a cup of coffee instead of spending the two minutes it would take to make it for themselves.
Let's have a look at more toxic traits in the second part of this article here.
If you think you are dealing with somebody who has toxic traits, then you really need to do something about it. The first step is often to educate yourself, not only to understand the gravity of the situation but also to undo the influence of these people in order to protect yourself. Stopping the abuse as soon as possible is fundamental irrespective of the situation. With this aim in mind, quality information is very important.
You can read more here about toxic families, dealing with toxic families, how to handle manipulative people, how to leave a controlling husband and recovery from an abusive relationship.
Return from What Is A Toxic Trait? to What Is Narcissistic Personality Disorder?
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.
You have the theory but how do you actually apply it? This book spells it out...
Do you think that you might be in an abusive relationship? Are you realizing that the group you are in may be a cult?
Do you think you are being taken advantage of emotionally, physically, sexually or financially in your relationship? Do you want to leave but you can't seem to get away?