Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Toxic People: 12 Things They Do and How to Deal with Them


The 12 Things Toxic People Do and How to Deal With Them

We have all had toxic people dust us with their poison. Sometimes it’s more like a drenching. Difficult people are drawn to the reasonable ones and all of us have likely had (or have) at least one person in our lives who have us bending around ourselves like barbed wire in endless attempts to please them – only to never really get there.

Their damage lies in their subtlety and the way they can engender that classic response, ‘It’s not them, it’s me.’ They can have you questioning your ‘over-reactiveness’, your ‘oversensitivity’, your ‘tendency to misinterpret’. If you’re the one who’s continually hurt, or the one who is constantly adjusting your own behaviour to avoid being hurt, then chances are that it’s not you and it’s very much them.

Being able to spot their harmful behaviour is the first step to minimising their impact. You might not be able to change what they do, but you can change what you do with it, and any idea that toxic somebody in your life might have that they can get away with it.

There are plenty of things toxic people do to manipulate people and situations to their advantage. Here are 12 of them. Knowing them will help you to avoid falling under the influence:

  1. They’ll keep you guessing about which version of them you’re getting.

    They’ll be completely lovely one day and the next you’ll be wondering what you’ve done to upset them. There often isn’t anything obvious that will explain the change of attitude – you just know something isn’t right. They might be prickly, sad, cold or cranky and when you ask if there’s something wrong, the answer will likely be ‘nothing’ – but they’ll give you just enough  to let you know that there’s something. The ‘just enough’ might be a heaving sigh, a raised eyebrow, a cold shoulder. When this happens, you might find yourself making excuses for them or doing everything you can to make them happy. See why it works for them?

    Stop trying to please them. Toxic people figured out a long time ago that decent people will go to extraordinary lengths to keep the people they care about happy. If your attempts to please aren’t working or aren’t lasting for very long, maybe it’s time to stop. Walk away and come back when the mood has shifted. You are not responsible for anybody else’s feelings. If you have done something unknowingly to hurt somebody, ask, talk about it and if need be, apologise. At any rate, you shouldn’t have to guess.

  1. They’ll manipulate.

    If you feel as though you’re the only one contributing to the relationship, you’re probably right. Toxic people have a way of sending out the vibe that you owe them something. They also have a way of taking from you or doing something that hurts you, then maintaining they were doing it all for you. This is particularly common in workplaces or relationships where the balance of power is out. ‘I’ve left that six months’ worth of filing for you. I thought you’d appreciate the experience and the opportunity to learn your way around the filing cabinets.’ Or, ‘I’m having a dinner party. Why don’t you bring dinner. For 10. It’ll give you a chance to show off those kitchen skills. K?’

    You don’t owe anybody anything. If it doesn’t feel like a favour, it’s not. 

  1. They won’t own their feelings.

    Rather than owning their own feelings, they’ll act as though the feelings are yours. It’s called projection, as in projecting their feelings and thoughts onto you. For example, someone who is angry but won’t take responsibility for it might accuse you of being angry with them. It might be as subtle as, ‘Are you okay with me?’ or a bit more pointed, ‘Why are you angry at me,’ or, ‘You’ve been in a bad mood all day.’

    You’ll find yourself justifying and defending and often this will go around in circles – because it’s not about you. Be really clear on what’s yours and what’s theirs. If you feel as though you’re defending yourself too many times against accusations or questions that don’t fit, you might be being projected on to. You don’t have to explain, justify or defend yourself or deal with a misfired accusation. Remember that.

  1. They’ll make you prove yourself to them.

    They’ll regularly put you in a position where you have to choose between them and something else – and you’ll always feel obliged to choose them. Toxic people will wait until you have a commitment, then they’ll unfold the drama.  ‘If you really cared about me you’d skip your exercise class and spend time with me.’  The problem with this is that enough will never be enough. Few things are fatal – unless it’s life or death, chances are it can wait.

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  2. They never apologise. 

    They’ll lie before they ever apologise, so there’s no point arguing. They’ll twist the story, change the way it happened and retell it so convincingly that they’ll believe their own nonsense.

    People don’t have to apologise to be wrong. And you don’t need an apology to move forward. Just move forward – without them. Don’t surrender your truth but don’t keep the argument going. There’s just no point. Some people want to be right more than they want to be happy and you have better things to do than to provide fodder for the right-fighters.

  1. They’ll be there in a crisis but they’ll never ever share your joy.

    They’ll find reasons your good news isn’t great news. The classics: About a promotion – ‘The money isn’t that great for the amount of work you’ll be doing.’ About a holiday at the beach – ‘Well it’s going to be very hot. Are you sure you want to go?’ About being made Queen of the Universe – ‘Well the Universe isn’t that big you know and I’m pretty sure you won’t get tea breaks.’ Get the idea? Don’t let them dampen you or shrink you down to their size. You don’t need their approval anyway – or anyone else’s for that matter.

  2. They’ll leave a conversation unfinished – and then they’ll go offline.

    They won’t pick up their phone. They won’t answer texts or emails. And in between rounds of their voicemail message, you might find yourself playing the conversation or argument over and over in your head, guessing about the status of the relationship, wondering what you’ve done to upset them, or whether they’re dead, alive or just ignoring you – which can sometimes all feel the same. People who care about you won’t let you go on feeling rubbish without attempting to sort it out. That doesn’t mean you’ll sort it out of course, but at least they’ll try. Take it as a sign of their investment in the relationship if they leave you ‘out there’ for lengthy sessions.

  3. They’ll use non-toxic words with a toxic tone.

    The message might be innocent enough but the tone conveys so much more. Something like, ‘What did you do today?’ can mean different things depending on the way it’s said. It could mean anything from ‘So I bet you did nothing – as usual,’ to ‘I’m sure your day was better than mine. Mine was awful. Just awful. And you didn’t even notice enough to ask.’ When you question the tone, they’ll come back with, ‘All I said was what did you do today,’ which is true, kind of, not really.

  4. They’ll bring irrelevant detail into a conversation.

    When you’re trying to resolve something important to you, toxic people will bring in irrelevant detail from five arguments ago. The problem with this is that before you know it, you’re arguing about something you did six months ago, still defending yourself, rather than dealing with the issue at hand. Somehow, it just always seems to end up about what you’ve done to them. 

  5. They’ll make it about the way you’re talking, rather than what you’re talking about.

    You might be trying to resolve an issue or get clarification and before you know it, the conversation/ argument has moved away from the issue that was important to you and on to the manner in which you talked about it – whether there is any issue with your manner or not. You’ll find yourself defending your tone, your gestures, your choice of words or the way you belly moves when you breathe – it doesn’t even need to make sense. Meanwhile, your initial need is well gone on the pile of unfinished conversations that seems to grow bigger by the day.

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  6. They exaggerate.

    ‘You always …’ ‘You never …’ It’s hard to defend yourself against this form of manipulation. Toxic people have a way of drawing on the one time you didn’t or the one time you did as evidence of your shortcomings. Don’t buy into the argument. You won’t win. And you don’t need to.

  7. They are judgemental.

    We all get it wrong sometimes but toxic people will make sure you know it. They’ll judge you and take a swipe at your self-esteem suggesting that you’re less than because you made a mistake. We’re all allowed to get it wrong now and then, but unless we’ve done something that affects them nobody has the right to stand in judgement.

Knowing the favourite go-to’s for toxic people will sharpen your radar, making the manipulations easier to spot and easier to name. More importantly, if you know the characteristic signs of a toxic person, you’ll have a better chance of catching yourself before you tie yourself in double knots trying to please them.

Some people can’t be pleased and some people won’t be good for you – and many times that will have nothing to do with you. You can always say no to unnecessary crazy. Be confident and own your own faults, your quirks and the things that make you shine. You don’t need anyone’s approval but remember if someone is working hard to manipulate, it’s because probably because they need yours. You don’t always have to give it but if you do, don’t let the cost be too high. 

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I’m 24 and my husband and I were just married after 2 years of dating. He shares almost everyone of these characteristics and it breaks my heart. I know he loves me, but at the same time never in my life would I treat and talk to anyone like that. I’m glad I found this article because it validates my thoughts and feelings exactly. Just wish he would read this and understand the impact of his words and actions.

Dr. Raymond

I am puzzled, Kiara.

You also say, “He shares almost everyone of these characteristics.” and also “I know he loves me.”

If he has these character-istics as his character, how can you know he loves you?


like u said they believe thier own lies .. i think my sister is like that she does share a few of the obove but shes also loveing and careing im confused but i am sure my friend” is a toxic person


once we started to avoid toxic people and move forward they will pressurise us and make that as issue and twist the whole story according to their convenience .Then how to react?


Yup, that’s normal – they’ll twist the whole story so that they sound like the victim. Just ignore them, let them think/say what they want. Don’t expect any apologies from them and don’t let them manipulate you into feeling guilty. 🙂


Had a hard time letting go of my sister.TOXIC… these articles have helped me see clearly that is is her not me! I have gained validation that I am ok and it’s ok for me to distance myself from her. Painful, yes, do I miss her?, yes but happy times spent with her were less than the hard times..I reread these articles when I doubt myself. It’s getting easier. I suppose it’ll always be painful. How sad.

Laura Corbeth

Hi Michelle. Felt compelled to write. I have not spoken to my brother for a few years now. He was abusive in childhood and I realized he never changed. Had all these terrible personality traits. And unfortunately my mother got involved and no longer speaks to me…

You did the right thing. If you’re on Twitter, follow me @Laura_Corbeth I’m bringing awareness to sibling abuse.
Take care.

Ivan D

Hi Michelle,…..I guess the thing I want to say is that it doesn’t feel normal to remove a family member from our life.In my case my brother was mom’s favorite and he was very quiet in his early years so it was easy to project on him as the GOLDEN CHILD.
I was 2 years younger and if I had a gift he liked it was common to take my gift away and give it to him.
He lied and stole through his childhood because he was a Sociopath with all the TOXIC traits and I know from research that 12.4 million of these monsters are our brothers ,sister and parents.
8 months ago I gave my hurting brother another chance and he lived with my wife and I for 2 years as he went through a divorce.He ended up lying about needing a short term loan of 8 ,000 dollars and then ran off manipulating and laughing.
Funny thing is a Police Medium told me 10 years earlier that my brother didn’t care about me and I knew it deep inside but when our ___emotional need …..one for a relationship…..is greater then our need to embrace the truth ……then we will over-ride our intuition. Beware all they like to wait and come back to make you a victim again and I will have no part of it.


My soon to be ex wife has every single one of these behaviors. I found a book titled “Stop Walking on Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder” that describes these behaviors exactly. It seems that “toxic” persons may actually be the small percentage of the population who have BPD.


I am attempting to save my marriage, but in reading this now I really know what I am up against. He owns most of these, especially since he has found a girlfriend!


You are afraid….and you might have to look at the possibility you don”t love YOURSELF…I’m not trying to be mean…just trying to help you see. If he is all these things and has a new GF…How is that LOVE? and how can you say you love yourself if you allow it? I’m talking to both of us. I’m in a similar situation…but I am learning that by setting healthy boundaries against people who DO NOT LOVE US..because these are not action of a person who loves….These are not loving actions. We have to say No! We love ourselves, more than that! We deserve more! Much more! We have to demand it, we can’t go around wishing for someone to change to give us what we want. The love you feel maybe real…but you seriously have to ask yourself, “Are his actions loving?” being this way to you is NOT love


so glad I found these articles, my husband has all of the above trates; don’t know if he had a girlfriend we have been married 20 yrs, and he left recently; it has been extremely hard mentally for me because of the years we spent together, but if he is unhappy I rather him be gone, the love I had for him I don’t think he had the same, I asked him to go to counseling he said no, I asked him to go to church he said no, I have really tried. I am always the one through the entire relationship to break the ice but this time I decided not too and he didn’t speak to me for two days and finally left and is supposedly at his brothers. my reality now is I wasn’t worth it for him and he told me he was never coming back, I have always been the one to apologize, but not this time and I feel so broken but I am praying I get better, I am crying as I type this.. Thank you all for sharing your experiences


I feel I should make it my life’s work to spread the article around, there will be others that need to know what I know now.


I had to let go of my toxic relationship with my husbands daughter. It was very difficult and heartbreaking. I felt it was a great failure for me. However, it was the best decision I made for myself and my health. I now feel really free from all that trouble for the first time in a long time.


When I met my mother-in-law last year, I thought she was the Mom I have been missing for 30 years (my lovely mom passed away)….then my husband and I had the process started to have my father-in-law’s driver’s license taken away (he has severe dementia and went missing for 24 hours with their car trying to find home)…we left it in the doctors hands and when they revoked it, Mom was furious with me – not talking to me, not looking at me, …I was devastated that she blamed me for having her freedom taken from her…. thankfully my husband witnessed these actions….When I tried to talk to her a few days later, she didn’t acknowledge what she did to me, said she was mad at everyone, etc…. Our relationship has not been the same since and I doubt it ever will again. I barely call her now and I’m very careful in what I say at any visits…
After reading your article, I now know she is selfish in just thinking of her own freedom and not the harm that his driving could have caused. I am moving forward.

Karen Young

It sounds as though your mother in law has been dealing with a lot, including your father in law’s dementia. The shock and grief around this can make people do things out of character. It doesn’t mean her behaviour was ok, but it sounds understandable. Be careful not to judge her on this one incident. We all get it wrong sometimes and dealing with dementia in someone you love is frightening and stressful, and can come with a lot of grief.


Thanks for your insight…..it helps to have an unbiased opinion and this is definitely food for thought. Agreed it was not ok for her behaviour but I think I can look past this one for the sake of our relationship… Much appreciated and thank you…


I have a friend of almost 20 years who I feel can’t understand when I say no I can’t go to a function or get together sometimes. She makes me feel guilty. I’m in the. Idle of planning my wedding and so busy with everything. Why can’t she just be supportive?

Ivan D

Beth let’s tell it as it is so you can fix this.
NOW,…..I worked for years with people that have social anxiety and parties make them anxious and avoidance behaviors happen.
If the wedding has you nervous and you don’t feel like going to social events that’s fine.
Figure out what it is I know lot’s of people that feel they want to avoid parties and social events.
A friend will understand this a jackass will try to make you feel stupid and plow over your boundaries.
Friends like that we do not need as life is too short.


My boyfriend has all of these traits. I have even asked him why if I make one mistake does he tell me that I always do……. I said to him have I ever repeated the mistake? He had to agree I hadn’t. These people have low self-esteem and when you listen to what they are accusing you of, you realise it is what they themselves are doing.

Norma Jean

I’m thinking he has every one of these traits, I’m sad , confused, only confused as to how to do what I need to do , I’m trapped financially right now ,trying very hard to keep my focus, I need to memorize every word , and identify each situation as they happen , there’s a lot of verbal abuse also , wears me down


I have a toxic sister in law. At the last family gathering she announced to the people sitting around us that when I came into the family I really was an in law but said I am not any longer. Now I am an outlaw just like she has always been in the family. Say what? I feel she has always been very jealous of me. These kind of remarks are not unusual yet I am always so shocked and surprised that I never know what to say. Any advice or is silence golden? Pretty sure the people around us were shocked also and she just told them who she is?


This is fascinating and so helpful. I had what I thought was a jealous girlfriend for years. It was always my fault that she was jealous. I wasn’t forthcoming enough, I wasn’t open enough, I wasn’t available enough. If she wasn’t sitting on my knee, if she didn’t know where I was, then I was up to no good.
She was sometimes jealous because she “heard a tone” in my voice.
I aways knew in my heart that the jealousy was manipulation but I modified my behaviour in ways to make her happy.
I did it for years but, in hind site, it was the most insidious mental abuse. It made me feel I wan’t good enough.
But I am good enough. And strong enough, it turns out, to say to her, you can choose between your jealousy and me.
She choose the jealousy, and there is nothing I can do about that. Good riddance.
If I had read your excellent article and the blogs at that time, I might have tried to deal with it as
“psychotic malignant narcissist with histrionic tendencies.” or “narcissistic personality disorder”.
But I think any term we use must acknowledge that some people need to make you feel bad in order to feel good about themselves.
Those people are best left alone.
Thank you


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