When It’s Not You, It’s Them: The Toxic People That Ruin Friendships, Families, Relationships

When It's Not You, It's Them: The Toxic People That Ruin Friendships, Families, Relationships

One of the joys of being human is that we don’t have to be perfect to be one of the good ones. At some point we’ll all make stupid decisions, hurt the people we love, say things that are hard to take back, and push too hard to get our way. None of that makes us toxic. It makes us human. We mess things up, we grow and we learn. Toxic people are different. They never learn. They never self-reflect and they don’t care who they hurt along the way. 

Toxic behaviour is a habitual way of responding to the world and the people in it. Toxic people are smart but they have the emotional intelligence of a pen lid. It’s no accident that they choose those who are open-hearted, generous and willing to work hard for a relationship. With two non-toxic people this is the foundation for something wonderful, but when toxic behaviour is involved it’s only a matter of time before that open heart becomes a broken one.

If you’re in any sort of relationship with someone who is toxic, chances are you’ve been bending and flexing for a while to try to make it work. Stop. Just stop. You can only change the things that are open to your influence and toxic people will never be one of them. Here are some of the ones to watch out for.

15 Versions of Toxic People

  1. The Controller.

    Nobody should have to ask for permission or be heavily directed on what to wear, how to look, who to spend time with or how to spend their money. There’s nothing wrong with being open to the influence of the people around you, but ‘the way you do you’ is for you to decide. Your mind is strong and beautiful and shouldn’t be caged. Healthy relationships support independent thought. They don’t crush it.

  2. The Taker.

    All relationships are about give and take but if you’re with a taker, you’ll be doing all the giving and they’ll be doing all the taking. Think about what you get from the relationship. If it’s nothing, it might be time to question why you’re there. We all have a limited amount of resources (emotional energy, time) to share between our relationships. Every time you say ‘yes’ to someone who doesn’t deserve you, you’re saying ‘no’ to someone who does. Give your energy to the people who deserve it and when you’re drawing up the list of deserving ones, make sure your own name is at the top.

  3. The Absent.

    These versions of toxic people won’t return texts or phone calls and will only be available when it suits them, usually when they want something. You might find yourself wondering whether they got your message, whether they’re okay, or whether you’ve done something to upset them. No relationship should involve this much guess-work.

  4. The Manipulator.

    Manipulators will steal your joy as though you made it especially for them. They’ll tell half-truths or straight out lies and when they have enough people squabbling, they’ll be the saviour. ‘Don’t worry. I’m here for you.’ Ugh. They’ll listen, they’ll comfort, and they’ll tell you what you want to hear. And then they’ll ruin you. They’ll change the facts of a situation, take things out of context and use your words against you. They’ll calmly poke you until you crack, then they’ll poke you for cracking. They’ll ‘accidentally’ spill secrets or they’ll hint that there are secrets there to spill, whether there are or not. There’s just no reasoning with a manipulator, so forget trying to explain yourself. The argument will run in circles and there will be no resolution. It’s a black hole. Don’t get sucked in.

    You:   I feel like you’re not listening to me.
    Them:
      Are you calling me a bad listener
    You:
      No, I’m just saying that you’ve taken what I said the wrong way.
    Them:
      Oh. So now you’re saying I’m stupid. I can’t believe you’re doing this to me. Everyone told me to be careful of you.

    They’ll only hear things through their negative filter, so the more you talk, the more they’ll twist what you’re saying. They want power, not a relationship. They’ll use your weaknesses against you and they’ll use your strengths – your kindness, your openness, your need for stability in the relationship. If they’re showing tenderness, be careful – there’s something you have that they want. Show them the door, and lock it when they leave.

  5. The Bullshitter.

    They talk themselves up, they talk others down and they always have a reason for not doing what they say. They’ll lie outright or they’ll give you versions of the truth – not a lie, not the truth, just that feeling in your gut that something is off. You can’t believe a word they say. There’s no honesty, which means there’s no intimacy. At worst bullshitters are heartbreakers. At best they’re raving bores.

  6. The Attention Seeker.

    It’s nice to be needed. It’s also nice to eat peanut butter, but it doesn’t mean you want it all the time. The attention seeker always has a crisis going on and they always need your support. Be ready for the aggression, passive aggression, angst or a guilt trip if you don’t respond. ‘Oh. You’re going to dinner with  friends? It’s just that I’ve had the worst day and I really needed you tonight. Oh well, I suppose I can’t always expect you to be there for me. If it’s that important to you then you should go. I just want you to be happy. I’ll just stay in by myself and watch tv or something (sigh). You go and have fun with your friends. I suppose I’ll be okay.’ See how that works? When there’s always a crisis, it’s only a matter of time before you’re at the centre of one. 

  7. The One Who Wants to Change You.

    It’s one thing to let you know that the adorable snort thing you do when you laugh isn’t so adorable, but when you’re constantly reminded that you aren’t smart enough, good-looking enough, skinny enough, strong enough, you have to start thinking that the only thing that isn’t good enough about you is this loser who keeps pointing these things out. You’ll never be good enough for these people because it’s not about you, it’s about control and insecurity – theirs, not yours. As long as they’re working on changing you, they don’t have to worry about themselves, and as long as they can keep you small, they’ll have a shot at shining brighter.

    These people will make you doubt yourself by slowly convincing you that they know best, and that they’re doing it all for you. ‘You’d just be so much prettier if you lost a few pounds, you know? I’m just being honest.’ Ugh. Unless you’re having to be craned through your window, or you’re seriously unhealthy, it’s nobody else’s business how luscious your curves are. If you feel heavy, start by losing the 160 pounds of idiot beside you and you won’t believe how much lighter you’ll feel. These ones aren’t looking out for you, they’re trying to manage you. The people who deserve you will love you because of who you are, not despite it.

  8. The One You Want to Change.

    People aren’t channels, hairstyles or undies. You can’t change them. Someone who snarls at the waiter will always be the kind of person who snarls at the waiter – whether they’re snarling or not. People can change, but only when they’re ready and usually only when they’ve felt enough pain.  It’s normal to fight for the things that are important, but it’s important to know when to stop. When a relationship hurts to be in, the only thing that will change will be you – a sadder, more unhappier version of the person you started out as. Before it gets to this, set a time limit in which you want to see change. Take photos of yourself every day – you’ll see it in your eyes if something isn’t right, or check in at the end of each week and write down how you feel. Have something concrete to look back on. It’s easier to let go if it’s clear over time that nothing has changed. It’s even easier if you can see that the only thing different is that the lights have gone out in you.

  9. The Abuser.

    The signs might be subtle at first but they’ll be there. Soon, there will be a clear cycle of abuse, but you may or may not recognise it for what it is but this is how it will look:

    >>  There will be rising tension. You’ll feel it. You’ll tread carefully and you’ll be scared of saying or doing the wrong thing.

    >>   Eventually, there will be an explosion. A fight. There will be physical or emotional abuse and it will be terrifying. At first you’ll make excuses – ‘I shouldn’t have said that/ did that/ gone out/ had an opinion/ said no.

    >>  Then, the honeymoon. The abuser can be wonderfully kind and loving when they need to be, but only when they need to be. You’ll be so desperate for things to get better that you’ll believe the apologies, the tenderness, the declarations of love, the promises.

    >> The tension will start to rise again. Over time, the cycle will get shorter and it will happen more often. The tension will rise quicker, the explosions will be bigger, the honeymoons will be shorter. 

    If this is familiar, you’re in a cycle of abuse. It’s not love. It’s not stress. It’s not your fault. It’s abuse. The honeymoon will be one of the things that keeps you there. The love will feel real and you’ll crave it, of course you will – that’s completely understandable – but listen to this: Love after abuse isn’t love, it’s manipulation. If the love was real, there would be mountains moved to make sure you were never hurt or scared again.

  10. The Jealous One.

    Your partner is important and so are other people in your life. If you act in a trustworthy way, you deserve to be trusted. We all get insecure now and then and sometimes we could all do with a little more loving and reassurance, but when the questions, accusations and demands are consistent and without reason, it will only be a matter of time before your phone is checked, your movements are questioned, and your friends are closed out. Misplaced jealousy isn’t love, it’s a lack of trust in you.

  11. The Worse-Off One.

    These people will always have problems that are bigger than yours. You’re sick, they’re sicker; you’re exhausted from working late every night this week, they’re shattered – from the gym; you’ve just lost your job, they’re ‘devastated because it’s really hard when you know someone who’s lost their job’. You’ll always be the supporter, never the supported. There’s only so long that you can keep drawing on your emotional well if there’s nothing coming back.

  12. The Sideways Glancer.

    Ok. So the human form is beautiful and there’s nothing wrong with admiring it, but when it’s done constantly in your company – in your face – it’s tiring, and it feels bad. You deserve to be first and you deserve to feel noticed. That doesn’t mean you have to be first all the time, but certainly you shouldn’t have to fight strangers for your share of attention. Some things will never be adorable.

  13. The Cheater.

    Infidelity doesn’t have to mean the end of a relationship – that depends on the circumstances and the people involved and it’s not for anyone else to judge whether or not you should stay. It’s a deeply personal decision and one you can make in strength either way, but when infidelity happens more than once, or when it happens without remorse or commitment to the future of the relationship, it will cause breakage. When people show you over and over that they aren’t capable of loving you the way you want to be loved, believe them. Move them out of the damn way so that better things can find you. 

  14. The Liar.

    Let’s be realistic – little white lies happen. In fact, research has found that when lying is done for the right reasons (such as to protect someone’s feelings) it can actually strengthen a relationship. ‘So that’s the orange cocktail dress you’ve spent a month’s pay on? Wow – you weren’t kidding when you said it was bright. Oh, it has pandas on it. And they’re smiling. And the shop doesn’t take returns. And you love it. Well keep smiling gorgeous. You look amazing!’. However, when lies are told with malicious intent and for personal gain, it will always weaken relationships. Relationships are meant to be fun, but none of us are meant to be played.

  15. The One Who Laughs at Your Dreams.

    Whether it’s being a merchant banker, a belly dancer, or the inventor of tiny slippers for cats, the people who deserve you are those who support your dreams, not those who laugh at them. The people who tell you that you won’t succeed are usually the ones who are scared that you will. If they’re not cheering you on, they’re holding you back. If they’re not directly impacted by your dreams, (which, for example, your partner might be if your dream is to sell everything you both own, move to Rome, and sell fake sunglasses to the tourists) then you would have to question what they’re getting out of dampening you.

Being human is complicated. Being open to the world is a great thing to be – it’s wonderful – but when you’re open to the world you’re also open to the poison that spills from it.  One of the things that makes a difference is the people you hold close. Whether it’s one, two or squadron-sized bunch, let the people around you be ones who are worthy of you. It’s one of the greatest acts of self-love. Good people are what great lives are made of. 

387 Comments

Jason

My ex and I just broke up for the 3rd time in the last 4 years. The first two times she broke up with me for no apparent reason. I tried hard to reach out to her for answers. She ended up telling me that she didn’t love me and don’t want to be with me. That hurt so I’m pretty much gave up after that. I was depressed for months and I just count understand why because we had a great relationship. We ended up getting back together and she apologized for the way she treated me. She did love me and she talked about me to her friends nonstop. She told me she would never leave me that way again. But because of the way she treated me I’m insecure and I couldn’t let her in completely right away. I lied to her about some small stuff because I was scared if her leaving me again for nothing. She found out about the lies the day I had planned a date to talk to her. Now she broke up with me again and it’s the same treatment again. I’m going back and forth on whether or not she’s toxic but I’m still madly in love with her.

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For way too long, there’s been an idea that discipline has to make kids feel bad if it’s going to steer them away from bad choices. But my gosh we’ve been so wrong. 

The idea is a hangover from behaviourism, which built its ideas on studies done with animals. When they made animals scared of something, the animal stopped being drawn to that thing. It’s where the idea of punishment comes from - if we punish kids, they’ll feel scared or bad, and they’ll stop doing that thing. Sounds reasonable - except children aren’t animals. 

The big difference is that children have a frontal cortex (thinking brain) which animals and other mammals don’t have. 

All mammals have a feeling brain so they, like us, feel sad, scared, happy - but unlike us, they don’t feel shame. The reason animals stop doing things that make them feel bad is because on a primitive, instinctive level, that thing becomes associated with pain - so they stay away. There’s no deliberate decision making there. It’s raw instinct. 

With a thinking brain though, comes incredibly sophisticated capacities for complex emotions (shame), thinking about the past (learning, regret, guilt), the future (planning, anxiety), and developing theories about why things happen. When children are shamed, their theories can too easily build around ‘I get into trouble because I’m bad.’ 

Children don’t need to feel bad to do better. They do better when they know better, and when they feel calm and safe enough in their bodies to access their thinking brain. 

For this, they need our influence, but we won’t have that if they are in deep shame. Shame drives an internal collapse - a withdrawal from themselves, the world and us. For sure it might look like compliance, which is why the heady seduction with its powers - but we lose influence. We can’t teach them ways to do better when they are thinking the thing that has to change is who they are. They can change what they do - they can’t change who they are. 

Teaching (‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put this right?’) and modelling rather than punishing or shaming, is the best way to grow beautiful little humans into beautiful big ones.

#parenting
Sometimes needs will come into being like falling stars - gently fading in and fading out. Sometimes they will happen like meteors - crashing through the air with force and fury. But they won’t always look like needs. Often they will look like big, unreachable, unfathomable behaviour. 

If needs and feelings are too big for words, they will speak through behaviour. Behaviour is the language of needs and feelings, and it is always a call for us to come closer. Big feelings happen as a way to recruit support to help carry an emotional load that feels too big for our kids and teens. We can help with this load by being a strong, calm, loving presence, and making space for that feeling or need to be ‘heard’. 

When big behaviour or big feelings are happening, whenever you can be curious about the need behind it. There will always be a valid one. Meet them where they without needing them to be different. Breathe, validate, and be with, and you don’t need to do more than that. 

Part of building resilience is recognising that some days and some things are rubbish, and that sometimes those days and things last for longer than they should, but we get through. First we feel floored, then we feel stuck, then we shift because the only choices we have we have are to stay down or move, even when moving hurts. Then, eventually we adjust - either ourselves, the problem, or to a new ‘is’. 

But the learning comes from experience. They can’t learn to manage big feelings unless they have big feelings. They can’t learn to read the needs behind their feelings if they don’t have the space to let those big feelings come back to small enough so the needs behind them can step forward. 

When their world has spikes, and when we give them a soft space to ‘be’, we ventilate their world. We help them find room for their out breath, and for influence, and for their wisdom to grow from their experiences and ours. In the end we have no choice. They will always be stronger and bigger and wiser and braver when they are with you, than when they are without. It’s just how it is.♥️
When kids or teens have big feelings, what they need more than anything is our strong, safe, loving presence. In those moments, it’s less about what we do in response to those big feelings, and more about who we are. Think of this like providing a shelter and gentle guidance for their distressed nervous system to help it find its way home, back to calm. 

Big feelings are the way the brain calls for support. It’s as though it’s saying, ‘This emotional load is too big for me to carry on my own. Can you help me carry it?’ 

Every time we meet them where they are, with a calm loving presence, we help those big feelings back to small enough. We help them carry the emotional load and build the emotional (neural) muscle for them to eventually be able to do it on their own. We strengthen the neural pathways between big feelings and calm, over and over, until that pathway is so clear and so strong, they can walk it on their own. 

Big beautiful neural pathways will let them do big, beautiful things - courage, resilience, independence, self regulation. Those pathways are only built through experience, so before children and teens can do any of this on their own, they’ll have to walk the pathway plenty of times with a strong, calm loving adult. Self-regulation only comes from many experiences of co-regulation. 

When they are calm and connected to us, then we can have the conversations that are growthful for them - ‘Can you help me understand what happened?’ ‘What can help you so this differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right? Do you need my help to do that?’ We grow them by ‘doing with’ them♥️
Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting

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