Toxic people: 14 things they do and how to deal with them

Image credit: Shutterstock - By Dmytro Zinkevych

Nothing ruins a perfectly good day faster than someone who is dripping with negativity and toxicity.

Toxic people are everywhere, and the worst part is, most of them don’t even realize they are the problem.

Most toxic people think that everyone else is the problem when it comes to negativity.

If you find yourself wondering whether or not someone is negative, consider these 10 warning signs that can help you identify if you are surrounded by toxic people.

It’s important to come face to face with these demons because you don’t need to be dealing with those kinds of people – you need to get the hell away from them as they can leave you emotionally drained.

Here are some signs of a toxic person and after that, we’ll go over 14 ways on how to deal with these difficult people.

1) They only pay attention to you when it serves them

Everyone has that one “friend” who only calls them when they need a favor. Or, perhaps it’s a family member that you feel obliged to help out.

Whatever they are to you, if they are only calling on you when they need something from you, they are a toxic person.

According to Abigail Brenner M.D. in Psychology Today, toxic people use other people to accomplish their goals:

“They use other people to accomplish whatever their goal happens to be. Forget what you want; this is not about equality in a relationship—far from it.”

Recognize it and start making plans to rid yourself of that relationship. Someone who only takes and never gives back is not someone you need in your life.

2) They hold grudges

Toxic people love to drum up drama, and one of the best ways to do that is to bring up something stupid you did in the past.

Maybe they are teasing you in front of friends, or maybe they are throwing it in your face in a mean way, and you are feeling bad about it all over again.

It’s like they have a Peter Pan syndrome and can’t let anything go.

According to a piece in Forbes by Travis Bradberry, toxic people might be afraid that people are going to do harm to them:

“Some people get so fixated on other people’s mistakes that it seems as if they believe they don’t make mistakes themselves. You’ll find that these people hold grudges, lack emotional intelligence, are constantly afraid that other people are going to do them harm, and may even begin nudging you out of important projects.”

If someone spends too much time drudging up the past and not working to get over themselves, you need to move on.

Holding a senseless grudge is a surefire way to push people away.

3) They make you feel stuck

Someone who suffers from a toxic attitude will do their very best to make you feel shitty about your life because as much as they put on a good show, they feel shitty about their life.

According to the book, “5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life: Identifying and Dealing with Narcissists, Sociopaths, and Other High-Conflict Personalities”, the author says that a trait of “high conflict personalities” is extreme negative behavior:

“HCPs frequently engage in extreme negative behavior. This might include shoving or hitting someone; spreading rumors and outright lies about them; trying to have obsessive contact with them… There are also some HCPs who use emotional manipulation to hurt others but can appear very emotionally in control while they do it… They often seem clueless about how their behavior has a devastating and exhausting emotional impact on others.”

They will bring out their best passive-aggressive nature and make it very clear that you can’t escape your job, or whatever situation you find yourself in.

Mostly, they are incapable of moving forward in their lives, and they need people to stay in that place with them.

If you do have toxic people in your life who make you feel shitty, you have to learn how to stand up for yourself.

Because you do have a choice in the matter.

4) They crap on your hopes and dreams

You’ll know you are in the presence of negative and toxic people if every time you announce something, they crap all over it and tell you a million reasons why you can’t do the thing you want to do.

In fact, Jacqueline Newman, New York City-based divorce and matrimonial law attorney, says in Bustle that a sign of toxic behavior is if they insult you with disguised constructive comments:

“For instance, ‘You would look so much better if x, y, or z…Then, the comments graduate to making you the butt of a joke that is often followed up with ‘You know I’m kidding — don’t be so sensitive.’”

The comments become worse over time, to the point where you’re doubting yourself and your goals.

Whether you want to buy a new car or find a new job, look for new love or move to a new city, their negativity has everything to do with them and nothing to do with you, so just ignore it.

They’ll give it a good hook though, so watch out.

5) They lie to you

Toxic people can’t help themselves when it comes to lying. It’s like they need to stoke the fires of drama and chaos in order to be happy.

According to Shannon Thomas, LCSW, in Greatist, “Toxic people are master manipulators, skilled liars, and great actors…They can be hiding everywhere.”

If someone isn’t fighting, they aren’t living. They’ll lie to people about you, for you, to you, and do the same in your circle of acquaintances in order to satisfy their own needs.

If you ever wondered what getting “thrown under a bus” felt like, stick with someone who is toxic, and you’ll find out soon enough.

6) You feel negative when you are around them

Toxic people are like crabs in a bucket. Have you ever seen crabs in a bucket?

They all try to escape at once and just end up pulling each other down. They don’t want to see any one of their kind succeed and so they grab hold, yank, and voila! Nobody gets out.

Wow, talk about a tough crowd.

According to Abigail Brenner M.D. in Psychology Today there tends to be a negative air around toxic people because they focus on problems, not solutions:

“Remember, they are supreme manipulators: Their tactics may include being vague and arbitrary, as well as diverting the focus of the discussion to how you’re discussing an issue—your tone, your words, etc. They focus on problems, not solutions.”

If you’ve got toxic people in your life, it probably feels a little like you are in a bucket full of crabs.

They don’t want to be helped, they won’t help themselves, yet they want everyone around them to feel just as shitty as they do about life, love, work, money, and happiness.

Jodie Gale, MA, a psychotherapist and life coach in Sydney, Australia, says that toxic people tend to be deeply wounded:

“Often the person is deeply wounded and for whatever reason, they are not yet able to take responsibility for their wounding, their feelings, their needs and their subsequent problems in life.”

Basically, they want everyone to feel as terrible as they do. According to Brenner, this is because toxic people project their feelings onto you:

“Rather, their feelings are projected onto you. If you try to point this out to them, they will likely vehemently defend their perspective, and take no responsibility for almost anything they do.”

If you walk away from a negative conversation and find yourself wearing that feeling for some time, or making negative comments to others afterward, it’s a good indication that you’ve just spent time with a toxic person. They’re just so cold!

Toxic people have a way of permeating into our lives and making an impression that is not wanted but finds its way in any way. And it stays with us sometimes. Shake it off and go back to being you.

7) They want what you have

Toxic people cannot be happy for you no matter how much you have or accomplished in your life. So much so that they are willing to push you out of the way to get it.

According to Rhonda Freeman Ph.D. in Psychology Today describes a common trait of a narcissist:

“They believe they are better than other people, and usually, the variables that are self-enhanced are related to “power and status.”

As we’ve mentioned, toxic people tend to be very narcissistic. They’ll beg, borrow, and steal their way into that part of your life to get a piece of the pie, and then claim it all as their own.

Keep a close eye on them at work because if they hate your happiness, they’ll try to take it away.

8) They encourage you to feel sorry for them

The interesting thing about toxic people is that they require a lot of social interaction to maintain their toxicity. Afterall, you can’t be negative if you are all by yourself.

“Toxic people are draining and leave you emotionally wiped out” according to Shannon Thomas, LCSW, in Greatist.“They want you to feel sorry for them and responsible for all their problems—and then fix these problems too.”

They’ll try to get you to agree with their toxic assessments of a situation or a person, and then they’ll tell everyone what you said. Steer clear of them. They are bad news.

9) They expect you to be someone you are not

Negative people will hate you no matter what you do or act like so you might as well just be yourself.

They’ll want you to be everything or everyone else, and nothing will be good enough because they think that their perfect when they are actually far from it. Just ignore their comments trying to bring you down. They’ll find rock bottom soon enough.

This may be because narcissists have a high need for perfectionism, says Margalis Fjelstad, PhD, LMFT in Mind Body Green:

“Narcissists have an extremely high need for everything to be perfect. They believe they should be perfect, you should be perfect, events should happen exactly as expected, and life should play out precisely as they envision it.”

10) They won’t hesitate to manipulate you at all costs

When it comes to toxic people, there’s no such thing as kindness or integrity.

If they want something from you, they’ll do anything they can to get it.

Abigail Brenner M.D. wrote on Psychology Today:

Manipulative people are really not interested in you except as a vehicle to allow them to gain control so that you become an unwilling participant in their plans.”

If you’re in their way, they won’t care about your emotions or your needs. They’ll say what they need, makeup lies and compliment you so you’ll act in service of them.

Now that we’ve spoken about how to spot a toxic person, let’s go over 8 ways to deal with them.

(To learn how to hold your own and avoid being manipulated by a toxic person, check out Hack Spirit’s eBook on the art of taking responsibility for your life here)

How to deal with toxic people: 14 things to do 

Image credit: Shutterstock – By Roman Kosolapov

Whether it’s an old friend who’s turned sour, a competitive co-worker or a family member that just won’t go away, toxic people can be tough to deal with.

Should you fight fire with fire? Or should you simply accept them the way they are? These are difficult questions that aren’t easy to answer.

Here are 14 strategies for dealing with toxic people:

1) Recognize the traits that make you easy prey

To begin with, you need to figure out why they’re targeting you.

According to Peg Streep in Psychology Today:

“Use cool processing to think about the interactions you’ve had with the person that make you unhappy—focusing on why you felt as you did, not what you felt—and see if you can discern a pattern.”

Do you have a need to please or do you fear to cause even the slightest conflict?

Take a step back and consider the interactions you have had by focusing on what you did, but not what you felt – and see if you can find a pattern.

Once you find a pattern, you can be more aware of what behaviors cause that person to take advantage of you.

Keep in mind that assessing what traits cause mistreatment of you doesn’t mean that you are to blame. They are still to blame, but this will help you avoid them targetting you in the future.

2) Accept that it might take some time to get rid of them

For some, getting rid of a toxic person is going to take some time.

This is especially true if the toxic person is close to you, lives in your home, or is in some way in charge of your financial situation, for example, a toxic boss.

However, if you already know that they’re a toxic person, this may help you protect yourself.

According to Elizabeth Scott, MS in Very Well Mind:

“Knowing that you may be dealing with someone who could hurt you and having some concern for yourself in this situation can help you to protect yourself from the pain that a malignant narcissist can cause, at least to an extent.”

You might need to map out how you are going to begin the process and what you hope to achieve by removing them from your life.

This is also a crucial step because you’ll need to look at your own toxicity and determine if you are projecting onto another person.

Be honest about where you are and why this is a problem for you and you’ll be in a better place to start removing them from your life.

3) Explore your reactivity

Again, without taking the blame for the dynamic, you should look at how your overreacting and under-reacting in the relationship.

For example, if you’re dealing with a bully, continually under-reacting gives them permission to keep on bullying you.

Also, people who are easily anxious tend to over-react when a relationship is going south, which only gives narcissists more power to keep on playing with you.

A piece in Psychology Today explains why:

“The closer we get to a toxic individual—the more they know about us, the more emotionally attached we grow to them, the more we let them into our lives—the more damage they can do to us. They simply have more information with which to manipulate or violate.”

Try to not emotionally react to them. Toxic people aren’t worthy of that, anyway.

Be clear, concise, forthright, logical and don’t attach yourself to anything they say.

4) Trust your gut

Some people stay in a hurtful relationship because they don’t trust themselves or their judgment.

You tend to rationalize their toxic behavior or give the person the benefit of the doubt.

But there comes a time when enough is enough. If they’re affecting you emotionally and making your life worse, it’s time to take a stand.

Relationship expert, Dr. Gary Brown, offered some great advice in Bustle:

“While our gut is often right, there are times when it is not…There is an old saying that goes like this: ‘Follow your heart.’ I would add the following: “Follow your heart AND bring your brain along with you to help you exercise some reason.”

If you find yourself continually making excuses for someone, stop and ask your gut while bringing along your brain with you.

Life is a precious gift. Don’t let other toxic people ruin it for you.

5) The word “no” is your new best friend

Chances are that the toxic person in your life didn’t push their way into your life without your permission.

Chances are that slowly, and little by little, they made way into your life and broke down your boundaries and are not going full throttle through your life and making it miserable.

This is why you need to be assertive and direct. Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. in Psych Central offers some great advice on how to be more assertive when talking to a toxic person:

“Tell the person how you feel in an assertive way. Use “I” statements. For example: “When you act/do/say _____, I feel _____. What I need is _______. The reason that I am sharing my feelings and needs with you is_______ (because I love you, I want to build a healthy relationship with you etc.).”

It’s possible that you find it difficult to tell them no. Perhaps they are fragile and you see that, or you see that they don’t have anyone else and you feel bad for the situation they are in.

Stop it right now.

The easiest way to cut a toxic person from your life is to learn to direct and to use the word, “no” whenever and wherever possible. Keep them at arm’s length by not letting them into your realm.

6) Beware of the sunk cost fallacy

What’s keeping you in this relationship?

According to Peg Streep in Psychology Today:

“As the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Twersky shows, humans are famously loss-averse, and prefer to hold onto what they have in the short term—even if giving up a little will get them more in the long run.”

Also, humans prefer the known to the unknown. Keep this in mind and realize that short term loss may actually lead to long term gain.

7) Recognize the power of intermittent reinforcement

Despite what you may have thought, humans are overly optimistic. We tend to see a close loss as a “near win”. This is what keeps people on slot machines.

Evolution explains this.

In our hunter-gatherer days, when the challenges of life were mostly physical, staying encouraged enough to keep going and turn the near win into a real one was a good thing.

Roberta Satow Ph.D. explains how we can be on the wrong side of intermittent reinforcement:

“Many of us have been on the wrong side of intermittent reinforcement–hungering for the crumbs that we sometimes get and sometimes don’t–hoping that this time we will get it.”

So in toxic relationships, we’re motivated to hang in there, even though we only get what we want some of the time.

“Now and again” does not make a pattern and you need to keep that in mind.

In fact, narcissists are very skilled at what is called “love bombing“. According to Psychology Today, love bombing is the practice of “overwhelming someone with signs of adoration and attraction…designed to manipulate you into spending more time with the bomber.”

Look at your life over the course of a month and ask yourself if they are actually adding to it.

If they’re not, then you need to consider ways you can see them less, or if you have to, not see them at all.

8) Ignore their social media

Whatever you do, don’t torture yourself on social media following their every move. Toxic people love to take to the internet to let the rest of the world know how much things suck or how right they are about things.

As Amanda McKelvey points out in MSN, you have to be willing to make the first move to improve your social media atmosphere:

“Social media doesn’t have to be the toxic place everyone says it is, but you have to be willing to make the first move to make it that way.”

It’s a tough spot to be in because chances are that the toxic person is going to constantly ask you, “did you see my post!?” and they’ll want an answer.

A quick, “Sorry, I was too busy” is all you need to respond.

If you want to take things to the next level, you can be very clear about why you don’t follow them on social media and feel out the conversation to see if they are willing to make amends.

9) Don’t waste your time trying to tell you otherwise

Here’s the thing about toxic people: They don’t want your help. They don’t want to learn more, do better, be different.

They want everyone around them to just put up with their ways and make accommodations for them.

It’s an impossible situation and you can bet that it’s one that you cannot improve.

Trying to fix them won’t be successful anyway, according to Elizabeth Scott, MS in Very Well Mind:

“Do not try to change them and don’t expect them to change or you will be disappointed.”

These people, however smart and cunning they may be, are just negative and looking for trouble.

They don’t see how they are hurting others and they’ll continue to do it because in some sick way, it makes them feel good.

Or at least, doesn’t make them feel any worse about themselves.

10) Create distance (if you can)

Whenever possible, distance yourself from them. If they are at work, eat lunch at a different time or in a different space.

In fact, a great strategy to adopt is the “grey rock technique”.

In a nutshell, the Gray Rock Method promotes blending in.

If you look around at the ground, you don’t typically see the individual rocks as they are: you see the dirt, rocks, and grass as a collective.

When we are faced with narcissists and toxic people, they tend to see everything.

The Gray Rock Method gives you the option of blending in so that you no longer serve as a target for that person.

Live Strong says that the Gray Rock Method involves remaining emotionally unresponsive:

“It’s a matter of making yourself as boring, nonreactive and unremarkable as possible — like a gray rock…More importantly, remain as emotionally unresponsive to their pokes and prods as you can possibly allow yourself.”

If you can’t cut them out of your life completely, try separating yourself from them as much as possible.

Don’t drastically change your life so that you can’t enjoy yourself at work anymore, but be wary of how you feel and what you take away from the conversations you have with this person.

It might be easier to just eat in your car a few days a week than try to put up with their bullshit one more day in the lunchroom.

If this person is living in your house, you will eventually have to sit down and have a serious conversation with them, but if the situation is temporary, just keep your distance, fill your calendar with things you want to be doing instead of listening to them whine about life, and wait it out.

11) Guard those boundaries or plan an exit strategy

If the toxic person is someone you can’t avoid, you need to set boundaries for the type of behaviour and contact you’re going to have.

You don’t need to be rude, but you need to be firm and decisive.

To a co-worker you might say, “I’m okay with criticism, but my being overweight has nothing to do with my performance.”

Ending the relationship may be difficult, says Jodie Gale, MA, a psychotherapist and life coach in Sydney, Australia, but it might be well worth it:

“Ultimately though, you will have created space for much healthier and far more nourishing relationships in your life.”

12) Anticipate push-back retaliation

It’s likely that the toxic person is benefiting in some way from the way they’re acting to you.

Once you set boundaries, chances are they will redouble their efforts to keep manipulating to gain the upper hand.

Keep firm, strong, and direct. Don’t let them emotionally manipulate them. Whatever they say shouldn’t carry any weight.

If you have established little contact, keep it that way.

In Mind Body Green, Annice Star, who was involved in a relationship with a narcissist, decided to see her partner again months after breaking up. Here’s why it was a bad idea:

“What did shock me, however, was how easily I flipped right back into scurrying around, fetching him this and that, tiptoeing, soft-pedaling, rationalizing, even lying … you name it, I did it. Within the first hour, I lost all the gains I thought I had secured over the months since our breakup.”

13) Don’t normalize abusive behaviour

This is important. If they’ve treated you poorly for a while, they’ll likely have rationalized their behavior, according to Peg Streep:

“They may have demeaned, marginalized, or dismissed you or other family members and then rationalized their behavior by saying, “They’re only words”; denying that they were ever said.”

The bottom line is that emotional or verbal abuse is never OK.

If you’re okay with it, or you react to it (which is what they’re looking for), then they’ll keep on doing it.

So don’t emotionally react, explain rationally why they’re wrong, and get on with your day without being affected.

Once they know you’re a difficult target to get a reaction out of it, they’ll eventually give up.

14) Say goodbye

In some cases, you are going to have to bite the bullet and let the person go out of your life. That may be easier said than done because toxic people have a way of hanging around.

We’ve said it before, but toxic people can be very narcissistic, and that can be difficult to change.

According to licensed clinical psychologist Dianne Grande, Ph.D., a narcissist “will only change if it serves his or her purpose.”

But if you make yourself perfectly clear that you don’t want such toxicity in your life, they might just be so offended that they bugger off anyway and they’ll do the job of riding themselves from your life so you don’t have to.

So save yourself the trouble and prioritize your own happiness and sanity. In many cases, you might not have a choice, so when you do – get out, now.

It’s not going to be easy, but it will be rewarding.

Who knows, you might find it easy! It might feel good to tell someone that you don’t like their attitude and you deserve better in your life.

Whatever feels right to you, do that. But whatever you do, don’t continue to live in a shell because of this person’s way of making you feel small in your own life. It’s not worth it.

You may also like reading:

Did you like my article? Like me on Facebook to see more articles like this in your feed.

Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 15 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. Check out my latest book on the Hidden Secrets of Buddhism and How it Saved My Life. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

48 Shel Silverstein quotes that will make you smile and think

red thread of fate

5 ‘red thread of fate’ stories and 7 steps to prepare for yours