20 Traits of Toxic People to Watch Out For

Radical honesty is the first step

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how to idenitfy a toxic person
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Not to brag, but you consider yourself a fun, friendly and generally easy person to be around. Your sister-in-law, on the other hand, always seems to push your buttons. Is there a conflict between you, or is she engaging in toxic behavior that anyone would have a hard time dealing with? Does her relationship always seem to be in trouble? Do you suspect some narcissism in the picture? If so, let's consider the rich stew of repellent characteristics that can make socializing with someone a low-grade (or sometime high-stress) torture. What exactly are these behaviors, and how best can a person deal with them? We asked mental health professionals to help us understand how to identify and deal with toxicity in our social group (and, yup, even in ourselves). Below, their insight along with 20 traits of toxic people to look out for.

Meet the Experts

  • Dr. Morgan Anderson is a Bozeman-based licensed clinical psychologist, attachment theory expert, relationship coach and author of the relationship self-help book, Love Magnet. She is also the creator of the Empowered.Secure.Loved relationship program, where she's helped over 350 graduates achieve higher self-worth and healthier relationships. 
  • Dr. Michele Leno is a licensed psychologist and Detroit native. As a psychologist for Doctor on Demand, Dr. Leno offers online therapy to clients throughout Michigan. She’s the founder of DML Psychological Services, PLLC, a company that provides consulting services; additionally, she hosts Mind Matters with Dr. Michele” a TV talk show that tackles mental health and eliminates the stigma surrounding it.

What Are Toxic Traits?

“I define toxic as anything that is causing pain to yourself or others,” says psychologist and author Dr. Morgan Anderson. “I think it is important to clarify that 'toxic' has such a broad spectrum of meaning. The level of toxicity will vary across the trait, the individual and the degree to which the trait manifests.” Simply put, toxic traits are the most off-putting aspects of one's personality. “In other words, they run people away,” Dr Michele Leno says. “Like personality disorders, toxic traits are usually part of a person's makeup and may be challenging to modify.”

How to Distinguish Between Personality Traits and Toxic Behaviors

In a nutshell, traits are your natural tendencies and behaviors are actions that you choose to make. “Traits are innate, meaning the traits you are born with will be difficult to change,” says Dr. Anderson. By contrast, “behaviors can be learned over time, and can be changed.” Dr. Leno provides an example: “Lying is a conscious behavior. One makes a decision to lie. The behavior may change based on the situation. A person may lie for self-preservation, for example, but lying may not be part of their personality trait.”

How to Identify Toxic Traits in Yourself and Others

According to Dr. Leno, we recognize toxic traits in others more quickly than we do in ourselves. “Feeling drained, on edge or defensive? It may be a sign that you are in toxic company,” she says. One signal that you yourself might have a toxic personality is that you notice you cannot maintain relationships, including intimate, social and professional ones.

How to Deal with Toxic Traits, in Yourself and Others

According to Dr. Anderson, awareness is the first step, coupled with radical honesty. “If you know that you can be impatient,  you would want to acknowledge this trait, have some self-compassion, and then ask: ‘What would it look like in my daily life to be more patient?’” she says. Further, the psychologist explains, if a person feels shame around their toxic traits, then they will likely never change them. “We must accept them, identify the shift we desire, and then commit to small daily changes to reach that desired identity,” she says. When dealing with others, Dr. Leno suggests the following: “Communicate your concerns, as this opens the door for conversation. If they are not receptive to your feedback, it may be necessary to exit the relationship.”

1. They’re Manipulative

When you ask your friend a question ("Hey, want to come over next week?"), you don't have any ulterior motives. When a toxic person asks you a question, though, they might be setting a trap. ("Are you free for dinner tomorrow at seven?" Subtext: "If you aren't free for dinner tomorrow at seven, I'll be mad at you for the rest of the week.") "Their modus operandi is to get people to do what they want them to do," says Abigail Brenner, M.D. "It’s all about them. 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." 

2. They Take More than They Give

Your aunt agreed to go to your birthday party, but then she spent the entire time complaining. She wouldn’t stop talking about the uncomfortable chairs at the restaurant you picked, and isn’t afraid to tell you what a miserable, awful time she had. You feel so bad, you end up buying her a gift certificate for a massage to make it up to her. While it's easy to write your aunt off as being curmudgeonly or cranky, if she regularly makes everything about her (and insists you take care of her needs above your own), she's a toxic person, plain and simple.

3. Their Apologies Aren’t Sincere

Have you ever expected an apology from someone and ended up apologizing to them? This is a classic red flag. Let’s say your friend blew off the brunch plans you had last Saturday. Then, when you confront her about it, she delves into this long story about how she got into a huge fight with the guy she’s dating that morning and she doesn’t think she’ll ever find her soulmate, and it’s all her parents’ fault for getting divorced when she was five. You feel for her, and you want to be there for her if she’s having a crisis, it’s just…she’s always having a crisis. And weren’t you just talking about brunch? Shifting tactics and turning herself into the victim is toxic territory.

4. They Don’t Listen to You

Every good relationship—whether it’s with a friend, partner or your grandma—is based on a balance of sharing and listening. Toxic people have apparently missed that memo. When you start to confide in a toxic friend (or even try to engage him with a quick anecdote about your life), you’ll quickly notice his attention drifting to something else. Before you know it, he’s interrupted you, changed the subject and wrangled the conversation back to something that he finds more interesting: himself.

5. They Make You Feel Bad

Immediately after spending time with a friend or family member, ask yourself, "Do I feel better or worse than when I left the house this morning?" If you consistently feel worse, they’re toxic. "[These] people are draining; encounters leave you emotionally wiped out," Dr. Brenner says. "Time with them is about taking care of their business, which will leave you feeling frustrated and unfulfilled, if not angry. Don’t allow yourself to become depleted as a result of giving and giving and getting nothing in return."

6. They Are Self-Defeating

In the book Toxic Coworkers: How to Deal With Dysfunctional People on the Job by Alan A. Graviola and Neil J. Lavender, the authors outline numerous personality disorders that show up in the workplace, including behaviors classified as histrionic (“Dramatic, flamboyant, overemotional, and shallow”), borderline (“Moody, angry, with highly intense and stormy relationships”) and passive aggressive (“Covert expressions of anger include inefficiency, blaming management or other authority figures, tardiness and other quietly obstructionist behavior”). One thing all these traits have in common, the authors point out, is that they are all over-expressed in a stressful situation and ultimately become harmful to the person exhibiting them.

7. They Abuse Their Power

Ever feel like you’re being asked for more work for less pay…then when you bring it up to management, they say you’re lucky to even have a job? That’s an abuse of power. In the workplace, abuses of power have captured headlines with increased attention to sexual harassment, which is positive movement in the professional space. But subtler forms of top-down toxicity, including managers who are thinking of their own needs before the equitable distribution of workload, are another red flag of toxicity.

8. They Use the Word “I” Incessantly

Have you ever found yourself in a conversation with someone, only to realize it’s not a conversation at all but more like a one-woman show with you as the audience? That’s a classic narcissistic personality disorder tell, and it leads to people turning away from the narcissist, bored or hurt. In one case, we know of a man who would count the seconds between sentences his father told about himself, thinking he’d get a silent moment to interject some thought of experience of his own. No such luck—the son only go to “five-Mississippi” before his dad would launch into another story about himself. By contrast, think of a healthy conversation at a tennis match, with both sides yielding the “I” racquet as they bat stories back and forth.

9. They Say “You’re Overreacting”

Gaslighting alert! That’s the phrase for when a person makes you doubt your thoughts or feelings without giving evidence why. They simply say “you’re wrong” (and they get extra bad-behavior points if they condescendingly or pityingly act as though it’s your fault you’re upset, you silly little thing you). A person’s emotional response to a people, place or things is theirs alone, and arguably a sacred aspect of each and everyone’s humanity. The feelings can’t and shouldn’t be belittled. Let’s say you’ve taken to your bed over the death of your beloved cat. Your friend doesn’t understand why you’re making such a big deal of it, and can’t believe you’re cancelling your dinner plans over a feline fatality. Fine—he doesn’t have to. But saying “you’re making too big a deal out of this” is grade-A toxicity; while “I don’t know what you are going through, but I’m so sorry for your loss” is way more compassionate.

10. They Always See Themselves as the Victim

In 5 Types of People Who Can Ruin Your Life by Bill Eddy, the author identifies HCP (high-conflict personalities) who have the potential to wreak havoc in the lives of their friends and co-workers. A common thread among these people are a lack of ability to change or to see their part in life problems. “They mistakenly believe that all their problems just happen to them—as if they dropped from the sky—and that there’s nothing they can do about it,” he explains. “They chronically feel like a victim in life.” Anyone with a perceived lack of agency in their own life is apt to spiral into bitterness without a willingness to break old patterns.

11. They Are Suddenly Your New Best Friend

That rush of endorphins that comes with This! New! Person! who really gets you. Suddenly, you’re texting them multiple times a day and text-watching shows together and sharing all the things. How did you ever survive before knowing this person? If this is your internal voice, beware: You may have happened upon a person whose lack of boundaries and penchant for extreme behavior is making them central to your life, but in a codependent and unearned capacity. Slow down and watch and listen to your new friend, so that you’re not suddenly tied up emotionally with someone who doesn’t share your values.

12. They’re Big Gossips

Sure, it’s spicy to hear about what happened on the couch in your boss’s office after the Christmas party. But when someone is telling stories on everyone in your friend group, from little peccadillos to large missteps, it reveals low self-esteem in the rumor-monger. Why aren’t they concerning themselves with their own professional, emotional and family life? Is everyone else really so much more interesting? Also, beware: It’s only a matter of time until your own confidences are put out on the street.

13. They Live in an Empathy-Free Zone

It’s a tough time everywhere, but your toxic pal doesn’t see it that way. From those lazy people who won’t work hard over there, to those crazy people who don’t understand politics over here, the toxic person doesn’t have the desire or willingness to see the world through anyone else’s mindset or circumstance. According to Albert Bernstein’s Emotional Vampires: Dealing With People Who Drain You Dry, this is a result of immaturity, a failure to outgrow the me-centric focus of childhood into the more socially aware, cooperative mindset of adulthood.

14. They Don’t Speak Respectfully

No adult needs to have fundamental concepts of honesty and kindness explained to them, says Jackson MacKenzie. If you find yourself explaining the basic elements of polite human interaction to someone, it’s a good sign they are a troubled individual, he writes in Psychopath Free: Recovering from Emotionally Abusive Relationships with Narcissists, Sociopaths and Other Toxic People.

15. They Act as if They Are Better than Other People

It’s tough being a big deal in a small world. At least, that’s the mindset of the toxic individual, whose inflated sense of superiority can range from demanding an undue amount of attention from service workers, to expecting undying adoration from family members. Depending on the extent to which your toxic associate expresses their grandiosity, it can range from just making them a drag as a restaurant dining companion (seriously, no table is ever good enough) to them being a cult leader. Or maybe just Regina George in Mean Girls.

16. They Are Cynical

Oscar Wilde said that "a cynic is a man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing.” Spend time around a cynic and you'll come away feeling negative, hopeless and filled with the idea that life is a pointless slog. Too heavy a lift, in our book—as well as inaccurate.

17. They Are Sneaky

No one is saying that your friend, or you for that matter, needs to be an open book. But transparency in a relationship as well as in business is a policy that leads to trust, feelings of security and connection. If you detect someone being sneaky, remember that it's only a matter of time until they're being secretive toward your interests, too.

18. They Demonstrate a Lack of Effort

Relationships are a two-way street, Dr. Anderson reminds us. So if you find yourself doing all the work to maintain the relationship, ask yourself why your partner/family member/business associate thinks they can just coast along.

19. They Shame You

If someone is guilt-tripping or shaming you for your behavior, thoughts or feelings, why are they even in your air space? A toxic personality feeds on the power they perceive they get from dominating you emotionally. This is different from a trusted person who may tell us their honest (if sometimes painful) opinion that we solicited. The difference? You can tell in your heart of hearts if they're sharing their words in the spirit of help or harm.

20. They're Stingy

No one is suggesting your friend needs to foot the whole bill for the seafood tower here. What we're getting at is that someone who is unwilling to invest in an equal share of the cost of an outing—or negotiate a lower-cost option—is displaying a toxic controlling behavior that probably speaks to a deeper unwillingness to give on an emotional level, too. To which we say: Nobody rides for free!

Your Most Toxic Personality Trait, Based on Your Zodiac Sign

dana dickey

Senior Editor

Dana Dickey is a PureWow Senior Editor, and during more than a decade in digital media, she has scoped out and tested top products and services across the lifestyle space...

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Freelance Editor

From 2015-2020 Lindsay Champion held the role of Food and Wellness Director. She continues to write for PureWow as a Freelance Editor.