Chances are high you’ve encountered a toxic person in your life. You may have even realized this “friend” or family member was no good (kudos to you!), but it can often be hard to distinguish between feelings of love and friendship and feelings of guilt and manipulation. Toxic people are really good at purposefully confusing us.
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We reached out to Nancy Irwin, Psy.D., of Seasons in Malibu, as well as author, therapist, and general badass survivor Shannon Thomas, LCSW, to help us spot the toxic people in our lives—and learn how we can separate ourselves from them.
So, what exactly makes a person toxic?
In order to detoxify our lives, we first need to be able to understand and spot a toxic person. They look like everyone else, talk like everyone else, and can even be disguised as your best friend, family member, or partner. “Toxic people are master manipulators, skilled liars, and great actors,” Thomas says. “They can be hiding everywhere.”
One way to tell you have a toxic person in your life: Every time you encounter or hang out with them, you feel exhausted, emotionally drained, and negative. There’s always something with this person.
Irwin describes a toxic person as anyone who is abusive, unsupportive, or unhealthy emotionally—someone who basically brings you down more than up. “You may begin to feel dependent on him or her for their opinion, doubting your own,” she says.
“Toxic people are draining and leave you emotionally wiped out,” Thomas says. “They want you to feel sorry for them and responsible for all their problems—and then fix these problems too.”
Are you dealing with a toxic person?
“The best gauge is to see how you feel after interacting with someone—our physical and emotional reactions to people are our best indicators,” Thomas says, noting that you should consider whether you’re more tense, anxious, or angry after seeing that person, texting with them, or talking to them on the phone.
Other signs to keep an eye out for, according to Thomas, is if the person is constantly judgmental, obsessively needy, and/or refuses to take responsibility or apologize for their actions.
“This could be someone who uses drugs or drinks excessively, lies or asks you to lie for them, is controlling, or belittles what you do,” Irwin says. She also says the life of a toxic person is often out of control financially, professionally, physically, personally, and/or interpersonally.
How does being around a toxic person affect your life?
“Toxic people have the ability to affect all areas of our lives, and we are often blind to this,” Thomas says. “We make excuses for them.We believe and internalize the lies they feed us. And, in turn, that affects how we view ourselves and our worth. Toxic people receive pleasure from taking joy away from the things we once loved, such as work, friendships, hobbies, and even our love for ourselves.”
Getting a toxic person out of your life is all about setting boundaries.
“If you feel unheard or unseen, and feel used or coerced into doing things that are really not ‘you,’ you may be influenced by a toxic person,” Irwin says. “Toxic people can cause you to doubt yourself or do things you ordinarily would not do—you may feel a desire to ‘be cool’ or fit in or get their approval. Every case is different, but toxic people can negatively influence others by manipulating them to do things. They tend to create chaos through negative habits: using, lying, stealing, controlling, criticizing, bullying, manipulating, creating drama, etc.”
Signs You’re Being Manipulated
“Many people don’t know they’re being manipulated until it’s too late,” Irwin says. “You know you are being manipulated when you begin doing, saying, or believing things that are serving them, as opposed to you. Healthy people encourage and empower you to be your best.Manipulators tell people that they know what’s best for you.”
So what are the red flags—the actual, concrete signs that someone is manipulating us? Thomas breaks it down into the following three categories:
1. The Blame Game
No matter how many painful situations a toxic person purposely puts you in, they won’t apologize. They constantly find ways to make you responsible for their actions.
For example, remember that Christmas party when Sally ToxicPerson got drunk, made an ass of herself, and ruined the whole night—then blamed you for not watching her alcohol intake, implying the whole scenario was your fault? Yeah, that.
Have you noticed that you no longer spend time with other people? A toxic person will demand your full attention and shame you if they feel like you’re not giving them enough of yourself.
For instance, John ToxicPants monopolizes all of your time, to the extent that he freaks out when he sees on social media that you hung out with other friends—without him. You then realize you spend nearly all your free time with this person and have forgotten what your other friends look like. It’s not good.
3. Walking on Eggshells
Toxic people thrive on keeping you on your toes and use emotional outbursts to do so. You never know what type of mood they’ll be in, and you have to watch what you say around them—or you’ll receive 15 text messages about a molehill of a problem that manifested into a mountain, along with a laundry list of all the reasons you’re a terrible person, your career is going nowhere, and you’re not as good as they are.
You might have a friend like Sean ToxicSon, who can’t handle a casual hangout. Every time you see him, there’s a whole emotional scene, he brings up a problem that you caused or need to solve, or involves you in a draining exchange that stresses you out and makes you doubt yourself and your character.
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Cleanse the toxicity and steer clear of the bullsh*t.
OK, now that we know what a toxic person looks like and how they’re manipulating us, how the eff do we get them out of our lives and never to fall prey to their manipulation games again?
Do you have to change your number and get a new email address? Not quite—unless you’ve been experiencing abuse—but you do need to set boundaries until you are able to fully stop communicating with them. Thomas recommends you start with detached contact, which means you still have occasional interactions but from a new emotional state.
“Getting a toxic person out of your life is all about setting boundaries,” she says. “For example, you may not return a toxic person’s call right away and instead wait 30 minutes to call back.” This can help you work through the anxiety of not jumping when they tell you to jump.
“The best way to remove a toxic person is by implementing no contact,” Thomas says. “While this path has its own set of challenges, once the removal of toxicity has occurred and the dust has settled, having no contact is the most concrete way of moving forward and away from a toxic person.”
Irwin recommends giving yourself some distance before you start tapering off the contact, noting that this is harder if the person is your current partner or a former partner you have kids with.
“If they are a co-worker, perhaps you can transfer to another department or cubicle farther away,” she says. “You may need to talk to HR. If they are a sibling, you might try family therapy and set boundaries. If they’re an ex, lose their email/phone number.”
Take time to heal and get positive.
Removing a toxic person from your life is only part of the battle—definitely a big part, but you’ll also have to give yourself time to heal. Even though a sizable weight will be lifted off your shoulders, a lot of damage has been done emotionally (and sometimes physically) in these relationships.
Ultimately, it is the right decision to end your relationship with this person, but that doesn’t make it easy—and it can be a process. “It’s all about healing in stages and realizing it will not happen all at once,” Thomas says. “It’s important to take it day by day, celebrate the little victories, and have patience as you overcome the minor setbacks. Surround yourself with supportive individuals who love you and are on your side.”
And remember to be generous—to you. “Forgive yourself for being taken in by a skilled manipulator,” Irwin says. “Learn from that experience and listen to your heart to make your own choices going forward.” And if you need a little help? That’s perfectly OK. Be proud of yourself and all the steps you’ve taken to make your life better.
Kari Langslet is an avid dater, impulsive adventurer, unofficial therapist to friends and family, and animal lover. You’ll usually find her at a dive bar playing Jenga with her dog or headbanging into oblivion at a Brooklyn show. Stalk her on Instagram and Twitter @karilangslet.