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Chances are high you’ve encountered a person in your life who demonstrates toxic qualities. There’s an equally significant possibility you still remember how they made you feel.
You may have then realized this “friend” or family member was no good (kudos to you — it’s not easy and not everyone has the strength to do so).
But it can often be hard to distinguish between feelings of love and friendship and feelings of guilt and manipulation. Manipulative people are really good at purposefully confusing others.
We reached out to Nancy Irwin, PsyD, of Seasons Rehab Center in Malibu, California, as well as author, therapist, and general badass survivor Shannon Thomas, LCSW, to help us spot the people in our lives who may do more harm than good and learn how we can separate ourselves from them.
In order to detoxify our lives, we first need to be able to understand and spot a person with toxic qualities.
They look like everyone else, talk like everyone else, and can even be hiding in your friendship group, your family, or your romantic relationship.
“People with toxic qualities are master manipulators, skilled liars, and great actors,” Thomas says. “They can be hiding everywhere.”
One way to identify a person like this is that uuuuuuuuuuugh feeling after hanging out: Every time you talk to them, you feel exhausted, emotionally drained, and negative.
There’s always something with this person. And you won’t always be able to pinpoint it.
Irwin describes a person with toxic qualities 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.
“They can be 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.”
If you’ve got a sibling who’s manipulating and damaging you, we found some ways to cope.
“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.
She notes 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, include:
- Being judgmental: The person may constantly pass judgment on you and others.
- Obsessive neediness: They place huge strains on your time and energy.
- Denialist: They refuse 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 regularly belittles what you do,” Irwin says.
She also says the lives of people with toxic qualities often lack financial, professional, physical, personal, or interpersonal stability.
Essentially, they may find it very hard to exact control over their own lives, minds, and relationships, so they try to exert power over others in harmful ways.
Even parents can exert toxic effects on their kids, and it’s still fine to cut them out if their presence is harmful.
“People who demonstrate toxic qualities also have the ability to affect all areas of our lives, and we are often blind to this until it’s too late,” 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.
If they have toxic qualities, a person may receive pleasure from taking joy away from the things we once loved, such as work, friendships, hobbies, and even self-love.”
Irwin agrees, and adds that they can inspire strange changes in behavior.
“If you feel unheard or unseen, and end up being used or coerced into doing things that are unusual for you, you may be influenced by a person’s toxic qualities,” she says.
“They 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 people with toxic qualities can negatively influence others by manipulating them to do things.”
People with toxic qualities sow chaos wherever they walk through negative habits that include:
- using others
- creating drama
The most harmful thing about manipulation is that you don’t realize it’s happening.
“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 and use it as a tool to put you down.
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
A person with toxic qualities will not apologize for the painful situations they put you in. They constantly find ways to make you responsible for their actions.
For example, remember that Christmas party when Sally McToxicQualities got drunk, made an ass of herself, and ruined the whole night — then blamed you for not watching her alcohol intake?
(Workplaces can be toxic, too. Keep an eye out.)
The same applies to the disgusting “look what you made me do” mentality that plagues abusive relationships — blaming the partner for inciting the emotion or motivation behind any violence, rather than taking accountability for the violence.
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 McToxicQualities (no relation to Sally) 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.
People who are good for you also recognize that you have other folk and activities in your life that matter.
Leaving overwhelming or draining relationships isn’t giving up, it’s growing up.
Here’s why giving up is sometimes good.
3. Walking on eggshells
People with toxic qualities 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.
Otherwise, you’ll receive 15 text messages about a molehill of a problem that manifested as a mountain, along with a laundry list of all the reasons that 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 McToxicQualities 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.
(To clarify, the name McToxicQualities is not an accurate way to identify toxicity. But a friend who causes the above problems is likely to be a toxic presence.)
OK, now 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 avoid falling prey to the manipulation games of them and anyone like them 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’re 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 with whom you have kids.
“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.”
It’s sometimes easier said than done, as people aren’t fond of losing control if they possess toxic qualities. But taking these first steps are important for rebuilding your life.
We put together a simple, two-step process for removing friends from your circle if they have a toxic impact.
Removing toxicity from your life is only part of the battle. You’ll also have to give yourself time to heal.
Even though a sizable weight will be lifted off your shoulders, a lot of emotional (and sometimes physical) damage has taken root in these relationships.
You don’t only need space from the individual who caused the pain, you need space from the events themselves, and that takes time.
Ultimately, it’s the right decision to end your relationship with this person, but that doesn’t make it an easy or brief recovery. “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 people who love you and are on your side.”
And remember to be generous to yourself. “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.
Your life will be healthier without Sally, John, Sean, and anyone else who chooses to join the McToxicPerson clan.
You are amazing, and you deserve better than to be a pawn in someone else’s self-destruction. Cut poisonous people from your life and build a better future that promises positivity and support.
If your physical or emotional safety are at risk in a relationship, make sure you check out these resources and helplines that you can contact for assistance and a way out.
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.