Most people I meet are looking to be a “good person.” In fact, this seems to be a core concept of childhood; being good or bad. As an adult, this notion of being “good” makes us susceptible to toxic people. I am not sure what is multiplying toxic people in our lovely U.S. of A., however, it seems to be on the rise. This article is designed to encourage people to evaluate their associates and make people everywhere around you – employees, employers, partners, friends, family members – accountable. This means that we require people to treat us well. This means that we make toxic people accountable when they hurt others, children or animals. This means that we are careful to choose associates that have our time, attention and energy.
We’re taught in our Puritanistic culture to look the other way and pretend in didn’t happen. Many companies, communities and homes have a culture of denial. A person seeking truth, honesty or consistency is stifled, confused and frustrated in this environment. You can stand back and see the general impact upon the people in this negative culture; they do not move forward, there is little or no creativity, people are angry and uncomfortable, the moods are negative (frustration, anger, resentment, sad, afraid) instead of reflecting positive emotions (laughter, humor, spontaneous, joyful, pride) and the individuals are more frequently physically ill. In hostile homes, people are more judging and critical of each other; e.g. instead of “Would you please take out the trash?” the language is “You never do anything. You are lazy.” This type of judgement and criticism is the nemesis to productiveness, creation, being inspired, loyalty, honesty and a positive self-worth.
As parents, we can reflect on the outcome of the way we raise our children. Are our children open to change, trying new things, embracing knowledge, being helpful, being organized, helping others, getting good grades, being social with positive peers, and the like? Of course, there are children that biologically have a difficult disposition and require a lot of assistance from parents to elicit positive emotions. It is helpful, however, to see certain tendencies as unnatural and extreme, such as rage, deceit, hurting people or animals or obsession with genitalia (self, peers or siblings). Children who display such behaviors or emotions are excessively overwhelmed in the environment and are usually being emotionally, physically or sexually abused. They need helpers to investigate what is wrong and once the issue(s) is(are) identified, they need to be resolved. For more normal parenting issues, there are great books available that encourage upstairs brain activity (the frontal lobe instead of the habit/reactive downstairs brain), such as No Drama Discipline, by Dan Siegel, or The Parent’s Handbook, by Don Dinkmeyer Sr. These books work nicely together to help us increase positive, “upstairs brain activity” in our children [No Drama Discipline, D. Siegel].
As employees, we can observe the emotions and thoughts generated as we go to work or are at work. Do we sigh heavily and frequently? Do we feel fear of speaking up? Do we panic about being fired or reprimanded? Do we fear coming forward with issues or problems? Do we feel like issues go unresolved? Does communication lead to negative conflict? Does leadership criticize employees versus reward positivity? If these things are true, and you find yourself acting up at work or overwhelmed with negative emotion, you are likely in a toxic environment. If you are not a leader of your company, capable of creating change, it is likely best to find employment elsewhere where positive emotions abound. If you don’t leave, the toxic environment will be detrimental to your health and that of your family; we bring the negative home and it impacts us in every way. If you can change the culture, there are so many wonderful tools to use to increase efficiency, performance, positivity and creation of a Just Culture [created by NASA to improve safety, accountability, leadership, transparency, and the like]. Southwest airline has been studied for the happiness, productivity of employees, reduction of illness, all generated by a just and competent leadership. The symptoms of a Just Culture are being lean (using tools like Lean and Six Sigma), financial prosperity, elasticity to change, and positive emotions in employees; employees get along, share jokes, are rewarded for exceptional work, create systemic improvements and make the company goals their own mission. [There are so many good books here, I’m not listing individual books, but would be happy to discuss.]
As individuals, we can observe how we feel emotionally and physically. If the quality of our everyday life is happy, healthy, jovial, productive and positive, we go home positive, create children who are happy, have enjoyable relationships and make healthy choices. Do we require that friends and partners pass the Friend Test? This is my own creation of three things we need to require of someone before we let them into our close circle of three to five friends: 1) Do they treat us consistently well? 2) Do they help us be a better person? 3) Do we walk away after having spent time with them feeling better about our self? If a person we call “Friend” does not pass any one of these items, he or she is not your friend and is an acquaintance that should not be privy to your thoughts, feelings and secrets. This person does not bring out positive emotions, causes you to feel bad about you and who you are and causes you to work harder to maintain the relationship. This type of toxic person is detrimental to our personal growth; they exhaust us emotionally and physically and zap our creativity.
It is important that we are aware of the qualities of a toxic person. It is also imperative that we have our responses ready so that we don’t accommodate the negative but set limits and deflect what comes at us.
Common traits of a toxic person:
- Inability to acknowledge personal patterns and traits and is a negative force against accountability, including deflection, rage, anger, hostility and avoidance.
- Denial for behaviors; things that have happened, including verbal, sexual or physical abuse.
- Revising history; changing the story to be consistent with the person’s current goal(s).
- Talking too much; too many words, including lecturing, reprimanding and criticizing.
- Failure to listen – actively listen – to how other people think and feel.
- Failure to accommodate the needs and wishes of others.
- A prickly demeanor most of the time; angry facial expressions, closed body language, argumentative personality.
- A person who commonly elicit fear in others; fear of creating upset, that sharing something important to the person will create conflict.
- A person who is unable to compromise or collaborate.
- Unwillingness to create change or acknowledge the ideas of other people without a battle.
- Consistent negative emotions or rapid changes in a positive emotion to anger, hostility, defensiveness or rage.
- Creating pressure in others to do what the toxic person wants.
- A person who has the capacity to hijack the thoughts and intentions and emotions of others.
- A person who consistently presents themselves as a victim to adults and children, in need of support.
- A person who seeks alignment from others for the position he/she seeks; support that his/her position is correct and alignment against another or others who do not agreement with him/her.
- Manipulate others to get what is wanted/desired.
- Have a continuous position; move from one result to the next. The people around them do not feel the satisfaction of achieving what is required; there is usually another necessary goal to achieve.
- A person who shuts you out if you disagree or confront the issue.
The list goes on, but these are common issues when we are in the presence of a person of this nature.
Once a ‘good’ person is sucked into the ‘eye’ of the toxic person, it’s a difficult thing to untangle and escape. The best position is one that is recognizing the issues immediately, not allowing the person to be close to you and with clear, kind and firm boundaries. The best positions are neutral or stating the position without negative emotion in return. Once we reciprocate with negative emotion we have ‘joined’ with the toxic person. It’s frighteningly easy to do. Most toxic people are professional at getting us involved and have been manipulating people around them since childhood.
The goal is to isolate people (or groups of people, including companies) who(m) are toxic. As we begin to collectively set limits with people who fail to improve, accommodate the needs of others and suck up resources, our world begins to shift. We put the power back into the hands of competent, healthy leaders, parents, partners and friends. We remove the power from toxic people. Toxic people are not competent to make decisions because their decisions are only for self-interest. We need decision-makers who are self-actualized and understand how decisions affect self and others and seek the greater good, particularly for those who are unassertive, or unable to make decisions, such as children and animals.
The fastest way to notice a toxic person is to be aware of our own well-being. When we notice our calm go to shock, anger, frustration, or any overwhelming emotion, the goal is to identify 1) why am I feeling this way? And 2) what do I need? Our goal is to identify our needs first and then respond to the request coming at us. Our responses need to be using our thinking brain, not emotionally driven. Toxic people are looking to lead us by emotion not logic. It is okay to say, “Let me think about it and get back to you.” Or what I call Blocking; “You can take back those hateful words. I’m awesome.” The point is we manage us, we don’t let others manage our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. We are our own best experts, as long as our conscience/gut is our guide.
Please feel free to ask me any questions or comments to my thoughts.
Camille Bruton Reinhold, LPC, EMIB