What makes someone toxic?

You’ve probably heard the word “toxic” a little bit too often. It’s easily thrown around here or there: toxic people, toxic relationships or even toxic behavior. But what exactly makes someone toxic?

Being toxic is being deliberately hurtful to someone else. It’s knowing that your actions and/or words can hurt someone, and yet continue doing them. It’s basically putting your needs above everything, even over someone else’s feelings. 

The thing with toxic people is that they don’t realize the emotional pain they inflict on others. They may know they are hurting you because they can see or hear you cry. Toxic people may know how their actions affect you, yet they seem completely indifferent towards it. They know what they are doing yet they are completely unaware.

What do I mean with “unaware”?

Toxic people seem indifferent towards others’ feelings because they lack empathy. This means that they can’t connect with other people on a deeper level. Like the very well-known expression, “walk a mile in my shoes before judging me”, they are unable to walk a mile in other people’s shoes and feel the pain they feel. Because they don’t DO emotions. They can’t feel what others feel because they don’t let themselves feel these emotions. Like a blockade. They are completely, and utterly unaware, or in other words, they lack self-awareness.

But what is self-awareness?

Self-awareness is the pinnacle for acquiring emotional intelligence. If you’re aware of your emotions and how they affect you, then you’re in a better position to use them intelligently at your advantage. It’s all about letting yourself healthily feel these emotions and using them as a guide for growth.

When you get to that point, then you learn to recognize feelings in others, and additionally becoming much more empathic. This leads to having healthy relationships and not being harmful to others. This is how you avoid some toxicity and unnecessary drama in your life.

Let’s take friends Pamela and Jessica as an example. Pamela was going through a difficult situation and needed some moral support from Jessica. Jessica was not very supportive and made some pretty harsh judgments. Pamela felt very hurt and disappointed. She had two options:

  1. Shut Jessica completely out of her life. “How dare she judge me? I don’t need this energy in my life.”
  2. Bottle up these emotions and act passively-aggressively towards Jessica. This means retaliating by becoming hurtful for some amount of time. Until this relationship deteriorates and eventually breaks. This is a very toxic behavior.
  3. Acknowledge her feelings. Become aware of them. Talk about them with Jessica. Use this as an opportunity for growth for both of them.

We must all agree that option 3 seems like the best option to have healthier and lasting relationships. Right? 

But what if the other person does not acknowledge that they’ve hurt you? What if they decided that your emotions are unfounded or according to them “you’re just being too sensitive.” What if this sort of behavior continues, and they find justifiable reasons to hurt you?

Let’s take this toxic relationship as an example. Nick is financially successful; but his work tends to be very stressful. When Nick is very stressed he becomes irritable and hurtful towards Melissa, for no reason at all. Melissa has tried to make him understand how his actions towards her are harmful. But he understands that since he’s the main and only provider, his actions are justifiable. He needs her as a source of stress relief. By lashing out he becomes unburdened, and she’s supposed to take it. 

If Nick would have emotional intelligence, then he would’ve been empathic. He would’ve put himself in Melissa’s shoes and would have tried to respect her by not hurting her.

But that is not the case. Nick is unable to transform his stress into something useful, as emotionally intelligent people tend to do. He is unable to channel it in a healthy manner, which could be by working out or meditating. Instead, he is very harmful. If he were to self-reflect, then he would be able to understand where this toxic behavior comes from and find ways to handle these inner patterns. 

But what happens when some requests are completely unreasonable?

Let’s look into this other toxic relationship. Alexa has some unaddressed emotional baggage from her past relationship. She has trust issues and she projects her insecurities into her current relationship. She has certain requests for Matt. Matt must come home straight from work every night. In addition, he is not entitled to any type of privacy, for Alexa checks his text messages and his emails frequently.

Toxic behavior

In this specific case, Matt should not adapt to Melissa’s trauma, compromising his values, just to make her feel comfortable. He can’t be responsible for her insecurities. She needs to step up and become responsible for her own emotions. She needs to become self-aware of these emotions, where they come from, and how to handle them. She needs to do the inner work.

At the same time, Matt should also become self-aware of what’s important for him and what’s not ok to accept, to avoid harmful or toxic behaviors. He needs to establish healthy boundaries. This is why self-awareness plays an important role here —again. 

Can toxic people love?

Some people are raised in some particular way that may make them toxic. Or they acquire traumas throughout their lives that can easily make them harmful. 

So, how can I blame someone for acting the way they were taught? In other words, how can I possibly condemn someone just because they don’t know better? Where’s my empathy? It doesn’t mean they don’t love me. Because sometimes love hurts. Right?

Wrong. When someone is not respecting your boundaries, when you’ve explicitly told them they hurt you, then they simply don’t respect you. And it’s simple. If there’s no respect, then there’s no love. At least not in the true sense of the word.

Toxic people have a perception of what love is. They twist the definition of love into their own definition. They “love” under their own terms. Selfishly. But love is supposed to be nurturing and edifying. Not painful.

But here’s the thing with toxic people. They can’t change the way they love you, because in order to feel unconditional and functional love towards someone else, they must first experience it towards themselves. And they don’t. And if there’s no self-love, it can’t be expanded elsewhere. It must first start within.

Can toxic people change?

Toxic people can change, but only if they decide to. They won’t change if you want them to. Or if you ask them to. It has to come from within. Inner growth is a very personal decision. And it usually arises from hitting the bottom.

That said, whenever you decide to hold on to someone expecting them to change, just think about how hard it is to make changes within yourself. At the same time, there is something called incurable toxicity. Ok, I just made that up. But, yes, people that have personality disorders, cannot change their core, their essence. Take, for instance, Narcissistic Personality Disorder. For starters, a person with this disorder will NOT be able to look within and accept this diagnosis. One thing is to have a few narcissistic symptoms that you could probably work on. But another entirely different is to have a full-blown personality disorder deeply rooted in your Self.

The first step for true healing, and for real growth to develop, is to first become aware of how your actions affect others. To do this, the person has to learn how to look inside, and start making uncomfortable questions about who they are and why they act the way they do.

Doing this is easier said than done. People resist change. It’s not an easy process. It’s not pretty. To achieve this, it is necessary to dig deep and uncover painful experiences that have shaped them into who they are today. Some of these experiences are deeply buried in their unconscious. Our psyche can be so mysterious, that in order to protect us from immediate pain it throws a bandage (psychologically referred to as self-defense mechanisms) into the emotional wound.

Some of these self-mechanisms are healthy, but most are not. They try to hide our own pain from us, but this pain will always come out to the light. Transformed into toxic behavior. It’s like trying to cover the sun with a finger. So, yeah, thank you psyche, but no.

Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

Carl jung

So… What makes someone toxic?

Most toxic people become such because they were raised in a toxic environment.  Maybe they were neglected while growing up. Or maybe they had an abusive parent. Or maybe they simply weren’t taught how to channel their emotions properly, because they probably didn’t have an emotionally intelligent figure that could teach them how. Having someone to guide them —as such is the job of a psychotherapist— into showing them how to uncover all of these emotions can take them places. They could even learn how to use these emotions as stepping stones into inner growth and improvement. It’s all about working on their emotional intelligence.

It takes years to become toxic, and years to heal from toxicity. This is why you should never hesitate into removing toxic people from your life. If you’ve tried to improve your relationship in numerous ways, and this person continues hurting you, it’s time to practice some self-love and invest your time into much more nutritious relationships. It can be a parent, a close friend, or someone you love dearly. It doesn’t matter who it is. Walk away. 

In order to heal and thrive as a person, it is necessary to remove toxic people from your life.

If it’s not possible to do so entirely, try to maintain healthy boundaries. And make sure you seek professional help that could help you handle this specific relationship in question.

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If you loved this article, you will sure love, “We accept the love we think we deserve.”

Article by Sarah Peláez


How to reference this article

Pelaez.S (2020). What makes someone toxic? PsycheSpot https://www.psychespot.com/mental-awareness/what-makes-someone-toxic?/

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