8 Qualities of Toxic People

Scroll

Several years ago, I met a guy named Dallas. A college pastor at the time, it didn’t take long to realize he had a past. Family? Nonexistent. Jail time? Absolutely. But Dallas wasn’t dangerous. And for the first week or two, things were going well. 

Around week three, things started to change. I don’t know why. I’m sure he battled a legion of demons. I could never imagine the internal struggles of someone with his past, almost all of it out of his control.

Dallas would call me, usually late at night. At first to ask a question about Scripture or Jesus. But inevitably it spilled over into suicidal threats and attacks on my faith. He did this for several nights. And for several nights I listened.

Friends, these conversations were exhausting on every level imaginable. I’ve walked beside people with a past. This was different. I wanted to be an outlet for him, a listening ear, a beacon of hope, but when I offered to help him find counseling, he became defensive. We weren’t going anywhere, in other words.

And I was missing valuable time with my family and often starting the next day on fumes.

But I felt guilty for wanting to cut ties. This guy didn’t know Jesus, after all. And besides, I thought, Jesus would never abandon someone like Dallas. For those reasons, I continued my relationship with him.

And I shouldn’t have.

Is my encounter with Dallas an outlier? Maybe. But toxic people aren’t. Live long enough, you will cross paths with one.

Toxic people aren’t evil or bad. They’re people, like you and me. They need what we need, love, security and connection. For a host of reasons, however, they seek these things in unhealthy, even destructive, ways.

Toxic people drain you. They suck your life and your energy. They demand a lot of time and can distract you from your purpose.

Too often, we tolerate toxic people, often in the name of Jesus.

Are these not the very people Jesus calls us to help?

Yes and no.

There’s a difference between a needy person and a person in need. The line between the two is often blurry. That’s why you need wisdom and prayer. You also need a strong support system and clearly defined values. More about those later.

For now, I want to highlight a few qualities of a toxic person.

1. Toxic people attack your identity, not the issue.

I love this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt. “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people. -Eleanor Roosevelt

Healthy people attack issues. Toxic people attack your identity and character. Here’s why.

Toxic people hate being wrong. They’re not concerned with resolutions or compromises. All they do is win. No matter what.

A toxic person might a conversation by addressing issues. But if they perceive you’re gaining an upper hand, the issue quickly takes a back seat and stuff goes south…in a hurry.

As a pastor for five years and a blogger for another three, I’ve encountered a critical comment or two.

When it comes to how I address them, I have one rule: I do not respond to anyone who attacks my identity or character.

 

I would advise you to do the same. Toxic people aren’t interested in hearing your opinion. They’re only interested in convincing you of theirs. And again, they won’t compromise.

Toxic people aren’t interested in hearing your opinion. They’re only interested in convincing you of theirs. And again, they won’t compromise.

You’re much better off investing your time and energy elsewhere.

2. Toxic people are okay with “alternative facts.”

Toxic people can’t be wrong. “You can say that again.” I did, in the previous point.

You won’t hear them say “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” And because they must always be right, they resort to alternative facts when necessary, which is most of the time. If you catch them lying, you might hear phrases like “that’s not what I meant” or “I never said that.” They twist their words (and your mind), trying to get you to question yourself.

Appealing to clearly defined standards of right and wrong, good and bad, etc., isn’t helpful either. While healthy people value character and integrity, toxic people value…Can you guess?…being right.

3. Toxic people fear intimacy.

Toxic people love to talk about the Warriors chances of winning the title or who should have won the Oscar for Best Movie. They will discuss anything, really, except the condition of their heart or their relationship with God or the state of their marriage.

Toxic people fear intimacy. They don’t know how to be vulnerable or authentic and would probably label both as weakness.

If you try swimming below the surface, toxic people quickly divert the conversation. If you persist, they take offense.

This point illustrates why you shouldn’t get angry or upset with a toxic person. They’re lonely, emotionally numb. It’s heartbreaking.

Let’s keep moving.

4. Toxic people are surrounded by drama.

Negative experiences define a toxic person’s life. Alannis Morissette’s “Ironic” is their life’s theme song, and they post a Debbie Downer meme on social media at least weekly. Toxic people don’t necessarily have more negative experiences. They allow these experiences to write their story.

They allow these experiences to write their story.

They live in the past rather than learn from it. They draw on negative energy. At times, this energy is almost tangible.

This was my story until my late 20s. I could write a book about everything I was against. I knew who was wrong and why. I was hyper-aware of all the evil in the world and which Christians were “real.”

But if you asked me what I was for, you would receive a blank stare.

Most toxic people leave behind a trail of drama because negativity fuels their identity. It’s an exhausting way to live. And if you hang around long enough, they will draw you in.

This is why recognizing toxic behaviors matters. Once you’re aware, you can prepare your heart. You can set up emotional boundaries and refuse to play by their rules.

5. Toxic people have a lot of problems and very few solutions.

Toxic people don’t want to change. In my dealings with toxic people (including the one in the mirror), I can tell you they want people to listen. But they’re not interested in moving on or discussing action steps.

Ruminating in their problems gives them a feeling of power. And continuing to listen without pushing them forward only fuels this power.

If someone you love exhibits toxic behavior, you must continue pushing them forward, towards answers. This is the most loving thing you can do.

6. Toxic people speak in generalities and absolutes.

Toxic people use words like “always” and “never.” They use these words intentionally. It’s a subtle form of manipulation.

At a heart level, these descriptors reflect the black-and-white world they see. Toxic people are a rigid bunch. They can’t fathom middle ground or gray areas. Ultimately, they’ve punted on spiritual work, blinding them to the good and bad that exists in all of us.

Just know you can’t reason with or convince someone who sees the world this way.

7. Toxic people are skeptical about everyone and everything.

In Donald Miller’s book Scary Close, he talks about a man named John Cotton. John is a human trafficking and civil rights prosecutor. He prosecutes the worst of the worst, child sex traffickers, drug dealers, you name it.

John, in a conversation with Donald Miller, talks about a common trait he see in every criminal he prosecutes.

They think people are out to get them.

This is a common thread in toxic people. They are, by default, skeptical about everyone and everything, even the people closest to them.

Yeah, they’re skeptical about you too.

Their minds cycle through a non-stop reel of worst-case scenarios. They’re always entertaining conspiracy theories. Years of this takes a toll on the heart.

It’s very difficult for toxic people to experience healthy relationships. They never give themselves fully to anyone, holding back just in case you hurt them (and, in their minds, hurting them is a matter of when, not if).

8. Toxic people seek to impress, not connect.

I’m going a different direction with this point. I want to speak as a father. And I want to say something to you, parents.

As a dad, I fight the urge to impress my children every day. I want them to think I’m invincible, much the same way I saw my dad growing up. I want them to be proud of me. I want to project an image of strength and stability. I don’t want my children to know I battled pornography and that I almost allowed pride to destroy my marriage. I don’t want my children to know I struggle with doubt. I don’t want them to know I was sexually irresponsible before I met my wife (and their mother).

And, to be fair, I don’t have to tell them. Although I guess I just did. Anyway.

For several years in my mid-20s, my life was a wreck. I needed the reassuring voice of my father. As I type this, tears come to my eyes thinking about how many nights I wanted to call my dad. But I never called him, not once. He might have listened, I don’t know.

But I was convinced he wouldn’t understand. You see, my dad didn’t talk about his problems. He wasn’t a bad father. I’m thankful for him. But, intentionally or not, I was led to believe my dad either didn’t have problems or that grown ups didn’t talk about them.

Parents, you need to know this.

You can impress your kids. Or you can connect with them. But you can’t do both.

I pray everyday for the faith to be vulnerable and honest with my children. I pray the same for you. Look, I get it. It’s fun and all for your kids to think you can move mountains.

But one day they will be in a valley. And in this place, your kids don’t need your “perfect” image. They need to know that you’ve been there, in the valley. And they need to know you’re not afraid to walk through it again, with them.

Before I sign off, I want to invite you to join the conversation.

What qualities do toxic people share? Leave a comment below.

Grace and peace, friends.

Frank is lead writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.

22 Comments

  1. Toxic people do not listen, all they want to do is talk. They will not acknowledge an affirmative solution to what ever problem it is they speak of and they feel like they are the only ones who’ve ever had to go through what ever it is they are experiencing. It’s an endless cycle of negativity.

  2. Love this article….I read it because someone accused me of being toxic. I wanted to see if I fit these qualities. I must admit that trying to follow Christ and love people is a blurry line. After our relationship was destroyed over her “labeling” me toxic….my life has been “free” of the drama and chaos. God is so good! So proud of you, Frank, and how God is using you!

    • Lisa, so good to hear from you! Thanks for the comment and the kind words. Blessings!

  3. Thanks for this insightful post. I was curious: do you still have a relationship with Dallas? Do you have any advice for lovingly cutting ties with a toxic person? (Or is that for another blog post?)

    • I have had to break ties with a couple of toxic people in my family. I didn’t come by the decision lightly, but when it dawns on you the personal cost you can’t afford in putting up with the toxicity – you pray about it, ask God for wisdom, and carefully phrase what you need to say with kindness, but decisiveness. They push back. Then I let them know I love them, wish the best for them, but I will not be communicating with them anymore.

      I see it a little like how they successfully built the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge: they started on opposite sides, each side grounded by a deep pillar, then worked towards the middle. The last piece they put in place was the one that connected the two sides in the middle.
      So, I broke off, worked on me – my health, spiritual growth, mental health, etc., all the while aware that I was standing on my completed half of my side of the bridge holding an olive branch should they grow, too. It sort of helps keeping in mind the weather there – sometimes fog completely engulfs the bridge and you can’t see anything. So when it was hard or I missed them, but knew I made the right decision, I would just tell myself maybe they are working on them and I just can’t see because of the fog. Either way – I knew I needed to pursue happiness, so if they didn’t join me in the middle – even ever – I am okay with that . One I did have a reconciliation of a sort with. One has just reaffirmed I made the right decision to break it off. I have been blessed with my growth in mental and spiritual health and maturity during this time. Hope that helps. Sorry it is so long. Almost didn’t post it then realized I was nearly done! May God bless you on your journey.

  4. Thank you for this article!
    It’s perfect for the community I live in, just above Placerville. Sadly, a few “toxic” people reside here and what you’ve posted as 8 qualities of toxic people, is spot on! Now I have something to grasp on to, with their behavior, as I continue to pray for them.

  5. Do toxic people know that they are toxic? My husband of 1.5 years left me this week. I’m 6 months pregnant with his child. He is a narcissist, no doubt, but could I be a toxic person in this relationship and not know it?

  6. I have a question. How common or possible is it to see someone being toxic with one person but not another? Do they pick & choose those behaviors with some people?

    • Kelly, that’s a great question. And a multi-layered one. In general, I would say a toxic person is a toxic person, regardless of partner. Depending on the emotional and spiritual health of the other person, a toxic person’s behaviors may be exasperated. They certainly could change behaviors from one relationship to another. Behaviors are the means to meet deeper needs, like connection and affirmation. Does that help?

  7. Just separated after 25yrs of marriage. My head is reeling, trying to see things clearly. My wife has been verbally abusive, calling me names, cussing at me, indicating my character, for years. I have responded with silence or patients e and tried, sometimes to reason. Ultimately she blames me for the very same things she does to me. She became physical with me in her last tirade, that’s where I left her. She says this is all my fault, although I never smeared, or cursed or attacked her character, but she believes I do. I try hard to figure out how I am responsible for this, for my part, the best I can figure is because I am emotionally distant, but how can I not be what when I am held in such disdain and contempt? And then I get a cussed for holding her in contempt and disrespect. I seek grace, mercy and forgivness from the Lord, it empowers me to impart it to her and meep peace. I love her, but I am exhusted and after the physical contact, I don’t trust her. She crossed a line and I set a boundary, on each I should have set sooner. I know I have some codependent tendencies. I need help.

    • Dave, thanks for sharing your story. I won’t speak into your situation specifically. I would recommend you find a respected counselor. I’ve been to counseling several times. In general, however, in a relationship like this, your response appears seasoned with grace and patience. You can’t change your spouse. You can love her. You can encourage her. But you can’t make her see her role in your relationship. Don’t ever give up. I would never advise someone remain in an abusive relationship. But, again, I would find a counselor. He or she could help you determine your next steps. Blessings.

  8. Fantastic article! I’ve found that yes there are toxic people but I see myself bouncing in and out of many of these traits and others as well. I think within all of us we have the capacity to be toxic but we can choose and practice a more healthy behavior.

    • Joey, well said. We have most, if not all, of these tendencies inside of us. The most self-aware people I know recognize this and choose a better way.

  9. Frank, thank you for providing interesting and practical content. Question, can you point me to scripture(s) that helped form your take on dealing with toxic people?

  10. It has recently been made clear to me that I have been a toxic person in the lives of people that I loved. The revelation has been pretty soul crushing, any advice on how to forgive yourself, let it go and move on?

  11. As always great article. As I read this commentary it also sounds like somebody who’s narcissistic. These are very difficult people to deal with, especially when it’s your love ones and a Christian.

Submit a comment