For introverts and highly sensitive people, your best detector of toxic people is your own physical and emotional reactions to them.
When you see the phrase, toxic people, who in your life comes to mind? Your father-in-law, your ex, a coworker, a friend, or perhaps a parent? Toxic or otherwise “difficult,” narcissistic, or controlling people are everywhere, and they may walk and talk just like everyone else — that is, until you get to know them better.
Dealing with toxic people is one of life’s greatest challenges, whether you’re an introvert, a highly sensitive person (HSP), or not. You may recognize when you’ve encountered someone toxic because you are left feeling hurt, angry, invalidated, exhausted, or confused (even if you can’t exactly put your finger on why you feel this way). Maybe there’s always something going on with them — some crisis or drama that they desperately need your help to solve. Or maybe they have a sneaky way of bringing you down more than they bring you up.
Unfortunately, more often than not, we don’t recognize toxicity until it’s too late, and we have become entangled with the toxic individual, giving them access to our lives, thoughts, energy, time, or money. And for introverts and sensitive people, the impact of toxicity can hit even harder, resulting in more anxiety, more sleepless nights, and more energy depletion. That’s why it’s crucial for us “quiet ones” to recognize toxicity and deal with it head-on.
What a ‘Toxic’ Person Really Is
In reality, the phrase toxic person is a bit of a misnomer. It doesn’t mean that the whole person is toxic; rather, their behavior, or your relationship with them, has taken on unhealthy qualities. Often, toxic people do what they do because they are dealing with unmanaged depression or anxiety, according to psychologist Jonathan F. Anderson. Toxicity can also stem from a need to control others or certain attitudes and beliefs that abuse is OK. At times, we can all act in toxic ways, especially when we’re stressed, grieving, or experiencing hardship. What sets toxic people apart from others is they show an ongoing pattern of unhealthy behavior, not just the occasional bump in the road, says Anderson.
Toxicity comes in different flavors, and each toxic individual will look a little different from the rest. More accurate words for toxic person might be:
- Emotional manipulator
- Controlling person
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9 Signs of a Toxic Person
At first, a toxic person may seem nice, funny, interesting, attractive, and completely harmless. I’ve even met toxic people who describe themselves as “introverts” or “sensitive people,” and they boasted of all kinds of altruistic actions, like fighting injustice, educating children, and raising money for nonprofits. Over time, I came to see that they were using these labels and accomplishments to obscure their real personality and throw me off the scent of their toxicity.
Anderson agrees that toxic people aren’t always easy to spot. “Most toxic people are perfectly nice people underneath all of the negativity; you may even see occasional blips of that person that you’d like to be friends with,” he writes. “Sometimes, toxic people are able to maintain a temporary healthy presence but eventually succumb to their darker side.”
Here are nine signs of a toxic person:
1. They are consistently negative.
They find a way to turn almost any situation into a negative one, says Anderson. They see rejection or failure where other people don’t. They may anticipate rejection before it even has a chance to happen. (“I’ll never get the job.” “This will never work out.”)
2. You feel exhausted after hanging out with them.
The best gauge of a toxic person is your own physical and emotional reactions to them, according to bestselling author and licensed clinical social worker Shannon Thomas. She tells Greatist, “They can be draining and leave you emotionally wiped out. They want you to feel sorry for them and responsible for all their problems — and then fix these problems too.”
3. They’re always stirring up drama.
Whether through gossip or flat-out dishonesty, toxic people are drawn to drama like mosquitoes to a backyard BBQ. “The toxic personality will go to great lengths to drag people into the same vortex of misery that they find themselves in,” explains Anderson. “The trouble is that they often don’t even realize that they are doing it.”
4. They’re manipulative.
Often the goal of toxic people is to get others to do what they want them to do, according to psychiatrist Abigail Brenner. Their actions tend to be selfish, because it’s all about them. “Forget what you want; this is not about equality in a relationship — far from it,” explains Brenner.
5. They don’t take responsibility for their feelings.
Instead, they may project their feelings onto you, according to Brenner. If you point out this behavior, they may become defensive and upset, rarely (if ever) owning up to their actions. They may even blame you for causing their feelings.
6. They judge you and others.
Nothing is ever good enough for a toxic person. They frequently criticize you — what you did or didn’t do — as well as anyone else they encounter, such as the server at the restaurant or their own children.
7. They rarely apologize.
They don’t see a need to say sorry, explains Brenner, because in their mind, nothing is ever their fault. Toxic people will attempt to gain sympathy and attention by playing the victim.
8. They always have to be right.
It may be a way to control their pain, according to Anderson, so they go overboard trying to prove they’re right. This may be one of their most off-putting traits, and potentially connected to narcissism.
9. They mistreat people.
Toxic people lie, are jealous, hold grudges, and may delight in seeking revenge or “punishing” people who have mistreated them.
How to Deal With Toxic People Who Drain the Life Out of You
Anyone can become entangled with a toxic person, whether you’re an introvert, a highly sensitive person, or not. Unfortunately, toxic people tend to (consciously or unconsciously) target those who are kind, good listeners, empathetic, willing to help, and conscientious of others — basically a checklist of the strengths of introverts and sensitive people. They may also look for those who have weak or “leaky” personal boundaries; boundary-setting can be a challenge for introverts and sensitive people because they tend to not want to disappoint anyone or let them down.
Once a toxic person is in your life, the energy drain is real. This energy depletion especially impacts introverts and sensitive people, because they have limited social energy to begin with. This energy drain means that toxic person usually just isn’t worth the trouble, so don’t feel bad about spending less time with them or removing yourself from the relationship completely. When you can’t limit your exposure to a toxic person — say, when it’s a coworker, a family member, a co-parent, or someone else you’re forced to see on a regular basis — your first defense is strong, healthy boundaries. Here are some more tips for introverts and highly sensitive people to deal with toxic individuals.
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Start by asking yourself who are you and what you stand for.
She suggests asking yourself the following questions:
- What do I stand for?
- Who am I apart from my relationships?
- Where do I draw the line regarding values, personal space, and the amount of time and effort I’m willing to give? (For example, you might decide that you simply cannot tolerate people making racist or sexist jokes.)
Discovering the answers to these questions is the first step to setting better boundaries with toxic people. Journal your answers, talk to a trusted friend about them, or simply reflect on them in the privacy of your mind, as introverts tend to do.
Know the signs of your boundaries being crossed.
Psychologist Dana Gionta explains that you should look for the two signs of your boundaries being crossed: feelings of discomfort and resentment.
When someone crosses your boundaries, you may feel a sense of being forced out of your comfort zone, or you may feel angry, nervous, upset, invalidated, or on edge. The key is to acknowledge that you’re experiencing these feelings for a reason. Your feelings aren’t random; something caused them. Remember, emotions can be signposts that let you know important information about yourself and your current situation. Your emotions can tell you when your needs aren’t being met in a relationship or when an important boundary has been crossed.
For example, let’s say your significant other continues to invite friends to your shared home without checking with you first, even though you’ve repeatedly told him or her that his behavior isn’t OK. When you explain your introvert need to mentally prepare before socializing, he or she dismisses you, diminishes your need, or makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you for needing it. It would be normal for anyone to feel anger in this situation; pay attention to this feeling, and use it to recognize that an important boundary has been crossed.
You don’t need permission.
As children, it was drilled into our heads that we had to ask the adults in our lives for permission. Permission to go to a friend’s house. Permission to use the bathroom during class. According to Michaela Chung, founder of Introvert Spring, it’s no wonder that many of us continue to ask other people for permission even when we grow up!
You don’t have to ask anyone for permission to set healthy boundaries and do what’s right for you. No matter how much a toxic person pressures you, Chung says to give yourself permission to do things like:
- Spend one day or evening a week alone, recharging
- Say no to group activities, provided that you do it in a polite way
- Leave a social event before you feel completely drained, even if you’re the first one to go
Some people will understand your need for healthy boundaries without you even having to say anything. This usually happens when people are similar in their personalities, communication styles, and general approach to life, explains Gionta. With toxic people, you may have to get comfortable being more direct than you wish you had to be, and politely but firmly say no.
Let go of guilt.
When you start putting your foot down, there are two things that typically happen: There is backlash from the toxic person, which results in you feeling guilt, according to psychotherapist Jennifer Twardowski.
Remember that it’s normal to feel guilty in a situation like this — but you don’t have to live in guilt. Instead of rehashing the drama in your mind, do some self-care. Go on a walk alone, exercise, get out in nature, or do anything else that helps you get re-centered. If someone wants to gossip about the drama of what happened, don’t even go there, because that can keep the stress alive, she says. Politely tell the other person that you’re moving on.
“Remember that your emotions are valid,” writes Twardowski. “For that reason, you are not wrong for setting your boundary. In fact, you are taking care of yourself, which is something that we should all do above all else.”
For more boundary-setting tips, read this post, How to Set Better Boundaries When You’re a Peace-Loving Introvert.