Navigating Toxic People in Your Life

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” – Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was one of the brightest and wisest to have graced our planet. The quote above is just one of the many pearls of wisdom she shared with the world. While I think this is a great piece of wisdom, I’ve had some trouble with it over the years.

It is a difficult line to walk, the line between believing the best in people and skepticism. I think the majority of people are trying to do their best, however when we’ve been burned in past relationships or we’ve grown up in situations where caregivers neglected or abused us, we begin to doubt the good in others. Trust can seem impossible.

As a social worker, I look for strengths. I know that people can change. I’ve seen incredible changes. I also know that enduring patterns do not lie.

How to Recognize Genuine Change

Patterns can be disrupted and changed. There is a common denominator in each change I’ve witnessed, and it is never the promise of “I’ll change” that does it. Rather, it’s the genuine acknowledgement of problematic behaviors, self-awareness of patterns, and a true desire to learn, practice, and implement changes daily.

It looks like daily humility, a willingness to apologize, and take ownership of past actions while simultaneously making plans and targeted efforts to grow and implement change.

Without acknowledgement of one’s role in hurting others, there is no personal responsibility. If someone tends to cast blame, scapegoat, or make repeated excuses for their behaviors, they are unlikely to change. Similarly, apologizing and acknowledgement of past wrong doing without effort and committing to making change rings hollow.

How to Recognize if a Relationship is Toxic

I could spend a whole article on this, but here are a few red-flags that a person or relationship in your life may be less than optimal:

  • The focus of attention is always on the other person.

  • They display jealously by discounting the positive attributes of others.

  • The person never apologizes, regardless of wrongdoing.

  • You find yourself over-extending to please this person.

  • This person exploits your fears and insecurities. They “hit below the belt” frequently.

  • They are superficially charming and charismatic.

  • They have a public persona and a private persona.

  • They change their opinions and thoughts quickly, and tracking it makes you feel like you are “crazy”.

  • You frequently feel that you are failing or not good enough.

  • They utilize false empathy and get close to people very quickly, frequently turning on them or talking about them.

  • They never ask, with genuine earnestness, about how you might be doing.

  • They lie frequently, and are good at it.

  • They use gaslighting to create an emotional reaction.

  • They show cyclical patterns of placing others on pedestals and then de-valuing them.

How to Protect Ourselves

So...what do we do if we find ourselves in a relationship to a person who is toxic and showing no signs of genuine change? Again, we look for repeated and enduring patterns.

The first step in breaking free is in developing awareness of the cycles and patterns. Recognizing that you are, in fact, worthy and good, and holding true to the knowledge that a person who would devalue you is the problem...not you.

Once you recognize the patterns, it can be helpful to have a trusted confidant, or therapist, who can re-affirm that you are not "crazy", that this is a pattern and a problem that lies with the other person.

Maintaining space as much as possible and keeping up those emotional layers of protection is also important until one is able to leave the relationship. Maintaining mindful awareness that when a toxic person suspects you are distancing, they may respond in one of two ways. First, they may attempt to lure you back in and re-establish the emotional closeness. If you witness this happening, go through the checklist:

  1. Have they apologized for past wrongdoing?

  2. Have they taken responsibility for their actions?

  3. Have they put structures and interventions in place to make real and lasting change?

  4. Have they targeted someone else and now you are "in" while the new target is "out"?

If the answer is no to any of the above, chances are high that they are manipulating you. Awareness of this will allow you to keep up an invisible wall of emotional protection. You can be discerning of what you share and how close you allow someone to be.

The second thing a toxic person might do if they suspect you are distancing is lash out. They may try to blackball you, talk negatively about you to others, act in passive aggressive or overtly hostile ways. If this is the case, taking actions to ensure your protection is paramount. Whether this is taking steps to set up separate financial accounts, interviewing and securing a new job, documenting the person's actions, seeking legal counsel, utilizing social supports, or contacting law enforcement, it can be important to safely seek help from those outside of the relationship. This can be a terrifying prospect, but there is professional help for developing boundaries and support for exiting these kinds of relationships.

Perhaps some of the greatest challenges are toxic relationships with family members. Our society is quick to urge individuals to leave romantic relationships where their is emotional or physical abuse, but we frequently guilt and shame survivors of parental or caregiver abuse who place boundaries on their relationships as adults. We see the aging parent and too often in-turn judge the child who experienced abuse for placing distance or boundaries on the relationship. There is rarely acknowledgement of the caregiver's guilt in failing to meet their basis responsibility of protecting their child.

We never really know what goes on behind closed doors. If someone expresses that they are or have been in an abusive relationship (with a caregiver, a co-worker, a significant other, a child, a boss...) believe them.

If you find yourself in this kind of relationship, I recommend checking out Dr. Rhoberta Shaler's work. She specializes in navigating toxic relationships and has an excellent podcast called “Save Your Sanity - Help for Toxic Relationships”. She does extensive work on how to maintain your mental health while in and out of toxic relationships.

In cases of safety or fear of retaliation, the best place to start is the National Domestic Violence Hotline, which also can provide local resources to help navigate leaving safely. Be mindful that your internet and phone may be monitored, so if possible contact from a friend’s phone or public location.

The Bottom Line

Yes, anyone can change, but until someone is willing to accept that their actions cause pain to others and they desire to go inward and put in the deep work to change those patterns, they will continue to cause harm.

They may apologize, they may seem gracious or sweet, but watch for the patterns. Sometimes the anger that was once placed on you hasn’t been changed, it’s just found a new temporary target. “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Wise words from one the wisest women.

Thank you Maya Angelou.

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Disclaimer: The information shared on this website is intended for educational and marketing purposes. It is not a substitute for seeking help from a licensed mental health or medical professional. If you or someone you know is in need of immediate assistance dial  911.