I often hear people point out someone else’s behavior as “toxic,” but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say, “My behavior is toxic.” In reality, though, most all of us exhibit some toxic behaviors at some point in our lives.
What Makes Behavior “Toxic”
Not all behaviors that upset another person are equally harmful. Some hurts are easy to brush off. For example, you and your partner might both say things that are unfair during a heated argument, but you quickly forgive one another and there’s no long-term damage to the other person or the relationship.
Other behaviors lead to deeper wounds and longer lasting effects. Emotional abuse, for example, can damage not only the core of a relationship but can set a person up for longstanding struggles in life. As such, toxic behavior is anything that poisons a relationship and could limit another person’s growth.
Common Types of Toxic Behavior
Toxic behavior can be very hard to recognize in ourselves. In fact, we can act out these behaviors for most of our adult lives and never realize how we’re wounding those around us – and ourselves, too.
Here are the unrecognized toxic behaviors that show up most often in my therapy practice:
Minimizing someone’s pain. Instead of meeting a person in their time of pain, you gloss over it. Examples include offering empty platitudes like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or, “This too shall pass.” Probably without intending to, you invalidate the other person’s suffering.
What to do: Allow the other person’s experience to be what it is, without trying to dismiss their pain. Work to extend true empathy, as you strive to understand their perspective. There may be a time to teach them a life lesson; for now, offer your love and care instead, which validates their experience.
Constantly criticizing. This pattern is especially common among parents of adult children. No matter what the other person does, you find fault with it—their parenting is too permissive; their clothes aren’t quite right; their home needs cleaning. You might think you’re being helpful, but the person on the receiving end finds it dispiriting.
What to do: Before offering your opinion or guidance, think carefully about how it’s likely to be received. Remind yourself, for example, that critiques of one’s parenting are almost never welcome. You might also take a closer look at what’s driving the pattern of criticism, and discuss with the recipient how you intend to change your behavior.
Expressing anger indirectly. Conflict is uncomfortable, and so you wind up expressing your irritation with someone indirectly—what’s often referred to as “passive-aggressive” behavior. For example, you might make a joke about the person’s appearance that’s actually a thinly veiled criticism; couching it in humor makes the other person seem unreasonable if they get mad about it. Or perhaps you’re unhappy about being asked to do something so you show up late or you do a halfway job. These behaviors are especially harmful because they’re partially hidden, making them difficult to discuss and work through.
What to do: Be honest with yourself about the feelings you have that lead to the behavior. If you’re unhappy about something and it’s worth addressing, find a time and a way to do it directly and honestly.
Avoiding true intimacy. You make emotional connections with others, but you find ways to make sure the relationship doesn’t get too close. Maybe you withdraw emotionally, start an argument, make jokes all the time, or find reasons to spend less time together. In the process you leave the person feeling disconnected and confused.
What to do: Take a close look at your patterns in relationships. Look into information on “attachment style” (like this book), which is how we tend to connect with other people. You might also address this issue in therapy.
Being absent in a time of need. You don’t provide the close support that someone close to you needs during a difficult time. You may be supportive initially, and pledge to be there for them, but then you don’t stay involved for one reason or another.
What to do: Think about the people you’re close to and who is going through a hard time. Ask them what they need from you. Put reminders in your calendar to check in with them regularly. And remember, it’s much better to support someone imperfectly than to be absent, even if you don’t know “the right thing to say.”
Hiding your problems. You don’t share with the people closest to you a major issue you’re having, like a financial problem, trouble at work, or addiction. You might tell yourself you’re protecting the other person(s), or that you’ll let them know as soon as you “figure things out.” In reality, the other person experiences your secretive behavior as a lack of honesty, which is toxic for relationships.
What to do: Share more openly with the people who need to know. This will probably be painful at first, but it will spare you and others pain in the long run. It is also likely to lead to more support than you otherwise would have had, and perhaps to a solution you hadn’t thought of.
Being constantly distracted. This behavior can be especially hard to identify as toxic because it’s so passive. There’s no overt conflict with the other person, you’re just preoccupied with other things all the time, with little attention to devote to those around you. These days the distraction often comes from being on our phones, as whatever notification we’re attending to takes us away from our real-life relationships.
What to do: Set aside times when you can devote your full attention to the important people in your life. Designate screen-free zones, like the dinner table, where you’re free to look at the people in front of you. Consider also taking a course in mindfulness training, which is all about being present and focused on what’s most important to us.
If you recognize yourself in any of these toxic behaviors, take heart. Nobody is perfect, and the fact that you’re able to see your shortcomings in a good sign: It means you can do better.
In fact, the desire to do better is a key distinction between having episodes of toxic behavior and being a toxic person. Through some combination of personality and personal history, some people’s toxic behavior is so pervasive that their simple presence seems poisonous to most people. Thankfully we encounter relatively few people like this in our lives.
It takes honesty to acknowledge your shortcomings and to call them what they are. As you work to change your behavior, take care not to fill your self-talk with emotional abuse (like calling yourself a “terrible person” for being toxic at times). While you’re practicing kindness toward others, remember to save some for yourself.