Updated: Mar 29
If toxic people had bright green hair and wandered around with a flashing warning light on their chests, it would be easy to avoid them, wouldn’t it?! But they don’t. Toxic people look like exactly the same as everyone else so how do you know if you have been intoxicated by one?
The short answer is, you usually don’t know until you start looking back. That might sound strange, but toxic people rely on you not looking back because hindsight is usually 20:20.
Toxic people follow a pattern which enables them to keep your behaviour and actions very much in the here and now - usually this takes the form of self-preservation; there’s no time for reflection if every waking minute is spent trying to avoid the next conflict.
Toxic people prey on vulnerable people or, in cases of parental toxicity, create vulnerable people. None of us can be easily controlled or manipulated if our self-confidence, belief and esteem are high. If we KNOW we are worth more, we will fight off the negativity with relative ease. If we have been conditioned to believe that we are not worth more, the toxicity will have a route in and it will fester and grow until it is either checked or becomes fatal.
Here’s a quick toxicity check list
If you recognise any of these things in ANY of your relationships, it may be wise to seek some advice. It’s also important to say that the rule of thumb for measuring whether a relationship is toxic or not is really quite simple: If it’s ok with you, then it’s ok. If it’s not ok with you, then it’s not ok.
We all have different standards of what is acceptable to us and just because your friend wouldn’t put up with it, doesn’t mean that it isn’t ok for you... you’re the one living with it, after all. If, after reading this you realise that you are in a toxic relationship, please be careful... Toxic people hate to be found out and you may genuinely put yourself at risk by challenging them. Knowledge is power though, and toxic people rely on you having less power than them. Understanding their behaviour gives you back some of the power they’ve eroded from you and will allow you to separate the behaviour from the person (usually you) somewhat.
A truly toxic person will do all they can to keep you away from people who might challenge their powerful position. Children might be refused access to “interfering” grandparents or “deadbeat” parents. There are of course, times when this is entirely appropriate but hindsight is the only way to tell the difference.
In adult relationships, isolation could take the form of actually being physically removed - the promise of a beautiful cottage in the country, for example; or it could mean social isolation -
Having your phone number changed or your phone removed altogether, having your support network limited - this might take the form of controlling who you see or speak to; it could mean literal isolation - being locked in.
Erosion of self
You are of no use to the toxic person if you have any fight left in you. For children, this often means living with non-negotiable, unreasonable boundaries - in an environment where they are not encouraged to develop their own sense of self; where they learn to avoid being told off rather than to seek praise and encouragement.
For adults, this is what I call the “drip drip” phase. Persistent chipping away at our confidence. “Are you really going to wear that?”, “You’ve put on a bit of weight”, “You used to make more effort.”, “Have you seen (insert name of friend or celebrity) lately? They’re looking great!” Always actions or comments which seem entirely innocuous at the time but when added up can be completely devastating.
It’s important to remember that it will never be the fault of the toxic person... Ever. For children, this will be the parent who compares, “Why can’t you be like your sibling?” Or the parent whose life was ruined because of the child...
For adults, this one does exactly what it says on the tin but the effect on the person receiving it is very complex and actually very clever if your ultimate goal is power and control over another. “If you didn’t... I wouldn’t...”, “You know how I get when you...”, or even straightforward, “That’s your fault.” The effect is that we check our own behaviour and try to avoid “causing” the same outcome again and that’s Power and Control at its most devious. This is where ‘Just, But and Only’ live – remember them?
The toxic person knows that if you work out a pattern in their behaviour, you stand half a chance of anticipating what might come next and avoiding the potential conflict. This is no good to them...
For children and adults, this one is universal. What was ok yesterday, simply won’t be ok today. The goalposts will constantly move and the rules of the game will change on a whim. This creates high anxiety and often, fear.
Once the toxic person has worked their “magic” and you have been isolated to the point of complete dependence; when your choices about what you wear, who you speak to, whether you work or socialise are all influenced by that person’s opinion; when you are so unsure of yourself that you gain their “permission” or “authority” to make any tiny decision; when you give up trying to work out the rules or anticipate where the goalposts will be today… basically when your spirit is truly trampled and you can no longer tell where you end and the toxic person starts, the toxic person’s work is complete. You will no longer be yourself and they will be disgusted with you. For children this is usually unavoidable - living with a toxic parent is not a choice but the impact will be life-long and will affect any relationship decisions you try to make as an adult.
For adults, this is usually when the insults start because the toxic person is now confident that your own self-worth is so low that you won’t fight back, “No one else will have you... Look at yourself”, “You were so confident when I met you, now you’re a whimpering wreck.”, “Where’s all your friends now? I’m all you have.”, “You should be grateful I’m still putting up with you.”
We should take a moment to consider the notion of ‘choice’ in this discussion about toxicity
The adult who appears to ‘choose’ to stay in a toxic relationship with another adult – and it’s NEVER that simple to ‘just’ leave – will attract all sorts of judgements and opinions form others who believe them to be ‘enjoying it’ or they’ll be told that if they won’t help themselves…
Mostly, the adults I meet who are in abusive relationships with another adult are in fact now-grown child victims of Domestic Abuse. They grew up in a house where abuse was ‘normal’. You’ll have all heard me bleating on about how living with abuse as children can’t not affect our relationships as adults because ‘normal’ is as ‘normal’ does – if your view of ‘normal’ as child included abuse, so too will your view of ‘normal’ as an adult. So, these grown-up child-victims are judged as self-sabotaging adults, unwilling to help themselves and who must ‘enjoy it or they’d leave.’
You’ll remember that tactic number one of the toxic person is isolation…
Children DON’T HAVE ANY CHOICE – If their adults choose to live in an abusive relationship, their children are forced to live in an abusive household too. Those children, if unseen and unsupported, WILL grow up to be adults who are more susceptible to abusive relationships – we all seek out our own feelings of ‘normal’ and if yours include abuse, it’s a fair bet that when you find yourself in a relationship with someone who ISN’T abusive, it won’t feel ‘normal’…
If you recognise any of these things and ITS NOT OK WITH YOU, please, seek advice. You can recover from a toxic relationship but it takes time, understanding and support. Please don’t think that getting out is enough. The toxic person will make it their life’s work to keep you where they want you - it’s a game to them so the only way to break the cycle is to break the cycle. The cycle is now in your head too and it will take more time to unlearn it than ever will to enforce it in the first place... We are human after all, and human nature says that the bad stuff is easier to believe. Even when it’s not true.
If it seems too good to be true, it probably is! Perfect people don’t exist so if you’ve found someone who appears to be perfect, give it time… perfection is REALLY hard to maintain, especially if their ultimate goal is control. Conflict is usual in relationships, it’s how that conflict is approached and managed that makes the difference between a toxic person and not.
Don’t ignore the red flags, gut feelings or the feelings in your bones or waters… your instinct is probably SPOT ON!!!
If you’re an adult who grew up with toxic parenting, please be gentle with yourself and remember that stuff was done TO you. It wasn’t your fault or choice no matter what you’re told and it must be recovered from.
If you think you are in a toxic relationship, or your child need help or advice with any issues around DA please check out our Domestic Abuse page or get in touch with us at JLTS - we can help!
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