WHETHER it turns up in the conference room or the living room, toxic behaviour is identifiable by the momentary shock or upset it causes.
It’s destabilising and has a negative emotional impact out of proportion to any immediately identifiable cause.
In a one-two punch, it delivers confusion, then the feeling of being deeply discounted and deflated. It steals your energy. Its signature is repeatedly — and repeatedly is important, because anybody can have a bad day — making its victims or targets feel ill at ease without their being able to pinpoint why.
Toxic behaviour doesn’t just inflict a personal hurt. It assaults wellbeing. It generates stress and frustration. It is deeply disturbing because, as it destabilizes us, it prompts us to believe, even for a moment, that it reflects how others see us — we feel that perhaps we deserve it.
Just being around toxic behaviour, to say nothing of being its target, makes people sick. Chronic stress is linked to cardiovascular disease, insomnia, depression, immunity, and overeating. Toxic people not only harm others emotionally, they’re a threat to health. And when toxic behaviour takes hold in a relationship, it turns everyone cynical.
The trouble is it tends to be catching. Like all negative phenomena, it makes an impact on the brain even if only witnessed. No sooner does one worker see a boss berating an underling than that employee finds herself replicating the behaviour. In families, bad behaviour can get passed from generation to generation as reliably as hair colour. In marriage or personal relationships it is more insidiously woven through bonds of attachment.
Whether toxic behaviour issues from sheer thoughtlessness or pure malice, it has always been part of the human behaviour. However, much we find ourselves living in toxic times, it falls to each of us to know how to recognise nastiness and how to deflect it. Handling toxic people may not be easy, but it is vital to your welfare and to the greater good.
The friend who exculpates himself with a dig disguised as an apology: “Sorry for being so late to meet you, but I know you don’t do anything anyway in the afternoon.” The sibling who always bursts your balloon: “Mom told me you won a big business account. You’re going to have to get your kids mobile phones just so they can remember who you are.”
The spouse who parades your faults in front of others only to chide you for being too sensitive when you say it’s demeaning.
Or the parent whose dismissiveness makes a child feel invisible and therefore worthless.
One thing is for sure about toxic people: Whatever insult, injury, or confusion they’ve just inflicted is either your fault or a molehill you’re making a mountain out of. They never take responsibility for their actions. They may even see themselves as trying to help you out. These encounters so surreptitiously disable self-worth, however, that you start looking for ways to avoid such brushes with badness and their perpetrators—if only you could; too often, they are fixtures in the realms you inhabit. Still, the stealth quotient of the affront may be the clearest measure of its poison power.
The word toxic means to kill (or poison) in a targeted way. Toxic behaviour doesn’t get much more blatant than bullying. While its inherent humiliation endurably stings, especially if incidents occur in the presence of others, so does the brute statement of power difference it reinforces.
Intimidation in any form hurts in the moment but carries fear into the future. Frank insults can devastate one’s sense of self just as memorably. Subtler acts also qualify as toxic, especially when regularly deployed.
Another relatively subtle act, shifting blame to others, wounds targets or victims as it puts them in a morally untenable spot. And then there are the sins of omission: excluding teammates from networks or a family member from a gathering. Ignoring a person altogether — in a meeting or social event — can be a toxic way of putting someone down while depriving him or her of important information.
Whether through overt cruelty, passive aggression, or just for the hell of it, toxic people prioritise their self-interest above everyone else’s. They refuse — or are unable — to consider another person’s perspective or emotional state. Not caring to acknowledge how their behaviour affects others, they disregard personal boundaries, avoid admitting it when they’ve done wrong, and are unwilling to change.
If you are in a committed relationship with a toxic individual, by the time they start exhibiting questionable behaviour, like making unreasonable demands, you’ve grown emotionally attached to them. You react to their transgressions — lashing out at you in myriad ways, blaming you for their problems, ignoring your needs and requests — by trying to accommodate or justify their bad behaviour: “He’s under a lot of stress,” or “She’s really a good person.” We may even take the blame on ourselves: “I’m being too needy,” or “She’s right; I’m lucky to be in a relationship with her.” Such a dynamic may particularly entrap those who experienced emotional or physical abuse by a family member while growing up.
The closer we get to a toxic individual the more they know about us, the more emotionally attached we grow to them, the more we let them into our lives, and the more damage they can do to us.