It was about a year ago at this time that I decided I was worth more than I let someone treat me. Looking back, I don’t understand why I let it go on that long. I wish I could have sat my slightly younger self down and very gently slapped her upside the head. (Seriously, that’s what I needed.)
What are you thinking? I want to say. Why have you allowed yourself to be a doormat for so long?
And a doormat was exactly what I was, in a two-ish-year-long “relationship” that I let go on for two years too long. “Relationship” is too strong a word. He got embarrassed when I called him my boyfriend. He never met my friends, barely met my family, and left a pretty big emotional dent in my heart when he left for good. I blame myself first when I think back on that. I hung onto him through all the “yes” and “no” and “I can’t be with you” and “I miss you” and more wishi-washiness than Charlie Brown ever had. Afterwards, I jumped into a relationship I thought would be stable – something that I thought would make me feel whole again. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t.)
This kind of person – whether it be boyfriend/girlfriend, friend, coworker, boss – is what we like to call toxic. When I think of toxic, I think of the radioactive symbol that you sometimes see in alien movies or those OSHA sheets that your employer is required to have. Those symbols and manuals warn the onlooker that whatever chemical they’re looking at can potentially harm them. You want to stay away from them because they might cause bodily, sometimes irreversible harm.
A toxic person can do the same thing. Once you’re “exposed” to them, they can cause irreversible damage to your heart, your other relationships, your faith, even how you feel about yourself. Like the safety data sheets at your workplace or symbols on chemical bottles, it’s good to have warning signs for potentially toxic people.
That’s why I devised this little list. Oftentimes we see articles entitled “5 Habits of Highly Successful/Motivated/Positive People.” But I think it’s healthy to have the opposite too. Not just to recognize the toxic people around us, but also to discern potential toxic habits in our own lives.
So here are five habits that toxic people tend to adopt:
1. People are commodities. Toxic people are always shopping. Not for goods, but for people. They need the next best thing. It’s like they’re watching TV and ordering the next 1-800 product that comes on the screen while the packages pile up unused at their door. For whatever reason (there are many,) toxic people require constant streams of validation, and once they stop getting that from someone, the vein is cut. Then once the toxic person cuts off everyone (which is usually inevitable,) they feel isolated, so they go back to the friends they cut off and make amends. It becomes a cycle. Shop, “buy” the person’s trust, feed off the validation, sense a lack of validation, cut off, repeat. This can happen in any relationship: romantic, friendship, workplace, you name it.
2. Relationships involve latching, not attaching. Although they sound similar (and rhyme,) “latch” and “attach” mean two fairly different things.
Here’s what the definitions of attach are:
“Attachment” connotes connection. In a sense, it’s becoming part of a unit (like in the military definition.) For the most part, it seems mutually beneficial. You attach a picture to an application because it increases your chance of being hired. You might call a healthy relationship an attachment.
Now here’s latch:
“Latch” makes you think of a tight grip, almost to the point of complete possession. Instead of connoting a healthy relationship, you might think of a leech latching onto your skin, or a baby latching onto its mother for food – a beautiful relationship, but at the same time, the baby is taking something from the mother.
What I mean when I say a toxic friend forms a relationship on “latching,” I mean that they cling to you with almost a death grip until they’ve been satisfied. A leech will fall off once it’s sucked enough blood, and a baby eventually is weaned. The need is gone, and there’s no more desire to be close to you.
Friendships (and most relationships) do have a level of costs and rewards associated with them, so a little bit of “latching” isn’t a bad thing. But when a toxic friend suddenly feels cheated in the rewards category, they’ll leave the friendship.
3. They put other people, even their closest “friends,” down to feel better about themselves. Toxic people tend to be toxic because they have a lot of baggage. Not to give them excuses, but they’ve probably been through some stuff. A lot of their toxic behavior is them taking it out and relieving that weight or stress. This can come in the form of heavily criticizing others. Usually, they point out their own flaws, but in other people. Oftentimes this comes when the toxic friend no longer feels the constant stream of validation and begins to lash out. But usually, the cycle will continue after this. The toxic person pushes you away, and depending on how forgiving (or, frankly, gullible) you are, you’ll come back and try to make amends, but for the duration of the friendship you’ll be walking on eggshells.
4. They’re a lot of talk but no walk. Toxic people love sharing their tragic backstory (because usually they have one.) Most people respond to this story in the way you respond to a wounded animal on the side of the road – “Aww! Poor thing!” Unless you’re smarter and more emotionally mature then most people, you want to care for the “cute animal” that is your toxic friend. You think you can mentor them, help them, even change them. You might be able to do two of the three of those things, but you definitely can’t change them.
Where the disconnect happens is the toxic person doesn’t do anything to help themself become better. They know and recognize their own flaws but instead of trying to work on it themselves, they “latch” onto other people who might be able to fix them. This is especially dangerous in romantic relationships for obvious reasons. That’s why you hear so many stories of women who think they can fix their boyfriends. “I can make him a better person, I know I can. I can fix him. People just don’t understand him.” It sounds really nice, but soon it gets emotionally draining because the toxic person is taking and taking and taking and never giving or sacrificing.
5. They’ll let you know when they need you, but disappear when you need them. This might be the worst habit. Toxic people acknowledge your existence for their benefit and their benefit only. The minute you need them, they don’t respond to texts or act uninterested. I call this selective attention. A toxic person is “toxic” because they’ve allowed self-centered habits to govern their life, so people only exist to meet a need (see #1.) I also call this a vacillating friendship. The toxic friend goes from extremely kind and affectionate to suddenly cold and temperamental with little to no explanation.
Now to ask the searching question – do any of these habits apply to you? Do you find yourself doing these things? It’s easy to point fingers, but it’s not always easy to look inward. I could probably name a time when I did each of these five things at least once. I’ve gone through seasons of life where I’ve suddenly realized how I’d been treating people and I didn’t like what I found. What about you? Here are some searching questions to help you examine your own life.
- In the last week, how have I gone out of my way to help my friends? How often do I ask them for help?
- Where is the first place I go to seek validation? What do I do when that source isn’t there?
- What do my friends come to me for? How do I help them?
- In this particular relationship, what are the costs and rewards? Does one outweigh the other in an unhealthy way?
- In the last week (or even day,) what have I said about someone else that I regret saying? How often do I say these things?