People come in all shapes and sizes with many different kinds of dispositions. Some encourage; others criticize. Some build up; others tear down. Some will go the extra mile for you; others couldn’t care less. We all know people from many different parts of the spectrum.
We learn how to observe and evaluate people early in life. Our perceptions become more refined as we age and have more experience dealing with others. A few who come into our lives will be especially difficult. For the very worst, we might use the word, “toxic.” We’ve all seen one, even if we might not use that word. It’s the person who never seems satisfied, who complains about everyone, and who undermines other people. These individuals are best avoided. So how do we recognize one?
They blame others and don’t apologize. Toxic people rarely admit fault or apologize, unless there is something to be gained by it (e.g., looking magnanimous in front of other people they hope to influence – see the next point). They will concoct explanations for failure to absolve themselves of any responsibility and point the finger at someone else. Occasionally, this kind of person will even project their failures onto other people, blaming others for things of which they are guilty. They will not take responsibility for their errors.
They are manipulative. Toxic individuals use manipulation to further their agenda. They understand the principle of dividing and conquering. For instance, a person may try to manipulate an eldership by individually getting each elder on his side separately to ensure he gets what he wants. It is essential to understand that manipulative people serve themselves, and there is probably nothing to be gained by trying to help these individuals achieve their goals. Other people are nothing more than a means to an end.
They are uncaring and unsupportive. Toxic people will not often go out of their way for others unless it is beneficial for them. These people usually do one of two things: play the victim, or grab for power and control. Both are manipulative. The plight of others has minimal impact on them. They don’t care for others. They will tell you about themselves but will show an interest in the life of someone else. They do not like to hear the word, “no.”
They are judgmental and critical of others. Toxic people often criticize other people (it could be any number of things, but often seems to stem from narcissism and jealousy). This is one of the most obvious signs of toxicity. If a person complains about everyone else to you, you can bet they’re going to complain to everyone else about you. If you meet someone who likes to criticize, complain, and badmouth other people, he or she is toxic.
They often lie. A toxic person is manipulative, and the best tool for manipulation is deceit. I’ve seen toxic people lie about colleagues to get them fired (usually motivated by jealousy – see the next point), and then lie about the person afterward to make their firing appear legitimate.
They crave the spotlight. Toxic people are narcissistic and self-serving. They expect special treatment, especially if they have exceptional gifts or talents. A brilliant person may expect everyone else to accept his opinion because of his intelligence. A preacher may think he is better than every other preacher because he has studied rhetoric or teaches classes in homiletics. They expect to be applauded for their work and will go out of their way to diminish the contributions of others. They may abuse a position of authority by getting talented colleagues fired to remove any competition for the praise they desire. Generally speaking, these individuals talk more than they listen.
They interrupt you during conversation. Toxic people care very little about others or their needs. This includes the need for expression. They do not engage in conversation to listen. They are more interested in having you see the merits of their opinion and ultimately agree with them. They like to lecture and give unsolicited advice. This is one symptom of a more significant problem that toxic people usually have: the need for control.
So how do we deal with toxic people? We have to understand that no one is perfect (Romans 3:23). I don’t believe people are born toxic. They either become that way through experience or discover that toxicity can benefit them somehow. We have to realize that there comes a time when we have to “shake the dust off our shoes” (Matthew 10:14) because the person will not respond positively no matter what we do. We can’t wave a magic wand to stop someone from being negative, selfish, and self-serving. But we can pray for them, and we should do precisely that (cf. Matthew 5:44).
If someone makes you feel bad about yourself, criticizes you to other people, and is generally disrespectful and defensive in conversation, you’re dealing with a toxic person. You may not be able to help them, but you don’t have to sit back and take the abuse, either. It’s best to distance ourselves from them.
Here we have to do something that is very, very difficult: give up not only the need to have an apology but also the need to be right. If a toxic person has hurt us, we may need to be willing to accept the fact that we’ve been wronged and move on. This is especially difficult if the wrong involves back-biting, slander, criticism, and malicious gossip. I know how hard it is to walk away after being unfairly maligned. Alas, it has to be done. We have to find peace in knowing that God knows the truth, even if no one else does.
If you are emotionally drained after dealing with someone and dread seeing them, you are probably dealing with a toxic person. The best thing to do here is to minimize your contact with them. If he or she is a significant other, get out of the relationship. If it is a working relationship, reduce your time with him or her. Nothing can be gained by throwing pearls before swine. Eventually, you run out of pearls, and the pig has no interest in being anything other than a pig.