By James N. Dillard, M.D.
In medical school, we are taught to ask what makes your symptoms better or worse. Patients consistently answer that stress makes them feel worse or brings on their symptoms. If you dig into this sense of stress, personal relationships are always high on the list. Sometimes we make referrals to behavioral health colleagues, psychologists and psychiatrists, and often this helps a lot.
Life stress can take a very real toll on you, worsening myriad conditions from diabetes and asthma to chronic pain and heart disease. This stress can have as damaging an effect upon you as a toxic substance in your bloodstream, distorting your hormones and stressing your cells. For most of us, it is challenging to recognize these sources of stress, particularly in the relationships in our lives.
Sigmund Freud said, “Each of us experiences our own present naively.” We do not see deeply or clearly into the potentially injurious forces around us. We can float along, wondering why we feel bad. There may be one or more persons in our lives who leave us feeling icky, drained, frustrated, and less able to face the day. We might call these people difficult, troublesome, stress-inducing, or to a greater or lesser degree, toxic people.
Understanding your vulnerability to these people is a matter of self-preservation and your literal medical health. Recognizing their behavioral characteristics may make you more able to cope and less prone to illness-inducing stress.
While it is generous always to see positive potential in others, it may also be wise to look for negative influences on you. I use the word “toxic” to describe the physical effects upon your health. This is not a moral or psychological witch hunt — we can be kind with those around us, but also open our eyes to protect ourselves at the same time.
Stress-inducing people often violate your boundaries. They can be intrusive, overly personal, and self-centered. They are often needy, talk nonstop, and don’t listen. They don’t keep confidences, seek gossip, and are not true to their word. A difficult person may have a mean streak, showing harshness to others out of relatively thin air. A toxic person may lack empathy.
A difficult person is controlling. They attempt to dominate others. They may butt into something that has nothing to do with them and try to boss people around. If they don’t get their way, they will hold a grudge. Psychologists point out that this can come from deep insecurity.
Characteristics of stress-inducing people include perpetual criticism without giving you any way out. It’s like the Staples “Easy Button” ad, where the boss can’t even remember your name and you’re never good enough. They are judgmental and derisive, but often it is not openly judgmental. There is a sub rosa, or covert, quality to it.
You start to lose you own center because you are being quietly undermined. You are in an unsolvable trap. It is much healthier for you to hear specific criticism with some way to improve, even if the person is angry.
Deceitful and two-faced behavior can be very stress-inducing. These people will say one thing, or declare one set of values, but their actions tell a very different story. If this is pointed out, they will deny any discrepancy.
There is often a quality of faithlessness, disloyalty, and betrayal in a toxic person. They often lack an authentic sense of honor and decency. Interestingly, in his 14th-century poem “Inferno,” Dante reserved “personal betrayal” for the most torturous and horrifying 9th Circle of Hell.
People with toxic characteristics cannot protect themselves without injuring others. They are mostly terrified by and attacking shadows in their own minds. Their core personalities are fragmented, not strong enough to do the fair and honest negotiation with you, so they are devious and manipulative. They will cut corners in honesty to avoid what they cannot face.
What draws you in to such a difficult person? There is usually some gain for you that arises from your weakness, or from old patterns of familiarity. Many of us are more comfortable with the familiar mess than with risking any change. There can be old, unresolved conflicts and unresolved emotional needs, as with an abusive parent. Staying in the toxic dance will not make it better.
Some damaging people are exciting and seductive. But it’s time to get off the roller coaster and learn to be happy on the ground. Sometimes you might be with a stress-inducing person because you feel no one else would want you. You may find yourself taking care of a broken toxic person as a way to control them and to feel strong. This is co-toxicity, and needs professional help.
Every family has difficult members. A mother gives her son two ties for his birthday. On Thanksgiving, he wears one of them to dinner. She says to her son, “What’s the matter? You didn’t like the other one?” This is the classic double bind, where any decision is the wrong one.
If you see these traits in someone close to you, please don’t go wave this column in their face. Remember, the only behavior you have a chance of changing is your own.
It may require that you make a decision to move on from the relationship, or to stay and manage it better. I recommend professional help, if it’s a big decision. And don’t accept therapy from a yes-man, one who is agreeing with you about how badly you have been treated. This is a cheap way to cement the therapeutic relationship and dangerous to the patient. Therapy should challenge you to get to the bottom of your unhealthy behavior.
You can be around a somewhat toxic person; you just need to avoid getting poisoned. As my dear friend James Stringer, 4th Dan Aikido master, would say, “Stop being the bloody target!”
Here’s how you might understand it. If a stranger yells, “You monster!” it has no effect on you. If a friend yells, “You monster!” it can make you feel awful. Take pause, count to 10, and try to understand if you did something monstrous or if that person is being irrational.
If you are not acting monstrously, you will have to step out of the target zone, not necessarily out of the relationship. You have to keep your “internal distance” from the person, or at least from that person’s toxicity. But this requires that you have a strong and healthy emotional center from your childhood. If you don’t, you might well implode. Get help from a skilled therapist.
For couples, learning to argue effectively is essential. If either person gets violent or too scared by conflict, the prognosis might be poor. Studies show that couples who argue have the highest level of marital satisfaction and the best chance of staying together. Learn to argue kindly and with humor.
If you can spot these toxic behaviors without taking the blows or striking back, you will be learning to hold your own emotional center. This skill can protect your psyche, your well-being, and your precious health.