Toxic People

Toxic People

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.


  1. Lesley Lawrence

    This article is one of the best I’ve ever read on “toxic people stressors”.

  2. william knutson

    Excellent article! From someone who has had to deal with a “host” of toxic personalities in his life I fully endorse this advice…. Keep your emotional “center” and distance yourself from those that try to tilt you….. as he said: you can only control your own behavior, your not responsible and cannot change other people.

  3. Excellent article which absolutely nailed it! I have a sister in law who has this toxic pattern 1. Acts like a pain and upsets and offends people 3. Gets called out for her abusive and passive aggressive behavior 4. Turns the tables and accuses her confronter of being mean to her. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t with her. She’s a “gotcha girl” looking to find reasons to be mad at others and hold a grudge. She literally plays sneaky passive aggressive games of revenge when the unwitting victim usually has no idea what they even did to upset her. For example, she uses gifts as a way to be passive aggressive. She will SAY she sent you a gift card for Christmas, and not really do it, and then accuse you of lying in that you DID get it but lied and said you didn’t to get a 2nd one. She will send very carefully chosen unwanted gifts to passive aggressively disappoint and hurt. This is a 500 lb woman with a severe food addiction who is in denial, blames, lies, and engages in self deception to cope with the reality of her deep seated dysfunctional patterns and their effects. She is easily made jealous and can cause her to act out passive aggressively as well.

    I have had to cut off contact from her and so has her brother who is my husband. She is such a trouble maker who deals mostly in mind games rather than true genuine connection with others. She upset me greatly for several months and caused division in our family, and life has been SO peaceful with her now out of the picture!

    Thank you for this article. You described it better than anyone I’ve come across or read capturing the unhealthy nuances of these toxic relationships!

    • Thank you so much for your story and comments. While we can try our best to treat others with compassion, as the Tibetan Buddhists teach us to do, your decision to step out of the firing range is often the best one. I commend you for your courage and thoughtfulness in a difficult and sadly – far too common situation. ~ James

  4. Very clear, interesting and helpful article. Thank you.

  5. As an attorney, now retired, I represented many people who were in need of legal assistance as their lives had become so fragmented by their behavior, that they were in need of financial support, and to which they may have become entitled due to age, mental or physical disability, and it was clear that patterns of behavior, as described, that the injuries they perceived didn’t result of an asteroid falling from outer space. Often, within a half an hour of an interview, or even minutes, I thought, “Oh, I know you. I’ve met you before.” Their destructive behavior needs to be considered from the beginning of a professional relationship, as it is very common for them to sabotage the legal process to help them, in order to continue to be a victim. A good article, it should be a handout to everyone who is entering into any service or professional career. We all recognize the person carrying a weapon, it is sometimes harder to recognized the person who is a weapon.

    • Thank you for your lucid and insightful comments, Mr. Galant. Sadly, as basic civility and decency seem to wane in our world, these are increasingly replaced with shameless self-interest, mean-spiritedness and a complete lack of self-insight into one’s own injurious words and deeds. One can only hope that the pendulum might swing back before too long. But clear vision of the toxic persons who surround us can help to strengthen and protect us from their harmful effects. I thank you for your thoughtful words.
      James Dillard

  6. Very clear and insightful article. I am going to share it with my neighbor whose sister has been making her miserable for years in various of these ways….and I am having a hard time standing by and watching it all happen over and over again.

  7. This was by far the best article I’ve read on toxic people. My father is one of these people and I just recently had to abruptly leave from visiting him and stay with friends. I was an unwanted guest in our family home. I’ve tried for years to be the dutiful daughter while my mother was dying of dementia and ALS. After she passed my father’s toxic personality became even more pronounced. It is so sad to leave a single parent and father I idolized as a child and even through young adulthood. Over the past 3 years, the stress has given me shingles and resulted in a major episode of depression. I was his human punching bag. He was charming in public but when alone with him I became his target. With the help of a great therapist I set a boundary and stood up to him, calmly and kindly. I will no longer be the target of his toxicity! He could totally cut me out of his substantial will but I’ve let go since I finally got it that no matter how kind and compassionate I am to him, no matter how much I let him have control, nothing will change. It doesn’t work with my father. He feeds on fear and power. He used to be a very powerful successful marketing executive but due to aging and his toxic personality he has become a lonely angry man who has sadly pushed those who loved him the most out of his life. The definition of insanity comes to mind (doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results).

  8. I am 57 years old and just today I have realised that my sister could be a toxic person…i called her and told her that the son of our common friend wrote a very good article about politicians and so on. She told me that she doesn’ think that he did it and it was probably his father who did it for him…when I repeated that I don’t believe in that, she just told me that I was a very naive person…I have finished this converstion but she kept calling me to prove me that I was wrong about the qualities of a young writer…it left me quite disturb for few hours, when suddenly I have realised that I have lived my whole life like that…what a pity, i didn’t know it earlier! Thanks for your article, it explain me a lot of things!

  9. Surangi De Silva

    Helped me well
    gave me the feeling that i am not the guilty one

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