What Is Toxic Behaviour?

A toxic person is an angry, hurt (and often bitter) individual who has low emotional intelligence and doesn’t know how to, or doesn’t want to, take responsibility for their pain, feelings, needs, expectations, behaviour and problems. They lash out, gossip about, bully, demean, tease, belittle and betray people. They usually target people whom they perceive to be weaker or less important than them. Nothing is ever their fault and they don’t respect the word “no.” A toxic person creates and thrives on drama, manipulates and controls others and they use others to meet their needs. They are extremely critical of others (and often of themselves), jealous and envious and they complain and judge constantly. Toxic people often harm themselves and they may abuse substances. They are unwilling or unable to seek help and mostly deny that they have a problem. They throw tantrums and verbally (and sometimes physically) attack people who dare say no to them. They hardly ever show genuine interest in others because everything has to be about them, and only them.

A toxic person tries to get their needs met in extremely unhealthy ways by playing victim, bullying others, being a martyr, or through perfectionism.

If you know someone who destructively causes a negative atmosphere with their presence, they are toxic. If someone causes you any emotional upset by leaving you feeling uncomfortable, bad about yourself, nervous or stressed out, they are toxic. If your attentiveness, compassion, patience and advice don’t seem to be appreciated and they don’t seem to care at all then you need to re-evaluate your relationship and choose not to have them in your life, unless they have to be in your life because they are a close family member.

Letting go of toxic people doesn’t mean that you are mean, callous or toxic yourself. It simply means that you are looking after your own best interest. Choosing to have a toxic person in your life means that you choose to have emotional upset, drama and stress in your life.

A healthy relationship is characterised by reciprocal give and take; genuine caring about each other; mutual respect and is emotionally rewarding for both parties.

Your Reactions And Responses To A Toxic Person’s Behaviour

You may feel numb, overwhelmed and betrayed and you may over-compensate because we often ignore our own values when our boundaries are violated. You may even check out emotionally from the relationship.

If it is unavoidable for you to have a toxic person in your life then you need to do the following:

  1. Stop pretending that their behaviour is ok because it is NOT. You are enabling the toxic person by not addressing their behaviour. It is easier in the short-term to just keep quiet or to give in to what they want, for peace sake, but in the long run, you are making it ok for them to behave the way they do. You become an enabler.
  2. Assert yourself. Stand up for yourself – or anyone else who is in your care who is also affected by the toxic person’s behaviour. Some people will do whatever it takes to belittle, demean, humiliate, bully and use passive-aggressive behaviour. “What did I do??” “How dare you accuse me!!” The toxic person may throw a tantrum, screaming, raging, abusing and threatening – or they will back down immediately. Their behaviour is unpredictable. Remember, they keep others in check by using anger and manipulation to control. Do not be afraid of the consequences of speaking out – that’s what the toxic person expects. Speak out anyway!
  3. Put your foot down. Set very clear boundaries and defend your boundaries. Be very clear when you tell the toxic person what you will and won’t allow and what they need to stop doing. Do not fall for threats of any kind. If they threaten to leave your life, home or company, tell them to go. Some people will find this very difficult to do, especially when the toxic person is a loved one, but you should not give in to the toxic person’s threats. Also, demonstrate that you stand firm in your resolve. Do not change your mind and do not apologise for speaking your truth, setting boundaries or confronting them. Some toxic people simply have no respect for authority or other people’s boundaries and/or rights. Make it clear that you will not allow them to continue with their bully behaviour, constant criticism of you, a co-worker or a loved-one, insults, lies, gossiping etc. Make it clear that you will no longer put up with, or reward, their subtle digs, meanness, insincerity, gossiping and bullying.
  4. Don’t make their toxic behaviour about you. This is a difficult one but you need to remember that it’s THEM, not YOU. A toxic person will try to convince you that you’ve done something wrong. This can be very damaging if you let it. The toxic person’s behaviour is not about you – it is all about them. Most toxic people behave badly toward almost everyone they come into contact with – unless they need something from someone or when they need to make a good impression. Even then, they will be kind to the person’s face but talk badly about them behind their back. When confronted they will deny everything and leave you doubting yourself and feeling that you may be going off your head. What they say and do, their opinions, criticisms and judgements are based entirely on their own behaviour. They will accuse you of exactly what they are doing.
  5. Be cautiously compassionate. Toxic people have genuine problems and they definitely suffer from emotional problems and are often mentally or emotionally unstable. Be very careful to separate their legitimate issues from how they behave toward you, or a loved one or co-worker you are protecting, because the toxic person may use your genuine concern and compassion against you.
  6. Look after yourself. If you have to work or live with a toxic person, you need to take time to take care of yourself. It is physically and emotionally draining to have to face moodiness, passive-aggressive behaviour, bullying, meanness, gossip etc. Excuse yourself from their company so that you can breathe and focus on something else – listen to soothing music, exercise, rest and recuperate.


Amy Tatsumi (Psychologist and Counsellor, MA, LPC, ATR-BC) and Jodie Gale, MA, (Psychotherapist and life coach in Sydney, Australia.)