We all have interacted with toxic people. They may be family members, friends (or former friends), neighbors, clients, customers, colleagues, or our boss.
The toxic person is akin to an energy vampire (which I go over here) and in many ways is strikingly similar. Both people are looking to take energy from others because they lack vital energy or access to their own power.
The way that it differs (at least in my mind) is that energy vampires are simply looking to siphon energy. They have a black hole of sorts within them that they are looking to fill. The difficulty, of course, is that hole can never be filled by the energy of another, and unless that person chooses to look for healing and a restoration of the power that they lost, they will continually look to fill themselves with energy (or with drugs or food or experiences).
Toxic individuals have this same black hole, the same sort of missing of essence, but they are filled with such negativity and chaos that they are continually seeking to enact drama and chaos in the outer world. They not only are taking energy, but also shoving their unhealed pain and emotions onto everyone they interact with. This is because they lack the capacity to deal with the amount of unhealed emotions they have within, or because the severity of a trauma that typically occurred in early childhood has caused for them to have a world view (and their energy system/body will reflect this belief and filter energies this way) that people (and the world) are continually out to harm them.
If someone is stuck in this state, it means that they are continually looking to take as much as they can from the world and the people in it, without offering anything of themselves. This will be done in an antagonistic way, as this person is desperate for the healthy connections that being nourished by people and the world create, but as they feel that the world is a place that is frightening or out to get them, they will not connect… and will look to take from the world by any means necessary, without understanding or having the capacity to see what this taking creates… or at the very least, that their world view may be a bit skewed by past trauma.
How to Know Someone is Toxic
Generally, how we can understand someone to be toxic is that we walk away feeling “slimed” by them. This is sometimes quite literal (at least on an energetic level).
Even if we are not particularly sensitive, there is likely someone in your office or in your life that you inwardly groan whenever they contact you. This is because you leave the situation feeling drained or negative. This is likely not only because of the unneeded drama of the situation, but because you are left taking care of the “slimy” emotions of another, and your system is attempting to deal with it.
This is not just your perception, by the way. People like this the whole office will dislike. This is the person who enters a room and everyone will move or even simply leave so as not to interact with them.
Toxic individuals have little capacity to deal with their emotions and inner chaos and so they are continually looking to push their unhealed emotions and issues onto others. Relationships with them are always and continually about them. While it is trendy to talk about narcissism these days (and there certainly can be some crossover), someone who is truly toxic has no capacity to see or listen beyond themselves and their own experiences of this world.
They are unhealed to the extent that they have no way, no energy, to hold vital space to listen or even see the experiences of those around them. They simply cannot due to the weight of what lies unhealed within them; if we lack vital essence we have nothing to offer to others, and we simply look at the world and the people in it as something to “take” as much of as possible before we are stopped.
In addition to “pushing” their emotions onto others, toxic individuals continually create drama and chaos. This is to recreate whatever is unhealed within them. They will often lack the tools and capacity to recognize that they are doing this, and will often feel as if the world, and all the people in it, are against them.
They are unable to be in groups, don’t interact well with their colleagues, and don’t establish or maintain friendships. In their mind this is always the fault of the group, the work environment, or the world for not accepting them, and every interaction will fuel the ideology that the world is against them, and that they are completely disconnected from everything and everyone. It is a painful way to exist, and the pain of these individuals is palpable.
In my cording book (which you can find here) I talk about how important cord work is for all of our relationships. In most forms of “cord work” there is talk of cutting cords, and while I find that basic technique effective (and include it in the book), really understanding the energetics of the cord and altering the energetic dynamics of the cord is much more effective (and is gone over in the book).
I mention this because in the book I talk about assessing how much energy we bring vs. take in our relationships. Ideally our relationships would be equal– us offering 50 percent and receiving 50 percent in our relationships. This is true for any relationship, even seemingly “unequal” ones like parent/child, teacher/student, boss/worker etc.
The toxic individual will be taking up more than 90 percent of the energy in this relationship, as well as moving their unhealed emotions through the cord in an effort to get you to engage or take care of them.
Although I understand that the word “toxic” is something of a harsh word, it is really easy to feel compassionate for individuals like this. They are in so much pain and feel such emptiness and they continually live in a world, and perpetuate a world, of incredible chaos.
I have found that the less healed someone is, the less capacity that they have to take personal responsibility for themselves. The toxic individual lacks this capacity to an extent that they are continually expecting others to extend their time and energy when they have nothing to offer of themselves, and create such drama that they will always find someone to engage with and “vent” their issues to in an attempt to get others to not only ascribe to their world view, but to take on their pain for them. This drama fuels the chaos and ideologies around people, or the world, disliking or not wanting them. Frequently toxic individuals are stuck in an infantile state, continually looking for the nourishment and vital energy they did not receive in their childhood.
Someone being in such pain does not mean that you need to take care of it, however. It does not mean that there is any personal responsibility on your part to either offer them your energy, to take on their unhealed emotions, or to participate in whatever drama they are seeking to cast you in.
Learning these five steps will allow for you to recognize and work with even the most toxic of individuals:
Step One: Recognize your own “stuff”
We may believe someone is toxic because it suits our own worldview. If we determine someone to be “toxic” or “narcissistic”, “arrogant”, or any other word we wish to put on someone, it may be more supportive of our own unhealed emotions or illusions (or not wanting said illusions to be shattered) than anything else.
I went over how to work with this in detail in a two-part blog you can read here (it is about internet trolls, but the same sentiments apply)
Generally if we have an emotional reaction to someone (more than, “ugh, that person is super toxic. get them away from me”), especially one that persists (beyond being rightfully and momentarily angry, surprised… as in you are still thinking about the interaction hours or days later) it is a good indicator that the person is showing you something that you could internally heal.
Whether the person is actually toxic or not is sort of beside the point in this scenario, but by taking personal responsibility for our end of things, we can begin to clearly see the dynamics of others.
Step Two: Recognize what the Toxic Person is doing
Cord work can really help with this, but noticing energetic dynamics of interpersonal interactions is essential to having truly healthy, dynamic relationships.
Do you feel drained, angry, or more chaotic after interacting with someone? Does someone expect for you to do all the work in your relationship?
There are more questions that can be asked here, but in simplicity it is really noticing where your energy is going… as well as what energies you are taking on.
In an equal relationship, there can be occasional instances of being “drained” (like if someone is going through a crisis) but I am talking more about observing your interactions with a person over time to get a baseline understanding of what is going on.
I am not saying that all of our interactions should be sheer joy, but we should gain something out of our connections. If we are not, that is something to consider.
If you are finding yourself angry after interacting, it often is a sign that some breach of boundaries has happened.
Step Three: Setting up Boundaries
We live in a world in which healthy boundaries haven’t been modeled terribly well. This means that a lot of people have to start from scratch to really discover what their personal boundaries are.
Boundaries are really what we allow in vs. what we put out.
This is, of course, a simplistic definition, and the process of discovering how much of yourself you are willing to offer to others is an ongoing task. It is somewhat lucky that we live in a world in which so many will want to question, tear down, or assume that you have no boundaries, as it will give anyone working on this subject more than enough capacity to begin to build and practice maintaining their boundaries.
The difficulty with boundaries is that they are different for different people. I have different boundaries for my family members, for my friends, and for my students. My boundaries for my students are fairy strict, and tend to be the same for all of my students. My boundaries for my friends are much more fluid, and depend on the friendship.
The toxic individual needs to be reminded, and often, about what your boundaries are. This also requires the capacity to stick to them, by the way.
I recommend saying an inward “no” often to people that are attempting to move beyond your boundaries. This sometimes needs to be paired with an out loud “no”, but the inward “no” is a start, as it begins the process of setting up energetic boundaries.
Step Four: Don’t Rise to the Bait
If you erect boundaries, what will either happen with truly toxic individuals is that they will either find someone else to interact with, or they will double their efforts to create drama and chaos with you.
This will often lead to them being disrespectful, antagonizing, offensive, or overly dramatic in a last effort to engage you in their dynamics.
It may lead to someone also doing a form of “hero worship” in which they butter someone up and tell someone how fantastic they are in an effort to move beyond boundaries. This is more difficult to acknowledge, as it appeals to our ego, but it will still not feel right, and will often end with you ending up firmly off whatever pedestal they have put you on.
The difficulty with this is that someone being disrespectful, obnoxious, or appealing to our instincts to protect (such as toxic individuals who say they are going to kill themselves if someone doesn’t respond or offer attention, which is truly the worst form of this, as none of us want someone else to harm themselves) will bring out our own “stuff”, our own fears and drama.
Work with your own emotions and “stuff” (repeat #1) until you can simply and clearly assert your boundaries as well as engage neutrally with them. I have found that it is best not to call them out, as they are looking for the drama, and it will only perpetuate it or allow for them to create you as “villain” in their minds, or at the very least, add to their unhealed ideologies that the world is against them.
The asserting of outer boundaries (as in, actually telling the person what your boundaries are) done in a neutral (non-emotional) way is also often needed with individuals like this. This does require both personal work (healing your own emotions to the point where you can feel compassion for the person who is doing this, as interacting with the world like this creates immense difficulty), as well as work on your own boundaries to the extent that you know what they are, can say them succinctly, and so you actually stick to them when someone is attempting to broach them, though.
Step #5: Assess Your Relationship
It can be easy to simply state to cut this person out of your life. It is easy for me to say to quit your job, stop communicating with a particular family member, or dissolve a friendship.
It is harder if you are a waiter and have a toxic customer that comes in every Tuesday, really need a job and like your work, except for that one toxic colleague, or have a friendship that has lasted over many years to accomplish that.
The world is full of people, and many of them are unhealed. Some of them are toxic. And it is likely you will need to interact with them by establishing boundaries and saying “no”. I do suggest cutting toxic people out of your life, if you are able to, though.
For people that I need to interact with for whatever reason, I will outwardly establish my boundaries. I will tell them exactly what my boundaries are, and combined with my not responding to their drama, this often works. This works by the person either choosing to interact in a more healthy way with me, or often will result in the sort of baiting and upping of the ante on their part until they recognize that I won’t interact with them in that way.
In my line of work, I encounter a lot of people who are quite unhealed to the point of being toxic, and it is generally my job to be healed enough to not perpetuate or fuel their illusions or unhealed patterns. If we take full and complete responsibility for ourselves, we can recognize that we do not need to take responsibility for the issues of others, that we do not need to be “cast” in a role that others are seeking you for in their illusion and pain, and we can establish boundaries to ensure our safety and well-being.
This all starts with doing your own work, with understanding the interplay between your own wounds and illusions… and the wounds and illusions of another, and choosing to look at your own “stuff” first and foremost. By healing ourselves, we find the boundaries and the self-worth so that even with the most toxic and unhealed of individuals, we can simply establish boundaries and move on with our lives.