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For all the deep and meaningful thinking, reading, and talking I’ve done over the past year (and trust me, there’s been a lot), whenever I’ve needed a little bit of clarity, social media has never failed to be of help to me.
Yes, most of what is online is nonsense. However, given that Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter all function best by using brevity, there is the occasional moment of concise clarity when something huge is eloquently captured in less than 200 characters.
And never more so than when it comes to the perennially relevant topic of “toxic people.”
I could give you a lengthy explanation of toxicity, but I’m going to let Twitter do the heavy lifting in a game I like to call “Toxic Relationship Bingo.”
If you weren’t sure how to identify potentially toxic behavior before, trust me, after playing this you will. You most definitely will.
1. “Toxic motherf****rs always wanna reach out when their situation not going their way, I swear.” (@miguel05850120)
People who exhibit toxic behavior are remarkably consistent.
When their life is good, you won’t hear from them. They don’t need you. But…
Well, let’s put it his way: has their life suddenly taken a turn for the worst? Are they suddenly lost, lonely, broke, or broken? That’s when you’ll get that message or phone call. They only want to know you when they need something. But when you need something? Silence—so much silence.
And it’s a diplomatic minefield.
Chances are that when you were feeling lost, lonely, broke, or broken, that person ran. So, if you just ignore that message, you’ll be no better than them. And, if dealing with them has taught you anything, it’s that one of your biggest goals in life is to not be like them. Ignoring them in the same way they ignored you might be the fair thing to do, but if you have any degree of compassion, it’ll hurt you to do so.
However, if you do respond, but then point out the hypocrisy of them contacting you, you’ll end up the being painted as the “bad guy.”
Hint: you’re not. If someone wasn’t there for you, you have no obligation to be there for them. Healthy relationships thrive with reciprocity; toxic ones have no such balance. Someone who engages in toxic behavior will expect you to be there for them, yet will be the first one to run if they have to do anything that might require heavy lifting, compromise, sacrifice, or some degree of emotional maturity.
And, if you do give you them the sympathy they so blatantly didn’t give to you, then you’re a lovely person, and I salute you. But you’re also knowingly ignoring those “red flags.” Spoiler alert: there’s no happy ending here. That pattern of not being there for you in times of need, but then expecting something of you when they are struggling is fixed—it ain’t gonna change.
Everyone deserves love, compassion, and understanding—but not everyone is entitled to yours. Harsh, but if you’ve been bitten by this particular person before, if you’ve given them a chance and they failed to take it, you’re allowed to walk away. You don’t owe them anything except the same level (or lack) of compassion they showed you.
And once you’ve cut that toxic behavior loose, let it float away but cutting all channels of communication. It’s a “scorched Earth” policy, but it’s the only way to deal with toxicity.
2. “Toxic people love playing the victim.” (@MillsReggie)
Now, this is true, but it’s also a tricky one.
Genuine hurt at something that happened is always permissible. If a relationship caused you trauma, don’t let anyone tell you you’re not allowed to feel something about that—you are. If someone has legitimately hurt you, that’s not you “playing” the victim, that’s you “being” a victim.
It’s the playing part that’s the key. In a toxic relationship, this person will hurt you then behave as if they’re the one who has been the victim of a heinous crime, instead of being the one who actually perpetrated it. It’s like a bank robber getting caught trying to break into a vault, and then moaning that the handcuffs chafe.
Again, if this is your situation, choose to walk away from the drama.
3. “I had some ‘friends’ who would paint those they fell out with as toxic/manipulative and go around telling people this to keep socially isolated. When I cut them off, they did the same to me. I’m really grateful for my real friends for always standing by me.” (@hautessen)
Oh, another goodie.
This all happens, in part, because as I pointed out earlier, those exhibiting toxic behavior don’t just play the victim, they tell the whole world they’re the victim. They don’t always mean to; oftentimes they’re incredibly emotionally immature or have issues dealing with shame. Essentially, they’re embarrassed by what they did, so they overcompensate by rewriting events simply to make themselves look better. I had a situation where someone literally did the worst thing anyone has ever done to me, but then painted themselves as the victim—my head is still spinning now.
In many ways, it’s a natural human reaction and perfectly understandable. However, whenever someone tries to make themselves look better, inadvertently or not, they always end up making someone else look worse—and in a toxic relationship, that might just be you.
And it becomes even less acceptable because these same people do not do things by half-measures; that story hasn’t just been tweaked, it’s been re-written. And whole incidents have been thoroughly omitted. In reality, you may have—physically and emotionally—been part of the event, but you won’t know that from the version that is making the rounds.
So, what do you do? Nothing. Honestly, there isn’t anything you can do. You’re wasting your breath. Trying to point out the inconsistencies is on par with Don Quixote fighting windmills—the end result is simply exhaustion.
Accept it. It comes with the territory of exiting any toxic relationship, romantic or familial. You are going to be the bad guy.
I accept that this will be a bitter pill to swallow. Knowing that someone out there is rewriting a part of your history, or painting you in all shades of black, stings. But, trust me, that pain is nothing compared with the turmoil of actually keeping this person in your life. And that’s what you need to remember: short-term pain for long-term gain.
4. “A toxic person rarely apologizes but always thinks the world owes them an apology. Toxic people want you to ignore their missteps but expect you to act or be perfect every step of the way.” (@byRHSin)
This is a good one.
In a toxic relationship, one person usually has a chronic sense of entitlement. Again, it’s not always their fault, and, initially, it may deserve your sympathy. Because it doesn’t stem from arrogance; their entitlement comes from their insecurity. Despite any external success and achievements, they’re often not confident people—if anyone has an inner child that needs a big cuddle, it’s them.
Any relationship that can’t survive an honest conversation about how you truly feel wasn’t strong enough to begin with. And a relationship with someone exhibiting toxic behavior will never have that innate strength because there are too many places you can’t go. “Communicate, even when it’s difficult. One of the best ways to heal is to get everything out”—this is a great idea, but it’s not likely to happen here. The moment communication gets uncomfortable, they begin lacing up their metaphorical running shoes.
They’re often too insecure to have those difficult conversations because they see even constructive criticism as an attack: “You did this thing, and it really hurt me” or “Why are you so mean?”
It’s easier for them to focus on your shortcomings rather than face their own. Again, there’s no happy ending there.
5. “PTSD from relationships is really a thing. I find myself holding back and doubting every person that comes into my life because of a toxic relationship and it sucks.” (@tiaraelliot)
Yep, this sure happens.
For a while, I found myself turning into a modern-day, male Miss Havisham.
For those who haven’t read Charles Dickens in a while, Miss Havisham is a character in Great Expectations. Even among the gallery of memorable characters populating Dickens’ masterpiece, she stands out.
She is a wealthy spinster who, having been once jilted, spends her life clad in her wedding dress. She never leaves her decaying mansion, and—like a vampire—roams its halls, trapped in a past she cannot let go of—bitter, lonely, and unable to trust. Although she does later find redemption (this is Dickens, after all), she spends the first three quarters of the book being the walking embodiment of just how much toxic heartbreak will screw you up.
(No, Dickens didn’t use those exact words, but I’m sure he would’ve if he could have.)
She’s a wonderful creation. Like so many of Dickens’ characters, she is larger-than-life, grotesque, and, simultaneously, psychologically convincing. Her vast, crumbling mansion and rotting wedding gown may be a touch theatrical, but the pain behind them both is believable. Her grief is frighteningly relatable.
I mean, who hasn’t had their heart broken, and—temporarily, at least—been reduced to an agoraphobic who hasn’t changed their clothes in a while? We’ve all been there.
Never more so than after a toxic relationship. Those wounds are deep.
For a while, I did become Miss Havisham, believing that, just because one person hurt me, everyone else I encountered would as well. If I’d had a wedding dress, you would’ve found me in it. My level of cynicism scared even me.
But, you know what? Some people will still hurt you. It’s gonna happen. However, after experiencing toxicity, you can recognize it. You learn not to avoid all people, just the ones whose behavior you know isn’t healthy. How? Boundaries, my friends. Boundaries. They’re what finally enabled me to take off my metaphorical wedding dress and rejoin the land of the living.
Nowadays, I make no apologies for having boundaries. I am always willing to have a discussion about them, and we all need to, as they vary from relationship to relationship. But I will not have a conversation about me needing them.
In a toxic relationship, those boundaries are not respected; the aforementioned sense of entitlement means that boundaries are treated with the same disdain you are. My internal antennae always flicks into life when I sense an issue here.
I’m starting to listen to it more these days, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence my personal relationships are stronger because of it.
6. “Toxic people will do a good deed and then use it as if the other person has signed an invisible contract that binds them to that person. ‘Oh, you haven’t spoken to me in a week? Remember when I took you to the airport six months ago? You’re so selfish'” (@BPDBryan)
Much like playing the victim, this one is a bit tricky.
Relevance is the key.
If it is relevant to the point either one of you is making, then there is no statute on time. After all, the seeds of trauma can often go back years, even decades. It’s not petty or “bringing up the past” to raise something from years ago if it relates to what you’re discussing, and if it has never been satisfactorily resolved. So maybe (metaphorically-speaking) that trip to the airport might be relevant. But is it relevant now? Today?
With some situations, there is a cause-and-effect relationship, regardless of how long ago an event occurred. With other situations, there isn’t.
But those exhibiting toxic behavior don’t always make this distinction. Everything is the equivalent of that trip to the airport. Even when you’re not talking about anything airport-related, that trip to the airport will still be talked about. “I know I did all those really horrible things to you…but remember when I bought you those lovely noodles?” So what? Where’s the connection?
I had this happen recently; someone brought up something that happened years ago, as a way of defending something that happened during the last year. First, there was no connection between the two things—we were literally talking about apples and oranges. Second, if this event from years ago was so important, why had it only been raised now?
Because it was that trip to the airport.
Walking away was hard, but it was the right thing to do for my own sanity. Just as it will be for you.
So, there you have it: Toxic Relationship Bingo.
But one of the most interesting things about exploring all this is that you become aware of your own toxicity.
Over the past year, everything above has actually happened to me. It’s annoyed me (in fact, in some cases, it broke my heart), but that passes. And I don’t regret it because it gave me the final push to leave some people in my past. Being an emotionally insecure, codependent type of a guy, I doubt I would’ve left unless I’d had that push.
But after those feelings do recede, you’re left with a far more interesting question: how much of all that have I done myself? The answer, for me, was a lot.
And that, in turn, forces you to recognize patterns; if you’ve attracted a lot of these kinds of people throughout your life, then what are you doing that’s making that happen? Is it a problem with codependency, or a deep-seated issue from your past you need to resolve, or is your behavior just as toxic as the people you’re entertaining? After all, birds of a feather flock together.
A greater knowledge of my own toxicity has been enlightening. But trying to figure out the why part has given me a mountain of things to work through, all of which—although hard—has brought me greater insight and happiness.
Being aware of your toxic patterns is a superpower. The fact that you’ll only become aware of it through contact with those with similar habits is sad, but inevitable. I really do wish there were less painful ways to learn life lessons. But that’s why, ironically, I don’t regret any of those relationships.
Not only did I lose some people who, on reflection, I’m not really that sad about losing, but a mirror was also held up to my own toxic traits. Working on those has been tough, but has also made me immeasurably happier.
Toxic relationships: bad for your short-term mental health but often great for your long-term well-being.
And, my friends, I think I’m going to put that on Twitter.
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