Toxic behavior -- or emotional abuse -- can be difficult to prove because the perpetrator is often skilled enough to leave no visible marks, no tangible evidence. To be true, even the person being affected by the toxic behavior isn't always able to recognize the signs or the impact on their own mind. How can you tell when you are in a toxic relationship -- be it with a friend, a lover, a parent, a co-worker? I've given it some thought, and I offer my 10 signs of toxic behavior.
- You often think, "This is will make so-and-so upset," and the "this" is something reasonable. When you are constantly on alert to prevent another person from getting angry, you may be in a relationship with a toxic person. When you are parenting with your spouse, and you find yourself telling the kids to stop acting like kids because they will get in trouble, or when you are hyper-aware of your words and actions so as not to "start a fight" with the other person -- then you are not in a reasonable and balanced situation. Sure, it's not right to run around, doing whatever you want without caring if you offend anyone. That's not what I am talking about here. I am talking about normal, everyday actions or words that provoke an irrationally angry response.
- You are consistently criticized and get the message that you are not good enough. This is a common form of emotional abuse and control. When you are ignored or criticized, you get the message that you are not enough -- not good enough, not smart enough, not attractive enough, not funny enough, just plain not enough. And because this message becomes engrained in your head, you end up prolonging the relationship because you erroneously believe you aren't enough to do any better or to break free.
- You aren't "allowed" to spend time with other people. The narcissist craves your full attention. They don't want you to have other friends or to talk to anyone else, at times, even your family. If you do have other friends, you are made to feel guilty for betraying them in some way. Toxic parents do this especially in divorce scenarios: "Why don't you text me the way you text your mom all the time? Why do you have more fun there?" For the toxic person, you are a piece of property to be owned and controlled.
- You aren't "allowed" to spend time alone, either. Let's say you are overwhelmed by your day and you write out your thoughts in a journal. The emotional abuser doesn't want a written record of wrongs. They may read your private writings or even destroy your work as a way to further control your story and your experience. If you want to be alone, your toxic friend may be offended that you don't want to go out, or if you want to go for a bike ride, your toxic spouse may say you are neglecting your responsibilities. Again, this all comes down to control.
- The things that matter to you, don't matter to them. Your important events or values aren't shared. Your birthday isn't nearly as important as theirs. Your goals aren't a factor unless they benefit from you achieving them. Your performances, concerts, races -- whatever projects you do or go to -- are not a priority to them. They may make it if they don't have anything else to do, and when they do come, they are critical of the quality of the presentation or organization, etc.
- Your efforts aren't noticed, and you do more than your fair share of the work. Whether it is the work of the relationship or the work of the house or the work of the office, you find yourself busting your butt, and the toxic person never seems to notice, never seems to appreciate it. You rarely hear the words "thank you," and all you get in return are defensive excuses when you point about the disparity. You are simply expected to do more, every single time.
- The toxic person lies on a regular basis. And, when they are caught in a lie, they either deny it angrily or somehow make it out to be acceptable that they lied, because of something you have done wrong. The lying is part of the toxic person's manipulative personality, part of the effort to control others.
- You are never sure who you are going to get. There is a nice version of this toxic person. That's why you are in the relationship to begin with. They have positive qualities that drew you to them. But the toxic person can only maintain that facade, that false persona for so long. The effort to sustain the nice version of themselves is exhausting, and their true colors eventually show. They become unpredictable -- will your nice boss be at work today, or the angry one? The lack of consistency adds to your stress and anxiety.
- The toxic person takes no responsibility for their actions. Everything is always someone else's fault. The toxic person doesn't apologize, because they never do anything wrong. And if they do something wrong, it's probably because you (or someone else) made them do it, directly or indirectly.
- The general public admires the toxic person. Most toxic people are "marvelous pretenders," to borrow a line from Arthur Miller's The Crucible. This comes full circle to the difficulty of proving emotional abuse is happening. In front of others, the toxic person says the right things, does the right things. Behind closed doors -- away from clients, away from a crowd, away from the other parents -- there is a whole other person, a whole other experience. Because the toxic person appears to be so convincing, you refrain from reaching out for help. You stay where you are, mired in poison.
Staying in a toxic relationship is the worst thing you can do for your soul. No, it is not easy to break free; the toxic person won't simply let you go. Even if you don't speak publicly about your situation, your leaving suggests failure on their part. But, there must come a time when you stand up for yourself and demand more out of life.
Why? Because you are enough.