Gut Check

A Licensed Counselor Explains How To Spot Toxic Traits In Yourself & Others

Toxic traits are habits and behaviors that are ongoing and harm others, such as manipulation, judgment, and negativity.

Originally Published: 
Toxic traits can be hard to identify in a relationship, especially if you're the one guilty of the h...
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Chances are you'll encounter one toxic relationship in your life, whether it be with your partner, a friend, a relative, or a coworker. You aren't going to mesh with everyone you meet, and some people have the power to push your buttons just a little too far. It's easy to turn the cheek and point the finger when things get rough, but have you ever stopped to consider that maybe you're the one who's toxic?

Perhaps you've gaslighted a romantic partner before or were quick to judge after a friend confided in you. These one-off instances don't mean you're a toxic person per se. But if you're consistently engaging in and displaying toxic trait behavior, you're probably hurting those around you as a result. According to licensed professional counselor Shanta Jackson, this is the definition of having a toxic personality. "A toxic personality is a personality that is made up of toxic traits," Jackson tells Scary Mommy. "Toxic traits are habits and behaviors that are ongoing and harm others."

Learning how to identify toxic traits within yourself won't only help you better yourself; it will also teach you how to identify these unhealthy traits in others. "Surrounding ourselves with toxic people and traits will continue to push us away from what we are working towards. It will keep us feeling stuck emotionally, mentally, and even physically," Jackman says. Here's how to spot toxic traits in yourself and others — and end them for good.

How do you identify toxic traits in yourself?

It can be hard to identify toxicity within yourself because you don't experience your behavior and actions how other people experience them. So, how do you tell if you're the one bringing the toxicity into the equation? Jackson recommends that you practice being more cognizant of easily recognizable toxic traits you may be displaying, such as manipulation and negativity.

"Asking yourself, 'Do I have a negative outlook on most things"' or 'Do I take responsibility for my actions?' requires you to have self-awareness," Jackson explains. "Questions can help you be more honest with yourself, and consequently, you may recognize that there are things you could improve on." Here are some easily recognizable toxic traits to watch out for:

  • You judge others.
  • You gaslight others.
  • You don't take responsibility.
  • You're quick to anger.
  • You manipulate others.
  • You're inconsistent.
  • You frequently have a negative outlook.
  • You're self-centered.

It can also help to seek an outside opinion. "In these scenarios, I like to ask clients, 'What is something negative about yourself that you have been hearing from those around you?'" Jackson says. "There may be something there that you can explore and use to help identify some of your own toxic traits."

How do I stop being toxic?

According to Jackson, a toxic trait is the manifestation of a deeper problem. Simply put, it isn't something that you can just correct overnight. For example, you may recognize that you have the tendency to be manipulative. "Manipulation is a toxic trait that can look a number of ways," Jackson says. "Mostly, manipulation is when you make things about yourself, you will do whatever you have to in order to get what you want, and you are willing to use other people for your own benefit and personal gain."

As a first step, Jackson suggests working backward with questions. You may ask yourself:

  • Why do I manipulate people? (You may answer: Because it gets me what I want.)
  • Where did you learn that you have to manipulate to get what you want?
  • Why do you struggle with communicating your needs?

Practice being a little self-critical. Sometimes when a person exhibits toxic behavior, they've been that way for a while, so they might not even notice its harmfulness. Examine the way you interact with others and try journaling to get a better understanding of your actions. Continue to ask yourself why you do or say certain things, which can give you an improved sense of self-awareness.

The most important thing is understanding why you're carrying around this toxic trait. Once you're aware, you'll be able to recognize when those harmful tendencies start to creep in, and you can put a stop to them. You also don't have to face this journey alone. Jackson suggests that therapy can help you talk through and navigate any feelings that may arise during this self-awareness process in a healthy and safe manner.

How do you identify toxic traits in others?

Usually, it's easier to identify toxic traits in others versus in yourself because you're on the receiving end of the toxicity. As the person who is observing and receiving, pay attention to how you feel when you interact with certain people. Do you walk away from an interaction with someone feeling drained? When you open up and are vulnerable with someone, do they make you feel judged or make the conversation about them? "Being aware of how someone makes you feel is most important," Jackman says. "Your feelings will help you determine whether or not you're in a relationship with someone who displays toxic traits." Here are some signs of toxicity in others:

  • They gaslight you.
  • They lie to cover up their behavior.
  • They make you feel judged.
  • Everything revolves around them.
  • They never take responsibility for their actions.

There is a toxic person in my life. What do I do?

Toxic traits aren't permanent if the person displaying them doesn't want them to be — but that doesn't mean you have to succumb to their toxicity until they feel like changing their ways. If you have a toxic person in your life, Jackson suggests following these three steps:

Step 1: Communicate how their toxicity impacts you. "I statements" are extremely beneficial in these scenarios. For example, you can say: "When you do ____ or say ____, I feel ____."

Step 2: Set boundaries. "Setting boundaries helps reduce the impact of their toxicity on you," Jackson says. "Remember that the boundary is for your benefit, not theirs, and there are consequences with those boundaries."

Step 3: Don't take their toxic behaviors personally because it's not your fault. "It's so easy for us to blame ourselves instead of recognizing that there are people around us that have their own healing work to do. Sometimes toxic people bleed on those who didn't even cut them," Jackson says.

Step 4: Remember to put yourself first. Just because someone's behavior isn't directly abusive or malicious does not mean it should be tolerated. This person may even request your help, but it's essential to stand your ground. It's important not to do something for someone at the risk of your emotional stability or mental health. Relationships require give and take, and someone who is toxic usually only takes, which is why putting yourself first is important.

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