6 Traits of Highly Toxic People

Clinically Reviewed by Cynthia V. Catchings LCSW-S
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Everyone knows people who are very difficult to deal with, but when does “difficult” cross into “toxic”? While toxic is not an official diagnosis, there are some individuals that cause endless interpersonal conflict, and tend to make others feel bad about themselves on a regular basis.

Some individuals with Narcissistic, Histrionic, or Borderline Personality Disorder can fit these descriptions, but just having one of those disorders doesn’t necessarily mean that someone acts “toxic” to everyone or to anyone. Do you recognize anyone you know in the following descriptions of habits of toxic people?

Behavioral Signs of a Toxic Person


Toxic people endlessly blame others and seem completely unable to “own” their own contribution to any problem. They will come up with elaborate explanations of why they couldn’t possibly be to blame for any given issue, even when such explanations seem like obvious lies to those around them.

Passive aggression

Often, toxic people will not be outright aggressive, but they will make small verbal “jabs” toward others when they are angry or hurt. This behavior will be denied if anyone calls them out on it, which can be very confusing, a form of gaslighting for partners or family members.


Toxic people constantly criticize others, for their appearance, personality traits, behavior, or anything else that catches their attention. If this criticism is directed at you for long periods of time, it can have a terrible effect on your self-esteem. The younger and/or more sensitive you are at the time of receiving this criticism, the more severe an impact it may have on your sense of self.


Frequently, toxic people will manipulate others to get what they want. Examples of this in toxic parents can include “dividing and conquering,” where a parent tries to break up the bond between siblings so that they cannot come together and bond over the parent’s toxic behavior. Examples in the workplace can include a toxic person using guilt to get out of doing work (e.g., claiming that their parent is sick when they aren’t). Manipulation can be overt or subtle, but it is always unhealthy.


Although many people can affect a “jaded” air as part of their personality, some toxic people seem completely unable to enjoy anything in life. When others try to share anything that makes them happy, they are met with cynicism and condescension. An example is a coworker who sees that you’re engaged and makes a critical comment about the institution of marriage and the frequency of divorce. Another is a family member who tells you that your weight loss is bound to be short lived because “diets never work.”

Emotional blackmail

Toxic people try to use guilt trips and emotional blackmail to get their needs met. Examples include a divorced parent who tries to deter you from spending time with your other parent, by telling you how lonely she is and how much the other parent has hurt her over the years. Or the significant other who threatens to binge drink alone in her room if you go out with your friends instead of stay home and watch a movie with her.

Toxic people do not hesitate to pull on your heartstrings or use guilt against you if it means that you will comply with their requests.

Healthy Solutions for Dealing with Toxic People

If you recognize your significant other, friend, family member, or coworker in these descriptions, it is important to come up with a plan to deal with them in a healthy way. It is very useful to empathize with such people and to understand how they got to be the way that they are. This doesn’t mean you have to interact with them, but people aren’t born “toxic” and generally get that way from observing such behavior in the home as a child or experiencing abuse.

Setting boundaries with toxic people is essential, although it can be very challenging. Working with a therapist is a great way to explore how you can set boundaries that work for you, whether this means only talking to someone at certain times, keeping an emotional guard up with them at all times, or completely severing contact.

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