Toxic Personalities

We can all behave in manipulative, unpleasant and even destructive ways at times. But some people seem to hurt others more often than not. They live by their own rules, on their own schedule with little concern for the well being of others. They are toxic personalities.

These people have a distinctive thinking pattern. They tend to believe that:
Having power and control gives them excitement in life, and they are always seeking excitement.
· They are unique. They see themselves as smarter, more creative and more important than ordinary people. They are narcissistic (self-centered) and grandiose (self-important).
· They are never wrong. When they don’t get what they want, or are caught in dishonest or manipulative behavior, they complain that they have been victimized, misunderstood or mistreated.
· They are good people, despite their manipulative, exploitative or otherwise harmful behavior.
· Caring equals using. They believe that if you care about them, you will let them manipulate and take advantage of you.
· People who work hard just aren’t clever enough to attain their goals through “easier” and quicker means such as scheming and manipulation.
· They are entitled to have what they want regardless of the consequences for themselves or others. They can rationalize the use of any means in the pursuit of their goals.

Toxic personalities don’t set out to hurt others. They just do whatever they want to do whenever they wish without concern for the inconvenience or problems their behavior may cause for others. When confronted with the emotional fallout of their thoughtlessness, they deny responsibility and try to shift the blame onto circumstances or other people. They are bulls in the interpersonal china cabinet.

Most of the time, toxic personalities’ behavior is simply irritating, frustrating or confusing, but remains within the bounds of social convention and the law. However, when they break the law or cause physical harm or severe psychological damage to others without regret or remorse, we call these people sociopaths, psychopaths, or criminal personalities. What makes these people different is that they have no conscience. When they say they’re sorry for something they’ve done, they don’t mean they regret having harmed you, but that they’re upset at having been caught.


As you can imagine (or remember) people suffer many negative emotions at the hands of toxic personalities: confusion, anger, impotence, betrayal, depression, anxiety, fear. Sometimes toxics tell victims outright that they are to blame for their own pain and suffering. Some manipulate their victims into believing that somehow they have hurt the toxic. Others don’t hang around long enough for victims to know what’s hit them. In any case, victims are often left holding a bag of negative emotions that will contaminate their feelings about themselves and others.

Because these poisonous people play on already existing insecurities, they can cause considerable damage to their victims’ self-esteem and self-confidence. Victims pay for their trust and emotional openness with cynicism, self-recrimination and pervasive self-doubt. Not only will they be less likely to trust others after a run- in with a toxic personality, they are often less self-assured and more reluctant to form new relationships.

Toxic personalities often give their victims no opportunity to vent their feelings. Even if they do, they aren’t likely to understand how the victim feels or to care. Nevertheless, it’s important that victims get these feelings out so that their mental and physical health doesn’t suffer. (Stress expert Dr. Hans Selye considered the stress caused by the behavior of another person to be the most damaging and potentially lethal of all stressors.)

 If you have been victimized by a toxic personality, don’t be afraid to seek a therapist’s help.  Because toxic personalities excel at creating confusion and self-doubt, identifying the manipulations of a toxic personality often takes the help of an objective professional.


In the bottom-line oriented work world, success at any cost seems to be the credo for many business people.  Toxic personalities can do very well in a business environment where his or her cunning, capacity to “think big”, and willingness to do “whatever it takes” are valued and even rewarded.  The toxic personalities in your office may be openly manipulative with outright lies or more subtle tactics like procrastination or excuse-making, and still get ahead.  Casually, it seems, they may step over you on the way to the top or even brush you off the corporate ladder.  Worse still, one of them may be your boss.

Toxic bosses abuse the power of their position to satisfy their needs for control, career advancement or self-promotion. Stanley Foster Reed, author of The Toxic Executive, identifies the top ten characteristics of toxic execs as:
· Invading others’ privacy
· Keeping secrets
· Moodiness and unpredictability
· Keeping others waiting
· An inordinate need for control
· Competitiveness
· Propensity to dislike others’ ideas
· Quickness to assign blame
· Ill-mannered or hot-tempered

Because they’re respected for their accomplishments(including high departmental output) and skill in their field, toxic bosses are often left to their mischief by management, even when it seems obvious that the long-range cost of toxic behavior is higher than the short-term gains they reap by bullying employees.

Remember: your boss has a job for you, but you have a career. Don’t let a toxic boss demoralize you or derail you from your career track. Find ways to cope only if the pain is worth an anticipated career gain. Otherwise, seek new employment in a healthier atmosphere.


Toxic people can be charming, imaginative, intelligent, interesting and exciting. They slip easily into the role of the perfect mate, and can seem to be everything you could want in a partner or friend. Skilled at courtship, they pursue the object of their desire with an intensity that few can resist, for they excel at creating a feeling of ‘instant intimacy’ and `specialness’. They have little trouble stealing hearts and winning trust.

However, once the relationship is established, their selfishness emerges and the roles shift. They begin to take more than they give, become increasingly callous and self-centered, and are irritated by ‘demands’ on their time and attention. They may react to anything they perceive as criticism or discipline with verbal or even physical abuse.You can avoid toxic relationships if you remember to…
· Enter relationships with open eyes. Avoid the temptation to idealize new romantic interests. Toxic personalities are adept at hiding their flaws.
· Make commitments cautiously. Despite declarations of love and talk of future plans together, toxic personalities have difficulty conforming to the constraints of a committed relationship. They see the normal interdependence of a relationship as confining and translate ordinary requests for consideration as attempts to control them.
· Listen to your instincts. Don’t accept explanations of odd behavior that seem inadequate, and don’t dismiss intuition that tells you things aren’t quite right with your new mate. Discomfort and distrust are warning signals. Trusting your feelings could save you from a destructive relationship.


Toxic parents are self-centered and self-serving, and always put their own desires ahead of their children’s needs. They may be emotionally dependent on their children, emotionally aloof, angrily abusive or simply narcissistic and self-centered, but they always indulge themselves emotionally at their children’s expense. They justify their actions with beliefs that children should always respect their parents no matter what, that children are parental property, and that children are forever indebted to their parents for giving birth to them and raising them.

While healthy families encourage individuality and personal responsibility, toxic families tend to be enmeshed. Instead of having distinctly individual ideas, preferences and beliefs, members of an enmeshed family are just a part of the family “mass”. They are “one of the Smiths”, rather than John or Mary. Everything they do is seen in terms of what the family thinks or how it will affect them. Whether the enmeshment is pleasant (the kind of close connection that keeps family members close to home) or angry (family members who are constantly at each others’ throats), the result is that family members never become fully functioning independent individuals.

The emotional equilibrium of toxic families is easily disturbed. When family members challenge unspoken family rules regarding, for example, the admission of strangers or the sharing of family secrets, toxic families react aggressively to restore their sense of family order. Common coping strategies of toxic families include:

Denial, such as a refusal to see a problem, an assurance that a problem will never happen again, or hiding a problem behind a less threatening label. (e.g., Dad isn’t an alcoholic; he’s a social drinker.)

Projection, which displaces responsibility for problems by assigning blame for one’s own inadequacies or toxic behavior to others. (e.g., A daughter brings her mother’s abuse upon herself.)

Sabotage. The family may undermine members who attempt to break away from the dysfunctional family by accusing them of being selfish, uncaring or crazy.

Manipulative alliances, which require family members to take sides in arguments or risk being branded a traitor. Some are formed to shift attention away from real problems onto one that doesn’t threaten family balance. For instance, parents who don’t get along may focus their attention on a troubled child instead of on the tension between them. Thus, they avoid the problems that form the basis of their dysfunctional but familiar relationship.

Kids can’t escape toxic families. As an adult, though, you can refuse to continue to participate in dysfunctional family patterns. Changing toxic family patterns isn’t easy; after all, they’ve been reinforced through many years of repetition. But with determination and, often professional help, you can create a more positive role for yourself in your family. Even if other family members don’t change, you can teach them to treat you differently.


No one is completely immune to the manipulations of toxic personalities, but you can reduce your vulnerability to these wolves-in-sheep’s clothing.

The charm and verve of the typical toxic personality diverts attention from his or her real goal of self-gratification. Look beneath the mask for plots and ploys by asking yourself if what someone is proposing is good for you. If it isn’t, ask yourself why someone who cares about you would ask you to do something that would hurt you.

Enter new relationships of any kind with open eyes.  Listen to your intuition when it tells you that things are not quite right, and don’t hesitate to ask questions that may seem rude or untrusting.  It could save you from deepening a relationship that could leave you emotionally, physically or even financially devastated.

Toxic personalities use others’ needs or desires to give themselves the upper hand. When you want something enough to take emotional or financial risks, you are more vulnerable to being manipulated or conned by toxic personalities. They may seem to offer what you want most, but are more likely to be obliging you to get what they want.

Demand to be treated fairly, honestly and respectfully. Make it clear that you will not tolerate dishonesty, manipulation, and inconsiderate behavior, and, most importantly, don’t. Toxic personalities are adept at sensing weakness, and will relentlessly test your resolve. Backing down from your demands will only feed a toxic’s desire for power and control. Once you set and consistently enforce limits, a toxic personality will reduce attempts to manipulate you.

Don’t blame yourself for the behavior of a toxic personality. Toxics will always try to shift blame and/or responsibility to anyone who’s willing to accept it. Don’t take it.

Never think that you can change a toxic personality. You can only change your responses to them. Because they aren’t hurt by their behavior, toxic personalities are highly unlikely to seek or accept counseling. If you are or have been involved with a toxic personality, you may need to seek professional help to repair your damaged self-esteem and betrayed trust.


Toxic personalities seem to have special radar that homes in on people whose naiveté, self-doubt and low self-esteem make them particularly easy to manipulate. You may be an easy target if you are…
· Gullible, naïve or idealistic about human nature
· Distrustful of your perceptions and constantly seeking approval from others
· Insecure and easily hurt by criticism or disapproval

Toxic people instinctively know what such people need most and play upon their insecurities to get what they want.

However, toxic personalities are made vulnerable by a fatal flaw of their own: their grandiosity. They truly believe in their schemes and inflated self-image; it never occurs to them that they could be wrong or that their plans might be flawed. Thus, they are betrayed by their own over-confidence and self-deception.

Being alert to manipulative tactics can help you hold onto your self-confidence, self-esteem and even your sanity. Watch for red flags, such as:
· Arguments that promote self doubt (You’re too sensitive.)
· Too good to be true scenarios (I’ll give you a really good deal.”)
· Assurances of trustworthiness (“You can trust me.”)
· Disproportionate anger at confrontation (“Are you accusing me of lying to you?”)

Who We Are

About Kim K. Shirin, Ph.D

Kim K. Shirin, Ph.D. is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, who has his doctorate in Clinical Psychology and Neuropsychological assessment. Dr. Kim K. Shirin specializes in Forensic Evaluations and Child Custody Evaluations. Dr. Shirin practices in Los Angeles County, Riverside County, San Bernardino County, Kern County, San Diego County, Ventura County, Fresno County and Orange County.


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