What are toxic traits in relationships & how to handle them

a woman with pink hair is being mean to a man which shows her toxic traits

Do you know someone who is always negative, critical, and unsupportive? How about someone at work who is unaware of the ways they hurt you? Or seems to tell lots of lies?

If so, these are signs of toxic traits. Or it might even be you who's acting with toxic behaviors.

Toxic traits can be harmful to both yourself and others. Dealing with someone's toxic behavior can have harmful impacts on your wellbeing and psychological safety. And acting in a toxic way can put a strain on your relationships and limit your career opportunities.

Below, we'll explore what toxic traits are, how to identify them, and how to prevent them from developing in ourselves. We'll also go through some advice for dealing with toxic coworkers and people in your personal life so you can navigate difficult people.

Table of contents
What are toxic traits and why should I be concerned about them?
What are examples of toxic traits?
What are my toxic traits?
A coaching plan for toxic traits
How to deal with a toxic relationship
How can I prevent my own toxic traits from affecting my relationships?
Can toxic traits change over time?

What are toxic traits and why should I be concerned about them?

Toxic traits are negative behavioral patterns that can harm both yourself and others. Recognizing and addressing toxic traits is important because they can affect your well-being, relationships, and even your career opportunities.

What are examples of toxic traits?

Examples of common toxic traits include:

  • Passive-aggressive behavior
  • Conflict avoidance
  • Constant negativity
  • Toxic positivity
  • Self-centeredness
  • Lying and manipulation
  • Destructive criticism
  • Gaslighting
  • Abusive or controlling behavior
  • Incivility

Identifying toxic people takes emotional intelligence by using your subjective judgment. Remember that you're just as prone to cognitive biases and poor judgment as anyone else. When you're on the receiving end of someone's poor behavior, it's easy to let your emotions take over and cloud your viewpoint.

That said, if someone's displaying certain negative traits repeatedly over time, you can be fairly certain that it's a toxic trait. And with that, you'll be better equipped to deal with them.

a woman showing agressive body language to a person who is looking sad and scared

1. Passive aggression

Passive-aggressive behavior is when someone tries to express their anger or frustration indirectly, instead of communicating openly.

For example, a passive-aggressive coworker might make sneaky comments about your work instead of telling you directly that they think it's subpar. Or, if you're in a relationship with someone who's passive-aggressive, they might start sulking instead of telling you directly that they're upset. If you've got housemates who have a dispute with you, they'll leave snooty notes around the house for you to find - "please do NOT use my coffee jar again!" It's usually a sign of a poor relationship or an inability to properly express emotions. It also goes hand in hand with the next toxic trait.

2. Conflict avoidance

Conflict avoidance is when somebody goes to great lengths to avoid any kind of confrontation. They'll do anything possible to keep the peace, even if it means sacrificing their own needs or beliefs.

This often happens in toxic relationships - the person who's conflict-avoidant will put up with a lot of bad behavior because they don't want things to get messy or uncomfortable. And as many people will know, this only leads to further resentment down the line.

They may also have a fear of abandonment, so they'll stay in relationships that are harmful just to ensure that they won't be left alone. If you're someone who avoids conflict, ask yourself whether your fear is worth more than your happiness. Sometimes taking action really is the best step.

3. Constant negativity

If someone is always negative, critical, and unsupportive, they're exhibiting a toxic trait.

This kind of person can really bring down the mood in any situation. They might have a pessimistic outlook on life, or be hypercritical of others.

They might also make frequent complaints, often about things that are out of their control. And instead of offering constructive feedback, they'll just shoot down anyone's ideas, no matter how good they are.

These people can be hard to work with and affect team performance. Sometimes, they're just set in their ways. Perhaps they aren't even aware of their negativity.

4. Toxic positivity

While constant negative behavior can certainly wear others down, the other end of the spectrum toxic positivity can be just as oppressive and harmful.

Research shows that frequently suppressing negative emotions decreases your mental health and emotional wellness. Workplaces are increasingly fueled by positivity and positive thinking, which can be a good thing. However, there is a fine line that needs to be maintained so your team feels psychologically safe enough to be able to speak up when something is genuinely wrong.

If you hear managers or colleagues dismissing other team members' concerns or even saying something as seemingly innocuous as "stay positive and you'll feel better" when replying to a legitimate concern, it's time to step in.

5. Self-centeredness and arrogance

This is one of the most recognizable toxic traits. Arrogance and self-centredness are two sides of the same coin.

Arrogant people think highly of themselves, to the point where they feel that they're better than everyone else. They might have an inflated sense of their own importance, and see themselves as above others both in ability and in worth.

They might show a lack of empathy and only care about their own needs. In a work context, this can make them very difficult to manage - they might not listen to direction or feedback, and will only do things their way.

In a personal relationship, this trait can cause all kinds of problems. If your partner is always putting themselves first, they're not going to be very good at meeting your needs. And if they think they're better than you, it's only a matter of time before they start treating you badly.

Professional success that is achieved with self-centredness shows destructive behavior. People like this sometimes use their unusually high self-confidence to climb the career ladder rapidly.

These are also key traits of narcissism, a recognized personality disorder that should only be diagnosed by a psychology expert.

6. Lying and manipulation

We're all guilty of telling the occasional lie sometimes.

A dishonest person is someone who does it constantly, to the detriment of those around them. A mental health professional might label someone like this a pathological liar.

Psychologists typically connect someone's childhood and upbringing as factors that can impact their tendency to lie as an adult. And having toxic parents certainly has an impact too. If you notice that someone lies a lot, it usually takes a sensitive approach to discuss their behavior.

Sometimes all it takes is some honest communication between the two of you to get yourselves on the same page.

7. Destructive criticism

Destructive criticism is when someone makes negative comments about somebody else with the intention of hurting them. It could be a personal attack, or it could be an undermining remark about their work.

It's often disguised as helpful feedback, but in reality, it's anything but. The person delivering the criticism doesn't care about the recipient - all they're interested in is putting them down and making themselves feel superior.

If you're on the receiving end of destructive criticism, your best bet is to remove yourself from that situation as quickly as possible. Distance yourself emotionally and mentally, and don't entertain their nonsense.

8. Gaslighting

a woman is holding her hands over her eye in distress from the toxic trait of gaslighting

Have you ever been in a situation where you start doubting your own memory or perception of events? That's gaslighting.

It's a psychological form of emotional manipulation in which the person gaslighting tries to make you question your reality so that they can assert their own.

It's a subtle, long-term tactic that abusers often use to maintain control over the other person. It's especially effective on people who are less assertive.

One form of gaslighting could be that you are suddenly left out of important meetings which involve you. Or they accuse you of making mistakes that you know you didn't make.

In romantic relationships, the gaslighter might try to sugarcoat toxic situations while making you feel like you're overacting.

It can take emotional awareness to identify when this is happening. You might even need to seek the advice of a nonbiased person to weigh in.

Responding to gaslighting at work can be challenging. Preparing before confronting the situation is essential. Prepare yourself mentally to respond to gaslighting in the moment so you can maintain your composure. You might also need to gather evidence (think paper trails from emails) to support your claims. Then discuss them with a supervisor.

9. Abusive or controlling behavior

Abusive or controlling behavior can take many different forms. It could be threats, physical violence, manipulation tactics, or psychological aggression.

Either way, it's a sign that the person exhibiting this behavior is not in a good place emotionally. They're using their power to control and dominate the other person. There are good and bad types of power - and this is a bad one.

If you're being abused or controlled by someone, get help immediately.

If this happens in your professional life, tell someone in management what's going on as soon as possible.

In your personal life, you could get advice from friends, family, a therapist, coach, law enforcement, charities, and government services. Remember, even if it doesn't seem too bad, make sure someone knows about it. Unfortunately, minor forms of abuse can escalate into something more serious over time.

10. Incivility

Incivility is a wide term that includes a range of behaviors you'd typically call 'rude'.

This includes making insulting or demeaning comments, joking about someone at their expense, being distracting or inappropriate, or just being plain rude to someone.

Saying nasty things to someone or about them certainly counts. As does being impolite during social interactions or even backhanded compliments.

As you'll see from our article on workplace incivility, it can lead to worse things down the line - unwanted physical contact, aggression, threatening behavior, and more.

So treat incivility as an indicator of potential trouble in the future. Be sure to deal with it early on.

What are my toxic traits?

Identifying toxic traits requires emotional intelligence and an objective self-assessment. While personal biases can cloud judgment, repeated negative behaviors over time are indicative of toxic traits in others. Self-awareness is key to identifying toxic traits in oneself. However, you can build skills that empower you to have healthy relationships with others and improve your emotional intelligence.

Fingerprint for Success can help you focus on your brilliance. The F4S assessment gives you a clear understanding of your strengths and areas of improvement. With these instant results, you'll have an increased self-awareness. By understanding your 48 motivational traits, you'll have insight into what makes you unique.

f4s dashboard shows your motivations and coaching programs to help with toxic traits
F4S dashboard

A coaching plan for toxic traits

F4S was built by pioneering coach, Michelle Duval, and is backed by more than 20 years of research. With F4S you can set personal goals and AI Coach Marlee will provide recommendations to ensure your success.

If you think your toxic traits stem from trouble building relationships or communicating, you'd do well to go through Increase EQ. This coaching program will strengthen your emotional intelligence. You will increase your ability to express yourself and read how others are feeling.

If your attributes stem from a lack of confidence (like constant negativity), Personal Power will help you. You'll learn to stand up for yourself and prevent self-sabotage and negative self-talk. Plus, understand how to be competitive in a healthy and non-aggressive way, so you don't take on more toxic traits.

The programs only take two sessions each week, with 5-15 minute sessions. After 8 weeks, you'll have a new toolkit to face your life challenges with so you can develop healthier relationships.

Simply take the free F4S assessment. You'll gain instant access to your traits so that you can gain a deeper understanding of yourself. Then create a goal and start one of our free coaching programs so you can say goodbye to difficult personality traits and hurtful behaviors.

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How to deal with a toxic relationship

Here are some of the most reliable methods when dealing with a toxic relationship:

  • Empathy
  • Communication
  • Set boundaries
  • Limit interactions
  • Don't take it personally
  • Consider ending the relationship

A step by step guide to managing a toxic relationship:

1. Use empathy: Try to understand why the person is behaving that way. There might be something going on in their personal life that's causing them stress, and this difficult time might be impacting their behavior. A bit of empathy could go a long way.

2. Improve communication: Try to communicate openly and honestly with them. This won't always be possible or desirable, but it's worth a shot. Again, it could give you an insight into why they're acting that way and might help you build a useful connection with them.

3. Set boundaries: It's also important to set personal boundaries with a toxic person. If they're constantly interrupting you or crossing your boundaries, let them know calmly and assertively what behavior is acceptable and what isn't.

4. Limit your interactions: If that doesn't work, you can try to limit your interactions with them as much as possible. The less you're exposed to their toxic ways, the better.

5. Don't take it personally: It's easier said than done, but try not to take it personally. This person's behavior says more about them than you, and if you can navigate a difficult encounter with dignity and without getting upset, you'll come out of it in a better position.

6. End the relationship: Finally, if the situation is really bad, you might have to consider ending the current relationship. Nothing is worth sacrificing your wellbeing and mental health. You might even seek support from a mental health professional.

Most of us have had encounters with toxic people. And if you haven't, then chances are you'll encounter toxic relationships from time to time. This can manifest in all sorts of poor interpersonal conduct.

Dealing with a toxic person can be draining and frustrating, but these steps can make the situation better.

How can I prevent my own toxic traits from affecting my relationships?

In order to prevent your own toxic traits you must acknowledge them. Be honest about your shortcomings, seek feedback from others, and consciously work to change negative behaviors. Consider coaching programs that target specific traits you want to improve.

a woman is comforting a man with her arm wrapped around him as he works to change his toxic traits

Can toxic traits change over time?

Yes, toxic traits can change over time with self-awareness, effort, and a willingness to improve.

If you're worried about your own toxic traits, don't worry - we all have them to some extent. The key is to be aware of them, and make sure they're not running the show.

The first step is acknowledging that you might have some of these tendencies. If you're in denial about your personality traits, then there's no way you can change. So take a good hard look at yourself, and try to be honest about where you need to improve. It might even be worth asking a friend or coworker about it. Once you've done that, start making an effort to act differently. If you find yourself being passive-aggressive, start communicating openly and honestly instead. If you tend to tear people down, start practicing constructive criticism instead. It might not be easy at first, but stick at it.

People can learn healthier ways of interacting and develop more positive behaviors. For personalized advice and support, consider seeking help from mental health professionals or coaches who specialize in behavior change and relationship dynamics. You may well find that new friends enter your life, new opportunities open up, and better things start happening around you.

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