Toxicity exists on a spectrum. People who engage in a few of these behaviors in certain circumstances are not always malignant predators. However, if someone engages in these behaviors chronically with the intent to harm and with little to no admission of their own wrongdoing, there is a high chance you’re dealing with a highly manipulative and toxic individual.
Many malignant narcissists, for example, use most, if not all of the behaviors listed and more to diminish their victims. Whether you’re dealing with a garden-variety jerk or a predatory psychopath depends on the frequency of the behaviors as well as the ways in which that person approaches accountability. If you find that they are unwilling to change their toxic behaviors and actually take pleasure in engaging in them, you might be dealing with someone who is character-disordered. Here are fifty signs you’re dealing with a highly toxic person:
1. They criticize to nitpick and demean you, not to empower you. Highly toxic people don’t give constructive criticism as a way to help you – they throw nuggets of disdain rather than wisdom your way in order to make you double your efforts to please them. They stage personal attacks on your character or develop a hyperfocus on irrelevant things, sometimes even fabricated flaws, to evoke insecurity in you.
2. They give unsolicited advice, especially in situations where it is inappropriate to do so or about matters you’ve made clear are none of their business. Giving unsolicited advice enables a toxic person to feel in control and smug. Most of their unsolicited advice is usually not even helpful, and is doled out as a way to distract you from your progress.
3. They enjoy raining on your parade. Toxic people like bringing little tempests of debasing comments whenever they see you’re that you’re proud of yourself or feeling especially happy. It’s usually because they’re envious.
4. They frequently play devil’s advocate especially when it’s unnecessary. They tend to do this with regards to issues that are deeply personal to you and touch on your core values, belief systems, life experiences and moral codes. For example, a highly toxic person might try to dismiss a trauma you’ve gone through by arguing that it’s not really a trauma at all. They may get into useless discussions about whether everyone should have equal rights and whether proven facts are truly legitimate. This is not done with the intention of adding to the discussion, but to provoke you and warp your sense of security about your perspectives.
5. They copy your mannerisms, your work, your behavior, anything they covet. In this context, imitation is not the highest form of flattery, because they do it so often you feel like a part of you is being “stolen.” They are identity thieves in that they steal facets of your personality for their own. They are always “watching” to see what other attribute they can take from you. They have no core sense of self, so they’d prefer to mimic the qualities they know make you likeable and victorious.
6. They rage excessively when challenged. When done by a pathological person, this is what is known as narcissistic rage. It occurs when a person feels slighted or when they feel their sense of superiority is negated in any way. Raging at the perceived offender allows the toxic person to reclaim some measure of control and reaffirms their sense of superiority.
7. They guilt you when they don’t get what they want. Since they feel excessively entitled to everything, they feel they need to coerce you into getting the outcome they desire.
8. After mistreating you, they try to get you to feel sorry for them. These pity ploys are a way for them to skirt responsibility and have you work hard to please them instead.
9. They rarely take accountability for their actions or say sorry. Apologizing would mean sharing in the consequences for their behavior or taking part in evolving from it. That’s why toxic people rarely do it.
10. If they do apologize, it’s usually to get you to forgive them. There’s no change in their behavior accompanying the apology. In fact, they may even continue the same behavior with even more force after you’ve pointed it out.
11. They act superior to you and treat you with contempt, as if you were below them in some way. Toxic people believe that others exist to serve them and that they deserve to be the center of attention. They do not like seeing the success of others nor do they want to feel as if someone could possibly surpass them in any way. When they see someone with qualities and strengths that threaten to take the attention away from them, they do not hesitate in humiliating, shaming or tearing down that individual to put him or her back in “their place.”
12. They use chronic, vitriolic sarcasm. This form of sarcasm is not employed as a way to playfully build rapport as some people use it, but as a way to demean you and make you feel small.
13. They attempt to sabotage you in areas where they know you’re flourishing. Whether it’s creating chaos before a major job interview or ruining a celebration, toxic people are always on the lookout for how they can prevent you from achieving a level of success and joy that could threaten to overtake their power over you.
14. They call you names and verbally abuse you. These are traumatic shortcuts to control your behavior. Toxic people know that if they repeat something long enough, you’ll start to internalize it. Verbal abuse acts as a portal to erode your identity and self-esteem.
15. They attempt to micromanage your life. They may try to control where you go and who you see. They might try to place undue pressures or demands that take up your time so that you’re unable to pursue the dreams or support networks that they know are outside of their psychological jurisdiction.
16. They take over your finances, your career and demand a portion of what you’ve earned for themselves. Agency, independence and the ability to thrive on your own terms is very threatening to a toxic individual. Toxic people require that their victims be isolated; success, economic empowerment and a solid support network all threaten this, so they feel they have to take back the reins on the parts of your life that grant you a sense of stability and self-actualization.
17. They compete with you rather than celebrate your accomplishments. At first, toxic individuals may exhibit a starry-eyed admiration of your achievements. However, these same achievements come under extreme scrutiny as they work to use them for their own agenda or diminish them as a way to feel superior.
18. They project their own shame into you. If you evoke in them a sense of inadequacy – even without meaning to – they’ll suddenly go into an epic rant and rave, defending themselves with an excessive amount of force. You’re left dumbfounded as to why they’re so invested in proving themselves and why they’re so intent on attacking you, when in reality, their reactions have little to do with you and everything to do with their own egotistical delusions.
19. They project their own malignant qualities onto you. Everything that makes them toxic (their rage, their envy, their selfishness) is assigned to you as they try to paint you as the unhinged one.
20. They gaslight you. They make you believe that you are unable to see your own reality clearly. They deny abusive things they’ve said or done. This sudden “abuse amnesia” works to undercut your perceptions and make you doubt yourself.
21. They engage in pathological lying and infidelity. Lying comes easily to them and so does betrayal. They engage in a number of indiscretions and affairs, all while leading a double life. Their public image and facade rarely match the person they really are behind closed doors.
22. They exaggerate your flaws to the point of absurdity. This is meant to leave you feeling hopeless and worthless so that you are unable to self-validate. When you’re too busy feeling unworthy, you’re also too busy to realize that you deserve better.
23. Meanwhile, they dismiss your good qualities and all you’ve done to help them. You only seem to get “credit” for what the toxic person thinks you’ve done wrong. You feel as if you can never quite measure up to whatever arbitrary standards or expectations they’ve set for you. That’s because they’d never want you to feel sure of yourself – they want you to keep trying to please them so that you’ll never work to please yourself.
24. They don’t take ownership over their own problems; they expect you to clean up after them and fix their lives. Highly toxic people never want to be held responsible for being adults; they want to be coddled like children. If they made a mistake, they’ll inevitably scapegoat you and claim you’re the problem.
25. They blame you for parts of their lives that they are responsible for taking care of. Their various addictions, failures, shortcomings all get served on your plate – along with the check. It’s as if they expect you to pay the price for their own omissions and struggles.
26. They are hypersensitive to any feedback you give them, even if it’s done gently. Meanwhile, they have no problem giving you plenty of “feedback” in terms of what they perceive is wrong about you.
27. They exhibit hot and cold behavior. One minute they’re love-bombing you with excessive praise, and the next they’re withdrawing from you as if you were the plague. These intermittent periods of kindness mixed with cruelty are a set-up to get you addicted to the crazymaking cycle of their abuse.
28. They subject you to the silent treatment (and there’s no good reason for it). They subject you to unpredictable periods of silence where they do not interact with you at all; it’s as if you cease to exist, even if you’re in an intimate relationship. The silent treatment is harmful because it affects the same area of the brain that registers physical pain. The silent treatment allows them space to commit whatever treason they’re engaging in behind your back while making you feel undesirable – it also helps them to evade any discussions about their unacceptable behavior.
29. They show no empathy for you when you’re suffering. These sadistic individuals are indifferent to your suffering; they lack empathy and some even take pleasure in seeing you suffer. The most malignant of narcissists even drive their victims to suicide.
30. They abandon you in times of illness or when you need them – even though you’ve always been there for them. This is done with a cruel and callous indifference that is unsettling. They show little to no concern for your welfare or your basic needs. They are too inherently selfish to look after you like the way you’ve looked after them.
31. They attempt to fast-forward intimacy with you without getting to know you – physically and emotionally. Whether it’s sex or your deepest secrets, toxic people try to push you to divulge and disclose early on so they can take inventory of your weak spots and exploit you.
32. They’re the fair-weather friend who’s always there when things are great but never when you need their support. When life is going well and you have everything going for you, they always seem to come around to leech off your newfound resources. When you want them to help out in an emergency or just need a listening ear, however, they’re nowhere to be found.
33. They piggyback on your success and take credit for your ideas. Toxic individuals feel they don’t have to work hard for what they want. They’d prefer to take it from others who’ve already done the work.
34. They judge your life decisions. This is done in a way that is vicious, cruel, unhelpful, excessive and unwarranted. If you feel uncertain about making decisions, you’re unable to trust yourself. Negating self-trust acts as leverage for a toxic person to step in and exercise their power over you.
35. They rarely provide emotional validation – every word out of their mouth tends to pick at your emotions. They question why you’re feeling the way you are rather than accepting it and creating space for it. By invalidating and pathologizing your emotions, they ensure that you never learn to listen to your inner guidance.
36. They cry crocodile tears when they need something or as faux remorse. Otherwise, they’re rarely emotional. In fact, most of the time, you can’t even sense fear, anxiety, or empathy from them.
37. They “hoover” you after mistreating you. Like a hoover vacuum, they suck you back into their toxic vortex even after the ending of the relationship, friendship or partnership. They do so by contacting you out of the blue just when you’re finally moving on. Once they get what they want from you, they leave and you may not hear from them from quite some time. At least, not unless they need you for something else, in which case, they tend to come crawling back.
38. They use you for your resources but are stingy with their own. Money, shelter, sex, social networks – they want access to all of yours. However, when it comes to their own resources and connections, they tend to be a lot more reserved.
39. They withhold acknowledgment and appreciation. You could bend over backwards fulfilling each and every one of their requests, and still not feel appreciated by them. They don’t appreciate what you do for them, but they keep you around to keep tapping into whatever it is you’re providing.
40. They’re conversational narcissists, constantly talking about themselves and rarely asking how you’re doing. When you finally try to get a word in, suddenly they’re cold and unresponsive. Or, they turn the conversation back to themselves.
41. They gossip about people and engage in relational aggression. They enjoy pitting people against one another. They like spreading rumors. They thrive off of excluding people and socially ostracizing those they feel threaten their power or evoke their envy. They assassinate your character both publicly and privately (the latter ensures you don’t catch on). They want to feel like they are the ones in control of managing everyone’s image so that they come out on top.
42. They recruit allies or flying monkeys to enable their behavior and carry out some of their dirty work for them. They wouldn’t want to get caught – so they keep their hands clean and allow their harem members to support them instead.
43. They spread misinformation about you and spread smear campaigns to undercut your credibility. This way, if you ever speak out about their behavior, fewer people would believe you.
44. They covertly and overtly insult you. This includes harsh remarks disguised as “jokes,” backhanded compliments, and needless comparisons that diminish you. Victims of toxic people tend to struggle with self-doubt and ruminations over these insults, and it’s no wonder why. These insults become ingrained in your psyche and lead to self-sabotage.
45. They withhold affection – for no apparent reason. Most people withdraw from being affectionate due to some sort of conflict. Toxic people do it so they can play puppeteer to your emotions.
46. They use sex to degrade, objectify and control you rather than as a way to connect with you. Sex is a power play to them, another instrument to feed their grandiose fantasies.
47. They stonewall you and shut down conversations before they’ve even had the chance to begin. That way, you never get to have a voice in the relationship. Your desires or basic needs never even enter the picture.
48. They idealize you, putting you on a pedestal, only to devalue the same qualities they once praised. Throwing you off the pedestal has the effect of making you work hard to get back on it. Meanwhile, they sit back, relax, and enjoy the show of making you pine for their approval.
49. They discard you once they’re done with you and quickly move onto another replacement, triangulating you with others to make you feel unworthy – and to compel you to compete for their attention.
50. They constantly shift the goal posts so what you do or who you are is perceived to never be enough.
Shahida Arabi is the author of POWER: Surviving and Thriving After Narcissistic Abuse.