Most toxic people have undiagnosed personality disorders – narcissists, psychopaths, and sociopaths. They are the conscious abusers of this world. But I’ll just call them “toxic people” today.
One big red flag that you are dealing with a toxic person is the sign of projection when you try to share your feelings or hurts. Toxic people have little to no ability to self-reflect on their own actions, so they project everything back onto their target by blame-shifting [“the act of transferring responsibility for an error or problem to another“]. Add to that their love of drama and high-conflict… all. the. time. It’s no wonder victims feel like they are on a constant emotional roller coaster.
Personally, I’ve lost count of how many times I asked to get off that roller coaster. I am not alone. I hear from survivors who share, The highs [the good times] were really high but the lows [the bad times] were really low. He was like living with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I never knew who I would get. What kind of ‘mood’ he would be in. But I knew the hills were coming… just most times it was still a surprise when they hit again.
Sarah* is trying to tell Jason* how she feels about something that has happened. She assertively shares her feelings, using “I” statements, about things that were done or said that hurt or scared her.
Instead of responding with compassion or trying to understand, Jason’s immediate reaction is to say, well you do that all the time, too. Remember last week when you said…. and then tells Sarah that she has done the same exact thing herself, and certainly does not care about him and his feelings. Why should he now care about hers? She tries to explain again and again that she means no harm and just wants to share her feelings and get things resolved. But the whole thing ends up becoming a huge argument, where Jason’s yelling and she’s crying. He implies that she has evil thoughts and intentions when honestly she has never felt those things. It never crossed her mind. He threatens divorce. She eventually just gives up and hides away to cry.
She wonders “What the heck just happened?” She just wanted a normal conversation where she could share her feelings and be heard. But it has become her defending herself for something that is not true or something that happened years ago. She loves her husband very much and would never do anything to intentionally try to hurt him. She admits that she is imperfect but that doesn’t mean that she is doing anything hurtful on purpose.
I hear this same scenario over and over again from the abuse survivors that I know and speak to. The most profound thing I hear… and they don’t always say…. is… the toxic person…
“… thought my heart was evil.”
I have been there. I have felt that same feeling. It was implied and even said that I must have evil thoughts and attitudes towards others… when I do not!!
My motives were questioned when there were none!!
The toxic people in my life said I was hiding something. I was not!
They told other people that I “thought” or “said” things, that I didn’t. [Triangulation]
I genuinely have a good heart and do not want to do harm to anyone.
But there are people in this world… that project and blame and just do not care who they hurt. They do so to cover their own lies and dysfunction.
Put on the defense.
Wikipedia describes psychological projection as “a theory in psychology in which humans defend themselves against their own unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others. For example, a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude. It incorporates blame shifting.” (Source)
When a toxic person throws their behaviors and choices at you… implying that you are the one who is evil, thinking and doing bad things… it’s hard to know what to do. We are instantly put on the defense… while the whole kitchen sink is being thrown at us. Every little thing we ever did wrong.
That time you gave him a dirty look.
That time you danced (or spoke) with another man.
That time you didn’t call/email/text him right back… after he contacted you 10 times.
That time you broke up with him, very early in your relationship, because you needed time to think. Time to deal with other issues.
That time you got angry and called him a mean name.
That one time you bounced a check.
That time you didn’t do exactly what he said…
These are all incidents that will be brought back up when you try to explain a hurt that you have about his actions or words. When he cheats. When he calls you mean names over and over again. When he runs up the credit cards or is in collections. When he threatens to divorce you during every single argument. You are instantly and maliciously put on the defense.
It is not healthy.
What does healthy look like?
The best way to know if you are dealing with a toxic person is to look at your healthy relationships (if you have any). How is an issue handled by those people?
If you can go to someone and say, this is how I am feeling about ______ (whatever). And their response is to listen, try to understand, not react (most of the time), not lie/make up stories/cover-up, and definitely not shift the blame onto you or someone else… then you have a mostly healthy person. No one is perfect, but we should all be striving to be healthy.
Healthy people try to understand your heart. They listen to your needs and feelings in order to try to understand. They want to create a healthy, safe, and peaceful environment for all.
A toxic person is incapable of understanding your heart… and only projects his evil heart onto you. They cannot see what they do not possess. Nor do they want to.
Have the toxic people in your life dismissed your feelings and minimized their dysfunctional behaviors?
God bless your healing journey,
*These names do not represent anyone incident, set of people, day, or time.
These are patterns from my own marriage. I didn’t really even see them. But I definitely felt alone and unloved a lot. Not heard. Like my heart didn’t matter. It became my normal. I tried to make up for the deficiencies by loving him harder and trying to earn his approval. When I faced accusations I began to lash out at him. I could not take the pain any longer (Im working through that in therapy)
I was not enough and too much for him. Too needy, too emotional, not fun, lazy, not thin enough, not parenting our children to his expectations. It was like I didn’t measure up to a standard I didn’t even know existed.
I didn’t know. I really didn’t know that this was a form of abuse.
Thank you for sharing your journey and wisdom with us.
My heart Is on this healing path. I don’t know how long it will take, but I know it will be beautiful.
Jen Grice says
Can totally relate Pam. You’re welcome!
Wonderful post, Jen! I shared it to a number of Pinterest Group boards as well as saving it to a couple of my own. I cannot relate to your devastating marriage struggles with a toxic person, but my hubby (who is a good, godly man) has a very toxic family and I have a member in my immediate family who is toxic as well–all of which have given us hell over the past several years with some of the trials we’ve endured. My husband thought it was the “Christian thing” to reach them and to be salt and light and that they were just a thorn in his side that he would have to endure. But then we both realized that Jesus Himself had to walk away from His own family and that sometimes that thorn is stuck in our side because we leave it there and not because it’s what God truly desires. I write about faith and chronic illness and have recently delved into more on the topic of family dysfunction, discerning safe people, etc. because of what we have endured.
Your article (and others) have me thinking about personality disorders and how there seems to be something uniquely different with some of them than with some other mental health disorders and that is this: it seems like the individual’s conscience is more seared. If we all have the law written on our hearts as it mentions in the Bible, but yet, someone with these personality disorders cannot self-examine, apologize, change their behavior, and really–have a moral grounding–then would it not stand to reason that they have their consciences more seared than some others? Just a thought I’ve been pondering…
It can’t go without saying that I’m truly sorry for your own mental hell, Jen, but I thank you for taking the time to share your heart and wisdom from your dark night of the soul. I can only imagine the torment you’ve endured from living in that toxic environment for so long. Thank you again for speaking out!
Jen Grice says
Thank you for sharing! God has used all of the bad from my past to help others. Genesis 50:20, as well as Joseph’s life story, inspires me to keep walking in God’s purpose. He truly is the Redeemer, of all of the evil (and evil people) in this world.
The very sad part of reading this is that towards the end when I was ready to leave without no one knowing I started responding in this toxic manner towards him “wanting to express his feelings or asking me to fix our marriage” he would say “you need to fix this”. This read brought conviction to my heart, made me realize that being in a 20+ years with a toxic person one can start gaining the some of the same traits. It makes sense of why I felt like pulling my skin off many times there was so much conflict in me when I would act out and scream at him out of frustration and I would project as well. I’ve dug deep inside my heart in the last few months and I have to repent of any toxic traits in me. I don’t want to be toxic and I want to be able to just cleanse of that horrible experience and just be a better person. I ask God to change me and help me discover who I am not who I became in that relationship. It’s so hard to express how I really feel but eventually I’ll be delivered. Breakthrough is coming.
I am going through this right now. What I read above is exactly what is happening, and I have not been able to identify it as abuse until now. I am destroyed inside. He keeps me off balance, then lashes out and turns an entire conversation around on me.. I am exhausted trying to resolve anything. Even the smallest thing turns into this monstrous fight. I am on the defense almost immediately because he turns it around and blames me for everything! These conflicts have gotten so bad that I have shut down my emotions and have no feelings for him anymore, except contempt. When I told him that I have been empty for a long time, he told me that I should just leave then, and go live with my mother. He puts words in my mouth and says I was thinking that, or that is what it means when I say whatever- fill in the blank. My head just spins trying to keep up with the accusations. Today I told him I want him to go to counseling. He refuses to go to counselling by himself, replying with a flat out NO. No reason, just no. He said “Why should I go”? I said “to work on yourself”. That is what I am doing, and have always done but he refuses to go.. He said would only go to couples counselling. In the past he has manipulated them and made me look like a fool. He somehow made himself look like he was a good husband, and I left me wondering what our problems really were. Today he brings up things, to accuse me, saying the counselors said that, but was not true, and never happened. How do you reconcile that? he lies!! He twists! He manipulates the conversation, until it is all me treating HIM so badly!! Then I am called evil and hateful and other names I cannot repeat here. It is exhausting. I fee so hopeless, I never wanted an divorce, I have done everything I know to avoid that.. This has been 33 years of toxicity and Until this past year and a half I have thought it was me, that I was the problem; because he tells me that all the time. He refuses to look at himself or try to get help for himself, because he does not acknowledge what he is doing or that he has faults, ever. I know this, It cannot be all me. Please pray for me. I feel so lost. I honestly don’t know where to go from here and I am afraid to take a step. .