I'm The Problem, It's Me: 10 Signs You're A Toxic Person & How To Change

Toxicity: Sometimes it feels like it's all around us. From those friends who are constantly stirring up drama to colleagues who are always cultivating office intrigue to relatives who are perpetually nursing grudges, life can often feel like one big melodrama.

But while toxicity can be easy to recognize in other people, unfortunately, it's not always so easy to recognize in ourselves. The reality, though, is that it can be frighteningly easy to slip into toxic behavior patterns without even realizing it.

In fact, these toxic habits frequently emerge as an unhealthy response to trauma or stress. They're often a sign that we simply don't have the coping skills we need to deal with this rough and tumble thing we call life. The good news, however, is that it is possible to break the pattern of toxicity in your own life. It begins by recognizing the signs and learning to replace unhealthy coping mechanisms with healthy and productive ones.

You're always focusing on the negative

One of the first and most significant signs that you've fallen into a toxic pattern is unremitting pessimism. Toxic people can take even the happiest and most hopeful of events and turn them negative. They have a special knack for seeing the downside of every situation.

That's because when you're in a toxic pattern, almost everything in your life is a cause for worry. Getting ready to celebrate a milestone birthday? When you're toxic, all you'll be able to think about is the fact you're growing older. Just learned your best friend is getting married? You'll obsess over the idea of being alone for the rest of your life. Just got a promotion and pay raise? You're going to complain endlessly about the longer work hours and higher taxes. 

And it all comes down, once again, to unhealthy coping. When you don't know how to deal with life's challenges and feel powerless in the face of stress or hardship, your defense mechanism is to ruminate on them. It's as if by fixating on them, you can take away some of their power to hurt you — or at least to catch you by surprise. But what you're really doing is giving those threats (real or imagined) your power, letting them control you and steal your joy. And, in the process, you're becoming toxic.

You find other people's success threatening

Just as toxic people see threats in every life event, even the most seemingly happy ones, they also find danger in other people, including those closest to them. And that means that, no matter how much you may care for a person, you're always going to feel an undercurrent of competition with them.

That thread of perpetual competitiveness means that toxic people are almost always threatened by other people's success. This can be especially true when it's a close friend or family member who's thriving. After all, when you're close to someone, there's a good chance you run in the same social circles, and that means that when your friends and family are shining the spotlight on them, you're likely to feel overshadowed in turn. And that sense of being relegated to the shadows can be both intolerable and infuriating when you're toxic.

One reason is that when you're in a toxic pattern, you often perceive life as a zero-sum game — if someone else wins, you inevitably lose. There's simply not enough money, rewards, fame, praise, or glory to go around. And, at the root of all this, not surprisingly, is often insecurity. When you're not secure in yourself, you need external things to validate you, to give you a sense of self, purpose, and value. Whether that validation comes in the form of accolades or attention, insecurity makes toxic people yearn to be at the center of everything, always.

You're always the victim

When you're eternally anxious, insecure, and beset with bad coping skills, you're pretty much powerless in your life. And that means that you're always going to be the victim. Everything negative that occurs in your life, whether a fight with the in-laws or a problem at work, is always the other person's fault. And, when you're in a toxic pattern, the first thing you're going to do is proclaim your victimhood far and wide.

The fact is, accountability is not the toxic person's strong suit. And, to escape accountability, many toxic people go through life collecting grievances, dwelling on who's "wronged" them, and broadcasting those perceived wrongs to the whole world. They're also champions at holding a grudge, even when the supposed offender has no idea they've hurt or angered the other person. This makes maintaining a healthy relationship with someone who has a victim complex exhausting.

Very often, playing the victim is far easier than standing up and taking responsibility for your life, your choices, and your role in both positive and negative events. This is particularly true when you're already an intrinsically anxious and insecure person with poor coping skills. It's easier to place blame and deflect responsibility — to play the victim, in other words — than to stand up, own up, and deal like a grown-up.

You punish people when you don't get your way

When you're in a toxic pattern, control is everything. What better way, after all, to deal with insecurity and anxiety than by trying to micromanage everything and everyone in your life? And that often means domination by any means necessary — hence the incessant drama that characterizes toxic personalities. Toxic people love to bully others into compliance.

So they'll pout, cry, rage, or unleash some other emotional outburst until everyone around acquiesces. They're masters at emotional manipulation and will exploit others' fear, guilt, and shame to get what they want. And that's not all: In their feverish drive to control their world (and appease their own insecurity and anxiety in the process), they'll make examples of those they can't bully into submission by "punishing" them in some way.

From ghosting a partner to freezing out a colleague at work to endlessly badmouthing a relative, not only will the "offending" person endure the wrath of the toxic person for their failure to submit, but the offender will also be used as an example to others:  Don't tick off the toxic person or the same will happen to you. It's an emotionally, mentally, and socially destructive pattern that toxic people fall into in a misguided attempt to control every aspect of their world and everyone in it.

You're super critical

There is a lot of fear underlying toxic behavior patterns. You can't really escape the insecurity and anxiety that shape toxicity, but there's also often another layer. Toxic people can be pretty narcissistic and feel superior. Often, that arrogance masks the underlying insecurity, an overcompensation to hide and deny (even to themselves) low self-worth. 

Sometimes, though, those superior airs are legit — that arrogance is straight-up narcissism, a sincere belief that they know better, do better, and are better than everyone else. Either way, it's a pathological pattern of belief that gives rise to toxic behavior and, more specifically, to incredible judgmental thoughts and behavior.

Toxic people always think they know best. In keeping with their bullying tendencies, they'll not only judge everything others do but also tell them about it — and often will get furiously angry if their "advice" isn't taken. And because they feel they have the right and the authority to control their world and everyone in it, they're not good at minding their own business. They'll stick their nose into other people's lives and try to take control of every situation, whether it involves them or not.

The drama never ends

Perhaps not surprisingly, toxic behavior patterns don't exactly lend themselves to peace and serenity. In fact, if you find yourself constantly on the outs with some person or another, that's a pretty classic sign that you've fallen into toxicity. Toxic people have more than their fair share of drama in their lives — and it's because they create it. From manufacturing conflict to cultivating perceived wrongs, toxic people are constantly embroiled in some tragedy.

And once again, it all comes down to insecurity, anxiety, and control. Drama gives toxic people something to focus their attention on and allows them to play the victim. This gratifies their need to always be the center of everyone's attention while at the same time distracting them from other sources of worry that are beyond their powers to control or predict.

Above all, drama keeps the quiet at bay, and for toxic people, quiet is the greatest danger of all. When your mind is still, and you're not ruminating on an argument or broadcasting your troubles far and wide, all you have left to confront is yourself. That's a terrifying prospect when you're in a toxic pattern because, deep down, you're afraid of what you might learn about yourself, your power, and your worth when you no longer have all that manufactured drama to distract you.

You have trouble controlling your emotions

When you've fallen into a toxic pattern, the drama you create is real. You might not be using emotional outbursts to manipulate others, after all — at least not consciously. Your outbursts may be sincere, even if they're not really rational. This is called "emotional dysregulation" and often "may interfere with your quality of life, social interactions, and relationships at home, work, or school," according to WebMD.

The ability to regulate your feelings and emotions is a part of being a healthy, functioning adult. It's a capacity that people don't develop until they're mature, generally not until the brain stops developing in a person's mid-20s. This is why toddlers throw temper tantrums, and teenagers are notoriously tempestuous creatures. But when you've fallen into a toxic pattern, emotional regulation generally flies right out the window. After all, as we've seen, insecurity, anxiety, and poor coping are often at the heart of toxic behavior. And you can't expect to be truly in control of your emotions if you're any of these things.

To be emotionally regulated, you have to have the certainty that you will be able to deal with it no matter what life brings. You also have to have the maturity to recognize that you can't control everything that happens in your life, but you can control how you respond. The capacity to relinquish the futile and childish effort to dominate your external reality and to embrace accountability for your internal realm, thoughts, actions, and responses is the sign of a healthy, functioning adult — and it's antithetical to toxicity.

Gossip is your superpower

Toxic people don't just love to always be up in other people's business, but they also love spreading the word. In fact, for many toxic people, gossip is the only type of conversation they're really interested in or capable of. If you can relate and stick to the belief that gossip has more benefits than negatives, you may be heading into the realms of toxicity. 

After all, toxic people aren't just afraid of themselves and their lack of self-worth. They're also afraid that others are going to learn their dirty little secret: They don't have much to say because, really, they don't feel as though they are smart, interesting, or important on their own.

But gossip is a way toxic people deflect attention from those secret truths they really don't want anyone to know while at the same time elevating themselves, making themselves look more informed and astute — and just more fun to be around. Then, of course, there's the added bonus of making their own lives look better by spreading the word of another person's mess — real or fictitious or something in between.

Your friendships have a short expiration date

Not surprisingly, when you're a toxic person who lives for gossip, sooner or later, you're going to develop a reputation for untrustworthiness. But that's not the only poison dart that will infect your relationships.

You may be considered a toxic person if you aren't good at maintaining relationships. In fact, it's probably the defining characteristic of toxicity. When you're in a toxic pattern, your relationships often burn hot and quickly flame out. In keeping with the melodramatic tendencies of the toxic person, they're often quick to fall head over heels in love or to turn an acquaintance into a bestie, only to fall out with them just as quickly.

There are lots of reasons for this, of course. As we've seen, the deep-seated insecurity of a toxic person means that they're always on the hunt for external validation. So they crave the thrill of a new friendship or hot new romance when they're in the first flush of infatuation. That's when new friends and partners alike find you dazzling. But when relationships begin to ripen into something deeper and real, that's when toxic people panic and, often, self-sabotage. However, they're likely to believe unconsciously that it's better to go ahead and blow up a relationship than let their friend or partner discover who they "really" are.

Hostility and distrust are your default

When you're in a toxic pattern, as we've seen, you find threats everywhere — to your well-being, your place in the world, and your ego. So it's perhaps not surprising that toxic people take a pretty dim view of humanity.

And that means that your default setting may be hostility and distrust. If you're toxic, you require constant reassurance from those around you that you are still the center and that your status will not be usurped or compromised. You may feel that you will, in fact, continue to toe the line and submit to what makes you feel comfortable — or at least affirmed — in your view of the world and your position in it.

But when a toxic person doesn't receive this constant validation and unquestioning compliance, that's when the hostility and distrust kick in. After all, when control is your coping mechanism, albeit an unhealthy one, anybody who threatens that or makes you feel vulnerable is bound to feel like an enemy, one who will automatically trigger all your worst instincts — paranoia, intimidation, and recriminations.

Break old patterns

Given the profound impact that toxicity can have on your life and relationships, it can feel like a prison that's nearly impossible to escape. The good news, though, is that you can break free. It may not be easy, and it won't happen overnight. You didn't develop this pattern instantaneously, and you won't break it that way, either. But you can take a critical first step by changing your behaviors and assuming responsibility for your actions.

Leaving behind your toxic self means changing both the way you think and the way you act. Have friends call you out when you gossip, criticize, or emotionally manipulate others. And when they do, resist your instinct to self-defend, rationalize, blame, or attack. Instead, accept, acknowledge, and take accountability. Perhaps even more importantly, in addition to having your inner circle hold you accountable, you must work on holding yourself accountable.

A thought journal (or thought record) is a great place to start. This technique is used in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help people keep track of their self-talk, including the negative thoughts that they're often unaware of. With a thought record, you can learn to identify your negative and intrusive thoughts, challenge them, and replace them with truer, healthier, and more productive ones. Thought records also help you learn your triggers, the people, and the situations that incite your most toxic behaviors. Once you're aware of what your triggers are, you can begin to formulate healthier alternatives.

Stop focusing on yourself

As we've seen, toxic behaviors are often the result of poor coping skills. They often derive from insecurity, anxiety, and, yes, sometimes also from narcissism. And what that means is that when you're a toxic person, you're also likely to be profoundly self-absorbed. Life revolves around assuaging your self-doubt, quieting your innermost fears by manufacturing drama, and feeding your ravenous ego by ensuring no one ever steals your spotlight.

But if you learn to turn your focus outward, you're not going to have the time — and eventually, you won't have the need or the interest — to be so fixated on yourself. Instead, you'll learn to become more empathetic and altruistic. You'll learn to think of others not only as they relate to you (either affirming or threatening you) but for themselves, as human beings and individuals worthy of love, respect, and care in their own right.

So spend some time volunteering at a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, an animal rescue, etc. There's no better way to learn and understand that the world really doesn't revolve around you. In fact, life really isn't all about you.

Seek professional help

We know that toxicity, however it manifests, is often about not having the coping skills you need to get through this tough old world of ours. It's frequently about not having the resilience to bounce back after you've hit a rough patch. And sometimes, those rough patches are so tough that they'd be beyond anyone's capacity to endure without some help.

Toxicity, in other words, can be about fear, stress, and pain — and often, all of that rises to the level of trauma. When toxic patterns evolve from deeper emotional and psychological issues, such as underlying depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder, you shouldn't expect yourself to go it alone.

Seeking out professional mental health resources will enable you to address the roots of the problem and understand why you act — and react — in the ways you do. A counselor can help you heal from the trauma of your past, address the fears and insecurities that are holding you back and harming your relationships, and learn to love and believe in yourself again — or perhaps for the first time. And once you know how to do that, your toxic impulses will begin to melt away.