We are all aware that some people can be toxic to be around. They have a negative effect on us, even when we are doing something that is supposed to be fun. We always end up feeling worse about ourselves when we have been in their company. Toxic people can appear to be popular and can gather together in groups, but no one feels very safe or comfortable in their presence, and even the in crowd can be filled with anxious, unsettled people, not sure when they might be on the receiving end of toxicity.
But what if we are a toxic person, even though we are also Christians? How can we recognise toxicity in ourselves and do something about it with God’s help, so that we are a source of healing and encouragement to others, and not of harm and distress?
Here are 10 signs that we are sometimes toxic and are in danger of becoming a toxic person. Along with each sign we can reflect on what our Christian faith teaches us. We can do toxic things sometimes and that does not make us a toxic person, especially when we become aware of this and do something about it. But if we do not reflect on our attitudes, words and behaviour then these ways of thinking and acting can become habitual and our toxicity affects everything we do and all of our relationships.
Consider honestly whether or not any of these signs apply to you, and especially if they are a habit. The Christian life leads us out of toxicity, and if we are committed to becoming the person that God has uniquely created us to be then every toxic characteristic needs to be identified, repented of, and resisted.
#1. When you talk about people you usually criticise them or make fun of them.
When we talk about other people, whether to their face or behind their back, then our words have an effect. When we criticise others, we make them feel small, and often humiliate them. It is just as harmful when we speak in such a way to another group. It leaves those we talk about unsure who also thinks they are only worth laughing at. Can you remember recently being in a group of people and running someone else down. That is toxicity. Can you remember telling someone recently that the way they were dressed, or something they had done, was ridiculous or foolish? That is toxicity.
Our words matter. The Lord Jesus says, “by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Our words will not be forgotten unless we repent of them, especially when they cause harm and hurt to others. At the end of each day, we should think about what we have said and how we have said it, and we should repent and treat such conversation as sin. There is no need to criticise others and certainly not to make fun of them. When we do this at the expense of other people, then we are being toxic.
#2. You have sometimes thought or said that people close to you need to be taught a lesson.
We can often be upset or disappointed by people. Even our close friends can seem to let us down. But when we say to ourselves that we need to teach them a lesson, then we are becoming toxic, and if we put such an idea into practice then there is something seriously harmful about us. Such an attitude fails to take into account the fact that we also very often let other people down. When we think that we need to teach other people a lesson then we are acting as though there is nothing wrong with us, and only other people are at fault. It represents a failure to be empathetic to others and to judge ourselves first.
We must not think that we should teach others a lesson. This is to judge them. The Lord Jesus says, “Do not judge, so that you will not be judged. For with whatever judgment you judge other people, you will be judged in the same way.” Our self-righteous judgementalism will not be forgotten, unless we repent of it. If we ever hear ourselves say the words or think the thought, I am going to teach them a lesson, then we must confess this as sin. We will be judged when we make ourselves the judge of others. Instead, we must try to excuse others. We must consider in an empathetic manner why they were not able to do what we expected. There is no need to want to teach others a lesson. When we think we are justified, then we are toxic.
#3. It seems that people keep dropping out of relationships with you.
It is normal that some of our relationships grow cooler, and the people we are close to quite naturally changes over the course of our lives. But there is a difference between our friendships changing with our circumstances, and people deliberately choosing to have less to do with us. We will probably make many excuses why people who were once our friends no longer want to spend time with us, and we can end up blaming them and judging them in a toxic manner that will not help us. If we are honest, then we will be able to see that it has been our toxic words and behaviour which has forced people to stop hanging around with us for their own sake.
If we are losing close friends, then we need to consider our own behaviour and not only and immediately blame them. St Paul says, “what communion has light with darkness?” If we are toxic, in the way we speak, and our attitudes and behaviour to others, then this is a form of darkness. Someone who is trying hard enough as it is to become alive in Christ, and be filled with light and life, will not be able to enjoy our company. It will be painful to them, and they will make excuses to avoid us. If we find that people are not comfortable with us, other than those who share the same sort of critical and negative attitudes to others, then perhaps we are toxic.
#4. You tend to blame other people for all of your problems.
There are certainly times when other people can cause us problems. But there is a Christian way of dealing with this in which we excuse and forgive them, because we are aware that we also cause problems. But if we are toxic then we don’t really think that we are to blame at all. Even the smallest inconvenience becomes a matter of betrayal and offence. More than that, when something happens in our life, if we are toxic, then we easily find someone else to blame.
We can take time to reflect on our thoughts and attitudes every day. Do we find ourselves saying, I could have done that if it wasn’t for him! Or that was all her fault! These are signs of toxicity. This is especially the case when the people we blame are hardly connected with whatever we think has gone wrong. To blame other people when it is not really their fault, and to refuse to forgive those who have caused us some problem, is toxic. The Lord Jesus, while being crucified on the cross, says, “Father, forgive the, they do not know what they are doing.” This is the way we can also escape toxic thoughts, words and behaviour and the habit of blaming others for whatever happens in our life.
#5. You spend a lot of time gossiping about other people
Do you spend much of your time gossiping about others, either when in a group, in a coffee bar, or gathered after Church, or through social media, in closed groups that others are excluded from? This is toxic behaviour, and harmful to others, causing even such serious outcomes as eating disorders and even suicide. Gossiping about people is never neutral, and never just a matter of fun. It dehumanises other people and makes them just objects of our critical attention.
The St Paul says of these sorts of toxic people, “they learn to be idle, wandering about from house to house, and not only idle but also gossips and busybodies, saying things which they ought not.” St Paul also wrote about the toxic people in Corinth and said, “I am afraid that somehow there may be quarrelling, jealousy, intense anger, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder.” Gossip is serious. It is counted together with murder and depravity. If we have gossiped recently then we are in danger. St Paul says other those who gossip, “they have no understanding, no faithfulness, no love, no mercy.” Gossiping is toxic and a sign that we are or are becoming a toxic person. If we have spoken about another person in gossip, then we have sinned, and we must repent, seeking to gain control of our attitudes towards others.
#6. You are always demanding other people’s attention and demand it immediately.
Everyone needs to have the attention of others from time to time. We all need to be encouraged and supported in generous relationships with others. But if we are toxic then we are not generous at all. Our relationships are based on what we can get out of them and from other people. We want to be the centre of attention. We do not like it when others are talking and when others are making people laugh. All the time that others are speaking we are thinking of what we can say, and how we can wrestle the attention back to ourselves. We even begin to feel angry and resentful that we are not the focus of everyone’s admiring looks and comments. But such an attitude is toxic. It shows that we are not really interested in other people apart from how they can serve our own needs.
Putting ourselves first all the time is toxic and draining for other people. The Lord Jesus says, “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” The more we think of ourselves the more toxic we become. The Christian is called to give space to others, to speak less, to make opportunities for others to be the centre of attention. We have hope to overcome this toxic focus on ourselves if we are still able to see that this is what we are doing each day.
#7. You often gaslight other people and make them feel bad when you are at fault.
We know what it means to gaslight someone. It is a modern term for a behaviour that toxic people have always engaged in. Gaslighting means to manipulate others, and to feed them false information so that they come to doubt their grasp of reality. We can be late meeting someone for a coffee or a trip to the shops, but we can insist that our friend got the time wrong, or we can make an excuse that forces our friend to apologise and feel that they are at fault. At its worse we can construct a complex network of manipulations so that we brainwash other people and make them constantly feel that they need to attend to us.
St Paul warns us against those who, “might deceive you with persuasive words.” This is toxic behaviour. What does it mean for us to be the sort of people that St Paul warns others about? How far from Christ this way of treating others becomes? This is so deadly a way of acting because we not only deceive others, but we begin to deceive ourselves, so that we live in a fantasy world ourselves, and justify our toxicity to ourselves.
#8. You always have to be right even when you are wrong.
It is very draining to be with someone who always has to be right. Not only does such a person tend to dominate conversation, since they think that they know everything better than everyone else, but they also love to criticise and correct others and point out their errors. If we want to avoid being toxic, then we need to consider what we have said and done in our various conversations each day. If we remember that we dominated conversations so that we could appear like an expert, or worse, if we remember that we shut other people down and made them feel small and stupid, then we are exhibiting toxicity.
The book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament says, “there is a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” We overcome the desire to this form of toxic behaviour as we begin to learn to be silent, and this also has a positive effect on other toxic behaviours. We have to make ourselves silent, and choose not to correct someone, and give others the space to contribute and even to make mistakes. When we insist on being right then we are exhibiting toxicity and difficult to be around.
#9. Everything is a drama around you when there is nothing really wrong.
There are always times when we have what seems like a catastrophe, even if it is just that the colours have run in our washing and changed our favourite top from white to blue. But if we think about the events of recent days and see that there always seem to be things going wrong, then perhaps this is toxic behaviour, and we are over-dramatizing everything. This can simply be a sign of our own anxiety, but it becomes toxic when we involve other people, and want them to act as though every small problem was a disaster as well.
When we insist on lots of other people running around trying to fix even a small problem that we have blown out of proportion then we can consider this sort of behaviour to be toxic. What does the Lord Jesus say? He says to the Christian tempted to make every situation a drama that engulfs others, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled.” If we want to overcome toxic behaviour then we need to begin to turn to God in whatever difficulties we face, rather than demanding others react as we expect, even in the smallest things.
#10. You always focus on the negative about other people and situations.
Finally, and there are other aspects of toxicity that we could have considered, there is the habit of always focusing on the negative. If this was just a matter of our own rather gloomy outlook, then it would be personally harmful. But the toxic person wants to spread negativity to other people and every situation. Whatever is planned, there are always reasons why it will turn out terrible. Whatever happens, it is never as good as it could have been. Whatever someone has done or arranged is a disaster and full of mistakes and wrong choices.
Toxicity is not just our attitudes, words and behaviour. It is the effect that our attitudes, words and behaviour have on others. Even worse, our toxicity is made more harmful and dangerous because we don’t care very much at all about how we affect others. There is nothing Christian in this. It is not enough for us to say that this is how we are, or even worse, to insist that all our problems are caused by others, and that we are only joking when we humiliate others.
Everything we say and do will not be forgotten, unless we repent of it, and we cannot repent without determining to change. We can only overcome toxicity in ourselves by becoming more aware and critical of what we say and do, and the attitudes we have towards others. We have to choose to be silent instead of putting people down or correcting them all the time. We have to choose not to speak about others in gossip, or in humiliation or making others feel small and foolish. We have to choose not to make everything about us. This is beyond us on our own, and as Christians we turn to God, asking for his strength and his insight to see how and where and when we are harmful to others and toxic to be around.
By putting others first in every situation, and being concerned with their welfare, and their feelings we begin to detoxify ourselves. By being an encouragement to others we begin to learn that it is a blessing to give of ourselves rather than always be taking from others.
No one wants a toxic person in their life, but how much worse it is to discover that we are toxic ourselves. Thank God that even if some of these 10 signs are present in our thoughts, words and behaviours, in the mercy and compassion of God we can be forgiven for the past and healed for the future so that become those of whom St Paul says, “comfort each other and edify one another, just as you are doing.”