Worried You May Be Emotionally Toxic? 13 Actions To Help You Stop Being A Toxic Person

First of all, thank you for having the courage to be here. 

It's not easy to Google “How to be less toxic,” but it's a great way to do some inner reflection.

This is a safe space with self-improvement in mind, not judgment or criticism. 

It's safe to assume that if you always find yourself at the center of the drama, attracting toxic people, and always in a fight or flight mode, you might be contributing to the toxicity in your life. 

What Does It Mean to Be a Toxic Person?

Toxic means something different to each person.

The dictionary defines toxic as “very harmful or unpleasant in a pervasive or insidious way.” 

The truth is, toxic doesn't always mean “bad,” “evil,” or “broken.” Heck, even too much oxygen –  something we need to survive – can be toxic when misused. 

Characteristics of a toxic person include: 

  • Selfish: They always need you but rarely show up when you need them.
  • Manipulation: They will get what they want at all costs – guilt, bargaining (to their benefit), lies (from little white to big little lies), and bullying are common tools.
  • Negative: If the sun doesn't come up the right shade of yellow, these people will complain about it all day. They always find something to complain about. 
  • Judgy: You become afraid to open up to toxic people because you know they will act as judge, jury, and prosecutor in what should be a safe space. 
  • Passive Aggressive: These people might smile to your face when you cancel plans but then post a meme about “loser friends” on their social media accounts. 
  • Angry: They lose their temper over the little things – traffic, long lines, you purchasing something they wanted, etc. 

How Do I Know If I'm a Toxic Person?

For some of you reading this, you already know.

That's why you're here. Maybe you're looking for a scapegoat, but you aren't going to find it here. 

This tool can help you learn how not to be toxic. For the others here, you know you're toxic:

  • If you are always surrounded by drama. 
  • If your friendships are fleeting. 
  • If you genuinely feel nothing is ever your fault and the world just “seems to be out to get you.” 

There are key indicators in daily life that might help you determine if you need to stop being toxic or if you're just going through a rough patch. 

  • Competition: If everything feels like a competition, whether spoken or internal, you might be fueling a toxic environment. Friends and significant others celebrate the success of the people they love. They don't try to “one up” them at every turn. 
  • Attention Seekers: It's one thing to love attention when you've won accolades; it's another to turn a bout of the flu into a drama show about medical issues. Parents can also create a toxic environment around sick children. For example, a child has a cold, so they miss a day of school, but the mom constantly tweets about how “deathly ill” the child is, so people will offer comfort. 
  • Sarcasm: In a world of memes and hilarious social media commentary, sarcasm has become its own language. People brag about their wit and quick thinking, but if everything generates sarcasm from you, put it on pause. There's a difference between sarcasm and sadism. Remove “I told you so” from your vocabulary entirely. 
  • Annoyed: You know deep down when this happens. Your friend reaches out to you with a “friend emergency,” and you groan to yourself and agree to meet up, only to half listen and nod your head while being disconnected from the conversation. Extra credit toxicity? Repeatedly only saying “That's crazy” to people via text while they are pouring their hearts out to you. 
  • “You Can't Sit With Us!”: If your friends have gatherings where you aren't invited, or they meet in splintered groups, they might just be trying to avoid the drama or self-centered features you bring. 

How to Stop Being Toxic: 13 Steps You Can Take

Can toxic people change? Absolutely! 

You must make a concerted effort to find your toxic fault lines and re-adjust your thinking and reaction to the situation. 

If you don't know how to stop being toxic in your relationship, there are great ways to start the conversation and move forward with a hazmat spill of emotions or hurt feelings. 

1. Do Some Soul Searching

Toxic people don't just pop out of the woodwork. The habits are usually formed early in life, based on interactions with family and friends. 

Maybe your mom always made a big deal about you being sick, so that trait has carried on to how you react when your children are sick. Identify “where things went toxic” to better understand how you got here. 

Allow yourself grace during this process. This isn't a session to beat yourself up or list all your regrets. This is a way to focus on being a better you. 

2. Talk to Your Friends, Family, and Partner

This one can be tricky because if your friends already think you have toxic traits, they might not want to be honest with you. These conversations are better in one-on-one environments than in group gatherings. Some conversation starters might be:

  • “I feel like I'm not always a good friend to you as you go through this divorce/breakup/job loss. How can I better support you?”
  • “I know every time we go out, I end up in a dramatic situation, and I feel like the way I treated the valet attendant was really out of line. From your perspective, tell me where the night goes wrong.” 
  • “I have been very dismissive of your opinions during the recent discussions, and I apologize. I want to be a better listener, and I'd like to hear more about your thoughts on the topic we discussed last night.”

3. Remove Toxic Language from Your Vocabulary

Maybe it IS the 10th time your bestie has talked about the breakup from a year ago, and you continue to tell her, “Just get over it.”

Friends don't tell friends to “just get over it.” Other language that you should nix from your vernacular:

  • “You're Too Sensitive” – Some people are more sensitive than others. Some people are better at math than art. Everyone is different, and accepting people for who they are will go a long way in the toxic cleanup.
    • INSTEAD: “I can tell this is an emotional topic for you, and I want to respect your space. Do you want to pause this and think about it overnight? We can regroup in the morning.” 
  • “Whatever” – Lord help the person on the receiving end of a “Whatever.” This is a dismissive and cruel tactic to use, as it invalidates anything else the other person is saying. Always remember, the person you disagree with believes what they believe with the same conviction of your beliefs.
    • INSTEAD: “I feel like we're chasing our tails here. Let's just agree to disagree and go get that brunch.”
  • You are just like your mother/father/brother” – This is taking proprietary information, like how much your friend gets frustrated by her mom and shoves it right back in her face.
    • INSTEAD: Just don't say it. Even trying an “I know how much your mom frustrates you, which is why I'm confused about why you are acting like her “ is the same dang thing. 

4. Turn Your Thoughts Around

We aren't just learning how not to be toxic to our loved ones; we have to stop being toxic to ourselves. 

Start the day with an affirmation of positivity if you know you are prone to be negative. Stop looking at everything that went wrong in your rush to work and celebrate the things that went right, like when you hit a green light. Yes, this holds even if every other light was red. 

When we speak in a kinder voice to ourselves, we're better mentally prepared to handle the things that come up in the environment of people we love. 

5. Make a Permission Pact

Make an agreement with your friends that any “emotional vomiting” needs to come with permission. 

A sentence like “Do you have the headspace right now to talk about a situation that is bothering me?” will show respect for the other person's time and any demons of their own they might be fighting. 

6. Don't Gaslight

This concept is also in the words of the “How to Be Less Toxic” invisible handbook. 

When you tell someone they are overreacting or not experiencing something valid, you make that person feel crazy. Any lover of the Real Housewives franchise sees this happening repeatedly. 

Gaslighting isn't just toxic; it's psychological abuse that leaves deep scars. It's used to gain a power position over the other person, but in the end, nobody wins. 

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7. Dig Deep

“If you start up with Big again, I don't want to know anything about it.” Those scorching words from Miranda to Carrie during Season 3 of Sex & The City shocked fans to the core. 

Miranda just had enough of hearing about the same person causing the same hurt to her beloved friend. 

Sometimes you just have to dig deep inside yourself and find the ability to listen. Don't try to offer help or solutions. 

Don't judge the person. Actually pay attention, even if you've heard the same stories repeatedly. Your friends listen to your repetition. Pay in kind. 

BONUS: If you can say, “Do you want advice, or do you just want me to listen? I'm here for you either way.” 

8. Empathy Doesn't Mean What You Might Think

Just because empathy means you understand what the person is going through doesn't mean it's time for you to steal the stage and tell your tale of a similar experience. 

Of course, it does feel natural to say, “I understand. I went through the same thing ten years ago and…” 

The problem with this is – suddenly, the issue is all about you and not about your friend.

Only speak about your experience if they ask you. While experiences can be similar, no two people have the exact same reaction or adaption to life changes or grief. 

9. Leave the Jokes to Jimmy Fallon

There's a time to infuse humor, and there's a time to avoid all urges to make a joke. 

The problem with humor is that only stand-up comics use it as a way to be funny. Regular humans use it to mask emotions, avoid confrontation, or speak their truth without saying it directly. 

An example of this might be meeting a friend for happy hour, and they say, “I had a terrible day.” You respond, “Well, you look like a truck ran over you, so there's that.” 

Even the closest friendships and the most understanding of loved ones will cringe a little when they hear that. 

10. Stop Saying It on Social Media

Toxic traits spill over onto social media at MACH 3. 

Even friends who aren't directly impacted by whatever your drama is are going to tire of the barrage of memes about your inner struggles. (C'mon, you know you've unfollowed someone who did that!) 

You also don't know if a friend who isn't on your mind might take a passive-aggressive post as a dig at them. You could be hurting more people than you even realize with your posts. 

11. Don't Seek Counsel in Other Loved Ones

There are three reasons why going to friends for mental health help isn't a good idea when you really want to learn how to be less toxic.

  • They are scared of you. Your inner Regina George might have your friends bowing down to anything you feel and unwilling to help you because they fear being ostracized from the group. 
  • They aren't unbiased. Your friends see your beauty and skills from a very biased perspective. You might have been completely rude to a server, but they will take your side because you DID ask for ketchup, and she brought ranch dressing. She must be an idiot, right? 
  • They aren't skilled enough to help. Your friends can help you through a lot, but you wouldn't want them to do heart surgery on you. A mental health professional is trained to deal with your issues in a safe zone while being honest. Even if your friend is a therapist, a conflict of interest will prevent them from treating you anyway. 

12. Stop Being Critical

You call it “wanting the best for your partner,” but they see it as nothing they do is good enough. The fact that they did load the dishwasher is a good thing, yet you'll list off the ten ways they did it wrong and throw in another no-no phase of “If I want it done right, I have to do it myself.”

Now, it's one thing to tell a friend she spilled coffee on her white pants. It's another to tell her five reasons why white pants are just not cool and then suggest you go through her closet for appropriate clothing. 

See if you can go one day without criticizing anything about a loved one or yourself. Exchange criticism for thankful words of what did happen. 

13. Learn To Say Sorry… and Mean It

One of the best ways to stop being toxic in your relationship is to offer a wholehearted “I'm sorry.” 

For toxic people, those words taste like you-know-what coming out of their mouths. 

Apologizing doesn't mean you are weak or invalid. It just means you made a mistake. Forgiveness is the root of improvement in our daily lives.  

Why Am I Toxic and How to Change

These characteristics of a toxic person aren't going to go away immediately. 

The traits didn't develop overnight. They come from a lifetime of experiences and relationships that fueled defense mechanisms or selfish behavior. Some people stop being toxic after a stressful life event. 

You can change if you take some time to focus on yourself and practice some basic mental health support techniques. 

  • Journaling: This will help you get thoughts out of your head and onto paper instead of spewing venom at your tribe. 
  • Remove Other Toxic Forces: You can't just say sayonara to your toxic mother, but you can limit triggering situations with her. If you have a colleague who is giving you toxic energy and fueling your own emotional hazmat container, take up a fitness class on the night you usually go to happy hour with him or her. 
  • Know Your Triggers: List off all the situations that trigger your venomous side. Take a beat before you react to or address those situations and make a brief affirmation of being kind, attentive, or present.

Final Thoughts

There's a great line in the song Apex Predator from the Mean Girls musical. It goes, “So I'm kinda friends, but you're kinda prey. Jesus, what a day with the Apex Predator. Will she braid your hair, will she eat your heart?” 

Nobody wants to be in a relationship or friendship with someone who constantly brings a negative vibe and cold heart. At best, your friendships will suffer. At worst, your relationships will end.

Learning how to be less toxic is actually much easier to clean up than you might think. The hardest part, which you've already done, is accepting you need to make some changes.