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Too toxic! How to spot the traits in yourself and others

January 12, 2022 - 21 min read

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Toxic traits

What are personality traits?

25 examples of toxic traits

Signs you're in a toxic situation with someone

Myths about toxic traits

How to deal with toxic personality traits in a relationship and at work

Have you ever spent time with someone who seemed friendly but left you feeling insecure and emotionally exhausted after you got home? If so, you may have encountered someone who has toxic personality traits. 

A recent article in the Sloane Management Review suggests that toxic work cultures are the driving force behind the Great Resignation. And toxic cultures start with individuals behaving in toxic ways.

So there's good reason to pay attention to toxic behavior and learn to spot the traits before they send you or your teammates looking for a new job.

Toxic traits are not actually traits at all. 

But toxic individuals are more common than you may think. According to the journal Violence and Victims, 48.4% of women and 48.8% of men have experienced psychological aggression from a partner. Plus, according to a recent Korn Ferry study, 35% of employees say that their boss is their single biggest source of stress at work.

Not all behaviors are quite so dramatic. Let's explore toxic traits you should watch out for in relationships — at work, home, or anyone else. 

While they usually stay the same, traits can change over time due to factors like:

  • Experiences 
  • Belief systems
  • Major life stages

When discussing traits, we need to draw a line between a "trait" and "behavior." Traits are often innate. Behaviors, on the other hand, are actions we have control over. For example, a person’s level of “openness” is a trait. But "lying" is a behavior. 

Three-people-walking-together-and-chatting-toxic-traits

When people talk about toxic traits, they aren’t usually talking about traits of a person — the term instead refers to a person’s behavior. Behaviors can be characterized as “healthy” or “unhealthy.” Unhealthy, or toxic, behaviors include:

Let’s take a look at many examples of toxic traits.

25 examples of toxic traits

If you saw someone throwing a chair through a window, you might think, "They have the toxic trait of anger." But not all toxic personality traits manifest so obviously. 

Many people's toxic traits come out in subtle ways. You may not recognize them straight away when you encounter toxic behaviors in a relationship. Let's discuss 25 toxic traits and behaviors and their warning signs. 

  1. Negativity: a person with negativity may see the world as cold, cruel, and evil. They may frequently complain, ruin the fun, or dampen people's spirits with defeatist comments and actions. 
  2. Judgmentalness: a person who is judgmental may judge situations, people, or events without experience. For example, a friend may tell you that a concert will be boring or lame before you even arrive. 
  3. Dishonesty: a person who displays dishonesty may lie or mislead others. The act of lying is a choice. But dishonestly is the tendency to lie. Many people use dishonesty as a coping mechanism. 
  4. Rigidness: a person who is rigid may be stubborn, inflexible, or unable to adapt when things don't go as planned. For example, an employee may struggle to adapt when a new boss joins your team and changes the team dynamic.
  5. Rudeness: a person who displays rude behavior may speak or act without manners that most people would define as culturally appropriate. For example, someone may talk to a server without saying "please" or "thank you."
  6. A lack of empathy for others: a person who lacks empathy for others may struggle to understand other people's feelings and thoughts. For example, a leader that lacks empathy may not notice that one of their employees is struggling to complete work because they are tired. 
  7. Cynicism: a person who displays cynicism may think that interests and goals motivate people to the detriment of others. For example, a cynical person may assume that a polite server was only friendly for a good tip.
  8. Recklessness: a person who is reckless may not consider the danger their actions place upon themselves or others. For example, someone with recklessness may encourage you to undertake a dangerous activity.
  9. Pickiness: a person who is picky may struggle in situations that are new, outside their comfort zone, or don't match their standards. For example, a picky eater may refuse to eat a meal you cooked for them because they haven't tried a key ingredient before. 
  10. Argumentativeness: a person who is argumentative may get joy or pleasure from starting arguments. For example, a person may look for flaws in a family member's idea and attempt to rile them into a fight. Not all conflict is bad, but being argumentative for the sake of arguing can be detrimental.
  11. Quick to anger: a person who's quick to anger may become upset due to a trigger that would offend most people. For example, a colleague may get angry quickly and struggle to calm themselves down.
  12. Bossiness: a person who is bossy may take charge of a situation, demand control, or assert dominance over others. For example, a bossy colleague may micromanage your part of a project, despite not holding authority over you. A bossy colleague may also challenge your manager's leadership or undermine them. 
  13. Self-centeredness: a person who displays self-centeredness may focus on their wants over another person's needs. For example, a self-centered friend may refuse to comfort another friend because they'd rather do something else.
  14. Arrogance: a person who displays arrogance may believe they are more intelligent and more important than others. As such, they may treat others rudely or condescendingly. For example, an arrogant and selfish employee may refuse to listen to anyone else's ideas and are not willing to collaborate.
  15. Greediness: a person who is greedy may take more than they need at the detriment of others. For example, a friend with greediness may eat a slice of cake you saved for a friend who missed the cake cutting. 
  16. Stinginess: a person who is stingy may refuse to share their time, possessions, or money. They do this even when someone else deserves them. For example, a stingy family member may refuse to pay their part of a restaurant bill.
  17. Sneakiness: a person who is sneaky may conceal their actions and words from others for personal benefit. For example, a colleague may sabotage your work by neglecting to pass on a crucial instruction from your manager.
  18. Thoughtlessness: a person who is thoughtless may not consider how their actions or words may impact others. For example, a family member may tell your extended family a secret you shared with them in confidence.
  19. Disruptiveness: a person who is disruptive may speak over or interrupt others for personal gain. For example, an employee may play music out loud in the office. 
  20. Conflict avoidance: a person who struggles with conflict avoidance may have a hard time talking to others because they’re afraid of upsetting people. For example, a conflict-avoidant friend may allow another friend to insult them out of fear of an argument.
  21. Impulsiveness: a person who is impulsive may make rash decisions based on emotion. For example, an impulsive friend may spend too much money because they lack emotional regulation skills
  22. Laziness: a person who is lazy may struggle to finish tasks because they lack inspiration, motivation, and drive. For example, an employee may avoid completing their tasks because they don't want to. 
  23. Apathetic: a person with apathy may struggle to care about things, goals, or people. For example, an apathetic manager may struggle to work on their relationship with you because they aren't invested.
  24. A lack of self-awareness: a person who lacks self-awareness may struggle to reflect on their thoughts, actions, and words. For example, a toxic friend who isn't self-aware may not understand why they haven't reached a goal, despite sabotaging their own efforts. 
  25. Absolutism: a person with absolutism may view situations, people, or the world through a binary like "good or bad." For example, an absolutist friend may see another friend as bad because they upset them, despite the friend apologizing. 

two-colleagues-talking-at-work-toxic-traits

When discussing common examples of toxic traits, you should remember two critical things. 

First, some behaviors can manifest positively in certain scenarios. But that doesn't make them positive. For example, a bossy person may produce high-quality work that impresses their colleagues and bosses. But bossiness can cause the person to feel stressed and ruin otherwise healthy relationships.

Second, our behaviors don't define us as people. This is true whether the behavior is negative or positive. For example, a person isn’t negative or rigid. Instead, a person may have the toxic trait of negativity or rigidity. We can change our toxic traits through introspection and reflection. We can also change them by working on our mental health

Signs you're in a toxic situation with someone 

Most people encounter someone with toxic traits at some point. Here are five red flags you're in a toxic situation you may need to address. 

They gaslight or lie to you 

Someone with toxic traits may cover up their behavior by lying to you or gaslighting you. Gaslighting is a type of manipulation where the gaslighter tries to make you question your version of events. 

You'll know someone is trying to gaslight you if they make you feel unsure of your feelings or insecure in your knowledge. However, there is a difference between someone disagreeing with you and gaslighting you. 

two-people-having-a-difficult-discussion-about-their-toxic-traits

They don't apologize properly

Someone with toxic traits may avoid responsibility for their behavior with an apology that minimizes their actions. For example, they may say, "I'm sorry you feel that way" or "I'm sorry, but..."

If someone uses one of these apologies on you, you can call it out. People aren't always aware they aren't practicing empathy or compassion.

They don't understand how their behavior makes others feel 

Someone with toxic traits may not realize or care that their actions negatively impact others if they lack emotional intelligence.

If someone is unaware their actions hurt others, try addressing the problem with them. If they refuse to listen, you may need to set boundaries or stop spending time with them. 

Remember: you can use many types of listening. Keep in mind that everyone reacts differently to each type. 

They think they are superior to others 

Someone with toxic traits may perceive themselves as more important than others. They may place their desires over other people's need for safety and well-being. 

This attitude manifests itself in many ways, such as through:

  • Two-faced behavior (treating people differently behind their backs than to their faces)
  • Prioritizing their wants over other people's needs 
  • Abusing their power 
  • Speaking badly about those who disagree with them or call them out 

Someone who believes they are superior may also not prioritize integrity (here are some examples of integrity).

They see themselves as a victim of their own behavior 

Someone with toxic traits may have a fixed mindset about their behavior. A fixed mindset says, "I can't change.” In contrast, a growth mindset says, "I can change my behavior with hard work and a strong sense of self." 

If someone only views themselves as a victim of their own life, they likely haven't accepted responsibility for their behavior. And they aren't ready to change it. 

Myths about toxic traits

Let's explore five myths about toxic personality traits. 

1. People can't change their toxic personality traits

It's easy to assume that negative behavior patterns are permanent. But this isn't true. Our personalities are fluid and change as we learn, grow, and experience new things. 

Most people can change their toxic traits if they: 

  • Work to identify them 
  • Understand their impact 
  • Consciously stop the toxic behaviors 

2. You can fix someone else's toxic traits 

Unfortunately, no one (not even therapists or life coaches) can fix someone else's toxic traits if the person with the toxic traits doesn't want to change. 

Fixing toxic traits takes: 

While you can support someone through addressing their toxic traits, you can't control or fix their behavior. 

3. People with toxic traits know they have them

It's natural to assume someone's bad behavior is a conscious choice. But many people with toxic traits don't realize that their behavior impacts others. 

two-women-walking-in-the-street-toxic-traits

You may have toxic traits that you don’t know about. Some toxic traits, like absolutism, manifest subtly. You may not realize you see things as good or bad unless you experience something that forces you to reflect on your mindset. 

4. Someone with toxic traits is an inherently bad person 

While someone's toxic or negative traits may harm others, they don't make someone an inherently bad person with evil intentions. We are all learning and growing as we experience new things. You can be a good person with toxic traits. In fact, everyone displays negative behavior from time to time. 

Many people also develop toxic traits as a coping mechanism. For example, many dishonest people lie about their lives to protect themselves from other people's judgment. 

5. Toxic traits make some "assertive" or "tough"

Some negative behaviors serve people well in their personal or professional lives. But this doesn't make the toxic trait positive. 

A bossy, rude, or rigid manager may push their staff to produce excellent work. But these toxic traits still negatively impact others by creating an unhealthy and toxic work environment. Many people with toxic leadership traits excuse their behavior by calling themselves "assertive" or "tough.” But you can be assertive and tough without harming others. 

How to deal with toxic personality traits in a relationship and at work

As you can't always cut someone with a toxic trait out of your life, here are five tips to help you deal with them. 

1. Understand that it isn't about you 

When someone else's behavior makes you feel insecure or sad, you may feel tempted to blame yourself. 

Don't. Other people's toxic traits reflect their struggles and insecurities, not you. You can only control your own actions, self-esteem, and mental fitness

Watch out for signs you're JADE-ing their behavior. When you JADE, you "justify," "argue," defend," or "explain" someone else's behavior to minimize its impact. 

2. Try not to react 

If someone treats you poorly, reacting with anger, aggression, or annoyance may worsen the situation. Instead, start by taking deep breaths. Then, leave the situation if possible, and practice self-care

Depending on the behavior, you can also use grey-rocking. When you grey-rock someone, you act dull or emotionally unresponsive to make it harder for the person to engage with you. 

3. Set boundaries

Setting boundaries with someone can reduce the impact of their behavior on you. Each boundary should have a consequence. 

For example, "If my colleague makes a passive-aggressive comment about my appearance, I will excuse myself and speak with them later." 

two-people-drinking-warm-drink-and-talking-about-toxic-traits

4. Be honest about how the toxic trait impacts you 

As we mentioned, many people don't realize they have toxic traits. So, telling someone that their actions have hurt your emotional well-being may help them understand they need to change. 

You might like to try this template to start the conversation: 

"When you do or say (action), I feel (emotion). I understand that you don't intend to make me feel (emotion), but I would like it if you tried to stop doing (action)." 

Sometimes, an honest conversation can help someone turn a toxic relationship around.

5. Seek help from others

Someone's toxic traits can harm the social well-being of your friend group, family unit, or team. Naturally, you may need to seek support from others. This way, you can work together to approach the person about their behavior and develop a better relationship

If someone at work is behaving poorly, you may also need to report their toxic behavior to superiors or Human Resources. 

Toxic traits and healthy relationships

Once you understand what toxic traits look like, it'll be easier to spot them in your professional and personal relationships. 

When someone else has toxic traits, they can hurt you. But remember: someone else's behavior isn't a reflection of you, and you aren't responsible for fixing it. People with toxic personality traits are the only ones who can take responsibility for their actions and change. 

If you'd like to learn how to spot toxic behavior and communicate better with others in the workplace and at home, try BetterUp's coaching.

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Published January 12, 2022

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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