Do you have toxic people in your life? Do they influence you in detrimental ways? Do they leave you feeling manipulated or bad about yourself after every encounter? If so, you’re probably wondering how things got to be this way. Despite your positive attitude and approach to life, you find yourself unexpectedly surrounded by negativity.
It might not occur to you that some of your strongest positive attributes may actually be attracting toxic people. These people may subconsciously feel threatened by your strengths, or they may just see you as an easy target. Either way, they will attempt to undermine or control you by limiting your peace of mind, happiness or success.
It’s important to understand that every character strength has what is commonly called a “shadow side.” When used too liberally, our strengths can become weaknesses and also make us more susceptible to toxic people.
I’ve experienced this in my own life. One of my character strengths is that I am extremely sincere and compassionate. But when pushed to its limit, my sincerity and compassion can become people pleasing. I’ve realized that I sometimes quickly appease people who are pushy or rude just so they will like me. By doing so, I inadvertently allow these people to enter my life and subject me to their toxic behavior.
I eventually learned to find my boundaries and say no, without losing myself in the process. I became aware of how people may try to use my character strengths to their advantage. This awareness has helped me ward off many toxic relationships.
The key is not to suppress your positive character strengths, but to educate yourself so toxic people can’t use them against you. If you feel like these people are drawn to you, here are seven surprising reasons why this may be happening, and some actionable tips to help you address it:
1. You are a great listener.
Let’s face it. With technological distractions stealing our attention all the time, great listeners are often hard to find. When you find one, it’s hard not to take advantage of the rare opportunity to be heard.
Toxic people, however, take things to the next level. They’ll talk to you for hours when they can get away with it. They’ll ignore every body language and verbal cue you throw at them. They’ll share unsolicited, negative details about their life every time they see you. And they’re certainly not interested in what you have to say — because they’re only interested in seeing and hearing things their way.
If you’re great at active or empathetic listening, you may find yourself unwittingly becoming the target of a conversational bully or narcissist.
When entering into a conversation, decide how much time you can, or wish to, spend with the other person. Limit your conversations with toxic people to no more than a few minutes.
Think ahead of time about some exit lines you can use when the time is up or when a lull in the conversation develops. Here are a few examples: “It was great catching up with you…” or, “I’ll talk to you again soon, but right now I must…” or, “I’ve got to get back to work.”
The key to deploying this strategy well is to not send mixed messages. Let your body language and your words match. Of course, this will feel harsh and awkward sometimes, but it’s a necessity for your own well being.
2. You are incredibly generous with your time.
Most people would agree that being generous is a desirable character trait. But beware; toxic people can be drawn to overly generous people.
They will cling to you if you’re willing to drop everything for them, answer all their calls, reply promptly to their emails, and fulfill their requests and demands every minute of the day.
As they consolidate their power by demanding more and more of your precious time, you may find yourself becoming increasingly resentful.
Generosity without boundaries is a recipe for toxic relationships. To establish healthy and reasonable boundaries, start by becoming aware of your feelings and needs. Note the times and circumstances when you’re resentful of fulfilling someone else’s needs. Gradually build boundaries by saying no to gratuitous requests that are likely to cause resentfulness in you.
Again, this will be hard at first because it will feel selfish. But if you’ve ever flown on a plane, you know that flight attendants instruct passengers to put on their own oxygen masks before tending to others, even their own children. Why? Because you cannot help others if you’re incapacitated.
In the long-term, establishing and enforcing boundaries will be one of the most charitable things you can do for yourself and those you care about. They will preserve the best of you so you can share yourself with many wonderful people – not just the toxic ones who try to keep you tied up.
3. You’re open, honest and trusting with your dreams.
Sadly, many people opt to settle in life. So if you’re striving for big dreams and goals, you’re bound to attract the attention of a toxic person or two.
If you freely share your dreams and goals with them, they may view you as aggressive, greedy, unrealistic, or selfish. Driven by the fear that you might actually succeed, they’ll be ready with a word of discouragement. They’ll try to plant seeds of fear and doubt. And as you begin to make progress, they’ll double down on their strategy.
Never share your deepest dreams and goals with people who have proven themselves to be toxic or close-minded, even if they ask you about them repetitively. Be especially wary of people who have lots of opinions but never challenge their own views, educate themselves, offer positive alternatives, or take action.
To counteract their negativity, surround yourself with people who are pursuing similar dreams and goals and have a track record of success. Engage with those who lift you higher. (Marc and Angel discuss this process in detail in the “Relationships” module of Getting Back to Happy.)
4. You’re really easygoing.
Most of us like being around easygoing people.
If you’re an easygoing person, you’re good at keeping your cool in tough situations and putting others at ease with a comforting word or witty quip. You’re also likely non-aggressive, patient and kind.
But the inner peace you exude is attractive to the toxic person who’s eager to disrupt the peace. They may misinterpret your apparent pacifism and conclude that you’re an easy target for their controlling ways. And in your weaker moments you may find yourself saying yes to them more often than you might realize.
Become aware of how a toxic person may try to take advantage of your easygoing ways. For instance, your polite words and gestures may be seen as an open invitation. Phrases such as “Sure, anytime you want,” or, “That’s no problem at all,” may be interpreted literally by a toxic person. They may respond by monopolizing your time for their own purposes.
Avoid the tendency to automatically commit to requests. Instead, make your default response: “Let me get back to you on that in ten minutes.” If you do say yes, be sure not to give the impression that your offer is open-ended. (Read Toxic People.)
5. Your sunny disposition is all-inclusive.
As the saying goes, opposites attract. Sometimes the positive light you shine attracts people who are craving the light themselves.
As a person with a sunny disposition, you’re often the one to strike up a conversation or light up a room with your infectious smile. These qualities make you a pleasure to be around but may also be attractive to certainly toxic people who ultimately want to hog everyone’s attention and make the conversation about “ME, ME, ME.” They are typically unhappy with themselves, and therefore look to others for validation. These people deserve respect, but you need to respect yourself too.
Understand that many unhappy people are unable to find joy within themselves – and they mistakenly believe that you can make them happy. They’re relatively easy to spot because they’ll go above and beyond to please you with flattery, gifts or idealization. They’ll be overly agreeable and willing to fulfill your requests or desires, as long as you give them a “yes” to everything.
These are warning signs that you may be in danger of falling under the obligations of a toxic person who will eventually expect you to pump up their ego 24/7. But the truth is, you can’t make them happy, even if you could oblige to their every need. And you’re almost certain to make yourself unhappy by doing so.
If you find yourself entering into a relationship with a person like this, ask yourself: Am I spending time with this person because they flatter me or because I genuinely want to be in this relationship? If your answer is the former, don’t be afraid to give yourself some breathing room.
6. You’re a great bridge builder.
If you’re a bridge builder, you can’t stand seeing disagreements and disputes go unresolved. If you’re one of the parties involved, you’ll move heaven and earth to find a compromise or resolve the problem.
While most people would likely respond to such overtures in kind ways, certain toxic people in your life may be more interested in destroying bridges rather than building them.
Some toxic people find their joy by creating drama and discord. Understand that some bridges are simply not worth building or maintaining. They’re bridges to nowhere.
How do you resist the urge to build or maintain bridges when you know it’s futile? Think about how often you’ve had to work on building or repairing bridges due to a toxic person’s behavior. If they’re constantly requiring you to resolve disputes, think about how they may be deriving pleasure at your expense. It may be a sign that you’ll need to cut funding to this hopeless venture so you can apply your resources of time and energy to more positive endeavors.
May the bridges you burn light your way.
7. Your view of human nature is super positive.
For most of us, our daily interactions with people affirm our basic assumptions that the average human being is kind and decent. But every so often, we unsuspectingly run into the darker sides of human nature in the people around us that may challenge these assumptions.
Do you struggle to accept the darker sides of human nature such as possessiveness, narcissism, greed, and deception? Do you hold on to friendships with such people because you believe they will change? Do you brush off their put downs and unkind deeds and spend lots of time with them anyway?
If so, you may have a relatively high tolerance for toxic people. You may find yourself enduring their negative and even abusive behavior. And you actually may not realize that you are in a relationship with a toxic person until the situation becomes dire.
Human beings are pretty good at sensing danger with their intuition – not just physical dangers but emotional dangers as well. If you’re in an emotionally negative or abusive situation, don’t second-guess the discomfort you feel inside. This may be difficult because your optimism about others may drown out uncomfortable feelings such as anxiety, shock, anger, or emotional withdrawal.
When warning signs appear in the form of emotional discomfort, instead of brushing them off or ignoring them, ask yourself these questions:
- What is causing this feeling in me when I’m with this person?
- What is this discomfort trying to protect me from?
- What positive actions can I take to relieve this discomfort?
Just like physical pain (as unpleasant as it is) protects you from further bodily harm, emotional discomfort, when embraced, can protect you from the damaging effects of a toxic environment. (Marc and Angel discuss this in more detail in the “Relationships” chapter of 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently.)
The positivity and goodness you bring to the world truly are precious gifts. Protect these gifts from negative influences. Invest yourself in people and circumstances that will magnify your efforts rather than diminish them.
Even though your positive traits may inadvertently attract toxic people, do not let this stop you from being who you are. Just be aware of this reality so you can better spot danger when it arises and take positive, protective measures.
Also consider that your positive gifts have the power to indirectly transform negativity. Just as light will dispel darkness, your light can be a shining example to those who mean well but don’t realize their toxic tendencies. And even though you’ll need to limit your exposure to them, don’t underestimate the possibility that your example may influence them for the better, one way or the other, over the long run.