How to Spot a (Subtly) Toxic Person | Justin Lioi, LCSW - Brooklyn, NY

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We’d all like to think that when there is a glaringly toxic person that we’d stay away from them (unless we have some fantasy about ‘saving’ them, but that’s to be explored another time.) Unfortunately, this toxic person probably didn’t come with a bright red sign saying

“I am an unhealthy friend & partner! Stay away!”

But if we are mindful of a couple of things, we may note the more subtle signs that are usually there before we find ourselves with a new best friend or relationship partner who is slowly breaking down our self-esteem.

Let’s talk about a few things to be on the lookout for that may be ‘yellow’ flags.

Brings Up Your Faults:

Now the best friends we have are people who are honest with us. There are only a certain few you can be sure are going to let you know when you’ve stepped out of line or you need to think again before you have another drink or ask that person on a date. We need those people in our lives and that kind of honesty can make us feel safe with them, knowing they’re not just shining us on to take advantage of us. But if you’re around someone who is constantly focusing on how you don’t measure up, that’s a whole different story. In fact, if I notice that a new “friend” spends the bulk of their time letting me know, subtly or not, how foolish, embarrassing, annoying, etc. I am–after taking a check to myself–I’m going to wonder why this person wants to be my friend in the first place! If you’re around someone who just likes your “potential” tell them that they should go find someone else to mold.

A Toxic Person Can’t De-Center Themself:

Some people just can’t go more than two minutes without talking about how they are affected. Even when you’re talking about your mom who’s in the hospital or the date that ghosted you, everything they have to say is about how they experienced something like that, and how listening to you brings up those bad feelings. Of course, we are our only reference point and it makes sense that when others are talking about what happened to them we are thinking about our own story–but we don’t always feel the need to share that when someone else is having a moment. If every conversations ends up being about them, especially if it started out with you, you might want to take stock of this relationship or friendship.

Gaslighting:

I’m glad this has is talked about more and more, although I’m not glad that it was ever a thing. This is a hard one to spot and it’s a good reason to have more than one close friend in the world. Based on the black and white movie Gaslight, this is a technique used by pretty toxic people to keep others off balance and to basically make us think we’re crazy. When someone tells you something happened that you are sure did not, but their accusation is making you doubt your own reality, you may be being gaslit. Someone who is lying so well that you start to wonder if the sky is blue or if grass really is green is a gaslighter. They may be doing this to make you feel you can’t get by without them or they just want to keep you off base. If you think this may be happening to you, check in with other people you trust–or just realize that you don’t need this kind of “friend” in your life anyway.

You Leave Every Encounter Feeling Insecure:

Here’s where I go against something I’ve said before, but nothing is set in stone when it comes to relationships, right? Listen to your gut if you are noting that, even though you can’t put your finger on just what it is, you walk away from this person always feeling a bit bad about yourself. They may tell you that they are just helping you, teaching you, trying to give you new tools or ways of seeing, but don’t listen to that. Our good friends challenge us, but not all the time and we usually are damn sure that they are doing it because they love us. Someone who thinks they need to train you to be their friend or their boyfriend is someone you do not need to be around. Again, if you’re not seeing yourself as someone better in their eyes, why do they want to be friends with you? Are they sticking around just to feel better about themselves? Listen to those feelings and find someone who makes you feel that you are good enough just being you.

So what do you think? Are there other things you’ve noted along the way that are ‘yellow’, ‘orange’, or ‘red’ flags for a potential relationship partner or friend who may be a toxic person? Are you listening to yourself or do you keep staying with those people? No shame either way, but if you want to do something different, take a hard look at what you’re moving toward. Want to talk further about this, get in touch for a free phone consultation. Or take a look at this if you’d like to know how to end a friendship.


Justin Lioi, LCSW is a men’s mental health and relationship expert based in Brooklyn, NY (and online throughout New York State and internationally.) He received his degree from New York University and has been working with men and their families for over 10 years. Justin is on the Board of the National Association of Social Workers and writes a weekly column for the Good Men Project called Unmasking Masculinity. He can be found on local and national podcasts talking about assertiveness, anger, self-compassion, all with the goal of becoming the man you want to be. He works with all men but has a particular focus on providing counseling for fathers (and guys hoping to become dads!)