We’ve all come across them – those people in our lives that behave in a way we can’t work out. “But who DOES that?” we exclaim, when they’ve said something dreadful to us, taken credit for something we’ve done, or dumped us in some epic fashion. We sit in pubs with friends who don’t do that sort of thing, endlessly going over and over the whys and wherefores of why we might have caused them to do those things. What did we say? What did we do? What was the trigger? What could I have done to stop it?
The answer is: nothing.
The answer is: they’re toxic. And they’re everywhere.
I first started realising that this was a group of people with distinct behavioural traits when I hired someone (years ago) that I came to regret. The alarm bells had sounded at interview stage, but I couldn’t quite hear what the bells were telling me. I took it to a third interview because of the clanging, and on the way to introduce them to my boss, they overtook me in the corridor. Who DOES that? I knew it was strange, but I went on to hire them because they said everything I needed to hear, ticked all the boxes.
Boy, was that a mistake.
It was like inviting a cuckoo into the nest. This person decided to befriend other members of my team and try and turn them against me. If I was your boss, they’d say to them, I’d promote you. They were downright nasty to my face, but wreathed in smiles whenever there was anybody else there. I noticed that they looked slightly to one side of my head when they spoke to me. Who DOES that?
I almost left that great job because of that one person. When I reported the behaviour to my boss, his reaction was “Oh, you two…” like we were squabbling siblings. No. I was being systematically mentally bullied by a toxic person, mate.
Thankfully, this person left the business before I did, and I’ve noticed that since then, they’ve only been able to hold down short-term posts. Funny that. Toxic people hardly ever last long anywhere, unless they’re running things.
Anyway, before they left the company, this person smugly told me that they’d lied in their first interview with me. That what they really wanted to do was the exact opposite of what they’d been doing for me, and proudly stated ‘that they were good at that’.
“I’m good at lying in interviews.”
Who SAYS that?
I swore to always listen to alarm bells whenever they even dinged during an interview from that point on, but I still got taken in by another person a few years later. A lot of us were. We all said they appeared ‘warm’ and ‘kind’. I went on a business trip for a few days with them and still didn’t spot the signs. But the people on their team did. And boy did they suffer. Why are they DOING this to us, they asked? Because they could get away with it, unfortunately. For a while, at least.
That ability to present one face to one set of people and another to another set; that ability to learn ‘nice’ behaviour so fluently that they fool everyone around them.
Who HAS that?
In the aftermath of that bit of disastrous recruitment I started to become aware of sociopathy and narcissism. I’d read a bit about it, searched around online and found those lists of classic traits: deceitful, cunning and manipulative, often very intelligent, and unable to feel guilt, remorse, shame or responsibility for their actions. These people are hugely egocentric, charming and often brilliant with words. They have to win at everything. At all costs.
I started to think about all the people I’d encountered in my life that displayed some or all of those traits, to varying degrees. How I’d never been able to work out their motives, and found myself down the pub with others, saying, “Why would someone DO that?” Well now I know. They’re wired like that. And thankfully, I’m so not.
My theory crystallised after a hugely disastrous relationship ended. I’d fallen for someone with an astonishing ego – charming, brilliant and funny with words – on the face of it, my perfect guy. But I had started to see glimpses of a hidden monster a few months in. A twisted smile as I looked back at him unexpectedly, the fact that his biggest sexual fantasy was stealing another man’s woman. Who SAYS that? (Thankfully, he hadn’t stolen me.)
He’d even started to adopt behaviours, hobbies and interests of mine and passed them off as his own. I tried to think of this as flattering, but actually it was just plain weird. Friends took me to one side and said they didn’t like him – he’d said cruel things to them under the guise of humour or messaged them while he was in bed with me (without me knowing) as if to show off his ‘winnings’. Who DOES that?
A few months before it ended, he started to show his true self, as he started to disconnect from me, picking fights that would end with me wondering what the hell was going on. It was horrible, but I now know that it was a lucky escape for me. I’d seen the beast and got away from it. Typically, in his epic wordy ‘explanation’ of how things ended he gave me a list of reasons why it was my fault, and clearly felt no remorse or guilt.
One of the characteristics of these Toxic People is that you can never make them feel guilty. We Who Have Consciences want to tell them what they’ve done, how they’ve hurt us – make them feel as bad as we do. We fantasise about telling them everything and watching them slope off into the darkness, hunch-shouldered and crying. But they don’t. That’s what we’d do if we’d done something really awful to a person, but they don’t even recognise that behaviour. It is useless to try and reason with them because they simply can’t see it. Does not compute.
I’ve talked to a couple of friends recently who’ve encountered Toxics while dating. One said, “Why did she make me feel like I was the love of her life, that we were going to be together, then disappear completely? Why did she then get back in touch and do the same thing over again? Why? Who DOES that?!” It turned out this person had a gang of women hanging on her every word, charming them, making them feel they were the only one. making them vie for her attention. The technique she is using is ‘give them it all’ then ‘give them nothing’. Classic narcissism. Treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen (see link below for a great blog post on this).
My new coping mechanism is not to reason with these people, it’s to get away fast when I spot the signs. You must excise them from your life, if it’s humanly possible. You’ll never change them, they just learn new behaviours that allow them to appear ‘normal’, to make you think you’ve made an impact on them and keep you coming back for more. But all you’ve done is just give them more material to use against you. The beast still lurks within.
You’ll witness many variants of the Toxic – there’s the whispering poison-spreader in the office, who gathers a few allies around them and feeds them toxic titbits that ostracises them from the rest of the team and make them sneer at everyone else. I’ve seen a few budding careers take an early setback after being drawn into one of these little coteries. (Don’t be sucked in. You’re just feeding a horribly insecure beast.)
I think that’s my ultimate technique with these people: just don’t feed the beast. The beast wants you clinging on for titbits and morsels of charm and praise until you think you can’t live without them. And just at the very moment you think that, they know it and they withhold everything.
There is great power in giving nothing, watching them rootling around to see what you might have for them.
Don’t give them anything to feed on.
Get away quickly and don’t look back.
On narcissists in relationships: http://selfcarehaven.wordpress.com/2014/07/21/five-powerful-ways-abusive-narcissists-get-inside-your-head/
How to Spot the Office Psychopath: http://yourlifeworks.ninemsn.com.au/article.aspx?id=373544
Smart ways to deal with Toxic People: