Several years ago, I met a guy named Dallas. A college pastor at the time, it didn’t take long to realize he had a past. Family? Nonexistent. Jail time? Absolutely. But Dallas wasn’t dangerous. And for the first week or two, things were going well.
Around week three, things started to change. I don’t know why. I’m sure he battled a legion of demons. I could never imagine the internal struggles of someone with his past, almost all of it out of his control.
Dallas would call me, usually late at night. At first to ask a question about Scripture or Jesus. But inevitably it spilled over into suicidal threats and attacks on my faith. He did this for several nights. And for several nights I listened.
Friends, these conversations were exhausting on every level imaginable. I’ve walked beside people with a past. This was different. I wanted to be an outlet for him, a listening ear, a beacon of hope, but when I offered to help him find counseling, he became defensive. I was running on a treadmill at a sprinter’s pace. We weren’t going anywhere, in other words. And I was missing valuable time with my family and often starting the next day on fumes.
But I felt guilty for wanting to cut ties. This guy didn’t know Jesus, after all. And besides, I thought, Jesus would never abandon someone like Dallas. For those reasons, I continued my relationship with him.
And I shouldn’t have.
Is my encounter with Dallas an outlier? Maybe. But toxic people aren’t. Live long enough, you will cross paths with someone who drains you.
Toxic people aren’t evil or bad. They’re people, like you and me. They need what we need, love, security and connection. For a host of reasons, however, they seek these things using unhealthy, even destructive, behaviors.
People aren’t evil. Behaviors are. That’s what I’m trying to say. Labeling another person as evil opens the door to dehumanization. Don’t go there.
At the same time, toxic people drain you. They suck your life and drain your energy. They demand a lot of your time and distract you from your purpose. And too often, we tolerate toxic people, often in the name of Jesus.
Are these not the very people Jesus calls us to help?
Yes and no.
There’s a difference between a needy person and a person in need. The line between the two can be blurry, I get it. That’s why you need wisdom and prayer. You also need a strong support system and clearly defined values. More about those later.
For now, I want to highlight a few qualities of a toxic person.
1. Toxic people attack your identity, not the issue.
I love this quote by Eleanor Roosevelt. “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
Healthy people attack issues. Toxic people attack your identity and character. Here’s why.
Toxic people hate being wrong. They’re not concerned with resolutions or compromises. All they do is win (or try, at least). No matter what.
A toxic person might start addressing the issue at hand. But if they perceive you’re gaining an upper hand, the issue quickly takes a back seat and the conversations head south…in a hurry.
As a pastor for five years and a blogger for another three, I’ve encountered a critical comment or two.
When it comes to how I address them, I have one rule: I do not respond to anyone who attacks my identity or character.
If I post an article about marriage, for example. And a guy named Billy strongly disagrees with my thoughts. He sends me an e-mail. If Billy addresses the issue, marriage, I’ll respect his opinion and usually respond.
If, however, Billy’s e-mail includes phrases like “you’re ignorant” or “you’re a liar” or “you’re a liberal,” I delete the e-mail and carry on.
I would advise you to do the same. Here’s why. Toxic people aren’t interested in hearing your opinion. They’re only interested in convincing you of theirs. And again, they won’t compromise.
You’re much better off investing your time and energy elsewhere.
2. Toxic people are okay with “alternative facts.”
Toxic people can’t be wrong. “You can say that again.” I did, in the previous point.
You won’t hear them say “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” And because they must always be right, they employ alternative facts when necessary, which is most of the time. If you catch them lying, you might hear phrases like “that’s not what I meant” or “I never said that.” They twist their words (and your mind), trying to get you to question yourself.
Appealing to clearly defined standards of right and wrong, good and bad, etc., isn’t helpful either. For toxic people, it’s Greek. They don’t get it. Unless you’re Greek, then you’re speaking English.
Toxic people don’t recognize these standards because their only standard is “do whatever it takes to be right.”
3. Toxic people fear intimacy.
Toxic people love to talk about the Warriors chances of winning the title or who should have won the Oscar for Best Movie. They will discuss anything, really, except how they feel or their relationship with God or the state of their marriage.
Toxic people fear intimacy. They don’t know how to be vulnerable or authentic and would probably label both as weakness.
If you try swimming below the surface, toxic people quickly divert the conversation or act offended.
Do you understand yet why you shouldn’t get angry or upset with a toxic person? Toxic people are lonely. They’re emotionally numb. It’s heartbreaking.
Let’s keep moving.
4. Toxic people are surrounded by drama.
Negative experiences define a toxic person’s life. Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” is their life’s theme song and they post a Debbie Downer meme on social media at least weekly. Toxic people don’t necessarily have more negative experiences. Although, this is likely the story you will hear. They allow these experiences to write their story.
They live in the past rather than learn from it. They draw on negative energy. At times, this energy is almost tangible.
This was my story until my late 20s. I could write a book about everything I was against. I knew who was wrong and why. I was keenly aware of all the evil in the world and which Christians were “real.”
But if you asked me what I was for, you would receive a blank stare.
Most toxic people leave behind a trail of drama because negativity fuels their identity. It’s an exhausting way to live. And if you hang around long enough, they will draw you in.
This is why recognizing toxic behaviors matters. Once you’re aware, you can prepare your heart. You can set up emotional boundaries and refuse to play by their rules.
5. Toxic people have a lot of problems and very few solutions.
Toxic people don’t want to change. In my dealings with toxic people and having looked at one in the mirror for several years, I can tell you they want people to listen. But they’re not interested in moving on or discussing action steps.
Ruminating in their problems gives them a feeling of power. And continuing to listen without pushing them forward only fuels this power.
If someone you love exhibits toxic behavior, you must continue pushing them forward, towards answers. This is the most loving thing you can do.
6. Toxic people speak in generalities and absolutes.
Toxic people use words like “always” and “never.” They use these words intentionally. It’s a subtle form of manipulation.
Just know you can’t reason with or convince someone who sees the world this way.
7. Toxic people are skeptical about everyone and everything.
In Donald Miller’s book Scary Close, he talks about a man named John Cotton. John is a human trafficking and civil rights prosecutor for the federal government. This guy prosecutes the worst of the worst, child sex traffickers, drug dealers, you name it.
In a conversation with Don, John says mentions a common trait he finds in every criminal he prosecutes.
They think people are out to get them.
I’m not saying your friend is a criminal. I’m saying this is a common thread in toxic people. They are, by default, skeptical about everyone and everything, even the people closest to them. Yes, you too.
Their minds cycle through a non-stop reel of worst-case scenarios. As you can imagine, years of doing this takes a toll on your heart.
It’s very difficult for toxic people to experience healthy relationships. They never give themselves fully to anyone, holding back just in case you hurt them.
8. Toxic people seek to impress, not connect.
I’m going a different direction with this point. I want to speak as a father. And I want to say something to you, parents.
As a dad, I fight the urge to impress my children every day. I want them to think I’m invincible, much the same way I saw my dad growing up. I want them to be proud of me. I want to project an image of strength and stability. I don’t want my children to know I battled pornography and that I almost allowed pride to destroy my marriage. I don’t want my children to know I struggle with doubt. I don’t want them to know I was sexually irresponsible before I met my wife (and their mother).
And, to be fair, I don’t have to tell them. Although I guess I just did. Anyway.
As I type this, tears come to my eyes thinking about how many nights I wanted to call my dad. For several years in my mid 20s, my life was a wreck and I needed the reassuring voice of my father. But I never called him, not once. He might have listened, I don’t know.
But I was convinced he wouldn’t understand. You see, my dad didn’t talk about his problems. He wasn’t a bad father. I’m thankful for him. But, intentionally or not, I was led to believe my dad either didn’t have problems or that grown ups didn’t talk about them.
Parents, you need to know this.
You can impress your kids. Or you can connect with them. But you can’t do both.
I pray everyday for the faith to be vulnerable and honest with my children. I pray the same for you. Look, I get it. It’s fun and all for your kids to think you can move mountains.
But one day they will be in a valley. And in this place, your kids don’t need your “perfect” image. They need to remember your failures, that you’ve been there, in the valley. And they need to know you’re not afraid to walk through it again.
Before I sign off, I want to invite you to join the conversation. I want this blog to become a community, a resource, a helpful place for anyone who’s either curious about Jesus or striving to walk in his footsteps. I also want this blog to be a safe place. You can be honest, but not cynical or accusatory.
So, what can you add to the conversation? What qualities did I not mention? Leave a comment below.
Grace and peace, friends.