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How To Spot Toxic People: 6 Traits To Watch Out For

Written by Paolina Milana
Paolina is a confidence coach who uses storytelling to help leaders step into their power.
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We can clearly see the warning signs on hazardous products. That human skull with the two cross bones behind it on any label screams one word: TOXIC.

We know without having to interact that whatever may be inside is at its best harmful and to be handled with care and at its worst poisonous and to be avoided at all cost. Toxic people can be quite similar in terms of their ability to negatively impact us and do some serious damage. But unlike those products, toxic people don’t come with warning labels making them much more difficult to spot.

So how can we tell if someone is toxic? What are those toxic people traits that are common among them and that we need to watch out for?

Chances are that if you’ve found this way to this article, you already have encountered someone exhibiting toxic behaviors. Those feelings of being dismissed, devalued, and taken advantage of that arise in you when dealing with toxic people are not to be ignored. Toxic people take many forms. They can be your boss or a colleague from work, a family member or a love interest, or even your neighbor or that grocery checkout clerk who always seems to be the only one working when you go into the shop. Sadly, toxic people aren’t limited to any one area of our lives. Personally and professionally toxic people are among us. As the old saying goes:

“Some people brighten a room when they enter it; others when they leave it.”

And toxic people are definitely the latter.

Here are some telltale signs to help you spot those toxic people traits:

1. Master Manipulators

Toxic people love control. They love to twist situations in their favor, and they’ve perfected their pitch in making you feel off-balance and irrational should you not whole-heartedly go along with what they want.

Some examples of tools they’ll use in their manipulation attempts include:

  • Making you feel guilty
  • Flat out lying or denying even when the facts are staring them in the face
  • Projecting onto you the blame that actually belongs to them

Toxic people will work to gain your trust. They can be oh so charming. You start out thinking they’re a friend and then you start to doubt if they really are. Once they have you, they’ll use what you’ve told them in confidence — your weaknesses and insecurities — to take advantage of you.

2. Drama Junkies

While it’s safe to say that a majority of people try to avoid drama, toxic people are addicted to it. They not only thrive in chaos, but get a thrill out of creating confusion and conflict. Surrounding yourself in such a swirl of stress leaves you feeling exhausted, just as it leaves them feeling exhilarated.

Some favorite tools in creating their drama include:

  • Announcing the 11th hour project deadlines and needs, not out of necessity, but on purpose to watch others spin
  • Expecting what they want exactly when they want it, regardless of what it takes (usually at your expense)
  • Worrying about everything and anything unnecessarily and sucking you into their world of unfounded fear and doubt

3. Condescending Communicators

An air of superiority fills the room every time toxic people open their mouths. It can take several forms.

Bullying and belittling is probably its most blatant and, perhaps, its worst.

Mean-spiritedness or masking negative comments with alleged humor is another favorite of theirs.

Complaining about others and doing everything they can to get you to agree or join in is a way they make a party out of patronizing others, expanding their toxicity to a wider group of people who unfortunately may happen to fall in their path.

A few favorite tools they use to make you feel small with their words include:

  • Rather than comment on the content of the message someone else is delivering, toxic people will point out and focus on insignificant errors such as a mispronounced word
  • Telling others how they should or shouldn’t feel, often in a way that shames them into thinking they are in the wrong — “don’t be so emotional” or “relax” or “get a grip”
  • Criticizing what others have to say by exaggerating their responses with backhanded praise — “I can’t believe you came up with that!” or “Wow…but it isn’t exactly rocket science”

4. Me, Myself & I Mentality

This one is easy to spot. It’s along the lines of the narcissist, the ego-tripper, the swelled head. Toxic people are all about themselves and only include you IF you serve a purpose to get them what they want. This goes beyond selfish and into the realm of self-obsession. They are not only the center of their own universe, but they expect to be the center of yours, too.

Surefire signs of this toxic trait include:

  • Not an ounce of empathy or even awareness of what others are experiencing or feeling
  • The need to put themselves on display and the requirement for others to shower them with compliments and accolades
  • An “above the law” attitude — the rules are fine for minions but in the toxic mindset but they don’t apply to them

5. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

You may never know who you’ll be dealing with on any given moment or any given day when dealing with toxic people. They can parade around as altruistic and fool a great many people — even you. It’s actually how they worm their way into your heart making you believe they are a friend when in actuality they’re mission is to chip away at your self-esteem and elevate their own presence and status.

Toxic people contradict themselves often, but tend to be masters at making it your problem, your mistake, if you point out their flip-flopping. They’ll turn on you in the blink of an eye and leave you doubting yourself and asking what you did to cause such a shift in the person you thought you knew.

Favorite Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde warning signs that come from inside of you include:

  • If you dread opening emails or taking phone calls or having in-person meetings with an individual, feeling anxiety because you don’t know what to expect — you find yourself just wanting to keep your distance from the toxic person
  • When you hesitate speaking or taking actions in front of them for fear of what they may think, say, or do in response
  • When you feel as if you’re losing your mind or suffering from bi-polar disorder because of how you can be on top of the world when around them in one minute and in the very next be in the depths of despair depending on if Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde showed up

6. Predators at Heart

Leopards never change their spots. Nor do toxic people change their ways. At their core, they are predators seeking out those who make their egos swell. They prey on people who aren’t necessarily easy to manipulate — what would be the challenge for them in that?

Truly toxic people cast a wide net and inflict their negative attitudes and behaviors on whomever they can and follow up with those on whom their toxicity sticks. If they can do damage on someone who starts out pretty strong and confident and ends up turning them into a shadow of their former selves, a toxic person considers themselves to have scored big.


A few things to watch out for what a toxic predator is stalking their next prey include:

  • They’ll be seemingly ever-present. They’ll appear whenever you are positioned to shine so that they can work to dim your light with their negativity
  • They’ll try to separate you from the herd. They won’t want you to surround yourself with other more positive voices. They want you all to themselves
  • A toxic predator will play with you, as a cat does with a mouse, before finally doing you in. They often savor your slow decline, watching you innocently fall deeper and deeper into their traps

Bottom Line

At the end of the day, toxic people traits become clear to us IF we pay attention to our own gut and our own internal alarm bells that tells us something is off. We don’t need to know what is wrong, but we do need to listen to the voice inside of us that whispers its warnings. We need to heed those red flags before they become so common that we think a toxic person’s negativity is normal. It’s not.

Toxic people are poison…but, remember, you are the one who gets to choose whether or not to take a drink.[1]

Here’re more suggestions on how to deal with toxic people:

Featured photo credit: Papaioannou Kostas via unsplash.com


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