Spotting the initial charm of toxic people

Narcissists will often acknowledge that they are indeed narcissists[1], when asked, but toxic people will deny their behaviour and even try to convince you that it is you, rather than them, who has the problem with objectionable behaviour. Toxic behaviour is subtle and undermining and contaminates your self-esteem and self-concept. However, toxic people often start off by appearing to be engaging, generous and charming. So, what are the tell-tale signs for spotting a toxic person?

They will start the friendship with apparent great generosity and will go to great lengths to show that they are kind and thoughtful but suddenly will leave a conversation unfinished and then will disappear for a time. This can be a pointer to future behaviour. Trust your instincts when getting to know new people whether they are from work, the dating scene or a social networking event. Ask yourself if there is a stop/start aspect to the friendship, as that might be an indication of what is to come in the future.

The people you need to especially watch out for are those who have no awareness of their judgmentalism. Toxic people can never be wrong, that is why they never apologise. They will usually personalise everything. Bringing awareness to the harmful effects of their behaviour is the first step in minimising the impact of their influence. 

Toxic people want to feel like they have ‘gotcha’ when it comes to arguments. They have to be in control as they need to feel that they are in the right. So, they try to identify your weak spot when negotiating. They will usually speak over you and dismiss your concerns. Pay attention to this type of interaction when getting to know someone new. Are there warning signs you need to be aware of? It can be tempting to get caught up in the feel-good drama of a budding relationship (when dopamine and adrenaline is swirling around in your system) and be blind to the tell-tale signs of toxic people. Being aware of the way toxic people operate will help sharpen your radar, ensuring that the manipulation is easier to identify and easier to name.

The key to identifying a toxic person early on in a new relationship, when they are trying to be charming, is to be aware for the times when they let their guard slip and you get a glimpse of their nasty side. 

There is much debate about where toxic behaviour comes from. It could derive from learned behaviour and from an insecurity that fuels a need to stay in control. The source of that insecurity could be due to a negative life experience in their early years. Indeed, kids who received too much praise from their parents may turn out to be toxic adults.

Toxic people become attracted to open, kind and generous people (who they see as easy prey) so it is important that you don’t allow their toxicity stop you from shining in the world. Toxic people want to control and bully and ultimately will strive to destabilise your sense of you. They will exaggerate and start conversations with ‘You always …’ ‘You never …’ This form of manipulation is difficult to defend against. They have a way of focusing on perhaps the one and only time when you didn’t, or the one time you actually did, as evidence of your shortcomings. Don’t let them affect your self-confidence.  You are far too special to allow them to win. They are not worth fighting with. It is far better to disengage and move towards people who will enhance your self-esteem and self-concept.

Counselling and psychotherapy offers the potential to review your history of relationships and assess why you made the decisions you did. It can also help you to establish firm boundaries to improve your radar for spotting the potential for abusive toxic behaviour at an early stage. Toxic people will tend to avoid conflict with people with firm boundaries as they know that their nonsense will be less likely to convince.


Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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London SE1 & SE26
Written by Noel Bell, MA, PG Dip Psych, UKCP
London SE1 & SE26

Noel Bell is a counsellor/psychotherapist based in London who has spent the past 20 years exploring and studying personal growth, recovery from addictions and inner transformation. Noel draws upon the most effective tools and techniques from the psychodynamic, cognitive behavioural (CBT), humanist, existential and transpersonal schools.

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