Let me start by saying I don't exactly like the term "toxic people". There are certainly toxic attitudes, behaviors, and relational styles. But these are usually defense mechanisms--maladaptive and abusive as they may be, it's the mechanism that's toxic.
To some degree we all develop an inauthentic self: patterns of attitude, relating, and behaving meant to protect us, but which often does the opposite. For the "toxic" person this inauthentic self is a consuming force that craves something from others. This craving drives them to disregard the good of others. But it is still a facade, masking the true person hidden deep underneath, hurting.
This doesn't excuse the harm they cause.
People have toxic patterns, alright. So why do I keep running into them? Why does it seem like, time after time, when I get close to someone they end up treating me that same, awful way? As we witness history repeating itself in our lives, we start to wonder, maybe it's me.
Here are some reasons people mistakenly believe they find themselves in toxic relationships. If you are experiencing abusive and hurtful treatment from someone, it is never because:
You deserve to be treated this way.
Some part of you likes to be treated this way.
"Healthy" people aren't interested in you.
This is just how relationships are.
Something you did made them treat you this way.
These statements are rooted in in stories of shame that we carry with us, often unaware. They are not the real reason anyone finds themselves in a pattern of hurtful relationships--but here's the thing, believing these false narratives can be what keeps bringing us back. Somewhere in our stories, some version of these lies is planted and changes the trajectory of our life.
The False Religion
Veronica was feeling trapped in her relationship. Her boyfriend was verbally and sexually abusive, but she found it near impossible to leave. Just the act of coming to counseling (for which she'd had to obtain his begrudging permission) felt like a betrayal. As she told the story of their relationship, even the worst parts were framed as if they were all her fault.
Veronica had grown up in a very religious family. Now faith is a wonderful thing, and is often the catalyst for some of the most positive changes people experience. But it can also be a vehicle for some to project the pain of their own wounds onto others. The core narrative of her mother's religious orientation was that people (and Veronica in particular) were bad, rotten to the core. She was a loyal member of a congregation that proudly despised "feel-good" philosophies that "excused people's sins".
One day after school, her mom searched her backpack and found one of those folded-paper 'fortune teller' games she and her friends had made, with names of the boys they liked scribbled on the inner panels. Her mother berated her for hours. "Your friends are turning you into a slut," she said. Veronica was eleven.
This story crystalized a theme that characterized most of her upbringing. After working through the myriad of ways this burdensome narrative colored her perceptions, Veronica realized she'd actually learned to feel safe only around people who treated her with loathing and contempt, because ultimately that's how she'd been taught God viewed her. According to this belief, people who loved and accepted her weren't safe.
So she never let them in.
The Good Boy
DJ was a mild-mannered guy in his 30's, fairly successful in his job, but not happy with his relationship. His longtime girlfriend manipulated nearly every aspect of his life, he said. In his first sessions he vacillated between describing her as an emotional cyclone he could hardly handle, and gushing about how sweet and wonderful she was.
When she agreed to join him for a session, she eagerly listed off all the issues she thought he needed to be working on, as he sank lower in his chair with humiliation. When he finally spoke up and attempted to share how he was feeling in that moment, she burst into tears and dove into the story of her horrible childhood. She closed out the session by sharing what she believed DJ's goals for therapy should be.
But as agonizing as this was for DJ, in a strange way it was comfortingly familiar. He remembered his father as someone hidden behind a den door, or off on business trips (which he found out later often included affairs). His utterly checked-out dad left him and his mom to care for each other, an arrangement in which roles were often confused.
It was a strange relationship in which son takes care of parent, child takes on adult-sized demands, and what ensues is a confusing tangle of comfort and shame, longing and obligation.
Ultimately DJ had to give himself permission to be honest about the impact of his parent's choices, and specifically that by naming the boundaries that his mother was responsible for crossing, he wasn't abandoning her like his father had.
DeToxing Your Story
These lies can come into our inner world with sudden, traumatic effect, or with slow and insidious subtlety. They barge in on the shoulders of overt abusers, or they come in a slow drip from a culture that never stops promoting false sources of value. They leave us with boundaries that let all the wrong stuff in and keep all we long for beyond reach.
And there are people whose appetites drive them to seek out such hurting people. They'll instinctively zero in on those of us whom life has taught to tolerate the intolerable.
That doesn't mean this is the way life is meant to be. Once we realize how these patterns form ultimately from our narratives, and that those narratives can be challenged and changed, so much more becomes possible.
Like DJ and Veronica, Story Work can help you:
identify the false narratives and beliefs
unpack how those narratives formed
identify the decisions/behaviors that agree with those narratives
begin to embrace beliefs that nurture the authentic self
You don't attract toxic people. You just haven't told your truest story yet.
Mike Ensley, MA, LPCC is a Nationally Board-Certified Professional Counselor in Loveland, CO