I recently regressed into toxicity by biting off a bit more than I could chew, and as part of reflecting on this period I’d like to gather outside observations of the ways I break down under pressure. I expect most people would prefer to do this privately, and possibly anonymously as well, so feel free to send it to aeoli.pera at gmail or your preferred method of contacting me.
Glosoli, Akuma, and all others I’ve banned over the years are unbanned from the comments of this post. I’ve found the characteristic lack of restraint displayed by opponents, for lack of a better term, lends itself to very honest negative feedback that can be beneficially translated from the opponent’s value system to my own.
To spur your thinking, here’s a selection from Robert Greene on some common flavors of compulsive toxicity. FWIW what I observe in myself is a lot of the Big Talker and the Easy Moralizer and a little bit of the Hyperperfectionist, the Personalizer, and the Pampered Prince (the latter, if true, being more apparent in material contact with me than online). The Easy Moralizer only comes out under stress these days (disguised as an obsession with doing things right, rather than doing the right thing), but it’s apparently still in there.
Although each person’s character is as unique as a fingerprint, we can notice throughout history certain types that keep recurring and that can be particularly pernicious to deal with. As opposed to the more obviously evil or manipulative characters that you can spot a mile away, these types are trickier. They often lure you in with an appearance that presents their weaknesses as something positive. Only over time do you see the toxic nature beneath the appearance, often when it is too late. Your best defense is to be armed with knowledge of these types, to notice the signs earlier on, and to not get involved or to disengage from them as quickly as possible.
The Hyperperfectionist: You are lured into their circle by how hard they work, how dedicated they are to making the best of whatever it is they produce. They put in longer hours than even the lowliest employee. Yes, they might explode and yell at people below them for not doing the job right, but that is because they want to maintain the highest standards, and that should be a good thing. But if you have the misfortune of agreeing to work with or for such a type, you will slowly discover the reality. They cannot delegate tasks; they have to oversee everything. It is less about high standards and dedication to the group than about power and control.
Such people often have dependency issues stemming from their family background, similar to Howard Hughes. Any feeling that they might have to depend on someone for something opens up old wounds and anxieties. They can’t trust anyone. Once their back is turned, they imagine everyone slacking off. Their compulsive need to micromanage leads to people feeling resentful and secretly resistant, which is precisely what they fear the most. You will notice that the group they lead is not very well organized, since everything must flow through them. This leads to chaos and political infighting as the courtiers struggle to get closer to the king, who controls everything. Hyperperfectionists will often have health problems, as they work themselves to the bone. They like to blame others for everything that goes wrong—nobody is working hard enough. They have patterns of initial success followed by burnout and spectacular failures. It is best to recognize the type before getting enmeshed on any level. They cannot be satisfied by anything you do and will chew you up slowly with their anxieties, abusiveness, and desire to control.
The Relentless Rebel: At first glance such people can seem quite exciting. They hate authority and love the underdog. Almost all of us are secretly attracted to such an attitude; it appeals to the adolescent within us, the desire to snub our nose at the teacher. They don’t recognize rules or precedents. Following conventions is for those who are weak and stodgy. These types will often have a biting sense of humor, which they might turn on you, but that is part of their authenticity, their need to deflate everyone, or so you think. But if you happen to associate with this type more closely, you will see that it is something they cannot control; it is a compulsion to feel superior, not some higher moral quality.
In their childhood a parent or father figure probably disappointed them. They came to mistrust and hate all those in power. In the end, they cannot accept any criticism from others because that reeks of authority. They cannot ever be told what to do. Everything must be on their terms. If you cross them in some way, you will be painted as the oppressor and be the brunt of their vicious humor. They gain attention with this rebel pose and soon become addicted to the attention. In the end it is all about power—no one shall be above them, and anyone who dares will pay the price. Look at their past history—they will tend to split with people on very bad terms, made worse by their insults. Do not be lured in by the hipness of their rebel pose. Such types are eternally locked in adolescence, and to try work with them will prove as productive as trying to lock horns with a sullen teenager.
The Personalizer: These people seem so sensitive and thoughtful, a rare and nice quality. They might seem a little sad, but sensitive people can have it rough in life. You are often drawn in by this air of theirs, and want to help. Also, they can appear quite intelligent, considerate, and good to work with. What you come to realize later on is that their sensitivity really only goes in one direction—inward. They are prone to take everything that people say or do as personal. They tend to brood over things for days, long after you have forgotten some innocuous comment that they have taken personally. As children, they had a gnawing feeling that they never got enough from their parents—love, attention, material possessions. As they get older, everything tends to remind them of what they didn’t get. They go through life resenting this and wanting others to give them things without their having to ask. They are constantly on guard—are you paying them attention, do you respect them, are you giving them what they paid for? Being somewhat irritable and touchy, they inevitably push people away, which makes them even more sensitive. At some point they start to have a look of perpetual disappointment.
You will see in their life a pattern of many falling-outs with people, but they will always see themselves as the wronged party. Do not ever inadvertently insult such a type. They have a long memory and can spend years getting back at you. If you can recognize the type early enough, it’s better to avoid them, as they will inevitably make you feel guilty for something.
The Drama Magnet: They will draw you in with their exciting presence. They have unusual energy and stories to tell. Their features are animated and they can be quite witty. They are fun to be around, until the drama turns ugly. As children, they learned that the only way to get love and attention that lasted was to enmesh their parents in their troubles and problems, which had to be large enough to engage the parents emotionally over time. This became a habit, their way of feeling alive and wanted. Most people shrink from any kind of confrontation, but they seem to live for it. As you get to know them better, you hear more stories of bickering and battles in their life, but they manage to always position themselves as the victim.
You must realize that their greatest need is to get their hooks into you by any means possible. They will embroil you in their drama to the point that you will feel guilty for disengaging. It is best to recognize them as early as possible, before you become enmeshed and dragged down. Examine their past for evidence of the pattern and run for the hills if you suspect you are dealing with such a type.
The Big Talker: You are impressed by their ideas, the projects that they are thinking about. They need help, they need backers, and you are sympathetic, but step back for a moment and examine their record for signs of past achievements or anything tangible. You might be dealing with a type that is not overtly dangerous but can prove maddening and waste your valuable time. In essence, these people are ambivalent. On the one hand they are secretly afraid of the effort and responsibility that go with translating their ideas into action. On the other hand, they crave attention and power. The two sides go to war within them, but the anxious part inevitably wins out and they slip away at the last moment. They come up with some reason for getting out of it, after you have committed to them. They themselves never finish anything. In the end, they tend to blame others for not realizing their visions—society, nebulous antagonistic forces, or bad luck. Or they try to find a sucker who will do all of the hard work in bringing to life their vague idea but who will take the blame if it all goes wrong.
Often such people had parents who were inconsistent, would turn on them suddenly for the smallest misdeed. Consequently their goal in life is to avoid situations in which they might open themselves up to criticism and judgment. They handle this by learning to talk well and impressing people with stories but running away when called to account, always with an excuse. Look carefully at their past for signs of this, and if they seem the type, be amused by their stories but take it no further.
The Sexualizer: They seem charged with sexual energy, in a way that is refreshingly unrepressed. They have a tendency to mix work with pleasure, to blur the usual boundaries for when it is appropriate to use this energy, and you might imagine that this is healthy and natural. But in truth it is compulsive and comes from a dark place. In their earliest years such people probably suffered sexual abuse in some way. This could have been directly physical or something more psychological, which the parent expressed through looks and touching that was subtle but inappropriate.
A pattern is deeply set from within and cannot be controlled—they will tend to see every relationship as potentially sexual. Sex becomes a means of self-validation, and when they are young, such types can lead an exciting, promiscuous life, as they will tend to find people to fall under their spell. But as they get older, any long periods without this validation can lead to depression and suicide, so they become more desperate. If they occupy positions of leadership, they will use their power to get what they want, all under the guise of being natural and unrepressed. The older they get, the more pathetic and frightening this becomes. You cannot help or save them from their compulsion, only save yourself from entanglement with them on any level.
The Pampered Prince/Princess: They will draw you in with their regal air. They are calm and ever so slightly imbued with a feeling of superiority. It is pleasant to meet people who appear confident and destined to wear a crown. Slowly you might find yourself doing favors for them, working extra hard for no pay, and not really understanding how or why. Somehow they express the need to be taken care of, and they are masters at getting others to pamper them. In childhood, their parents indulged them in their slightest whim and protected them from any kind of harsh intrusion from the outside world. There are also some children who incite this behavior in their parents by acting especially helpless. Whatever the cause, as adults their greatest desire is to replicate this early pampering. It remains their lost paradise. You will notice often that when they don’t get what they want, they display baby-like behavior, pouting, or even tantrums.
This is certainly the pattern for all of their intimate relationships, and unless you have a deep need to pamper others, you will find the relationship maddening, always on their terms. They are not equipped to handle the harsh aspects of adult life and either manipulate a person into the pampering role or resort to drinking and drugs to soothe themselves. If you feel guilty for not helping them, it means you are hooked and should look to take care of yourself instead.
The Pleaser: You have never met anyone so nice and considerate. You almost can’t believe how accommodating and charming they are. Then slowly you begin to have some doubts, but nothing you can put your finger on. Perhaps they don’t show up as promised or don’t do a job so well. It is subtle. The further this goes, however, the more it seems like they are sabotaging you or talking behind your back. These types are consummate courtiers, and they have developed their niceness not out of a genuine affection for their fellow humans but as a defense mechanism. Perhaps they had harsh and punishing parents who scrutinized their every action. Smiling and a deferential front was their way of deflecting any form of hostility, and it becomes their pattern for life. They also probably resorted to lying to their parents, and they are generally practiced and expert liars.
Just as when they were children, behind the smiles and flattery is a great deal of resentment at the role they have to play. They secretly yearn to harm or steal from the person they serve or defer to. You must be on your guard with people who actively exert so much charm and politeness, past the point of what is natural. They can turn out to be quite passive-aggressive, particularly hitting you when your guard is down.
The Savior: You cannot believe your good luck—you have met someone who will save you from your difficulties and troubles. Somehow they recognized your need for help and here they are with books to read, strategies to employ, the right foods to eat. In the beginning it is all quite seductive, but your doubts begin the moment you want to assert your independence and do things on your own.
In childhood, these types often had to become the caregivers of their own mother, father, or siblings. The mother, for instance, made her own needs the primary concern of the family. Such children compensate for the lack of care that they receive with the feeling of power that they derive from the inverted relationship. This sets a pattern: they gain their greatest satisfaction from rescuing people, from being the caregiver and savior. They have a nose for those in possible need of salvation. But you can detect the compulsive aspect of this behavior by their need to control you. If they are willing to let you stand on your own two feet after some initial help, then they are truly noble. If not, it is really about the power they can exercise. In any event, it is always best to cultivate self-reliance and tell saviors to save themselves.
The Easy Moralizer: They communicate a sense of outrage at this bit of injustice or that, and they are quite eloquent. With such conviction they find followers, including you. But sometimes you detect cracks in their righteous veneer. They don’t treat their employees so well; they are condescending to their spouse; they may have a secret life or vice you catch glimpses of. As children, they were often made to feel guilty for their own strong impulses and desires for pleasure. They were punished and tried to repress these impulses. Because of this they develop some self-loathing and are quick to project negative qualities onto others or look enviously at people who are not so repressed. They don’t like other people enjoying themselves. Instead of expressing their envy, they choose to judge and condemn. You will notice in the adult version a complete lack of nuance. People are good or evil, no middle ground. They are in fact at war with human nature, incapable of coming to terms with our less-than-perfect traits. Their morality is as easy and compulsive as drinking or gambling, and it requires no sacrifices on their part, just a lot of noble words. They thrive in a culture of political correctness.
In truth they are secretly drawn toward what they condemn, which is why they will inevitably have a secret side. You will certainly be the target of their inquisition at some point if you get too close to them. Notice their lack of empathy early on and keep your distance.
(For more toxic types, see the chapters on envy, 10; grandiosity, 11; and aggression, 16.)-Robert Greene, The Laws of Human Nature, chapter 4
Please remember this is primarily concerned with observations of signs of stress. So what kind of behaviors do you see in me that make you start to worry I’m bouta pop off?