They do say that 7 is a magic number. I think of these as ‘symptoms’ because they’re signs that something is wrong, and toxic people have a habit of making life just as difficult as though you’re ill. It’s not necessary for all of these symptoms to be present, but if someone is exhibiting two or more of them it’s a bad sign. The unfortunate thing is, that while only one or two people in a group can be like this, they are so magnetic and others are often so naïve that they very often make things difficult for those who don’t do what they want.
- They’re selfish and attention-seeking – I’ve put these two as one item because I see selfish as a more one-to-one thing and attention-seeking as happening more in a group. If someone is selfish, it means that they can’t bear for you to be happy without them, and will interrupt you if you’re telling them about an experience you had, and start telling you about their own. If someone is attention-seeking, it means activities in the friendship group have to revolve around them. This could be obvious, and they could be loud and demanding. It could also be subtle, in that over time everyone always goes to the pub that they suggest, or looks to them for advice before anyone else. It’s easy for others in a group to become dependent on the toxic person because they literally become the life of the party.
- They think that you should be grateful to have them – this is both a sign that they’re trying to manipulate you, and a sign that they can’t comprehend that you don’t need them in your life. It’s quite sad in that way, because toxic people don’t usually have empathy. They have often been raised to be selfish, normally by accident, and aren’t able to understand that others think differently to them. This can lead simply to a lack of understanding of you, but it can easily extend to the mentality that you need them and that they are doing you favours by including you in a group.
- They ask odd questions – these are questions that no friend would ask, not just weird ones like ‘which character in X fandom would you marry?’ while you’re in the middle of your shift at work. If you’re studying, they’re constantly asking about your grades. If you’re in a social group, they want to know everything, from whether you have a driving licence to whether you drink to your dietary preferences. It comes across as innocent at first, as just someone trying to get to know you, but it becomes more frequent and more probing. This is the toxic person getting to know their enemy. I think that having a blasé attitude helps to ward them off, because you’ll answer questions in a way that they won’t expect, or will give really boring answers that they can’t do anything with. Take driving, for instance. If you answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and don’t elaborate, they know pretty much the same amount as when they first asked.
- They stop you from mattering – the world begins to revolve around them so much that you stop existing. This can be accidental, but it can equally be intentional. It is difficult to tell the difference. For instance, you could be at a party, and find someone else to chat to for ten minutes, and turn around to find that your friendship group has left without you because the toxic person has decided to go home and no one thought to see if anyone had been left behind. When confronted, the friendship group may realise their error and be mortified that it happened at all, but the toxic person will view it as your fault for not following their lead. This happens regardless of whether they intentionally left you or not. In their own mind, the toxic person can do no wrong, so it must be you who is to blame for all of your friends simultaneously forgetting that you existed.
- They turn your friends against you – now this one is intentional. It takes effort to make a group of people who have known for you a while think that you are the bad guy, no matter what you are doing. There are various ways that toxic people can achieve this, but it usually involves going behind your back and starting rumours or organising activities without you. Eventually they manage to convince your friends that you don’t want to be around them anymore, or they convince them that you’re a person you’re not. Good friends should realise what is happening, or be horrified when they find out, but ones who fall for it hook, line, and sinker and believe what the toxic people are telling them aren’t worth keeping.
- They are offended as convenient – now, it’s alright to be offended by something. We all have one or two bugbears in our lives, for instance sexism or racism. We also tend to be offended by our bugbear(s) every time they come up, because it’s something we feel strongly about. However, toxic people treat things that offend them like a pick ‘n’ mix. One day they won’t care about something, the next they will, and they get very nasty if everyone doesn’t agree with them. They also tend to be hypocritical. They can make comments on topics which offend them, but no one else can without being insensitive. This one can take some time to spot because they might be on their best behaviour when they first meet new people, but you’ll notice eventually that their opinions are erratic.
- They have extreme lives – I don’t mean that they skydive every weekend. I mean that their lives fall into one of two categories: extraordinarily happy and privileged, or a never-ending sob story. It’s even possible for them to have a different extreme, or a different sob story, for each person that they deal with. It’s another instance of them getting to know their enemy, and doing what they think will most effectively win you over. Both extremes tend to get more elaborate with time, but the sob story is the more likely of the two to be inconsistent. This is because the toxic person won’t be able to keep track of what they’ve told each individual, and once an element of their story becomes normal to others, they won’t receive as much sympathy for it. They will feel the need to embellish the element or add a new one to top up the sympathy and attention of those around them.
Of course this list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s based on my own experiences. Perfectly nice people can exhibit these symptoms when they’re stressed or around new people, and if they do they’d appreciate support. But prolonged and varied symptoms, particularly in a group and from someone you don’t consider a close friend, is a sign that there’s probably a good reason that you’re not close friends. I’d rather people didn’t make my mistakes and let these people walk over them so easily. Consider it my mid-year resolution to not make these mistakes again.