Toxic Personality Traits and How to Get Rid of Them

If one of your friends or colleagues is frequently negative, controlling and manipulative, causing great distress to the people around them, they could have a toxic personality.

These personalities can be incredibly challenging, but there are several ways to cope. Here, psychologists explain how to deal with toxic personalities—and what to do if you think you're the one with toxic traits.

What Is a Toxic Personality?

A person with a toxic personality is one whose "hurtful, negative and controlling words and actions cause significant distress" to those around them, according to Adam Borland, a psychologist from the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

Ramani Durvasula, a clinical psychologist who has appeared with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith on the Red Table Talk show and with Kendall Jenner on Vogue's YouTube channel, told Newsweek that toxic personalities "put a person at odds with other people."

She added: "It's a personality in which a person does not take responsibility for themselves and blames other people for all difficulties." Such people are "incapable of coping with disappointment, frustration or stress."

A couple arguing on a sofa.
A couple arguing. People with toxic personalities are known for being critical and judgmental. iStock/Getty Images Plus

What Are Toxic Personality Traits?

Below are some of the key traits of a toxic personality, according to Borland and Durvasula:

  • Negativity
  • Blaming others
  • Being critical and judgmental
  • A lack of empathy
  • A sense of entitlement
  • Manipulativeness
  • Exploitativeness
  • Dysregulation, or difficulty regulating unwanted emotional states
  • Using guilt as "emotional blackmail" to get what they want
  • Assuming the victim role
  • Being passive-aggressive
  • Hostility
  • Being untrustworthy.

Which Mental Health Disorders Are Linked to Toxic Personalities?

People with narcissistic, borderline and antisocial personality styles often display toxic traits, while "toxic patterns" may also be seen in those with untreated substance use problems, according to Durvasula.

In those experiencing acute phases of mania or hypomania (extreme changes in mood, energy, activity or behavior), "we may see grandiose and irritable behavior that would be very difficult as well."

Impulse control disorders such as intermittent explosive disorder—think, road rage—can also be "quite unsettling and toxic," she added.

Childhood Risk Factors for Toxic Traits

There is no single set path that leads to a person having a toxic personality, but any number of developmental issues can place a child at risk.

"It's quite likely that temperament may be part of the inborn tendency," Durvasula said. Certain temperamental styles from birth—children who are "difficult to soothe, attention seeking, behaviorally agitated"—may be at risk for these personalities. "But that may be in part because the adults around them are getting frustrated with them."

Disruptions in a child's early environment can also shape toxic personalities, according to Durvasula. These disruptions can include attachment issues that relate to:

  • Having chaotic or inconsistent caregivers
  • Unavailable caregivers
  • Trauma
  • Neglect
  • In some cases, a child not learning to regulate or self-soothe. For example, spoiled children who don't learn to "wait their turn."

These early-life problems "impede the social and psychological development needed to develop a stable identity, a healthy ego, good boundaries, an accurate appraisal of self-esteem, awareness of self and others, empathy and self-regulation."

People with toxic personalities often have anxious or avoidant attachment styles, but a lot of non-toxic personalities have these too, she pointed out.

A man pointing his finger at someone.
A man angrily pointing his finger at someone. Blaming others and refusing to take responsibility is one of the traits of people with toxic personalities. iStock/Getty Images Plus

How to Deal With a Person With a Toxic Personality

Be Assertive

Borland said you should "display assertiveness" and speak up for yourself when dealing with one of these people. "Identify your core values and prioritize self-care."

Limit Interaction

Keep your interactions and conversations brief and maintain your boundaries. Don't allow yourself to "get drawn into the 'drama,'" Borland told Newsweek.

Durvasula agreed, citing the importance of maintaining a healthy distance from toxic personalities. "Do not enter into high-stakes relationships with them, such as intimate relationships or close work relationships, because it is likely to be very unhealthy," she advised.

Borland added: "Express empathy but do not try to fix the individual or the problem."

Accept They May Never Change

Durvasula advised that you have "realistic expectations," "recognizing that these personalities rarely change."

Self-Soothe

Borland encouraged deep breathing and "self-talk and calming mantras" to help you cope. If necessary, seek professional mental health treatment.

How to Deal With Family Members Who Have Toxic Personalities

It's not always possible to avoid toxic personalities—they might be a member of your family or other close contact. In these circumstances, Durvasula's advice is to "set boundaries, disengage and keep communication very tight."

"Don't personalize their behavior" because they are likely to be toxic with everyone, she added, and "do not defend yourself to them, don't waste lots of time explaining."

With family, "there is grief knowing that this relationship likely always has been and always will be limited," but "it's about acceptance, boundaries and realistic expectations since they are unlikely to change."

How to Deal With Toxic Personalities at Work

In the workplace, "make sure you document everything very carefully," said Durvasula.

You also need to recognize that your professional growth in a job where you're facing toxic personalities will be limited. So, you need to document, potentially consult with the human resources department and consider seeking out expert advice on labor law or workplace harassment.

"Sadly, in many toxic boss cases, the best you can hope for is transfer to a new division or leaving the workplace—they won't change, and you can waste years and your health on trying to tolerate it," Durvasula said.

A man arguing with woman at office.
A man arguing with a woman in an office setting. Try to avoid close work relationships with people with toxic personalities. If you can't, document your interactions carefully. iStock/Getty Images Plus

How to Get Rid of Toxic Personality Traits

"Therapy, therapy and therapy" is the key if you think you might have toxic traits, according to Durvasula. Working with a therapist "who knows how to work with these patterns" is vital for eliminating them, she added.

Borland agreed, highlighting the importance of taking accountability for your actions and identifying "actionable goals" you can work towards.

He also recommended working on improving your communication and listening skills, and trying to "display emotional vulnerability."

To get rid of toxic personality traits, Durvasula said you need:

  • A willingness to be vulnerable and honest with yourself
  • A willingness to take responsibility for your behavior and how it impacts other people
  • Awareness of how your behavior impacts other people
  • Self-reflection and self-awareness
  • To regulate your behavior, rather than just saying or doing what you want and thinking a hollow apology will fix it.
A man comforting a woman looking distraught.
A man comforting an upset woman. People who want to get rid of toxic personality traits need to "display emotional vulnerability" and improve their communication and listening skills. iStock/Getty Images Plus