Please also read the article ‘Difficult People” new on web site.


Toxic implies poisonous, dangerous, distressing to the equilibrium of Self and Others, damaging, infectious, debilitating, sapping strength, interfering with healthy [“normal”] functioning…


Now be careful:  Don’t judge!  The most dangerous thing about toxic people is their frequent lack of insight into their own toxicity and their judgment of Others as Toxic or bad!  A recent episode of the sitcom Two and a Half Men demonstrated the total denial a toxic person can have of his/her own toxicity, beautifully:  The dysfunctional mother of the two anti-heroes reports that she went to a funeral of a woman who was so critical, judgmental, pedantic, self-centred and un-empathic [read “Narcissistic Personality Disorder!] that nobody else went to her funeral.  Her sons finally revealed that her fate was likely to be similar since her personality was identical!


Personality Disorders


Personality Disorders are sets of dysfunctional patterns of behaviour that are usually caused by repeated failures of Significant Others to meet childhood needs appropriately, and these symptoms cause significant distress in relationships with Self or Others at personal, social, work, intimate and family level.  Such Disorders [or PDs] may only be diagnosed in adulthood [i.e. usually after 20 years of age] and the diagnosis may be made only by a clinician, like a Psychiatrist or Clinical Psychologist.  No, your conviction that your mother-in-law is the world’s most toxic Narcissist, is not legal or valid, and may have you sued for character defamation!


There is a list of the diagnosable PD’s on the web site, but do remember

[a] all people have some measure of defensive dysfunctional traits, and most of them are not PD’s;

[b] unless you have said clinical qualification and the person is not in close relationship to you, you are not qualified – or objective enough – to make the diagnosis;

[c] and also not objective or qualified to diagnose yourself.


That being said, since the symptoms are generally caused by very early and chronic interpersonal failures, the chief defense mechanisms are Denial [I’m not like that, thank Goodness!] and Projection [But she/he/all others are!] and Splitting [If you’re not 100% validating everything I say and do, you’re obviously betraying me and must be shunned/won back/punished…!]  So perhaps if we get some inkling that we just may have some of the dysfunctional traits ourselves, there is already potential for growth in that we could come out of Denial.


1:  Fatal Poisoning: Antisocial Personalities


It’s not usually appropriate to talk about degrees of dysfunctionality among the PD’s as all of them cause severe distress at personal, social or work level.  But from a therapeutic perspective the Antisocial Personality Disorder can be the most damaging as it is highly resistant to any intervention:  People can have decades of different kinds of therapy and yet remain as toxic as at the start.  And while other poisons usually cause from moderate to severe illness in relationships, Antisocial PD frequently causes complete destruction of the Other’s sense of self, or even their life.  Previously this category was termed Psychopath [as in the famous movie Psycho], later Sociopath and since 1994, Antisocial PD.  Typical are career criminals, from those who create child pornography to drug pedlars and mass murderers.


The most common Antisocial traits are a complete absence of Empathy for others [people and animals], coupled with compelling deceit and manipulation, and frequently a sadistic enjoyment of others’ pain [as seen in the movie The Silence of the Lambs].  In childhood, symptoms of an inability to feel empathy for others, plus sadism towards animals may predict that a person would have strong Antisocial traits in adulthood, or even the Disorder, if effective and long-term therapeutic intervention is not given early enough.


Criteria for diagnosis include any 3 or more recurrent traits of the following [traits from age 15, but PD is never diagnosed before age 18]:

          Repeated criminal / illegal acts

          Deceitfulness / lying / conning others for personal gain

          Impulsivity & Immediate gratification no matter what

          Repeated physical violence [breaking things, hurting animals or people]

          Reckless, disregarding own or others’ safety

          Consistent irresponsibility [e.g. in relationships, with others’ money or possessions, or at work]

          Complete lack of empathy or remorse [often, lack of any “real” emotions except pleasure]

Plus history of Repeated acts of Conduct Disorder with onset before age 15.



2:   Violent bouts of illness, sometimes causing death: Narcissistic Personalities


I’ll give more information on the other PD’s at later occasions – probably by adding more articles on the web site – but now also want to talk a little bit about the Narcissistic Personality Disorder [NPD].  Please again remember that everyone of us has Narcissistic traits, and that there are Functional ones, like healthy ambition, good interpersonal judgment, self-respect and self-confidence, as well as the Dysfunctional ones, which I’ll discuss in brief [in no particular order].


Grandiosity:  No matter what you’ve achieved, experienced, or where you’ve holidayed, the Narcissist has done better!  They have a grandiose sense of self-importance and feel superior to everyone else, from Nobel Prize winners to mere Therapists, and are thus highly resistant to therapy:  they’ll go to sessions but keep “proving” how wrong you are and how much they know better!  This is also reflected in other relationships and the critical, judgmental, arrogant and perfectionist attitude is a major stressor in, for instance spouse abuse or emotional abuse in general – whether derogating your child, or being obnoxious to a waiter in a restaurant.  Their “victims” report that it feels like the Narcissist is always on the look-out to catch them doing something wrong, or being slightly imperfect in some way, and this “fault” is then catastrophied and focussed on and punished in humiliating and extreme ways.


Entitlement:  Why should the Narcissist have to wait in a queue like mere other human beings?  Why should the doctor, teller, therapist, spouse, or nurse in a hospital not be instantly available at the moment their need is felt, the bell is rung for attention, or the person is called.  Talk about Immediate Gratification!  While this immediate gratification need is normally in the form of service or attention from others [including pets], Narcissists also frequently have substance addiction disorders, which tends to further impair their insight and judgment, and to escalate their pathology to dangerous levels.


Lack of Empathy:  Or sometimes Fake empathy:  if they believed they lacked empathy, they would have to admit to a flaw, so they deny that possibility to themselves, and research “how to be empathic” [as they research and challenge anything else in order never to be caught of guard], and act as empathic people are supposed to act – sometimes.  Their words may sound empathic but their body language may at the same time be threatening, rejecting or denigrating. Basically their chief defense [against chronic early failures of empathy or positive attention from Significant Others] mechanism is total self-absorption and they are unwilling or unable to recognise and deal with needs or feelings of Others.


According to the DSM [Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, internationally used for clinical diagnosis], people with any five of the following [chronic or daily] personality traits, either have “Narcissistic Personality traits” [shown as +, ++, or +++ depending on severity and impact on others] or a full-blown Narcissistic Personality Disorder…  Now, remember that we ALL display many of these traits some of the time or in specific situations, without them being our main, only, or chronic defenses!

          Grandiose sense of self-importance

           Preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited power, success, beauty, brilliance or ideal love

          Believes s/he is special/unique and can only be understood by or be associated with others who are “the best” in any field

          Demands or invites excessive admiration

          Sense of entitlement

          Exploits others to achieve his/her own goals

          Lacks empathy

          Believes others are envious of him/her, yet also envies [and often denigrates] success of others

          Arrogant, haughty behaviours and attitudes


Impact on Relationships:


Borderline Personality Disorder [BPD] can be as destructive to Self and Others in relationships [in fact, commonly more directedly self-destructive than NPD or Antisocial PD] and its defensive causes are usually as early as in the previously discussed PD’s, resulting in equally primitive defensive mechanisms [e.g. Splitting, Projection, Denial].  And people with strong BPD traits cause massive havoc in relationships too, but I will discuss that Disorder on its own elsewhere [BPD sufferers are often overwhelming, so it’s not just a matter of physical space here!]


For now, let’s just consider the common effects of Antisocial PD and Narcissistic PD on relationships. 


Very often we find some sort of abuse of Others with both, and it’s difficult for the lay person to differentiate causal factors:  Is the person abusive because of anti-social tendencies, or because of a deeply repressed terror of being abandoned, or losing control? [Or are they on a continuum of similar dysfunction?]


It’s important to understand that when there is abuse in a relationship – financial, power, social, emotional, sexual, verbal, and especially if its already escalated to physical violence [breaking objects, smashing doors or walls, or physically attacking or threatening to injure others or animals] – it is highly unlikely that a few weeks or even months of couples’ counselling/therapy will create lasting levels of greater harmony.


Unfortunately, the converse is true.  Even when there is some behaviour change on the part of the abusive partner, it may be manipulative [conscious or unconscious] or a False Self formation* underneath which parts of the personality build up resentment and rebellion against the therapist as authority figure, often resulting in higher levels of control and abuse if the person feels that the partner is gaining self-esteem and confidence.


It is never safe to be in any form of relationship with the Antisocial Personality:  even if you’re part of their “gang” and have similar behaviours, you are never safe [“blood in, blood out”]. And there really is no safe way to remain in an intimate relationship with a Narcissistic Personality, not while they’re either not yet in therapy, or even for many years while they are in therapies of various kinds.  While the traits remain, the danger is high, and the behaviours are likely to escalate or at least recur, despite remorseful promises and apparent acts of contrition, that may last for months. Only when a mental health professional can assure you that it’s safe, should you consider being in a close relationship with formerly abusive people.


If you suspect that your romantic or business partner/s may be Narcissists, the only way you can be relatively safe from some form of abuse in the relationship, is to insist on regular [i.e. at least once a week, and probably in terms of years rather than months] couples therapy as well as individual therapy for the abuser.  And maybe the therapist is a religious counsellor or social worker or guru, but, because of the power dynamic and primitive defenses, without some authority figure to whom there is accountability, most clinicians appear to hold little hope for good prognosis.


In other words, if there is ever any form of abuse [psychological or physical, or at any other level, especially if recurrent], get professional help, and urgently!  Do not delay until the co-dependency and the behaviours are so fixed that it’s extremely difficult to find an antidote for the “poison”.


Conversely, if you recognise the traits at toxic level in yourself, it is very important to commit to the right kind of psychotherapy as soon as possible, understanding that the long-term investment of time and money is worth it, as the gains are safer and happier relationships with yourself and Others at all levels of your life, which in turn promotes financial and physical well-being.


*See C20 psychoanalyst Donald W Winnicott’s essays on the formation of the defensive False Self structures


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