3 Signs Someone Is Toxic (and 3 Ways to Keep Them Out of Your Life)

Mar 25, 2014 | Updated May 25, 2014
Ariel Skelley via Getty Images

One enormous benefit of working with thousands of people each year is that you learn to detect in 10 minutes or less an enormous amount about people -- their energy, how they operate in the world, their sense of entitlement, generosity and consideration (or lack thereof), boundaries, degree of self-love, values, worldview and much more.

In my line of work, where hundreds of strangers reach out on the phone or online to connect, I have had to develop the capability to discern who I want to move forward with and who I need to walk away from quickly in order to protect myself, my time and my energy. If I fall down on that, I suffer -- and so does my family, colleagues and clients (not to mention my health and well-being).

I've learned to see the red flag warning signs of behaviors I know I need to walk away from, and my list of warning signs might be of help to you too. I need to add that even though I walk away from these toxic individuals without guilt or shame, I endeavor to access love in my heart and deep compassion for them. I'm not cruel, harsh or dismissive (at least I try not to be), but I'm as respectful as I can be.

But I do know where I end and they begin, and I know when it's time to end our connection, and fast.

Below are the top three signs that help me know when I'm dealing with a toxic individual, and when to walk away:

1. It's all about them
I'm astounded by people who call me at all hours of the day and night, without a thought, to talk about their struggles. They launch right in, not checking in if it's a good time to talk. It's all about them.

These types of people are so chronically unhappy, stuck feeling victimized and lacking in awareness of the impact of their own actions and words that they are co-creating their problems. They're often angry, frustrated and highly critical of others, and feel that their problems deserve immediate attention, without regard for the world around them. In other words, they believe that their urgency is your emergency.

Anyone who thinks that life is all about them and that their problems are more important or pressing than anyone else's needs a wake-up call. But the truth is, you don't have to be the one to deliver that call. Walk away.

2. They have no regard for your boundaries
In my work as a therapist, I've connected with many folks with serious psychological disorders, including severe personality disorders. One is called "borderline personality disorder," and while I'm not a fan of labels, the hallmarks of this disorder are readily apparent: a total lack of personal boundaries and a complete disregard for others' boundaries. It's virtually impossible to build a positive, mutually-supportive relationship with people who disregard or violate your boundaries, who won't take no for an answer and who don't even recognize when they're walking all over you.

Take a look today at the people in your life. Do they respect your boundaries? Do they act appropriately and honor you when you assert yourself and say "yes" or "no?" Or do they continually demand of you what you're not comfortable to give and what you have said you would not give?

Your boundaries are the invisible barriers that separate you from the world around you. They define who you are and keep you safe and secure, physically, emotionally and spiritually. Having well-developed boundaries ensures that you are shielded from behaviors and actions that are injurious, disrespectful and invasive. Those with healthy boundaries know their limits and are able to express themselves with quiet strength and authority.

Those with unhealthy boundaries push and pull on you in uncomfortable or aggressive ways and don't know when to stop. They can't regulate their behaviors or language to honor and respect the boundaries of others.

Who is trampling on your boundaries today? (BTW, if your boss is treating you terribly, read more about how to tell if your boss is a narcissist -- and how not to get fired by one.)

3. There's no grace, kindness or appreciation
I'm always pleasantly surprised when I speak to a stranger or potential new client or colleague and they connect with grace, generosity, kindness and appreciation. It's a beautiful thing -- to be greeted by a gentle voice, a kind, open heart and sincere appreciation for what you do and who you are.

The flip side of this is when people engage with you in ways that are brusque, inconsiderate, demanding or disrespectful. Givers -- who approach life with a generous, giving mindset -- are a true blessing in our lives. Insincere, self-absorbed takers, on the other hand, who are always looking for "what's in it for me" and demand of you more than is fair, appropriate or realistic, need to be led out the door of your life.

How do you walk away from a toxic potential client or partner you've just met? Here are a few key tips (different strategies are required for different situations):

1. Be kind and courteous, but make it clear that an engagement or partnership with this individual or his/her business isn't a good fit for you at this time

2. Be honest. Explain what an ideal partnership looks like and why this isn't it

3. Be BOLD. (For those who won't take no for an answer) Thank them for their time, but explain that you have a set of non-negotiables and standards of integrity that you live by. With love in your heart, share that these non-negotiables are just that - immutable rules that help you thrive. Explain your feeling that your non-negotiables would most likely not be honored in this arrangement, and for that reason, you'd like to leave things as they are and part ways.

Who's toxic in your life right now? What bold, candid conversation do you need to have today to protect yourself from narcissistic, demanding takers and self-absorbed individuals who can't or won't respect or appreciate you?

(To learn more about building a happy, successful career, join my free career breakthrough teleclass on April 9th -- Make the Right Career Move Now! For help to build stronger boundaries, read my book Breakdown Breakthrough, and check out my one-on-one coaching services.)