40@40: Beware the Toxic Personality

It is now my duty to completely drain you.


You Never Know What Had You Until It’s Gone

I took the entire month of July to celebrate turning 40, but it wasn’t just because I was having a milestone birthday. The date just happened to coincide with a number of other significant milestones that shaped me as a person.

Almost a year prior, on July 29, 2015 at 10:38 AM, I felt an unimaginable weight lift from my shoulders. I felt like a human being for the first time in nearly a decade. A soul-draining cancer had been cut from my life. I was officially divorced.

Don’t get me wrong. There was a time when I loved my now ex-wife. I tried like hell to see the good in her. But in the end, I realized I had made the mistake of marrying the most toxic personality I had ever encountered.

Nothing was ever going to make her happy because she was incapable of being happy. The only thing that ever seemed to please her was taking joy away from those closest to her.

She was the only person I had ever met who could turn any silver lining into a dark cloud. She could find the negative in anything, and when there wasn’t a negative to be found, she would create one.

Beyond the negativity and my being blamed for anything that didn’t go exactly the way she expected them to in her life, I found myself having to silently endure a barrage of emotional and psychological manipulation that, looking back, was the hallmark of our failed marriage.

After having had the benefit of a year of reflection, I now realize that she is not an anomaly, and that toxic personalities – black holes of negativity and vitriol that bring everyone around them down – are all around us.

You Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

When I emerged on the other end of the divorce process, I felt like the dark cloud that was always following me had lifted and I was seeing life through a new set of eyes.

Toxic personalities can drain the energy from a room. They can rob you of your soul if you let them. The scary thing is, you rarely see it happening to you.

To this day, I still cannot reconcile how I let another human being grind me down to a shell of my former self. I was completely blind to my own situation. Being trapped in such a poisonous relationship was killing me, yet I refused to face reality and break away.

I lost a number of friends because of my blindness towards how my she brought everyone around her down. I defended her, and ultimately enabled her by carrying the load brought on by her learned helplessness and oversized sense of entitlement.

After deep reflection I realized that I had also become toxic to my friends, family and coworkers as I struggled to keep it all together. I always felt drained, and from time to time I resorted to self medication in a desperate attempt to fill the holes growing inside of me.

While she may have been my chief tormentor, I can now see that my ex-wife was not the only toxic personality that I encountered in my life and my career. There have been many, although I didn’t recognize the signs at the time.

Misery Loves Company

Something that I came to realize that sounds backwards is that if we’re not careful, we can actually be drawn to toxic personalities.

How can we possibly be attracted to people who drain the life out of us? Because they provide something in return that fills our own voids, albeit in an unhealthy and destructive form. We form codependencies. We get stuck in toxic relationships.

I have always been a “fixer.” When I encounter a problem, I want to fix it. When someone comes to me with their woes and negativity, I want to help them find solutions to whatever it is that is causing their emotional or psychic pain.

What I have found is that there are just certain personalities that can’t be helped or don’t want to be helped.

Some people just don’t want to be alone in their black hole of negativity and they exude a gravitational pull that locks you in if you don’t know it’s happening to you.

When you open yourself up  to a toxic personality, they feed on your vulnerability and provide false comfort. When you try to escape from this cycle, they will focus all of their negative energy on you to tear you right back down.

They need to be needed and make it impossible to escape.

Take a Look Around

I remember once hearing the term “clubhouse cancer” used to refer to a baseball player who brought the entire team around him down with his attitude and negative energy.

Now that I have learned to recognize toxicity, I see that these “cancers” are all around us. There are just certain people who carry a cloud of negativity with them, and they bring everyone around them down.

We all have negative personalities in our lives. At work. In social circles. Sometimes even at home.

We have all experienced the toxic coworker. Their constant negativity drains the team of its ambitions and brings productivity to a grinding halt. They find every reason why something won’t work instead of finding ways to get things done.

Toxic coworkers are always critical of the company and its leadership. Nothing is ever good enough for their liking, and they always seem to find a way to sabotage projects and initiatives with their passive-aggressive behavior.

Do you have a friend that you feel drained after spending time with because all they can do is complain and talk about how life is conspiring against them? When you try to steer the topic to something positive or light, do they seem to have a gift for derailing the conversation and putting it right back on the train to Gloomsville?

How about that cousin, aunt or uncle that you see once a year at the obligatory extended family gathering who manages to take the conversation from exchanging pleasantries to full on soap opera in 4.8 seconds flat? It’s at that moment when you remember why your family drinks so much when they get together.

But hey, there isn’t anything we can do about it, right? We just have to take our lumps because being around toxic personalities is a necessary part of the human condition, isn’t it?

In a word: No.

Purge the Bad Blood

When I think about all of the time and energy that I put into trying to fix an unfixable marriage, of course it hurts. Of course I would like to have that time back. Of course I would have done things differently in hindsight.

But this is now, and I have never felt more alive in my entire life. I’m picking up where I left off when life was light and fun before having spent most of my adult life in an unhealthy relationship.

Getting to this point was anything but easy. I am lucky to have met a therapist who forced me to  see my situation for what it was and address it head on rather than making excuses and thinking, “But it will get better!”

It was never going to get better. The relationship was never going to get better because I now understand that toxic personalities will always make their problems into your problems.

When we take on other people’s problems and try to fix them, we are not helping them at all. We are enabling them.

This sounds like a paradox, and maybe it is, but the only way we can help toxic personalities is by not helping them. Toxic personalities will always be toxic personalities until the human being behind them learns to help themselves.

Unfortunately, you can’t afford to  sit around and wait for someone toxic to figure it out and turn themselves around.

You have to realize that things just aren’t going to get better on their own, and you can’t feel guilty about wanting to break free from the negativity to  find your own joy in life again.

Even with someone you love, there comes a point when you have to look out for your own well being and realize that staying in any kind of relationship with them will only cause harm to the both of you.

Saying goodbye is hard, but there is light at the end of the tunnel. What I learned was that once you rid yourself of the toxicity in your life, you are free to resume being a positive, nurturing human being.