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Adulting 101: Learning to identify toxic traits in people and how to manage them

SINGAPORE — Ranting about toxic personalities seems to be more common these days, especially among people who are around my age.

People with toxic traits can make life dificult and unpleasant, especially if they are close relatives, writes TODAY senior journalist Janice Lim.

People with toxic traits can make life dificult and unpleasant, especially if they are close relatives, writes TODAY senior journalist Janice Lim.

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Adulthood is an invigorating stage of life as young people join the workforce, take on more responsibilities and set their sights on the future. But its many facets — from managing finances and buying a home to achieving work-life balance — can be overwhelming.

In this series, TODAY’s journalists help young Singaporeans navigate this stage of their lives and learn something themselves in the process.


SINGAPORE — Ranting about toxic personalities seems to be more common these days, especially among people who are around my age.

Meetups with friends often revolve around them talking about their difficult relationships with other people in their family of social circles.

Although complaints about bosses or colleagues are pretty much universal, I have noticed that we tend to be more vulnerable when we ruminate about our loved ones such as our parents and partners.

Conversations about childhood trauma and how that has led us to develop certain anxieties are often just waiting to be picked up for more psychoanalysis.

And it’s an issue that seems to be increasingly addressed among mental health advocates.

While scrolling through social media, it’s not unusual to see a mental health page or a therapist I follow posting about the importance of setting health boundaries, especially with people who don’t seem to respect them.

And I think that has somewhat helped my friends and I gain some level of knowledge of what behaviours are toxic and unacceptable.

A friend of mine shared with me that her relationship with her mother has always been difficult since she was a kid.

Whenever they argued, her mother would scream and cry and tell her that my friend doesn’t love her — a form of emotional manipulation that she didn’t understand at that time.

She used to think that her mother was just someone who is demanding and not very easy-going.

But it was only after reading up online resources and going through therapy — coupled with some physical distance as she went to university overseas — that she realised how unhealthy and toxic the relationship was.

Despite greater knowledge of such issues, I still feel that recognising toxicity is not something deeply ingrained and intuitive, where we are able to make an accurate assessment of someone causing distress in our lives.

More often than not, through our conversations, I find that my friends and I still end up constantly questioning and second-guessing ourselves.

So, how do we go about recognising what is toxic behaviour and what is not? It’s easy to identify someone is outright mean and unkind, but counsellors say toxic behaviours can often be masked.

Ms Vinti Mittal, clinical director at SACAC Counselling, said that people with toxic qualities can even be quite the charmer at first.

Some toxic traits that may be harder to spot include:

  • Manipulating you into doing what you do not want to do or that goes against your values

  • Being unable to take responsibility for their feelings or behaviours

  • Being quick to find fault and push blame without wanting to listen

  • Being self-absorbed such that conversations revolved around themselves

  • Constantly complaining

  • Constantly comparing you with others

  • Gaslighting (controlling someone by making them believe things that are not true, for example)

  • Controlling

Dr John Lim, chief wellbeing officer at the Singapore Counselling Centre, said that toxic relationships are ultimately about one person taking far more than they give, unlike healthy relationships that are centred around a balance of give and take. 

“After an interaction with someone leaves you with negative emotions, reflecting on your thought patterns and actions allows you to evaluate if you are acting of your own will or influenced by another factor. Our emotions are often good indicators when it comes to picking out toxic people,” he added.

Ms Mittal also provided me with a rather helpful checklist that I could use to assess whether a person has been displaying toxic behaviours.

  • Are they being judgemental of you or others that are close to you?

  • Are they highly demanding in terms of your time and energy?

  • Are they individuals who lack financial, professional, physical and emotional stability in their lives?

  • Are you being shamed?

  • Are you being blamed when things or situations go wrong?

  • Are you isolating yourself from others and not engaging in activities or people you enjoyed being with?

All these actions can cause a person to constantly doubt themselves, question their self-worth and what they believe in, and be self-critical and feel lousy about themselves.

“(People with toxic traits) bring with them a feeling of bringing you down rather than uplifting your spirits and moods,” Ms Mittal said.

These negative emotions are not something unfamiliar to me or to some of my friends.

Looking back, the amount of times we talked about how certain individuals made us “go crazy” was testament to this.

Nonetheless, Dr Lim pointed out that it is important to separate people from their behaviours.

“We are all guilty of toxic behavioural patterns from time to time, but the difference lies in how we respond to those who point those things out to us,” he said.

Of course, pointing these things out and learning to manage the unhealthy traits is the logical next step.

Counsellors I spoke to suggested several methods.

  1. Directly addressing the behaviour by communicating to them candidly and factually. “Being firm conveys the message that you do not stand for their toxic behaviour, while at the same time bringing the behaviour to their awareness so that they have a chance to change for the better,” Dr Lim said.

  2. Drawing concrete boundaries by reducing interactions with them whenever possible, and setting realistic expectations of what you will and will not accept from them.

  3. Recognise your own self-worth and value by speaking to people who respect your individuality and views.

  4. Practising self-compassion and accepting who you are and what you want, and accepting who they are and what they want in their lives.

Of course, the last resort would be to cut these people out of our lives if the toxicity persists, though counsellors recognise that this is much easier said than done.

“As a general guide, it might be time to walk away when the person’s toxic behaviours are taking a heavy toll on your mental or physical well-being, or both,” Dr Lim said.

“While this step might be the hardest, over time, you might come to thank yourself for making this difficult decision as you surround yourself with other more supportive and healthy relationships,” he added.

However, cutting toxic people out of our lives seems impossible, when these people happen to be our family members.

I do know of some friends who have decided to have nothing to do with their siblings.

Another person I know has decided to leave Singapore and move overseas for the specific purpose of creating distance between him and his parents.

But many, I would think, are straddling the in-between zones of learning to maintain their sanity without totally severing ties.

Dr Lim said one option that could be worth considering is to temporarily remove oneself from the relationship, rather than completely severing ties, if multiple attempts have been made to address a person’s toxic behaviours.

“Doing so can give both you and the toxic family member the space to set the stage for mutual respect, as well as to reflect on what has happened.” 

Ultimately, whether the relationship can be salvaged depends on both parties.

Unless the person displaying toxic behaviours realises that something is wrong and sees the need for change, what most of us can do is only to regulate our own behaviour since we can’t control others, Ms Mittal said.

“Normally, human beings change their behaviour only if there are consequences,” she added.

While my friend has learned several techniques through therapy to prevent conflicts with her mother from escalating, it has served to defuse only some degree of tension.

At the core of it, the relationship between mother and daughter has not improved.

“I think I have to accept she won't change,” she said.

Unfortunately, I feel that that is also the case for the toxic people I deal with in my own life, and probably those of my friends as well.

We just have to learn to manage them in ways that are least damaging to our own mental health.


Janice Lim is a senior journalist at TODAY, where she covers business, housing and consumer issues.

Related topics

adulting Adulting 101 family relationships psychology mental health

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