“You hang out with nice people, you get nice friends, ya understand? You hang out with smart people, you get smart friends. You hang out with yo-yo’s, you get yo-yo friends. You see, simple mathematics.”
– Rocky Balboa, Rocky (1976)
In the 1977 coming-of-age, disco-themed film Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta plays Tony Manero, an Italian American man and hard laborer who dances, drinks, and hangs out with his friends at the local nightclub every Saturday night to escape from the monotonies of life outside it. Manero aspires to move from Brooklyn to Manhattan and make a name for himself, but his loser friends, Joey, Double J, Gus, and Bobby C., regularly drag him down. For instance, Gus comes into conflict with a violent street gang, while Bobby C., upon struggling to break off a relationship with his devout Catholic girlfriend who is pregnant with his unwanted child, jumps off a bridge to his death. By the end of the film, a dejected Manero contemplates the direction his life is headed and decides to get out while he still can, moving away to Manhattan to pursue a career in dance and theatre.
Saturday Night Fever no doubt hits close to home, maybe even too close. But it is a testament to the enormous influence our friends and family hold over us and how such influence can go awry when we give them the go-ahead to fundamentally control our thoughts, behaviors, and decisions. It is therefore within our best interests to develop the same self-awareness that Tony Manero gained on his all-night ride on the subway, knowing which people to let into our lives and which to stay as far away from as possible. The latter, you could argue, are what you would call the toxic people—the kind of people who aren’t necessarily malicious or evil, but obstructive and emotionally damaging. Which signs should you look for when identifying toxic people?
Sign #1: They shame you into solving problems that aren’t yours.
Like the scam artist who convinces you to shell out more money for a defective or useless product just so he can fulfill a quota and satisfy his boss, a toxic person will exploit your weaknesses until getting what he or she wants. Such is the case when an estranged former friend shows up at your doorstep in the middle of the night, destitute and homeless, and asks to crash at your place for a little while despite having just spent his last few dollars on drugs and alcohol. The principled man that you are, you refuse his request. But he shamelessly and tearfully reminds you of all those favors he did for you back in the day, and thus you agree to allow him to live with you and your wife until he can move out. When he scrapes together enough rent money, what does he do? He spends it on more drugs and alcohol, and shows up at your doorstep again a week later.
Sign #2: They fill your mind with maladaptive thoughts and beliefs.
Have you ever had a harmless conversation with a close friend or family member, only for it to escalate into a series of vicious and hard-hitting verbal attacks against you? You know what I’m talking about: that pit in your stomach that develops from trying to emotionally fathom an insult that came way out of left field—that you couldn’t have seen coming. This breed of toxic people is among the most dangerous of them all. As soon as this happens, it is important that you address the offensive comments the other party has made by immediately terminating the conversation. For if someone tells you something enough times, no matter how untrue or how warped in logic it is, you begin to internalize it as fact.
Sign #3: They convince you that you’ve done something wrong, when they’re guilty of the wrongdoing.
I have a deeply insecure, condescending, and borderline-abusive cousin who thrives on arguments and contentions, manufacturing animosity when he is but the least bit intimidated by sweeping displays of knowledge. At the ripe age of 11, I had unknowingly interrupted a dinner conversation between him and other members of the family. He later escorted me to the backyard, slammed the door behind him, and started shouting at me for cutting him off in the middle of a sentence. I tried apologizing, but he wouldn’t listen. Rather than accept my apology and move on, he disparaged me until I was on the verge of tears. This wasn’t an isolated incident either—he’s been doing this for years, and shows no signs of stopping.
People like my cousin catastrophize the things that they perceive you did wrong, so much that you might has well have not done anything wrong at all.
Sign #4: They don’t care about what’s in your best interest.
Watch out for the extreme criticisms and judgments that bog down your self-confidence and precipitate an ill-will that permanently damages your opinion of the critical person in question. A little advice on how to make a sensitive decision is one thing, but viciously browbeating someone for their limited capacity to make a sensitive decision is another. So, you’re at a crossroads in your college career and wish to abandon a degree in medicine to pursue computer science? You never have been nor ever will be tech savvy, and plus your father and your father’s father have both been doctors. Make up your mind already! Just become a doctor and quit wasting your time flirting with the idea of becoming a programmer, because it’s never going to happen and you’re not cut out for it.
Sign #5: They trick you into doing things that you would never have dreamt of doing.
Toxicity of this caliber is marked by manipulations into the neglect and betrayal of core values that form the foundation of your morality, simply in the interest of the manipulator’s entertainment. I’ll use the example of John Kreese from The Karate Kid Part III (1989), who hires his friend, Terry Silver, to inflict a world of hurt upon Daniel as part of a revenge ploy against Daniel’s instructor, Mr. Miyagi, for driving him out of business. Silver introduces Daniel to brutal fighting techniques with the underlying intention of psychologically breaking him. He eventually bribes a stranger at a dance club to start trouble with Daniel that provokes him into punching and breaking the man’s nose using the same technique he learned from Silver, a transgression of which strayed far from Daniel’s sense of right and wrong and disgusted his female friend.
Sign #6: They generally leave you worse off after than before.
A hallmark of a healthy relationship is the ability to sit in the same room as someone else and crave their presence but lament their absence. The most surefire way to identify a toxic person is to therefore ask yourself one simple question following each encounter, long or short, with whomever you have developed a connection: Am I closer to where I want to be in life? If the answer is ‘no,’ that’s enough cause to cut that person out of your inner circle like a tumor. Because those who repeatedly leave you to question the value you bring to the world without reconciling the immense pain they have caused you are not worth your emotional availability, nor are they worth resources as precious as time or attention.
And there you have it—the six telltale signs of people who squander your unlimited potential and don’t deserve a part in your life.