What is it like to be...a toxic person?


By "toxic" person I mean someone with a disordered personality with whom close relationships often become abusive because of their failure to properly "see" themselves and others, usually because of low empathy, low self-awareness, and emotional needs (for example, the need to feel powerful, the need to feel in control, the need to feel safe, the need to feel superior, the need to have what you want, and the need to be touched and to be soothed) that they have not learnt how to meet in a mature way.

My reason for asking the question comes from the other end of the relationship; two of the pervasive after effects of having had significant relationships with toxic people are, 1) you become hyper-sensitive to abusive behaviour and 2) you are terrified of the possibility that you have yourself abused others.

In respect of the hypersensitivity issue, my concerns are focused by the recognition that I have learnt to accommodate emotional and psychological abuse in the past, and that I will continue to do so if I'm not careful out of habit, reflex, and established but still unexamined delusion. In short, I can't trust myself. So, like a recovering alcoholic in relation to drink, I cut wide margins around people and situations I don't consider safe for me, and I've cut myself off from my family of origin (and more recently parts of my wife's family) in doing so.

The possibility of having been abusive towards others is the recurring nightmare. I compulsively examine my conscience, processing not just my own self-awareness but also the many accusations of narcissism, cruelty, and neglect made by members of my birth family. The fact that it is extremely difficult for me to differentiate between those things for which I do bear personal responsibility and those for which I do not (quite difficult for everyone, I think) makes me aware of the strong tendency to solve the problem either by feeling guilty about everything, or conversely, feeling guilty about nothing; occupying the centre ground in a realistic and reasonable way, to leave provisionally open the possibility of being accountable in a complex, usually shared, way is to leave oneself vulnerable to unrealistic and unreasonable people. And, yes, there are instances of abusive/exploitative behaviour towards others (of an emotional, psychological, kind) in my life, but my considered view is that they don't characterise me as a person. I have provisionally released myself from the charge of having been the abusive partner in any of the significant relationships in my life, and I am resolute in rejecting the suggestion that I am interfering, stirring things up, and making trouble by speaking out about abusive behaviour in significant others. All of which may sound too convenient to be true, and I am very far from being without doubt, so below are some of the ways in which I have reasoned this out:

Were two soldiers to meet face to face on the battlefield and before engaging in hand-to-hand mortal combat attempt to take personal responsibility for what they are about to do to each other, the conversation might flow as follows:

"It is my solemn duty to kill you, a person unknown to me but indubitably of fellow mind, body and soul, and differentiated by nothing more than accidental origin, on behalf of my family and friends. I respectfully pledge to do so face to face with you, with your agreement, and so long as we are both armed to our own satisfaction and willing and fully able to commence combat. My apologies in advance to your own family should I be so unfortunate as to be left alive to give them an account of your painful death; be assured that I will not spare my own feelings in remembering you."

(Reply) "May I say how much I appreciate this opportunity to achieve with you a mutual understanding of the unfortunate, but paradoxically moral, necessity of our forthcoming fight to the death. For me, and on behalf of my compatriots, it is, as you have stated it for yourself, likewise. Let us then, now on the count of 3, decide who shall live and who shall die in the customary manner. 1...2...etc"

So, everyone reasonably expects to win some and lose some, weather some injuries, take some pain, on the field of collective human endeavour. But there's a difference between loss due to defeat and loss due to abuse. Defeat is what you agree to accept when you lose a fair fight. Abuse is what you get when you lose a fight that you never agreed to get into. You know you have been abused if you hadn't realised you were in a fight, and you hadn't realised it had already started. You know you are an abuser when your victim has no idea, and no cause to assume, that you will do what you are about to do - such resorts are indeed often the way of war, but we are talking here about their toxic presence amongst the honest ways and means of friendships, families, and peaceful societies - wolves in sheeps' clothing as it is so aptly coined.

In Thomas Nagel's seminal paper on the irreducible nature of subjective experience, "What is it like to be a bat?", he argues that conscious beings (a large category of animals that includes humans) have an experience of what it is like to be themselves that is not objectively describable by anyone else. Not only does this imply that there are in the complex nature of consciousness things that are unknowable in a scientific sense because they are only knowable by a single person, but also that as individuals we are the only person we will ever know what it is like to be. Not that this precludes the possibility of intensely empathic relationships with each other based on love, respect, and mutual understanding. The more disturbing flipside, however, is that we cannot ever be sure that we are not like others, that we do not, for instance, share the same mindset as those who have harmed us. To me the toxic people in my life seem like a different species, I don't get them at all, but this does not banish the recurring nightmare that I might unknowing be exactly the same, that I might be deceiving myself. But I also think that simply asking the "what is it like to be...?" question is an important indicator. It identifies for me an important asymmetry between abuser and abused; you know you've been abused in a relationship if the overriding question in your mind, never mind the pain, anger, and humiliation, is "What must it be like to be them?". You know you are an abuser if that question doesn't occur to you.

In the psychology of abuse, the term abuser is a post hoc designation; almost no one identifies as an abuser and behaves as if playing some kind of role. Abuse instead characterises the outcome of a particular type of interaction. Abusers start out simply trying to get something they need for themselves - love and compassion, trust and respect, acknowledgement and validation - from the most immediately available source, someone else. The relationship, however, from the point of view of the abuser, is not between them and the victim, it is emphatically between them and their own needs. Meateaters make the same distinction between cows and beef. The self, the subjective experience of the abused person, is necessarily destroyed (psychologically speaking). You know you have been abused when what is lost is one's sense of self in relation to the behaviour of the other; love and compassion for oneself, trust in oneself, self-respect, self-assurance, self-confidence - in Nagel's sense, the real-ness of one's subjective experience. You know you are an abuser if the people who have the effect of making you feel better about yourself are less happy, confident, and secure than you are (and the people who make you feel worse are more happy, etc).

In so far as the "self" of the abused person in the relationship is perceived by the abuser as an obstructive object between themselves and the part of that person's body, heart, mind, or soul, that they want, the interaction comes down to differences in power - physical power, emotional intensity, psychological aggression, verbal dexterity, social status, professional authority, etc - and the objective is to overcome resistance. This is the primary strategic consideration for the abuser which in turn drives the systematic and tactical ways in which the personal power of the victim is degraded, diminished, and removed. By way of self-justification, the soft argument from power has always been the same; some people are naturally assertive - this is what is required to lead groups and to compete for resources; others are naturally meek - this is what is required to be led and to meet the needs of others in mutual cooperation. The hard argument is simply that there are in the natural order of things superior people and inferior people. As Thucydides' Athenians have it, it is in the nature of things that "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must". You know you are vulnerable to abuse if you equate personal power with personal responsibility, and are limited and careful about negotiating it for that reason. You know you are an abuser if you equate personal power with the natural order of personal entitlement, and see no reason to limit it. You may even feel that it is in the best interests of others that you have more of it, and that others are better off doing what you think they should do rather than what they think for themselves that they should do.

Conversely, the victim's argument from suffering is always a moral one, and it relies on the authority of a power greater than that of the abuser who will judge that it's wrong. Abusers operate by living amongst a moral community without being psychologically part of it, and they must therefore ensure that their activities remain unseen (or more cunningly, seen but unacknowledged) by others. This highlights another important asymmetry between abuser and abused; in order to take what they need from someone else without their consent an abuser needs simply to exploit the vulnerability of a single person; in order to call out an abuser the abused must bring the moral condemnation of the whole community to bear on the actions of the abusive individual. It is then a matter of adversarial process, and it is no matter how acutely one feels the loss of self characteristic of abuse, it is ultimately the judgement of others, one's moral community, that defines it as being the result of wrongdoing. You, as the victim, are the lone voice; often, the first insurmountable obstacles facing victims of abuse are being listened to and being believed. You know you are being abused if there seem to be strong negative incentives not to say anything. You know you are an abuser if there are things others want to say that you don't want to hear.

So, what is it like to be a toxic person? Firstly, if you really can't meet your own emotional needs it must feel something like a young child feels when their needs are not being met for them - an existential dread of unspeakable awfulness for which there is nothing to do but put out an ear-shattering distress call, and no one can live for very long like that. Secondly, for those who manage to meet their emotional needs through others (often by co-opting a co-dependent partner, or by living under delusions of grandiosity and taking advantage of vulnerable weaker people) they must feel at least temporary relief, and as if the world is suddenly OK again - a kind of pleasure. This is the perverse and paradoxical reality of the toxic person: when you, the toxic person, feel good, when things feel right with you and the world, the people close to you (for reasons you cannot understand) will be unhappy and depressed if not actually openly distressed. It will not occur to you that you are their problem, and so you will not leave, apologise, negotiate or change. Instead you will tell them that things are OK, that they should not feel sad or angry, that they have no reason to feel upset, that they have misunderstood the way things really are, and that were they to see things your way their problems would be solved. Abusers feel better when they abuse, and their primitive pre-operational conscience does not give them feelings of remorse, regret, guilt, or shame. In a way, it's an experience that has been a part of everyone's early childhood past that mercifully, for those who have become emotionally mature, personally responsible and socially aware, they can never really know again. This is why the question - what is it like to be a toxic person? - is really hard to answer for those who come into contact with them.


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