Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” If you are in the people-helping vocation, that’s not good news. As a pastor, it is nearly impossible to navigate life without having to deal with people who are bitter, controlling and toxic.

Toxicity comes in all forms, including being disguised in a robe of superficial niceness. However, when these individuals do not get their way, their toxic side begins emerge.

What defines a toxic person?

How do you know that you are encountering a person who may seem nice enough on the surface, but underneath is a hidden toxicity?

Toxicity is …
a behavioral style that is damaging to self and others rooted in unmet expectations.

Often the toxicity flows from a deep, unrecognized wounding. For whatever reason, the person is not (yet) capable of taking responsibility for their own woundedness, their needs, and for problems in their life.

How does toxicity surface? 

The person may act out parts of their experience such as being a victim or martyr. Others may be perfectionistic and judgmental of self or others. Some may over-identify and strive to rescue or fix others, becoming upset when the other person does not respond according to their expectations. The hallmark of a toxic interaction is that both people create a storyline that is marked with judgment, blaming and/or fear—whether consciously or subconsciously.

It’s easy to see toxicity in others. It is important to recognize, though, that given the right circumstances, everyone exhibits an attitude or behavior that may be toxic to a relationship. It is therefore important to consider how your own script—the storyline you create in your mind—plays a role in toxic situations.

You cannot change the other person but, with God’s help, you can change yourself.

How well equipped do you believe you are when it comes to dealing with toxicity?

Encountering Toxicity

Some people spend their entire existence living out a pattern of toxicity. The toxicity takes on different forms—judgment, martyrdom and rescuing—but the results are similar: disappointment, discouragement, anger and broken relationships.

Being Judgmental

What it looks like

Individuals who are judgmental expend a great deal of emotional energy living out a toxic posturing of condescending control. What others do or say is wrong. Their way is right.

What it sounds like

  • “If only you were like me, life would be better!”
  • “Just do it my way, and life will be good!”
  • “I am right. You are wrong!”
  • “You’re an idiot!”
  • “It’s all your fault!”

Being a Victim

What it looks like

This toxic posture is much more subtle, but can diminish a relationship just as fast as being judgmental. It assumes a lack of ability to manage or influence life’s circumstances. When trapped in a victim mentality, a person temporarily relinquishes the prerogative to take responsibility for their life, believing that things may never change. Being a victim or a martyr is textbook passive-aggressive, and is steeped in toxic thinking and negative self-talk.

What it sounds like

  • “After all I have done for you, this is what I get?”
  • “I do all the work around here and what thanks do I get?”
  • “Nobody ever appreciates me for the sacrifices I make!”
  • “Life’s just not fair!” It is wrought with complaining and/or blaming everyone and everything else for the outcomes in the victim’s life.

Rescuing or Fixing Others

What it looks like

This toxic dynamic is cultivated when, out of even a genuine desire to be helpful, a person becomes privately insistent that the other person accept and act on their counsel and advice.

What it sounds like

  • “I have the solution, but you just don’t listen.”
  • “You should be like me, then your life would be better!”
  • “If you just take my advice and do what I say, life will be much better!”

As a vocational people-helper, when you explore the dynamics of the toxic triangle, it is easy to let your thoughts quickly go to hurtful people and painful circumstances you have encountered. However, it is important to consider the situations that cause you to enter into the toxic triangle. Identifying what tends to cause you to stop into it can help you prevent you going there in the future.


Answer the questions below and share insights with your spouse or a trusted friend.

Of the three toxic behaviors or mindsets, which is easiest for you to deal with when it comes to folks you encounter?

Which is the hardest for you to deal with in others? Why do you think that is?

In your own life, which of these do you typically default to?