On The Difficulties of Identifying Narcissistic, Unhealthy, Toxic, Dangerous People

Recently, I posted a picture on the Self-Archeology Facebook page that says the following: "Narcissists literally have two faces—their real face and their stage face. And neither is anything like the other. Which one you see will depend on how long you’ve known them. Narcissists can be very charming and know how to gain favor. Anyone who doesn’t know a narcissist well will tell you the narcissist is one of the greatest people they’ve ever met! They believe this is one of the most intelligent, kindest, most interesting, funny, agreeable, most attractive, talented or accomplished people ever. They may wish they themselves had it so "together" or were so popular. However, anyone who knows that same narcissist better (family members, longtime coworkers, etc.) will tell you the narcissist is one of the most horribly frustrating and toxic people they know, and the mere mention of their name makes them feel uneasy, angry, frustrated or otherwise unhappy. Being the only one who is experiencing a narcissist’s real face, while all other family members or coworkers can still only see the narcissist’s stage face is a very lonely, painful and frustrating place to be. Thankfully, the number of people who can see through the facade tends to increase with time."

Except for an incorrect use of the word 'literally,' it is a fair description of someone who has narcissistic character traits. Sometimes people ask me and I ponder myself why is it so difficult for so many people to identify toxicity. So the topic of today is the difficulties of identifying toxic, unhealthy, dangerous people.

Narcissism, psychopathy, sociopathy, however you want to call it, is on a spectrum, just like any other psychoemotional problem. Most unhealthy people do not necessarily fit on the extremum of it. Most toxic people are not psychopathic cold blooded killers or serial rapists. Moreover, even those who are more insane oftentimes are highly intelligent and well-adjusted. If you have studied, for example, the psychology of serial murderers you will know that these people are not some dumb rednecks with a chainsaw carelessly slaughtering people in their shack and hanging them on meat hooks as it is portrayed in horror movies. They may have a family with children, a respectable job, friends, healthy habits, a likable social persona, even a following. People with narcissistic/sociopathic/psychopatic tendencies have learned, among other things, to identify social rules, rewards, and punishments, and to adjust to it so that they would be protected, respected, and even supported. They are often perceived by others either as normal or better that the most (more successful, more attractive, more popular, wealthier, more respectable, more charitable, more caring, more eloquent, braver, more virtuous).

Since many of the characteristics that highly toxic people exhibit closely resemble those of a truly healthier person, it can be extremely difficult to identify it as such. There is a common myth that only unintelligent people fail to recognize highly toxic people, that only dumb people get into a relationship with them or get hurt by them, that only the most gullible, stupid, or evil join cults or give away their money and other resources to manipulative people and organizations. Both studying social psychology, group dynamics, the psychology of more extreme phenomena (like cult psychology, war psychology, or human trafficking) and analyzing my own experiences and observations have led me to believe that there is a huge amount of people with a high IQ and a relatively proper education who do exactly that. There are other, psychoemotional and experiential factors that are much more significant here than one's intelligence.

I've seen, heard about, and met plenty of seemingly regular everyday people who fit the description of a narcissist/sociopath/predator/manipulator to one degree or another. I've interacted with and observed numerous mental health care providers, helpers, educators, and celebrities with big followings who fit it to one degree or another. I have also seen people who are not narcissists being called narcissists by actual narcissists or the supporters and enablers of a narcissist. I've interacted with and observed many people who follow, are involved with, idealize these "wonderful," "amazing" people (as they see them), and consciously or unconsciously internalize their toxic characteristics and behaviors themselves. Some eventually snap out of it or figure out that something is not quite right, but often they can't put their finger on what exactly that is or verbalize it for themselves in a sound enough fashion. Because of the confusion and dependency some regress back into the unhealthy relationships later on. Others sometimes find something superficially wrong and use that as the reason to distance themselves from them, failing to identify the more important issues, hence unable to learn from it, therefore replicating it in other relationships.

So many people have difficulties identifying healthiness versus unhealthy or fake characteristics, relationship dynamics, and behaviors because the latter mimics the former, and to a less resolved or keen person it can be difficult to read the person accurately. They don't see or tend to ignore red flags, accept toxic, predatory, enabling, or manipulative behavior as healthy, and get easily enamored by the person's persona. Moreover, people who lack identity and have poor boundaries are drawn to live vicariously through others and find an authority figure they can project their parents onto. Throw a sense of community into the mix and you have a herd mentality and social pressure. All of it fuels dependency instead of cultivating growth.

Reflecting back on my life, I had many problems with the inability to recognize certain toxicity in people years ago myself. Even though the situation was better than a lot of people's whom I've observed at the time, it's far from something I would call healthy looking back. I was confused, insecure, and quite lonely with my doubts and insights regarding others and myself. I lacked individuality, self-sufficiency, and trust in my correct observations. I needed validation, hence I was succeptible to others creating more doubt in me by invalidating me or strenghtening my doubts instead of acknowledging my insight and my hurts.

While now, after extensively working on myself, it is both uncomplicated and joyous to read people relatively quickly and fairly accurately, not to feel pressured by others, not to feel confused when I am the only one seeing something everyone around me fails to see, not to feel chronically lonely and look for approval and external validation, not to desperately seek a surrogate parental figure to save or punish me, not to feel terrified when others try to invalidate my experiences or deny my insight, to stay loyal to myself, and to help others learn to achieve the same.


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  1. Hi Darius,

    I feel a little bit confused when talking about toxic persons, like if they were toxic and non-toxic people. I would prefer saying toxic behaviors, cause who can say "I am toxic" ? When I look at my past, I can see people who were kind to me, or not kind, but sometimes I see that kind people were manipulative, and not kind were defending themself from my own agressivity. I have been a victim of many toxic behaviors, and I have been also guilty.

    Finally, the most important is to be conscious and ready to admit the suffering of your past. Even people they are not in the replication of doing very hurting things (like rape or molestation), are sometimes less conscious than someone who is very mean to some people because he/she feel relieved to express his/her anger on them. And then feel really guilty, and try to work on it.

    It's very important to know what you are ready to accept, what are your boundaries. But, because everyone (especially in France) is always manipulating or hurting you in some way, it's very difficult at the end to be with people.

  2. Hi Sophie,

    You raise fair and important points. I definitely agree that sometimes it is more useful to say 'a toxic behavior' versus 'a toxic person.' Although other times a person acts toxically quite often, or their toxicity is huge even if not exhibited often. And so at some point it becomes accurate to describe them as a toxic person. Just like you can say a person is wise or careful based on your observations of their behavior over a longer period of time. I think it's important—and it seems that is what you are saying, too—to see a person as objectively as possible, with their flaws and their strengths, instead of black or white, completely evil or perfect.

    I don't have much to say about the last two paragraphs as I agree with what you said.



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