Identifying toxic relationships and abuse

Toxic relationships often harm our self-esteem and leave us feeling drained of energy. When we learn how to recognize toxic relationships and abuse, we can move away from them. If we have a history of being abused, we may not recognise that we are caught in a cycle of abuse. After reading this article, people ask themselves, “Am I toxic?”  This article is meant for you to understand that sometimes we can all be toxic, for example, if we are in a conflict or in a dangerous situation.  However, toxic people are often more times less toxic.  A toxic person does not usually ask themselves if they are toxic because they believe they are always right.  Some warning signs to watch for are:

You feel unheard

You have told the other person how you feel or think, yet they do not seem to hear you.  When you speak, they may often talk over you or not allow you to get a word in edgewise.  They may speak as if they are the expert on all topics; therefore, what you have to say is irrelevant.

Your words and emotions are used against you.

The toxic person watches your emotions and listens to your words carefully so that they can use this information in the future to get a reaction out of you.  Toxic people often draw energy from other people’s negative reactions.  If the toxic person feels angry or depressed, they want those around them to feel the same way.  You may often feel as if you are constantly walking on eggshells.  You are never sure what pleases them or makes them angry.

The toxic person tried to isolate you from friends and family.

This is a huge red flag that should not be ignored.  If the toxic person wants to separate you, beware that this might indicate that abuse is around the corner.  If you are isolated from others, they can abuse and control you with the interference of others.  Some people who have social anxiety might also want to be with you alone as well.  They are not toxic; they are just nervous around others that they do not know.  Some people might also want to enjoy your company alone.  However, it becomes a problem if you are in a relationship with someone who does not want you to contact anyone other than them.

The toxic person criticises you or shames you in private or in public

The toxic person is often concerned that they are going to lose you.  To keep you, they might try to use this tactic to make you feel bad about yourself.  If you feel bad about yourself, you will be easier to control. Beware if you often feel humiliated or small around this person.

When toxic people enter your life, they want you to believe that you can’t live without them. They use manipulation tactics to keep you hooked on them. These tactics may include:

Acting hot and cold

One minute they are love bombing you, sweeping you off your feet and the next minute, they want nothing to do with you.  They may profess their love to you, and the next to disappear for days at a time.


Gaslighting is used to make you feel like you are going crazy.  For example, they might say, “I didn’t do that; you’re crazy.  Have you completely lost your mind?”  When in fact, you saw or heard them do this particular action in question.  They will use this tactic to make you doubt your own judgement.

Playing victim to get your sympathy.

This tactic works on those who are high in empathy.  Often toxic people are attracted to empathetic people because they can use the empath’s willingness to help them.  Once they have your sympathy, the toxic person will hurt you to control you or make you feel bad about yourself.

These are just a few of the tactics that toxic people use.  Leaving an abusive relationship can be difficult because self-esteem has been damaged. Often the help of a counsellor or therapist can be useful to make sure that you are safe both physically and emotionally. It can take some time to rebuild self-esteem and self-identity after abuse.

Co-author Paul Logan (


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Artwork by Kalok Ng (Email:

Although I am a registered clinical psychologist with the Hong Kong Society of Counseling and Psychology, I am not a licensed psychologist or any other type of licensed therapist in the United States. The information I am providing here is educational and informational. This social media page does not provide professional advice, nor does it create a professional-client relationship or any other type of relationship between us. You should always consult your own licensed mental health professional before making any changes regarding your mental health. My goal is to educate, guide, consult, and empower you regarding your mental health journey. Always consult your licensed mental healthcare provider(s) and never disregard or delay medical advice based on information posted on this page or post.