Toxic People: Why We’re Drawn to Them, How to Avoid Them

Like fresh, hot donuts that we know are bad for us, the irresistible allure of toxic people overwhelms our senses and draws us in, rendering us powerless to resist. Unlike donuts, which rapidly leave our lives once the sugar spike, bloat, and guilt are gone; toxic people bring a variety of problems which may remain with us for years after these individuals have physically exited our space. Why are we drawn to them in the first place, and how can we resist? Read on to understand how toxic people have functioned in your live.

Let’s begin by exploring the notion of toxicity as it exists in relationships. Many of us grew up in families where we had unmet needs. No, I’m not parent bashing, although children who were abused or neglected certainly understand a thing or two about toxic moms and dads. Even in families where love existed, the competing priorities of other family members, work, and other life circumstances kept our caregivers busy. Maybe they were attentive for a time, but life changed when a new baby, a new spouse, or other commitment came into the picture. Sometimes, this was a chronic pattern, and they doted on us in-between their other significant relationships. Perhaps this was the case with older siblings, grandparents, and other family members whose affection was inconsistent.

Fast-forwarding a few years into elementary age and early adolescence, peer relationships took on a progressively more important role. We wanted to fit in and be accepted, and may have been very willing to morph ourselves so that we might do so. This is particularly true for children who’ve been made to feel different, oddball, Other. When our rejecters or someone who has the potential to reject us suddenly invite us in, we may be very willing to do whatever it takes to meet their approval. Oftentimes, this comes at the expense of our self-worth and dignity, particularly when the social group whose approval we seek is inviting us in for their own gain. It’s the sort of thing Mrs. Garrett warned Tootie and the rest of the “Facts of Life” girls about, constantly.

This is all to say that our child development primed us to feel we must audition for relationships. Growing into sexual maturity, we often found ourselves most drawn to people who recreated the potential for the dynamics in which we’d first known love. That’s to say that if part of our brain development centered around a notion that we needed to earn love from a parent who was on again/off again in their demonstration of affection, and perhaps this was reinforced as we learned that we could earn love by meeting the behavior requirements of a particular group, our brains became wired to respond to romantic interests in much the same way.

When we think about how we are drawn to The Lone Wolf, The Girl in Need of Protection, The Bad Boy, etc., we are actually being attracted to someone who offers us the sense of completion we wanted from these earlier relationships. If you think about this for a moment, it makes perfect sense. Our brain is so very adaptable that, no matter how ridiculously bad the circumstances in which we developed, we will seek connections in whatever way we’ve learned to do so. So primed do our brains become toward trying to earn love that will give us a sense of completion that we’re drawn into the emotional needs of The Lone Wolf or other toxic people. Our deep yearning for completion often reflects unspoken but very real notions like “When I make him turn his life around and love me, I’ll be complete.” We seek the worth that we always wanted by playing out a rescuer dynamic which is rooted in our earliest development.

Vowing to clean up the shards and righting the person with our undying love, we pursue the chase. It seldom goes well for us. Just as we are primed to rescue, The Lone Wolf and friends are primed to prey. This is the symbiotic relationship which allows chronic patterns to perpetuate things like addiction (someone has to support the addict), abuse (whether physical or emotional, someone has to be the punching bag), neglect (someone has to be left at home to cry), and betrayal (you get the drift. Someone does the betraying, someone gets betrayed).

Our completion evades us when these relationships inevitably fail due to the broken logic on which they were built. Lone Wolves, Girls in Need of Protection, Bad Boys are after all drawn to rescuers who enable them to stay in the destructive patterns of abuse, neglect, etc. They take the resources they need and move along…and we are left with the broken hearts, dreams, and whatever else got destroyed in these toxic people’s wakes.

It’s important to understand how attraction works for us if we’re going to change the patterns for our lives. I realize that once someone starts down a path with a toxic person, it’s a very slippery slope and we probably won’t see you again until you’ve crashed at the bottom. If however you’re lucky enough to be away from toxic relationships at the moment or perhaps seriously looking at how to get out of one, the following exercise might help:

  1. Begin by bringing to mind the most toxic people you’ve pursued. List the qualities that these women and/or men had in common.
  2. Next, consider when you initially encountered these people. What were the behaviors you saw that attracted you and drew you in?
  3. At what point did each of these individuals know they’d captured your heart?
  4. Once they had you, how was your life changed as the toxic parts of them start to show up?
  5. What strengths did you demonstrate that got you out of the situation; or if you didn’t choose to leave the toxic person, what or who has helped you survive and begin rebuilding your life?
  6. Thinking now about the strengths you’ve developed, how will you draw from these when someone with qualities you listed for item 1 shows up and starts trying to draw you in with their behaviors you listed for item 2?

Stay strong. Stay healthy. Share this blog with others who are in these relationships.

And steer clear of toxic people and donuts.


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