Why Do I Attract Toxic People? Wrestling with the Root Cause
Do you find yourself constantly attracting toxic people into your life? Almost as if you’re a magnet for unhealthy relationships and friendships?
I used to walk around thinking there was an invisible sign imprinted on my forehead that only toxic people could sense, and it drew them to me like a moth to a flame.
In retrospect, however, there were warning signs and things I could have done to avert many of these situations.
I want to help you avoid all the mistakes I made so that you can break the cycle and cultivate healthier relationships in your life.
But first, let’s talk about what’s really going on.
- Understanding Toxic Relationships
- Exploring the Root Causes
- Setting Healthy Boundaries
- Healing and Moving Forward
Understanding Toxic Relationships
The word “toxic” gets thrown around a lot these days, so it’s important to start by explaining what we mean when we label something a toxic relationship.
A toxic relationship is one that is harmful to your emotional, mental, and/or physical well-being.
It usually involves a pattern of behavior where one person uses manipulation to exert control over the other, leading to feelings of fear, anxiety, and stress.
Toxic relationships can take many forms, including romantic relationships, friendships, and even family relationships.
A toxic person is anyone who consistently brings negativity and difficulty to your life. (Please not the word consistently here. Humans are imperfect, but we’re not all fundamentally “toxic.”)
They may be manipulative, critical, selfish, or abusive. They may also be narcissistic, meaning they have an inflated sense of self-importance and lack empathy for others.
They play games and enjoy toying with people’s emotions.
Why Do People Attract Toxic Relationships?
That is the million-dollar question.
It’s often a result of unresolved issues they’re carrying around.
But why do our past struggles make us more vulnerable to toxic people? There are a few reasons.
As twisted as it may seem, unresolved trauma can create a comfort zone around behavior patterns and dynamics present during the traumatic experience.
People may unknowingly seek out individuals who exhibit similar characteristics to those they have encountered in the past, even if those characteristics are harmful or toxic.
This is known as the familiarity principle of attraction.
This familiarity can give them a false sense of security or normalcy. It’s why, for example, a woman who grew up with an alcoholic father might end up dating alcoholic men down the line.
It’s not a totally conscious decision, either.
But there’s familiarity in that situation, no matter how bad. And that’s one way we get trapped in negative relationship cycles.
Emotional baggage can often lead to low self-esteem and a lack of self-worth.
When someone doesn’t believe in their own value, they may inadvertently attract toxic people who reinforce negative beliefs about themselves.
Toxic individuals know how to exploit our vulnerabilities, manipulate us, or make us feel unworthy. And we get sucked in by it all.
Unresolved emotions such as anger, sadness, or fear can create an emotional imbalance, making them more susceptible to being drawn to toxic relationships.
Toxic people are often master manipulators who know exactly how to exploit these emotional vulnerabilities and use them to exert control or manipulate the individual.
If you have a lot of emotional baggage or unresolved trauma, you may develop codependent tendencies.
Codependency is a pattern of behavior where someone excessively relies on another person for approval, validation, or a sense of self-worth.
Toxic people often seek out codependent individuals because they can easily manipulate and control them. Narcissists, in particular, love to get involved with codependent people.
I had a five-year “situationship” with a man that was exactly like this. My life revolved around his needs, while mine when completely unmet.
In fact, he was very good at striking a balance between making me feel like he needed me and reinforcing the idea that I wasn’t particularly special or valuable. I wasn’t interesting enough and didn’t have the right look or connections to be worthy of him.
I internalized a lot of that.
But of course, if I did try to step out on my own and build myself up, he seemed to have a sixth sense for it because he always knew when to pop back up to love bomb me back into submission.
It was horrible.
And I think a lot of people end up trapped in these types of toxic situations. Being able to recognize the signs helps.
Some individuals unconsciously recreate past traumatic experiences in an attempt to gain mastery or resolution over them.
This is a psychological phenomenon known as repetition compulsion.
As a result, we end up engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors and repeating the same cycles over and over again.
Do you ever feel like you’re dating the exact same person over and over again, just in different forms? It could be a manifestation of that principle.
How to Identify a Toxic Relationship
Identifying a toxic relationship is the first step in breaking free from it. Here are some signs that you may be in a toxic relationship:
- You feel drained and depleted after spending time with the person
- You are constantly criticized or put down
- You feel like you are walking on eggshells around the person
- You are afraid to express your true feelings or opinions
- You are isolated from friends and family
- You are experiencing physical or emotional abuse
- There’s constant drama and volatility in your relationship
If you’re nodding your head “yes” to multiple points on this list, there’s a good chance you’re in a toxic relationship with someone.
So what do you do about it?
We’ll address healing and moving forward in a minute, but it’s important to note that you do not have to figure this part out by yourself.
It’s okay and encouraged to talk to someone – a counselor or therapist – who specializes in helping people overcome abusive and toxic relationships.
Again, it doesn’t have to be limited to romantic relationships either. There are plenty of people struggling with the scars of childhood trauma who still have to manage complicated family relationships.
Talking to a counselor and/or joining a support group is a great first step.
Exploring the Root Causes
If you find yourself attracting toxic people, it’s essential to examine the root causes of this pattern. We’ve already hinted at a few, but let’s dive into them more deeply.
Here are some possible explanations:
Childhood and Unmet Needs
Your childhood experiences can have a significant impact on your adult relationships. If you grew up in an environment where your emotional needs were not met, you might be more likely to seek out partners who are emotionally unavailable or abusive.
You may also struggle with setting boundaries or recognizing red flags in relationships.
Belief Systems and Dominant Personality Traits
Your belief systems and personality traits can also play a role in attracting toxic partners.
For example, if you believe that you are not worthy of love and respect, you may tolerate abusive behavior from others.
The flip side is also true.
If you have a dominant personality, you may attract partners who are submissive or willing to put up with your controlling behavior.
The Fixer Mindset
If you have a “fixer” mindset, you may be drawn to partners who need “saving.” You may believe (even on a subconscious level) that you can change or fix them, but it rarely goes that way.
What’s likelier is you wind up in an unhealthy, codependent relationship.
It’s important to recognize that you cannot change someone else, and it’s not your responsibility to “fix” them. Yes, it feels good to be needed, but not to the detriment of your own happiness and self-worth.
I definitely learned this one the hard way. (Remember Mr. Situationship?)
By examining these root causes, you can begin to understand why you attract toxic partners and take steps to break the pattern.
This may involve seeking therapy to work through past traumas, learning to set boundaries, and developing a healthier sense of self-worth.
These are all much larger topics, but we’ll lightly touch on a few.
Setting Healthy Boundaries
The Importance of Boundaries
Setting healthy boundaries is crucial in all relationships, especially with toxic people.
Boundaries help you define what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior towards you. They help you protect your physical, emotional, and mental well-being.
It’s all about establishing clear limits and communicating what is acceptable and unacceptable to you, and then sticking to those limits.
This last part is crucial and, often, really challenging for people accustomed to dealing with toxic relationships.
We’re afraid to say no because we don’t want to be discarded.
But nothing will change until we learn how to set boundaries. So let’s talk about what that looks like.
How to Set Boundaries
The following steps can help you establish healthy boundaries with people.
Reflect on your needs:
Take some time to reflect on your own needs, values, and personal limits. What are your emotional, physical, and mental boundaries? Understand what you’re comfortable with and what crosses the line for you.
Clearly and assertively express your boundaries to your partner, friend, or family member. Use “I” statements to convey your feelings and needs, rather than blaming or accusing them.
For example, “I need some alone time” instead of “You are always suffocating me with your neediness.”
Consistency is key when it comes to boundaries. Stick to your limits and follow through with consequences if they are violated.
If you don’t get this part right, it kind of all falls apart.
Because as soon as someone senses that your boundaries are not firm, they will cross them.
And then where will you be?
Reach out to trusted friends, family, or a therapist who can provide emotional support and guidance. They can help you navigate difficult conversations, validate your experiences, and offer objective perspectives.
Prioritize self-care to strengthen your emotional well-being. This looks like engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation, for sure.
But it also looks like taking care of yourself and prioritizing your needs. Are you getting enough sleep? Eating well? Exercising? All of these things will contribute positively to your sense of well-being.
Learn to say no:
It’s okay to say no when something doesn’t align with your boundaries or values. Practice assertively declining requests or activities that make you uncomfortable or overwhelmed. Remember, your needs matter, and it’s important to honor them.
Monitor your reactions:
Pay attention to how you feel and react in the relationship.
Do you consistently feel anxious, unhappy, or drained? It may be a sign that your boundaries are being violated or you need to set additional boundaries.
This is where getting support can really help. A counselor or therapist can help you work through this process.
It’s not uncommon for people to question themselves when they first set boundaries. If someone tests your boundaries, they might try to make you feel wrong or extreme for setting them.
It’s good to have an objective third party there to call out bad behavior and give you strategies for handling it.
Clearly define consequences for crossing your boundaries and communicate them to your partner/friend/relative.
Consequences can range from limiting contact, taking time apart, or requiring couples/family counseling as a condition of maintaining a relationship.
The goal is to protect yourself and create the conditions for a healthy relationship.
Seek professional help if needed:
I probably sound like a broken record at this point, but if the toxic dynamics persist despite your efforts, consider seeking professional help.
A therapist can provide guidance, support, and strategies tailored to your specific situation.
For more on why you keep attracting toxic people, check out this video. It’s tailored towards men, but anyone can benefit from these insights.
Healing and Moving Forward
If you’ve recognized that you tend to attract toxic people in your life, congratulations! That’s the first step towards healing and moving forward. It’s not easy to break the cycle of toxic relationships, but it’s possible. Here are some ways to help you heal and move forward.
Self-Improvement and Mental Health
One of the most important things you can do is to work on yourself. This means taking care of your mental health and well-being.
We’ve already talked about seeing a therapist or joining a support group to help you work through any issues that may be contributing to your attraction to toxic people.
You can also work on self-improvement by reading self-help books, attending workshops or classes, or practicing mindfulness and meditation.
These activities can help you become more self-aware and develop healthy habits that will attract positive people into your life.
Here are some books you might find useful:
- Don’t Believe Everything You Think: Why Your Thinking Is The Beginning & End Of Suffering by Joseph Nguyen
- The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown
- Trauma: The Invisible Epidemic: How Trauma Works and How We Can Heal From It by Paul Conti, MD
- Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind by Judson Brewer
Surrounding Yourself with Positive People
Surrounding yourself with positive people is essential to breaking the cycle of toxic relationships.
Having positive, healthy people in your life is one of the best antidotes to bad relationships.
Seek out friends and family who are supportive, kind, and understanding. And if those people don’t exist in your life, don’t get down on yourself.
I’ve been there.
Give yourself permission to step out of your comfort zone and explore social groups or clubs that align with your interests.
Toxic relationships are often very isolating.
The best way to counter that is by expanding your social circle with people who offer a refreshing, healthy contrast to the types of relationships you’re used to.
Letting Go of the Need to Fix Others
As someone with a good heart and a problem solver, you may feel the need to save or fix toxic people. However, this is not your responsibility – and once you start to truly accept that, it will be so liberating.
You cannot change someone who does not want to change, and you cannot fix someone who does not want to be fixed. I’ve been on both sides of this coin.
Letting go of the need to fix others can be difficult, but it’s necessary for your own well-being. Focus on yourself and your own growth, and let others take responsibility for their own lives.