We want to give a definitive guide for warning signs you are dating a toxic person. This advice applies to all of the main toxic personality types – psychopaths, narcissists, sociopaths and also people with borderline personality disorder. They all display similar manipulative traits and cause the same kind of damage in toxic relationships.
We have tried to break these tips up into some which involve looking at their overall character and behavior, others which involve what is going on inside you, and others which are based on patterns of toxic abuse which will start to appear once the honeymoon phase is over.
That way, you can come at the issue from several different angles. Once you see several of these factors clustering together, it is time to start asking serious questions about this person you are involved with.
1. In The Early Stages, it Feels Too Good To Be True
This is a very common tactic among psychopaths and other toxic personalities. They often take you through the idealize-devalue-discard cycle, with the idealize phase being the “honeymoon” phase at the beginning. They shower you with warmth, charm and attention, playing the perfect match.
They will walk and talk in rhythm with you, finish your sentences, pretend to be interested in your hobbies, and seem attentive to your every need. In romantic relationships, they’ll do everything you want in the bedroom as well.
None of this is genuine with the psychopath; they are just creating a manufactured soulmate for you, robotically going through the motions of telling you everything you want to hear and getting you hooked on this idea of the “relationship” being the best thing that’s ever happened, that nothing else can beat.
Therefore, if someone seems to good to be true, especially in the early stages, they probably are. Psychopaths and Cluster B personalities are masters at giving you this sense of “that little bit extra” in the early stages of a relationship to get you hooked on them. This is setting the stage up for them to slowly withdraw down the line and begin the devalue and discard stages.
The reality on this is that no one is perfect. Everyone has flaws and weaknesses. If you are being sold an image of this “flying high” sense of bliss and perfection in a person and relationship that never seems to end, you are likely being sold a lie. It doesn’t exist, but psychopaths know we all go through this honeymoon phase of idealizing someone and take advantage of it.
Therefore it is important to test for the authenticity of someone’s interest in you, as well as how they interact. Normal people won’t be perfect. They’ll make mistakes. They may be a bit goofy at times. They won’t always be smooth talkers and charmers. But this means they’re real human beings, with flaws and imperfections. The psychopath tries to cover this up.
Look out for glibness, insincerity, shallowness, unexplained discrepancies and abnormalities they gloss over. Are they really listening to you, or just absorbing information about you? Are they genuinely present, or robotically going through the motions of human interaction? Look for real substance and depth of character, as opposed to shallow hedonism and immaturity.
See Jackson Mackenzie’s Psychopath Free in our books sections for a brilliant account of all the tactics toxic personalities use to reel unsuspecting people in.
2. You Start to Spot Red Flags in Their Character
More generally, with toxic people you will also begin to spot inconsistencies or something not quite right with their accounts of their past life and relationships. You will start to get hints and clues that the story the psychopath or narcissist has painted of their past endeavors is not all they claimed it to be.
Here are some things to look out for which may come up despite the psychopath’s best efforts to keep them concealed:
- Unexplained inconsistencies and discrepancies in their past story – job/university dates don’t match up, appear to have been in two places at once, tell you one thing one day then the opposite some other time.
- Evidence of past financial or legal difficulties, like debts, bankruptcies, criminal record etc.
- They claim they have a super high flying, well paid job, yet are asking to borrow money to keep them til next month.
- They describes all their ex partners as “crazy” or “stupid”.
- You find yourself being systematically kept away from anyone from their past who may reveal a different story about them.
- Occasionally, you may bump into someone from their past who pours cold water over some of their nonsense claims and gives you a radically different version of events of certain things than the psychopath did.
- You start to see inconsistencies between what they say and what they do, or how they treat you (at first) and how they treat others. Something strikes you as not quite right.
- You find them suddenly “snapping” and getting angry and abusive out of nowhere, but then straight away the mask comes up and they go back to charming and sweet. You brush it off the first time but it starts to happen more and more.
- More generally you start to see more negative traits, like glibness, manipulativeness, shallowness, dishonesty, and an absence of positive traits like clarity, maturity, stability, honesty, empathy and vocation.
- Anything else where your voice of reason kicks in and says “huh? Something’s not right here”. We all have this sense of intuition but many of us ignore it.
- See our article on listening to your intuition in relationships for more on spotting and acting on these red flags.
3. The Person Values Experiences & Stimulation, Not People
“Over a period of months, years, even a lifetime, you’ll start to see this person values not you, but the feelings they get when they are around you”
Unslaved Podcast – see here.
This is a crucial thing to look out for in relation to what we just said, and is not included in many “how to” guides on toxic relationships. Huge credit to Michael and David from the Unslaved Podcast for providing this crucial point to us, which we have not heard mentioned anywhere else.
We need to start testing for whether people value us as human beings (for our virtues, values and qualities) or whether they only value the feelings, stimulation and “buzz” they get when they are in our presence.
This is huge distinguishing factor for the authenticity of a relationship and spotting the difference will open your eyes in a very big way to people around you.
Psychopaths are incapable of valuing people for themselves, and relationships with them are only ever maintained for self serving purposes. They are not interested in you; only in what they can get for themselves by being around you, be it energy, fun times, sex, money or something else.
This can be tested for once you know to look for it. Here are some signs of toxic and shallow personalities:
- Their mindset is purely hedonistic – seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. They refuse to face any legitimate downtimes or suffering.
- Related to this, they are never there to comfort anyone else when they having a bad time. They are gone as soon as the fun times stop.
- There is an insincerity and smarminess to their interest in you. They are asking loads of questions, but you sense they aren’t really listening or interested in you as a person. You feel they are interviewing you or gathering intel (because they are!).
- Their entire mindset and character is shallow – no vocational or deeper aspects, no real maturity or stability. It’s all fun times. No real growth or change.
- They don’t take any criticism of themselves or their behavior very well. They always immediately project and blame shift onto you, or else get very angry and hostile.
- They “flip” and turn as soon as you burst their bubble of flying highness, fun times or “OK-ness” that they get from being around you. They turn from charming to nasty or devaluing, or else disappear from your life very quickly.
4. You Are Starting To Doubt Your Own Sanity & Perception
This will be a crucial thing you will experience once the psychopath has got bored and starts to devalue and chip away at you psychologically. As part of this, they start gas-lighting their victims, claiming things weren’t said or done when they were, or vice versa. This is designed to get a person questioning their own reality and perception.
If you are already naturally prone to self doubt (double checking things, asking for other opinions, struggling to make decisions), you need to especially watch out for this. The psychopath will start to chip away at you, creating situations themselves and then placing the blame onto you as a form of amusement and entertainment.
There is a common pattern of behaviors you will find yourself falling into when you are caught up with toxic people:
- You starting asking questions like “Did I really do that?”, “Did I really leave that there?”. Before, you just did things and forgot about them. Now, the psychopath or other toxic person has you questioning everything.
- The other person starts mocking and invalidating your feelings, responding with denial, blame shifting, or by patronizing and demeaning you, making you think something is wrong with you for expressing your feelings.
- OCD habits may form, where you are double or triple checking things at work or home, when you weren’t before.
- You start feeling an excessive need to start taking pictures, screenshots, saving emails etc. because these incidents where your perception is challenged keep getting more common with this person.
- You will find yourself in a frantic state at work for example, desperately searching through papers, records, rotas etc. trying to find proof you’re not going crazy as they have created another drama by suggesting you didn’t do or say something.
- With these kind of incidents, you may often think “What have I been reduced to here?” or something similar.
- Accompanying all this is a heightened background state of anxiety and stress that wasn’t there before you met the person. You are constantly “on edge” wondering when the next drama is going to blow up.
- Jumping and startling whenever the phone rings is another common form of this.
- You check in with yourself and notice your general demeanor has become less composed and more anxious since you met this person and the drama really started.
“If you’ve ever felt the need to record a conversation to play it back to that person as proof or so you can be sure you heard it right, you’re being gas-lighted”
Dr Ramani Durvasula
5. You Start To Feel Reality Being Flipped on it’s Head
This is kind of a way of restating the point we just made about about self doubt, but instead we want to apply this to interpersonal interactions. You will find the psychopath or other toxic personality starts to flip situations on their head, always playing mind and word games so that it is always you who is the one at fault.
Again this comes under the umbrella of gas-lighting, where they are trying to invalidate your perception as a way of eroding your identity and self esteem. It is also symptomatic of their extreme tendency to project responsiblity for everything onto others. For the psychopath, they are never at fault; it is always the world at fault.
Here are some warning signs you will notice when dealing with psychopaths and cluster B personalities in relationships:
- Nothing is ever their fault, even when it clearly is. They never take any ownership for obvious wrongdoing or errors.
- Whenever they do something upsetting or hurtful towards you, they always flip it around so it is you that is wrong for feeling the way you do, not them for the way they treated you.
- In general, they never respect your feelings and in fact love to invalidate them.
- They create drama and chaos situations on purpose, then either blame you for it or criticize you for your reaction to them.
- You find yourself agitated, irritated and frustrated with this person, whilst they seem to get ever more happy and energetic as you become more unhappy.
- You find yourself apologizing for situations they created in the first place. They happily play the victim despite creating all the drama to begin with.
- They launch smear campaigns at work or personally, painting you out to “bad” or “crazy” to others, while they play the victim. Psychopaths love to paint good people to be bad and bad people (like them) to be good.
6. You Feel This Person Has Flipped & Changed
“Almost every day, people who join our forum, they say ‘why did I stay in this for so long? How could I have been so stupid?’
The way that emotional abuse works is that it targets our most vulnerable human emotions in a way that – unless you’re aware what’s happening when you’re in the cycles of it – all it does is make a more and more intense bond ”
Jackson Mackenzie – see here.
This is a classic sign of the psychopathic personality in particular, though it happens with all toxic people to some extent. In the early stages of a relationship, they bombard you with warmth, charm and attention to reel you in and get you addicted to an image of fake bliss and perfection.
They are creating the image of the perfect partner or manufactured soulmate, building up the idea in your head that this relationship is perfect and no one else can beat it. See our article on the psychopathic bond for more on this. They are interviewing you, feeling you out, telling you everything you want to hear, setting you up for what’s coming.
Once they have you in their trust, this is usually when they flip, slowly pulling away the warmth and charm and ramping up the emotional abuse tactics (devaluation, invalidation, gas-lighting, identity erosion). You will definitely feel something has flipped or reversed with the way they are behaving towards you, and will start to question whether you’ve done something wrong to create this.
You may be thinking something like “This person seemed perfect at first. He was like a soulmate, matched my every word and move, told me everything I wanted to hear. But now he’s flipped. He’s withdrawing, becoming cold, disparaging and distant. When I try to rekindle, he withdraws even more”.
The reality is that the psychopath had planned this all along. It’s part of the game they play where they seek to build someone’s trust as high as possible, before flipping and bringing them down as hard as possible emotionally, then dropping them cold and moving onto someone else to begin the whole process again. It’s sometimes called the idealize-devalue-discard cycle in the recovery space.
This is a crucial aspect of emotional abuse to understand, since it is precisely the victim’s lack of awareness of the mean-sweet patterns of abuse while they are caught up in it that causes it to have such a powerful effect, hence the quote just above. See our articles on the psychopathic bond and how psychopaths get you hooked for more on this.
7. Your Body is Telling You There is Something Wrong
This is a golden rule to follow to see if something is wrong in any walk of life. Your body never lies when dealing with toxic personality disordered people, regardless of any gas-lighting or smoke and mirrors they throw up to try and distract or invalidate you.
It will become so irritated and agitated as the emotional abuse and boundary violations really start to ramp up that it will be obvious something is wrong if you are paying attention to it.
All the psychological damage that psychopaths and other toxic people leave their victims with will often manifest in the body as a general irritation, over-arousal, stress, anxiety, depression, constant fight-flight “high alertness” and “on edge-ness”, poor sleep, general fatigue and exhaustion and a horrible “choked off” feeling often residing in the stomach.
These are all signals your body is sending to you that something is seriously wrong with the person you are with, or the situation you are caught up in. Did all this stuff come on since you met this person? Are they trying to flip everything round and say it’s your fault you’re feeling so irritated and agitated (gas-lighting)?
It is very important to pay attention to what your body is telling you so you can see this more clearly more early on and get out of toxic relationships sooner. This is where mindfulness practice can be so important, since it trains the mind to become more in tune with the body and notice these things sooner.
Either way, if you are getting these signals from your body, it is time to start looking very closely at your life and close relationships to see what’s going on.
Actions Steps to Take if Dating a Toxic Person
If you start to see several of these warning signs and red flags clustering together, here is a checklist of steps to take right away:
- Get away immediately, as soon as possible, no exceptions. These personalities are dangerous, toxic and will cause a lot of damage if you stay around them.
- Break off all contact permanently. Change phone numbers, addresses, door locks, bank accounts etc. Get them out of your life completely and irreversibly. The no contact rule.
- If no contact is not possible because of children or financial committments, set firm and non negotiable boundaries on any contact that does need to occur. Don’t let them chip away at these boundaries. Seek the help of a counsellor or therapist with this – see further below.
- Re-ground and re-privatize yourself. Restore your boundaries. Live alone for a while if necessary afterwards. These characters can be very invasive and intrusive people
- Surround yourelf with supportive, empathic and understanding people who respect your boundaries and support your growth not your downfall. Be very demanding as to the company you keep.
- Educate yourself as much as possible on disordered personalities – the so called Cluster B and Antisocial personality disorders. See our definitive resource guide for recovery from toxic relationships for links to great books and videos.
- Seek the help of a qualified therapist to help with any issues resulting from the relationship, like anxiety, depression, trauma, addictions, avoidance etc.
- Use mindfulness meditation to explore and dissolve any numbness or other physiological symptoms resulting from the toxic relationship. See our article on this.
- See our various articles on recovery from toxic relationships for more help and resources.
See also our Books section for links to some of the best work on toxic personalities and relationships. Jackson Mackenzie’s Psychopath Free and Whole Again are essential reading, as is the work of Robert Hare (Without Conscience and Snakes in Suits).