The Hidden Root of Toxic Behavior

You don’t really care about me. You only care about yourself. These words lingered in Mya's mind as she came to my office for counseling. Earlier that week, her mother had lashed out at her—again. The truth was that Mya was trying to help her arrange for transportation to and from the hospital. But, her efforts were not good enough for her mom.

Mya found herself asking a familiar question, "Am I a terrible daughter?"

It's a question I hear frequently in my office: Am I a terrible wife. . . daughter. . .mother. . friend. . .employee?

It's shame rearing its ugly head, often at the hands of someone else's toxicity. You see, the hidden root behind toxic behaviors is none other than that "vector of evil" as Dr. Curt Thompson calls it: shame.

Toxic behaviors typically come from someone so walled off from their own sense of shame, that they have started offloading it right on to you. This person hasn’t faced their own brokenness, or their own pain. Instead, they bury it deeper and deeper inside, where it festers far off in a dark corner of the soul. It doesn’t go away. Instead, it seeps out onto other people in unhealthy ways.

When someone does not face their own shame honestly with compassion, they will project that shame on to you.

Projection is when a person takes their own unwanted feelings and desires and attributes them to someone else. If anything trips over the tiniest feeling of vulnerability, this person can't tolerate the shame that starts to show up. Instead of facing it honestly, they will point shame's accusatory finger right back at you.

This can show up in gaslighting, manipulation, controlling behaviors, and flat-out abuse. Here are some examples of toxic responses:

  • I’m not drinking! You have trust issues. (In fact, they have started drinking again.)
  • If you break up with me, I’ll tell everyone who you really are. (In fact, they are desperate not to feel exposed.)
  • You have an issue with authority. You need to pray and ask God to change your heart. (In fact, they feel insecure in their leadership role.)
  • I'm not the one with a problem, you are. (In fact, you've put your finger on a problem.)

In each of these cases, imagine what it might be like if this person communicated on behalf of their vulnerability instead of through the accusatory voice of shame. Here are some examples of authentic responses:

  • I am struggling again with my addiction. I'm terrified.
  • It will break my heart if you leave me. But, I can't make you stay.
  • I'd like to understand your perspective. I'm open to hearing you, even if we disagree.
  • Ouch! That hurts. I'll need some time to sit with what you've just shared with me.

Do you see the difference? This second set of responses opens up space for authentic connection and communication. The first set shuts it down entirely.

It takes humility, courage and confidence to communicate honestly about our vulnerabilities. It takes work. Those who have not done their work, will not be able to communicate in this way. Instead, they'll offload their own unacknowledged shame on to you.

It can be dangerous to expose someone to their own shame. It’s not for the faint of heart. If someone has completely denied their own shame, they have protective mechanisms deeply committed to keeping that shame far away. That means, they won’t go down without a fight. They may not choose to heal. Instead, they may try to smear, judge, or create a toxic narrative about you.

If someone is accusing you of something that simply doesn’t sit right, listen to your body, your mind, your soul. If you feel manipulated, controlled, or as if your words are constantly twisted, pay attention to that. If you think you might be dealing with toxic behaviors, look for people who are safe to help you stay strong in the face of the person who is being toxic toward you.