mother and daughter feeding pidgeons

We have all been there. That despairing moment when we feel that we will never meet any decent people. Whether bullies follow us around in workplaces, or we continuously pick the wrong friends or romantic partners, it sometimes feels like we are doomed to be surrounded by toxic people.

Over the years, I have met so many toxic people who tried to take advantage of me. I had different levels of success of finding them out. Some people very nearly broke me, others only managed to tick me off. I spent some years working for a narcissistic boss, who drove me to the very edges of my being. I have also worked across from an emotional vampire who drained all  the joy from my job every single day. Her mood dictated whether we could even talk in the room. I have considered people friends who ended up only needed me as a mirror for their self-obsession. Yes, I have had a fair share of toxic people in my life.

I have sometimes wondered if I stand out like a beacon to these people. Do they have target radar? Or is it perhaps certain behavioral traits that attract them? Am I the proverbial honey in the fly trap?

Target Training

I was first consciously made aware of the link between my current behavior and my upbringing while I was working for that narcissistic boss. Talking to my counselor, she began pointing out overlaps between my boss and my mother, and in my responses to both of them. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Our childhood prepares us for our adult life. What we were taught as children, we do as adults. What targets of abuse are taught is how to be a good target. Our very survival as children relies on our success at learning that lesson. So as adults we do what we were taught: we are good targets.

I have spoken to many people who have broken away from adult abuse experiences;  romantic, work related, or religious in origin. As I shared my childhood experiences, they would begin to see parallels to their own experiences. Many people realized that a parent’s, or other major authority figure, had primed them for emotional abuse. They had in fact to some extent received target training as children.

Emotionally abused children grow up with significantly altered perceptions so that they “see” behaviors—their own and others’—through a filter of distortion. Many emotionally-abused children engage in a lifelong drive for the approval (which they translate as “love”) of others. So eager are they for love—and so convinced that they don’t deserve it—that they are prime candidates for abuse within intimate relationships.
(From: You Carry the Cure In Your Own Heart by Andrew Vachss)

From the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, we have learned how much our adult lives can be influenced by early adverse experiences. It is not just about repeating patterns in our interpersonal relationships, it also influences our mental and physical health. That only emphasizes the need for us to heal from these experiences.

Awareness Is The First Step

Awareness of the influence of early learning on our adult life is crucial if we want to improve our situation. Some of us may not be aware of toxicity in our childhood because it has been overwhelmed by an abusive marriage. Others may know they suffered abuse as a child, but are unable to link that experience to their current behaviors.

The long-term impact of emotional maltreatment has not been studied widely, but recent studies have begun to document its long-term consequences. Emotional maltreatment has been linked with increased depression, anxiety, somatic complaints, and difficulties in interpersonal relationships (Spertus, Wong, Halligan, & Seremetis, 2003).
(From: Emotional Maltreatment by Gail Hornor, DNP, RNC, CPNP)

Making an effort to become aware of these links is important, and the intention is the first step. Once you decide you want to figure it out, you can. Why not start journaling some childhood memories? It will help you remember, and make sense of things with your adult brain. You can even choose to get writing on the forum. That way you get a whole set of brains that can help you sift through things. You can also choose to do some inner-child work, either by yourself or under the guidance of a therapist.

There are many ways to become more aware of your own early programming, and its influence on your relationships. Self-awareness and self-reflection are (as always) the key words.

we love to read your comments below



Having gained experience while working for a variety of European non-profits, I am proud to now work with SwanWaters. My connection with the website is not only professional. I am glad to tap into my personal experiences to help those who are living in toxic relationships whether with parents, partners or in their professional life. We need to make the world more aware of the devastating effects of emotional abuse and help more people on their way to heal and thrive.

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  1. Profile photo of Breezie

    September 17, 2015 at 2:10 am

    Very good article! I have always been aware of the abuse, but I would talk to therapist about it discociatively, without emotion. I can talk to someone I have never met, and in 5 minutes know if they are toxic. This is why I avoid people. I have a lot of empathy for others, however, if it is not good for me I walk away. I have made myself an expert on the Narcissist behavior, and am armed against it. I have great instincts, but have ignored them in the past. Never again.

  2. Profile photo of Breezie

    September 23, 2015 at 4:49 pm

    I posted this response about another article, but I thought it is appropriate to put it here as well:

    Good article. It is a tough thing to do after years of programming. It kind of goes along with your article about living what we were taught growing up. I don’t have the exact title of the article, but basic principle. I have had to stand back and look at my boys, and the choices they have made due to my choices. My son is married to a Narcissist, and I cautioned him about what his daughter is learning. She is learning it is okay to verbally abuse her spouse, and/or, his inaction is also teaching her to stay in a verbally abusive relationship for the benefit of the child. This is what my son learned from me. A narcissist will not change, because they will never acknowledge they have a problem. I did not physically, emotionally, psychologically, or sexually (including covert, via shaming), but I allowed their father to do it, which makes me equally culpable. I suggest parenting classes for those who wish to break the cycle of abuse with their children.
    Thanks for posting the article and reading this.


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