This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Laws Of Human Nature" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Do you want to know how to handle toxic people? How can you identify toxic people?
You’re going to encounter toxic people in life. It’s best that you learn how to recognize all types of toxic behavior, and learn how to handle toxic people.
Read more about the different toxic types and how to handle toxic people.
How to Handle Toxic People: Learn About the Shadow
The qualities we try to hide are called the Shadow. Our Shadows developed in childhood as we learned from our parents which behavior was acceptable and which wasn’t. Because we depended on our parents for survival, we didn’t dare do anything that would make them abandon us, so we hid the things about ourselves that they didn’t like.
As we grew up, we experienced pressure from friends, mentors, and our culture to behave in certain ways (or else be left out of the group), so we repressed more. Typically, we learned that we had to hide aggression, overambition, arrogance, vengefulness, and other emotions society perceives as negative.
Most of us successfully mask these socially inappropriate characteristics, but they don’t disappear. There are moments when our Shadows sneak through our masks, and we become so different it’s almost as if we’re possessed. Additionally, as we get older, it becomes harder and harder to repress the Shadow because maintaining a mask is a lot of work and we tire of it. We secretly want to embrace the Shadow—when we were young, we felt freer and more creative, and we want these feelings back. This is part of how we learn how to handle toxic people.
To spot people’s Shadow qualities, look out for:
- Inconsistency. When people act in a way that’s the opposite of how they normally are, there’s a good chance their Shadow is motivating that seemingly out-of-character action.
- Hypocrisy. When people vehemently deny that they like or are interested in something, this probably indicates that they feel the opposite. Be careful around people who have exaggerated qualities because they might, in truth, mean that the person is the opposite.
- Example #1: People who are vulnerable or insecure develop exaggerated toughness to mask it.
- Example #2: Antisocial people develop exaggerated social qualities to mask it.
- Loss of control. When people explode, overreact, or are more sensitive than usual, they might try to blame it on circumstances, such as stress, but it’s their Shadow sneaking out.
- Can’t-help-it behavior. When people express their Shadow, sometimes they try to blame it on something they can’t control, like an addiction or illness.
- Ends-justify-the-means attitude. Some people chose a leader, cause, or argument to support and they justify the release of their Shadow as a means of furthering the cause. They can then excuse any behavior.
- For example, someone who secretly wants to bully people might get into an argument about one of their convictions and use the strength of their belief as an excuse to insult others.
- Projection. When we want something but can’t admit to our desire, we imagine that other people have this desire (either by exaggerating one of their existing qualities or completely making one up) and then judging them. This judgment is a way of venting our own desires. This is the most common way to release the Shadow because it’s the easiest and most accessible.
- For example, composer Richard Wagner claimed to hate Jewish people’s influences on Western music, such as their sentimentality. In reality, there wasn’t much sentimentality in Western music, but Wagner was sentimental himself.
You’ll see these cues over and over when someone is trying to hide their Shadow and as you learn how to handle toxic people. Usually, the harder someone is repressing, the more likely the Shadow is to break free.
The Different Types of Masks
There are several types of masks, all used to repress the Shadow. Here are the masks you need to know when learning how to handle toxic people:
These types of men create a tough exterior to hide their inner vulnerability. They think they like to control women but secretly wish to be controlled by them. When their sensitive Shadow sneaks out, they’ll be embarrassed and act even tougher to make up for it.
To deal with these types, don’t be intimidated by their false toughness and don’t visibly doubt their stories and bragging because this will make them insecure. To take them down, provoke them (which will be easy because they’re so insecure) into some embarrassing action.
These types act moral and compassionate, but they secretly want power and things that society considers taboo. Their saintly mask can help them achieve a powerful position as a cult leader or politician, where they can reveal their true nature.
To deal with these types, first, establish whether they really are good people or whether they’re hiding a Shadow. Ignore what they say and look at their history—if they seem interested in power or wealth, they’re probably not actually saintly. To avoid trouble, keep your distance, or if you need to take them down, reveal their hypocrisy to their followers and admirers.
Polite But Power-Hungry
These types are power-hungry, envious, and aggressive, and they’re consciously aware of these tendencies. They’re also aware that they have to hide these qualities or they won’t get far in life, so they act kind and accommodating. This dichotomy is exhausting, so they’re prone to leakage, such as passive-aggressive comments.
To deal with these types, be cautious when you meet people who are initially overly friendly and keep your distance. Study them carefully for any signs of leakage.
These leaders passionately and dramatically support a cause. In reality, however, they only believe in something else so strongly because they don’t believe in themselves. They have such low self-worth that they don’t believe that they can actually make any progress on their cause, so they self-sabotage by becoming indecisive, making a mistake, or falling ill.
To handle these types, remember that the more strongly someone professes belief in something, the more likely it is that they believe the opposite.
These types fear irrationality and try to compensate by valuing science and analytical thinking. This valuing has a worship-like, religious element to it that’s in fact irrational. Sometimes, the irrationality will break free as anger during an argument or a bad choice.
To manage the intellectual superiority of these types, provoke them into an irrational reaction.
The Player of Her Own Drum
These types want to be different, unique, or “alternative” and talk up their interesting backgrounds. They’re insecure about the fact that their lives, like most of ours, include large doses of boringness.
- For example, Beau Brummell, a dandy in the 19th century, claimed to be from the masses but actually came from the middle class.
Suspect that people who try very hard to be different are in fact conventional. People who actually are different don’t showboat it.
These types are outwardly self-reliant and appear to be good at their jobs—they take on projects and have high standards. In reality, however, they secretly crave dependence. They hide this in their inability to delegate or collaborate, but as they take on too much work themselves, they create catastrophes that force them into a dependent position, such as needing the help of a doctor.
To learn how to handle toxic people, avoid getting professionally involved with them—when they fail, they take others down with them.
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Here's what you'll find in our full The Laws Of Human Nature summary :
- Why it's in your nature to self-sabotage
- How you behave differently when you're in a group
- Why you're wired to want the wrong things in life