Recognizing and Responding to Toxic Cultures

What does the term “toxic culture” mean exactly?

Every group of people we interact with has its own culture. This could be our family, co-workers, gym, or church. Some of these cultures feel more comfortable than others. However, just because a culture feels comfortable doesn’t mean it’s healthy for us.

Healthy cultures allow us to thrive biologically, psychologically, socially and spiritually.

Toxic cultures, in contrast, impair our ability to thrive. They are filled with acrimonious, antagonistic, or suspicious feelings on a consistent basis.

While it’s easy to pinpoint a culture which is harmful to our physical health (i.e. a smog-filled city), it is more difficult to identify a psychologically toxic culture.

Red flags of a psychologically toxic culture

Lack of trust.

Individuals are constantly vying for position within a toxic culture. They often do this at the expense of other individuals. Those with power don’t trust others.

  • At work this can look like bosses who micromanage their subordinates. They do this out of fear their staff won’t do things the “right” way.
  • Church leaders may undermine rather than assist others. They do this in an attempt to make sure no one looks more spiritual than they do.
  • In toxic families, lack of trust results in children who live in fear of making mistakes. These children can’t trust that their need to grow and learn will be nurtured rather than used against them.
  • Spouses in toxic relationships accuse one another of indiscretions rather than believing the best in one another.

When cultures fail to cultivate trust, people focus on what is best for themselves rather than thinking about what benefits the group as a whole.

Lack of honesty.

The lack of trust within toxic cultures creates an environment where people don’t feel safe to be authentic. As a result, they don’t speak openly and honestly.

  • Instead of telling Grandma you want to spend Christmas at home, you may feel obligated to keep her happy. (And then grumble about it behind her back.)
  • As an employee, you may parrot back whatever you believe those in authority want to hear. At the same time, you fail to share concerns or potential solutions which would help the organization become stronger.

Alternatively, toxic cultures can also punish honesty either overtly or covertly. For example:

  • The child who speaks the truth is labeled as the family troublemaker.
  • The employee who questions a boss’s new proposal is passed over for promotion because they are “not a team player.”

Unrealistic expectations.

Every member of a culture needs to contribute in healthy ways in order for the culture to thrive. Cultures become toxic when the expectations are either undefined or unrealistic. Such as:

  • When parents expect their children to excel in numerous extra-curricular activities in addition to maintaining an outstanding GPA, this sets the child up with unrealistic expectations.
  • Similarly, when children are punished for making mistakes and needing to learn, this creates an environment with unrealistic expectations.
  • When employees are expected to do whatever it takes to make a project succeed, are punished for honest mistakes, or don’t know what the expectations are to be considered for advancement, their work environment is built on unrealistic expectations which create anxiety and fear.


Within healthy cultures, individuals can trust they will be given honest feedback in gracious ways designed to help them grow and succeed. Within toxic cultures, constructive feedback is replaced with criticism which erode the recipient’s sense of self-worth and efficacy.

  • Critical employers mock or belittle their employees’ choices or attack their employees at vulnerable points.
  • Critical parents chip away at their child’s self-esteem with statements like “What is wrong with you …”

Poor boundaries.

Just as our bodies need skin to keep infection out and protect the muscles within, healthy boundaries are necessary within cultures. Diffuse, rigid, or absent boundaries create toxic cultures.

  • Parents with diffuse boundaries may step into the child’s role and complete their homework for them so that they will obtain a high enough GPA to be considered by prestigious colleges.
  • Spiritual organizations focused on micromanaging every aspect of congregants’ behavior create rigid boundaries. These boundaries treat individuals as incapable of making healthy decisions rather than as valuable beings deserving of love and respect.
  • Work environments where those with power are allowed to treat subordinates however they want without fear of repercussions create cultures where employees don’t feel safe and protected.

Healthy responses to a psychologically toxic culture.

If you find yourself in a toxic culture, don’t despair—there are steps you can take to improve your situation! Even within toxic cultures, you can take care of yourself and exert a positive influence. While you may not be in charge of the culture, this doesn’t mean you can’t affect change.

Manage yourself.

Within toxic cultures, individuals often lose sight of what is theirs to manage. Regardless of what others may be doing, it is important for you to focus on managing yourself and what is within your power to control. While I would love to be able to control my children’s choices or my boss’s behavior, I really don’t have the power to do this.

What I can manage are my thoughts, my feelings, and my behaviors. Regardless of what others are doing, I always remain in charge of managing those three aspects of my life.

When I focus on managing my reaction as my co-worker starts to gossip about others, I can make healthy choices which limit my exposure to toxic conversations while simultaneously creating a different sort of atmosphere. Instead of joining the gossip, I can choose to graciously excuse myself by letting my co-workers know I have a project I need to get back to.

As a parent, I can choose how I think about my children and talk with them about the choices they are making. I have the ability to do this even if other family members are focused on pointing out all the ways they may be falling short of who they “should” be.

Limit exposure.

While it would be unwise to avoid going to work in order to limit your exposure to a toxic environment, you can create internal limits for yourself while you are at work. Some examples include:

  • Take a step back in your mind and imagine a wall between you and the toxic words coming out of your boss’s mouth.
  • Choose to prioritize remaining healthy over “getting ahead”. Set limits around how much extra work you take on or the ways you engage while at work.
  • If your extended family is overly critical, this doesn’t mean you should avoid them entirely. However, it may mean you see them less frequently or within settings where they are less likely to hurt you. Meeting your parents at your daughter’s soccer match instead of at their house for supper limits the amount of time you spend together. This tactic also gives you something positive to focus on besides their frustrations over how you “should” be doing things differently.

Ultimately, you will need to weigh the pros and cons of continuing to be a part of a toxic culture. Only you can decide how much is too much! If you find the cons of remaining involved outweigh the pros, it might be time to look at whether or not your continued involvement is wise for your mental health.

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