Unfortunately, the “other people are toxic” attitude can backfire. In many cases, it misses a crucial point in self-care and emotional maturity: personal responsibility and accountability.
It seems to be a trendy thing these days, calling other people toxic.
The phrase “toxic relationships” has been used to describe the type of relationship in which both partners display behaviours that are destructive to themselves and one another.
On the internet I have come across memes like this:
And I feel sad.
Calling another human being toxic disturbs me to the core. For so many reasons, this conflicts with everything I have been taught about being in relationships in a harmonious way. Respect, compassion, understanding.
I understand the sayings are meant to encourage valuing ourselves enough to remove ourselves from situations and relationships in which there are consistent, harmful behaviours. I totally support that. In theory, it’s about learning to care for our own well-being.
Before I go further, I need to clarify this: I am NOT advocating staying in a toxic relationship in any way. I strongly believe it is crucial to stop the behaviours first. My point is that getting away from other people is not enough. That is only the beginning.
If you are someone who is in an abusive relationship, I need you to know that you are not helpless or hopeless. I promise you, there are options. They may seem impossible right now, but I can tell you firsthand that there is a way to get help. It may feel like you’re being destroyed, but you aren’t. Trust me on this. You’ve made it this far, you’re damn resilient. Please call your local shelter or safe house – they are experts in helping people in exactly your situation. You are worth it. Please call.
So, the “other people are toxic” attitude can backfire. In many cases, it misses a crucial point in self-care and emotional maturity: personal responsibility and accountability.
Those memes aren’t about recognition that the relationship is toxic. They’re shifting the blame to the other person. Remember the phrase it takes two to tango?
By definition, the words “toxic relationship” are appropriate to describe the effect of behaviours that are destructive and damaging to our well-being. Physical attacks, verbal abuse, mental manipulation – all toxic behaviours.
But calling another person who commits the behaviours toxic and walking away as if that’s enough completely ignores responsibility for our part in the problem.
It’s a necessary first step, but if the process stops there it isn’t healthy. It just allows us to blame others for everything without taking responsibility for our own insecurities and low self-worth that put us into the relationship in the first place.
Notice I say that behaviours are toxic, not the person doing it. Why? Because people make choices – even when they don’t realize they are able to choose differently. Including me. And you.
There are four main reasons why I can’t buy into calling people toxic:
1. No one else is responsible for my feelings. Ever.
Someone else’s behaviour may trigger feelings in me. But I need to be absolutely clear: they are certainly not making me feel anything.
My triggers are my own. They are the learned stories, my core beliefs that have been formed throughout my lifetime, the filters through which I perceive my experiences in the world. From those stories my thoughts and feelings arise. It’s an inside job.
These toxic people memes assume that if someone else leaves from my life, I will no longer have the same core beliefs and triggers in me, and therefore will live happily ever after. This is so not true, because no matter where you go, there you are. What I bring to the relationship is exactly what I will leave with.
When triggered or hurt by other people, it is not helpful at all to point the finger at them. It is my responsibility to look only at my own behaviours and correct them, without expectation that they should change for my happiness. To say that there is something wrong with other people but not me is an egotistical illusion. A dangerous one.
I agree that we may sometimes need to reduce or even terminate time spent with people who are acting harmfully to us. I completely support that. But to do so with a blaming, victimized mentality is not healing. When I am blaming someone else, I am not being honest about myself. I am committing the same offense as those whom I claim are toxic: I am acting just as disrespectfully toward them as I think they have been toward me.
I can choose to see the other person from a place of compassion instead: perhaps they have mental or emotional impairments which I don’t even know about. Perhaps their triggers are just as deep seated as mine. Maybe they have never learned to act differently, or even know that they have the option. They may be just as hurt as I am. Maybe I am triggering them too! Because, you know, hurt people hurt people.
We don’t have to expose ourselves to harmful behaviours in order to be compassionate. Both at the same time are possible with emotional maturity.
It’s all about taking personal responsibility. Regardless of my thoughts and feelings, and regardless of others’ actions which instigated them, I always have a choice of attitude and how I will act moving forward. Always. My choice, no one else’s.
Speaking of blame, I need to address this “normal people don’t go around destroying other human beings” thing. First of all, normal doesn’t exist. Secondly, these memes are almost always referring to relationships gone bad, not atrocities such as rape, war casualties, mutilation, or things of that caliber. So playing the “destroying other human beings” card over hurt feelings in a relationship is being overly dramatic, self-righteous and is not helpful. Hurt feelings are just that. They may feel devastating at the time, but seriously. Time for the big kid panties.
While we’re at it, let’s talk about the anchor/drowning metaphor. Funny, when I look at it in perspective, it’s not the other person who is the anchor that’s taking me down. The anchor is actually my own attachment (and sometimes even addiction) to my victimhood and blame. And I’m the one clinging white-knuckles to the chain.
2. Leaving a relationship or situation in which I am being triggered or harmed will not bring me happiness, nor heal me, nor make me a better person.
Leaving will simply alleviate the immediate stress and upheaval of feeling hurt, especially when the stress is chronic. This can be useful if done with a spirit of healing and wellness. However, it does not touch on the personal issues within myself that caused me to be in that situation. Leaving is only the tip of the iceberg, just a beginning.
There’s a saying, “If you’re eating a shit sandwich, chances are you ordered it.”
So, first I need to stop eating the shit sandwich. Then I have to honestly ask myself why I ordered it in the first place. If I don’t look at the deeper reason for it, I’m just going to come back and eat the shit sandwich again.
It’s not the chef’s fault that I have a shit sandwich. He’s just offering me his menu. He’s been making shit sandwiches all along. If I don’t like it, it’s up to me to stop ordering it, not to ask him (beg, plead, demand… whatever) to stop making them.
Once I forget about what the other person is or isn’t doing, take my own responsibility and stop eating the shit sandwich, I give myself the chance to see what’s really happening in perspective. To see where my responsibility lies. Most importantly, not only do I stop eating the shit sandwich, I stop ordering it. Eventually, not ordering the shit sandwich becomes easy and natural.
Even better, eventually I stop going to that restaurant.
3. It is not always helpful for me to leave all situations where I am feeling hurt.
I’d like to address this: I’ll never grow into my full potential until I let go of ALL the toxic people in my life.
So not true.
I relax into my full potential because of one simple attitude that is with me every day: show up to whatever comes.
Feeling hurt is an experience. Feeling anything is an experience – and an impermanent one, at that. Happiness, sadness, frustration, comfort… they all come and go. And they’re all part of living a full, rich life.
It’s up to me to approach everything in my life with openness, not ego. Teachability. Let go of my self-righteousness, self-absorption, judgementalism.
Then I will begin to learn and live in balance.
When I am committed to learning and growing together with another person with the emotional maturity to offer each other honesty, respect, patience, understanding, compassion, kindness and forgiveness, running away simply because my feelings are hurt is all dramatic and princessy.
And if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s when I watch myself get all dramatic and princessy. Yuck.
4. No one of us – me or you or anyone else on this planet – is any more or less of a human being in the end.
We all are made of the same flesh, we’ll all be reduced to dust in the end. No one of us is better or worse. We are different in thoughts, beliefs, feelings and actions, but different does not mean less.
In relationship with another human being, whether it be a few seconds or a lifetime, it is my responsibility to bring the things I was taught to the table no matter what: honesty, respect, patience, understanding, compassion, kindness and forgiveness.
So, if I am to call you toxic, I must suspend any sense of compassion, patience or respect for you as a human being. Suspend everything I’ve been taught about getting along with others.
Why would I do this?
Because I am able to judge and condemn you, see you as worth less.
And what is my payoff for doing that?
It elevates me, allows me to justify my self-righteous and angry behaviour, gives me the illusion of being off the hook for any wrongdoing. It allows me to pretend that I am a martyr/victim, free of any responsibility.
If I’m doing that, I’m justifying my own toxicity while condemning you for yours.
That doesn’t make me healthy; it makes me a hypocrite.
And that does not sit well with me. At all. Nothing can justify me calling another person toxic.
THE CONVERSATION: Let's Talk About Is Calling Someone Else “Toxic” Healthy?
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7 Comments in this discussion | Add your comment now
Well done on adding the sidebar on abusive relationships, but may be you need to open that up to include abusive parents. I did not ask for an abusive father… I don’t think any child ask for the parents they have. Anyway, just an heads up that your article is being used to tell an abuse survivor that she shouldn’t name her father a toxic presence.
The article is interesting and I do see where you are trying to come from, but too general and fails to address those that genuinely have toxic presences in their lives. Instead of simply calling everyone toxic to avoid looking at oneself.
Rita, thank you so much for the helpful feedback. This article was written about changing the focus to personal responsibility, so purposely doesn’t go into specific types of relationships nor behaviours. However, I’ve re-read and see what you mean that we don’t choose our parents. It’s clear to me that I need to either rewrite this post or write another to clarify. I really appreciate your thoughtful words, and would love to hear more. Is there a specific way you feel this is being used to tell people it’s okay to be abused by a parent? I’m very open to hearing what you feel will address this best, here or by private email, if you’d like to share more. Thank you so much again.
I am sorry I didn’t reply earlier, I didn’t check this again. I appreciate your understanding.
The issue is saying that we in any way choose certain relationships, without making a differentiation between the ones we DO choose, and are abusive, and those no one gets to chose,as a child, the adult you depend on for your survival. Be they your family of birth, foster parents or teachers.
Now with choosing abusive situations, often choosing this comes form a person that is already predisposed to be abused, having been a violence or abuse survivor. Hence why women that have had on violent partner are more prone to have this happen again. It is not coincidence, being abused does something to you, and you are unable to sometimes believe you would deserve better, or feel comfortable in an abusive/controlling relationship because it is all you know.
But when dealing with toxic adults from your childhood, they are the ones that made you predisposed to be abused again and again.
It may be helpful to look into Adult Children, it is a widely written about topic and discusses how adults that were abused as children have difficulties making healthy choices in all types of relationships as adults, friends, partners, work mates.
Feel free to email me.
Rita, thank you so much for your insight and clarification. I completely understand now what you’re saying. There is an important distinction that needs to be made, and I appreciate you pointing it out. In trauma therapy circles, this has come to be known as “generational trauma”. Ultimately, no matter where it comes from, we are each still responsible for our lives going forward, but this type of trauma and approach to it for healing may require a slightly different perspective. Thanks again.
Hi, sorry I didn’t see your reply until now, feel free to email me.
I deliberately sought out website articles challenging the habit of calling others toxic as I was sick and tired of videos on YouTube with titles such as 10 toxic people to avoid, 10 signs you have a toxic friend and 7 signs you are becoming toxic. It’s not healthy to call yourself or someone else toxic.
Getting rid of ‘toxic’ people from your life is an example of reductionist thinking. The idea that 80% of a business’s profits is derived from 20% of the customers so the other 80% of the customers need to be dropped. That will still leave you with a reduction in profits. Maybe the other 80% of customers provide the bread and butter work that keeps you in business all year round and your employees occupied. It’s also a backlash against Christianity where you are taught to blame yourself for every toxic interaction so why not blame everyone else instead.
Warm hello, Teresa. Thanks for your thoughts. It’s so true – it is reductionist thinking, part of the harmful cancel culture that has developed in the last few years especially. Any philosophy of thought that is fear based fosters blame, whataboutism, and intolerance for different. It can be disheartening at best, dangerous at worst. I’m so thankful to hear from you and others who are choosing something different.