I see a lot of talk of people being “toxic” to other people. Sometimes concession is given that it is not the person alone that is toxic, but the combination of that person with another – the relationship – that creates the toxicity. In either case, speaking of people and relationships as toxic is all the rage. I saw this a few decades ago, too. The idea that people can be toxic to each other is a persistent one, and I think it’s such a popular idea because it deflects responsibility onto other people. If your partner is toxic, then it’s not your fault that you’ve knowingly stayed in an unhealthy relationship, right? It’s all their fault. They manipulated you. They “gaslighted” you (another misused term). It gives you a seemingly legitimate excuse to simply cut and run, ending the relationship without doing any work at all to try to improve it. “They are toxic. I had to leave.” Poor you.
Don’t get me wrong here. I am not suggesting that people should stay in abusive relationships or in those that cause them constant pain. On the contrary; sometimes when you become aware of how unhealthy a relationship is, the best thing to do is to leave. If you need help dealing with an abusive relationship, please visit this site for support or call 1-800-799-7233 (within the United States). Rather, what I am talking about here is finding a healthy perspective and labeling someone else – or your relationship with them – as toxic is not a healthy perspective. It dehumanizes the other person. Labeling someone as toxic implies that they are somehow defective, less worthy than you, perhaps even evil. The truth is that they are also a human being with feelings just like you. When we find ourselves in relationships with people we later determine to not be good for us, I would wager that our initial attraction to them had to do with our broken bits fitting together like puzzle pieces. There are other terms used to describe this phenomenon, but since it is my goal to shed the hurtful labels, I will not mention them here. They don’t matter. What matters is that you see other people as simply people, not as some sort of monsters with some evil plan to hurt you. In the vast majority of relationships, the hurt is a mutual responsibility, and so should be the healing.
Hurt people hurt people. This kitschy colloquialism has proven true in my life time and again. If you simply apply it to yourself, you begin to see the truth in it. Have you ever acted rudely or been intentionally hurtful toward someone? Of course you have, we all have. Why did you do it? When I get snarky with someone or am overtly rude to them, it is always because I am hurting or afraid. That hurt or fear might be from something current and related to my relationship with them, or it might be something from so long ago I have no memory of it. In either case, those emotional, automatic responses to situation are a pain response. Something about the scenario has connected to a visceral memory and I am reacting. Usually, I am overreacting, because that’s what happens when I don’t address my hurts; they fester and grow disproportionate, causing me to act inappropriately in current circumstances. My hurt – new or old – causes me to behave in ways that hurt others.
Sometimes I am aware of it when my pain causes me to behave inappropriately toward others, as when I am in the throes of adapting to current losses or changes, and a sincere apology to the other person often sets things right. Other times, I am not aware, and therefore extend no apology. It is these old hurts of which we are not consciously aware, the ones we’ve never grieved, that can look like plain old meanness to others. Our actions look overt and intentional, even though they are driven by something deeper. Yet we all have these sore spots, sometimes called triggers, that can evoke the emotions of another time and place and lead us to behave in ways that hurt others. It’s part of the human condition that we carry these memories of pain in our bodies and minds. We cannot change this, but we can learn to identify what is happening within us and not let it impact our behavior.
I’m no psychologist, but I’ve worked with a couple of them on my own issues. I’m just speaking from personal experience here. There was a period of time when others classified me as “toxic” to them. Having lived with that label, I can say unequivocally that it was far more hurtful than anything I did or said. It implied that I was forever damaged and could not improve, heal, or in any way change. To be toxic is to be hopeless, a lost cause. I was said to be like a lethal chemical dumped in a river, a threat to everyone who might encounter me, something to be feared, a monster. To be toxic is to be a convenient dumping ground for other people’s problems, from which they can walk away and forever blame as the source of their problems. To the hurting person, this label can be devastating, a confirmation of their own self-loathing.
There have been times when I thought that others were “toxic” to me. I might never have thought to label those people who had hurt me as toxic, but popular culture provided me with the term and I embraced the opportunity to avoid taking responsibility. Looking back now, I see this as a stage I passed through on the way to becoming a whole, healed person. I placed blame on other people, for a time, and stood on their proverbial heads to crawl out of the morass of my pain. This blame, and the attendant anger, was like fuel for my engines. I learned to use my anger to propel me toward meaningful change and healing. I regret that my healing came partially at the expense of my relationships with them. But now that I have experienced healing and have accepted full responsibility for myself, I have been able to release those people from blame and see them simply as hurt people, much like me.
We are all human. Without mutual respect, there is no relationship. So leave if that’s the right thing for you, but take responsibility for your decisions. Labeling the other person “toxic” is blaming them instead of owning your right to do what’s best for you. Respect yourself. Lose the hurtful labels.