What Exactly Is A Toxic Person?
Do we have to turn people into villains before it’s okay to remove them from our lives?
A few days ago I read this article entitled “How to Pull Away from Toxic People, and Who to Replace Them With” and my first thought wasn’t “how can I get rid of the toxic people in my life?” but rather, “isn’t it kind of toxic to think about people like this?”
I mean sure, there are people in the world who make the lives of those around them worse. We all know — or at least have known — somebody who’s difficult to be around, or who is almost gleefully negative. We’ve all met who people were masters at manipulating the emotions and guilt of everyone they could, or delighted in putting others down. But despite that, there’s something about looking at people in terms of who we should pull away from and who we should replace them with, that feels particularly ugly.
I mean think about this: what if you’re “toxic”? After all, toxic people don’t think of themselves as toxic, right? They don’t have green skin or a tattoo on their foreheads informing them of their status. What if you haven’t noticed that you’re the kind of person that only calls your friends when you need something? What if your good-natured banter isn’t received quite as well as you think it is? What if you’re on the wrong side of the line between persuasive and manipulative?
Well, if you’re in any doubt fear not, because the author of the article helpfully tells us how to identify toxic people and it turns out that it’s super easy:
“…toxic people undermine your confidence, remind you of your weaknesses, and dissuade you from doing anything that might promote your happiness and your success…They are unhappy and insecure, though they may try to mask their unhappiness with arrogance. They say things that are hurtful, but quickly say they were “just kidding,” or that you are being too sensitive. They drain your energy and leave you feeling emotionally exhausted questioning yourself and your desires.”
Great! So no unhappy and/or insecure people in my life. Fine. Nobody who reminds me that I’m not perfect either. Check. Nobody who makes me question myself. This sounds amazing! What could be healthier than purging my existence of anybody who isn’t a full-throated enabler at all times?
Of course, once I’ve cleared all of those ’Negative Nancys’ out, I’ll need some non-toxic or “nutric” people to help me pad out my social calendar. This should pose no problem at all because let’s be real for a minute, “nutric” people sound fabulous:
“Nutric people are easy to recognize. They will encourage you when you have self-doubt. They will support you when you need assistance, asking nothing in return. They are happy more often than not. They often have a smile on their face. Their happiness makes you feel happy. They leave you feeling energized, motivated, and feeling more self-confident.”
Who wouldn’t want a person like this in their lives? Preferably during every waking moment. A boundlessly optimistic cheerleader who never makes us question ourselves or reminds us of our weaknesses. Our very own personal Tony Robbins, who boosts our confidence and give us energy and best of all, never asks anything of us in return. But wait; isn’t this exactly the kind of person a toxic person would seek out? And wouldn’t they do so for exactly these reasons?
Maybe the truth is that people are complicated, and that there’s light and darkness in everybody, and that nobody is just one thing. Yes, we should feel free to remove people from our lives if we find them harmful, but maybe we shouldn’t also get to soothe our conscience by categorising them as toxic, irredeemable monsters. Maybe it’s okay to admit that we’re doing what’s best for us, and that life is too complicated for us to always be the good guys and the people we fall out with to always be the bad guys.
As it becomes increasingly common to diminish entire human beings to labels, I’m just wondering whether the notion of human toxicity is pushing the concept too far. I’m asking whether we can disagree with people, or dislike them, or even choose to never speak to a person again, without the need to characterise them as “toxic”.
I don’t know, I’m not sure what my point is here. I don’t have a nice, simple feel-good takeaway. Maybe I’m just trying to say that we should be cautious of applying any label to people that make us feel comfortable dismissing them. Again, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t dismiss them, just that maybe it’s supposed to feel uncomfortable when we do. Maybe we’re meant to carry the fact that we’ve ejected a living, breathing person from our lives. Someone who has feelings and is dealing with their own struggles and is trying to figure things out, just as we are. Maybe we’re meant to acknowledge the fact that we can choose ourselves over other people sometimes, even they’re not evil.
Toxic is too small a word to cram this reality into, and the truth is, we shouldn’t try. Life will continue to be difficult and messy and occasionally painful, however many labels we use to smooth over the cracks. But the least we can do, the literal bare minimum, is to continue to recognise the humanity of the people we encounter. Relationships end, feelings change, and shit happens. Sometimes people let us down, and they do it so spectacularly that we can’t find a way to forgive them. But that doesn’t make them toxic, it makes them human.