The people we usually turn to for advice about how to live our best lives -- the self-help evangelists, relationship gurus, business leadership icons, and even spiritual seekers -- have been echoing a troubling refrain lately.
As the emerging wisdom goes:
Some people are toxic and we must distance ourselves from them or their toxicity will rub off on us.
Even usually adept social philosophers and cultural commentators have taken the bait and shared this terrible, unfortunate, dirty little secret about human nature.
“Ain’t it a crying shame?” They’ll remark with downcast eyes. “There’s nothing we can do, it’s an unavoidable truth. Tsk tsk.”
These truth-tellers are well-meaning but they are misguided.
There’s no such thing as a toxic person.
And there is nothing mature, high-minded, or spiritual about accepting this advice at face value, or treating other people as if they are.
Hidden beneath the surface, this impulse to label someone as toxic is rooted in self-righteousness, judgment, arrogance, and victimhood -- all while claiming to express the opposite. This trap is almost so simple, so evident that we don’t realize we’re falling into it, and if we don’t seek the deeper truth here we’re playing ourselves small in the name of living big.
When we label another person toxic, we signal something about ourselves. If we’ve distanced ourselves from someone on the basis that they’re toxic, we’re saying we’re not toxic. We’re better than toxic, see. We deserve more than toxic. We are too good to remain in toxic’s presence.
This declaration is hollow though because it doesn’t tell the whole truth.
Because have we really not made our own mistakes? Are we really without our own blemishes, our own wounds? Do we really not have our own neuroses and dysfunctional coping mechanisms?
Are we really so pure ourselves?
No, we’re all human.
When we give in to our impulse to label another person as toxic we’re trying to make ourselves feel better about our lives -- how put together, functional, lovable, or capable we are -- all at their expense.
We give our power away in relationships when we do this.
When we call someone toxic, we’re judging them -- harshly.
Judgment is the flip-side of the self-righteousness coin, but instead of signaling something about ourselves we’re trying to say something about another person. We have appointed ourselves the authority over them and issued our verdict on their lovability. We do so from a loveless place within ourselves.
It is impossible to separate the word toxic from this judgment. This is not always the case with language -- when judgment can depend on how we use a word -- but toxic drips with contempt. No one would receive being called toxic, shrug, and continue on with their day. It’s serious business. Word choice matters, and toxic is just about as lethal an utterance as we have in our verbal arsenal.
Any argument we might make suggesting that sometimes people are objectively toxic is undone by the fact that there are many more accurate ways to describe the truth of the situation -- who they really are, what they’re really capable of, and the limitations that we’ve brought to bear on the relationship.
When we call another person toxic, we lead with arrogance.
Arrogance claims our assumptions, perspectives, insights, and observations of the other person are the accurate ones -- that we, with our exceptional perceptive ability, have determined this person to be beyond hope, beyond redemption.
Arrogance assumes we will not have a role to play in this person’s growth, and they will not have a role to play for us in expanding the limits of our love.
Arrogance says we know the possibilities of their life, and the potential they either will or won’t live up to. We can see how this toxic person is just so totally screwed. How their life is a sinking ship, and we won’t be going down with it!
Hold on a minute…
Do we truly know what the future holds? Do we know the nature of the struggles of their lives in an intimate way? Have we even cared enough to ask? To reach in, to truly understand? Can we honestly claim to know the role they’re playing in the lives of the people around them (including ourselves)?
Do we know for certain that they aren’t right where they are supposed to be?
The emerging wisdom makes the obvious statement that toxicity is contagious -- that if we allow toxic people to remain in our lives, we’ll become toxic too. Yet it also makes the more sly insinuation that we are not ultimately responsible for how we feel about our lives.
Those problems that we face, that dissatisfaction we feel? Those toxic people are to blame for that. It’s their fault. And if we cut them out of our lives everything be okay.
It’s the voice that says, “Look at what they’re doing to us.”
Welcome to Victimhood 101.
This mindset defines a reality where we can’t have the lives we want if another person doesn’t change.
But because we can’t control other people, when we let their thoughts, words, and actions dictate what’s possible for us, we give them complete power over us and render ourselves helpless to do anything about the pain and discomfort we feel. We’ve trapped ourselves in our own nightmare.
This is where our suffering comes from.
If we instead focus our energy on understanding how our own thoughts, words, and actions create our experience of our lives, we’ll be better able to determine new outcomes for ourselves as we discover choices we didn’t know we had before -- ones we actually have control over.
The most powerful solutions to the problems we face always, always, always start with us, in our own lane, on our side of the table.
The truth about toxicity.
There’s no such thing as a toxic person. There’s only our inability or unwillingness to see past our perception of another's toxicity to the truth beyond -- about their lives, sure, but more importantly about our own.
The pursuit of our deeper, actionable truth involves reframing what we would couch as a limitation in another person as a limitation in ourselves.
Because when we label someone as toxic we think we’ve declared, “I can’t remain in this relationship because the other person just can't love me.”
But what we’ve really said is, “I can’t remain in this relationship because I don’t know how to do so and still be loving towards myself -- by processing my emotions, asking for help, setting firm boundaries, clearly communicating my needs, calling out undesirable, abusive, or harmful behaviors in a matter-of-fact way, and otherwise approaching this situation from an empowered place.”
This is the very shift in perception that will help us own our contribution in clearer terms and approach the relationship in an empowered way.
Beyond toxic relationships.
When we learn to love ourselves in these distinct ways we’re able to stand in the breach between another person’s behavior and the feelings that come up for us and not be totally overwhelmed by the experience.
If we freeze someone out on the basis that they are toxic before expanding this capacity within ourselves, we have not liberated ourselves -- we’ve deprived ourselves of the very opportunity that would release us from this type of pain and discomfort for good.
Because when we learn to love ourselves in the presence of so-called toxic people, we will cease to experience them as toxic.
They will no longer hold the same power over us because we’ll know how to meet our own emotional needs in these kinds of interactions.
Let’s be clear: love may still instruct us to move on.
But the growth necessary to access that instruction, the attitude with which we’ll make that choice, the way we’ll communicate it, our experience of the disengagement, and the possibilities we will have unlocked for ourselves and for the other person in the process will feel completely different.
We’ll be able to disengage with humility, kindness, compassion, and grace.
We’ll have turned a situation that some had said would hold us back into an agent of our own transformation.
We’ll have learned to see opportunity where others see adversity, nuance where others prescribe swift retribution.
And most importantly, we’ll know how to make the decisions that determine how we feel about our lives from an informed, inspired, and empowered place.
And we won’t need the word toxic to do it.