So you feel you’re dealing with toxic people, and you want some help? You might be seeing a lot of these self-help-isms.
“Get away from toxic people.”
“Don’t let toxic people into your life.”
“Some people are just toxic, and you need to let them go.”
Perhaps you’re at a profoundly difficult point in a relationship, and perhaps someone’s actions were outright harmful or abusive.
But here’s the thing: people are not toxic.
Behavior is toxic, but people are not.
People are just people. Labeling people as “toxic” is profoundly dehumanizing, doesn’t actually help you with your own healing, and the labeling of another human in that way disregards whatever pain has caused their dysfunctional behavior.
Now, if you have been at the hands of someone else’s hurtful, toxic behavior, I’m not suggesting that your job is to avoid labels in order to excuse the pain they caused. It’s not your job to love someone into behaving better.
But as humans sharing the planet, we could–you could–consider that if someone has hurt you (possibly even though name-calling or labeling you), that a more sophisticated strategy than the ones we would use in Kindergarten could be called for. Labeling someone as “toxic” is an immature response to having been hurt. “You hit me, so I hit you back,” is not the strategy of an evolved human being.
Consider someone you’ve had a disagreement with, any time when you’ve been in conflict with someone and your words or actions were inappropriate. Maybe you were under stress and in the heat of an argument, you said things you shouldn’t have. Or perhaps you got avoidant, ghosting the person and avoiding conflict, entirely.
Would you like that person you were in conflict with to regale their friends with descriptions of your poor behavior, labeling *you* as “toxic” because you exhibited behavior that was hurtful?
Does that one time or one relationship where your words and actions were inappropriate or hurtful, define you for the rest of your life?
You wouldn’t like being labeled as “toxic.” No one would. And yet how many people discuss their relationship conflicts this way, dismissing the other person in the conflict as just being “toxic”? How many life coaches and self-help sites are posting about “cutting toxic people” from one’s life?
It’s basically everywhere. And why? Because when we are hurt, it feels easier to label the other person as bad, and ourselves as good. When we are hurting, we don’t want to consider whether our responses to hurtful behavior, only feed into the hurt and harming. We prefer to absolve ourselves.
It’s absolutely fair to accurately label behavior: that person called me names and screamed at me, and I won’t be treated unkindly.
It’s absolutely fair to define what does and doesn’t work for you, personally: that person’s behavior might work for others, but I found that it was toxic, for me.
It’s absolutely fair to even feel your feelings and your anger, “I’m pissed about how that person treated me, and I won’t fucking accept that, and a part of me just wants to call her a stupid bitch and write her off.”
It’s absolutely fair to speak up about someone’s harm, and say, “You harmed me, and I am telling you this directly,” or to take a bigger stand if the harm is community-wide, or even to report it to authorities if that’s what is warranted.
Yes to labeling behavior that is unkind and “calling a thing, a thing.”
Yes to defining what your boundaries are.
Yes to authentically feeling your feelings.
Yes to vocalizing the harm caused.
The invitation here, however, is to say “no” to participating in the sort of labeling and name-calling that you yourself would find hurtful.
The invitation here, is to be better than tit-for-tat.
The invitation here, is to rise above.
The invitation here, is to live your values in the highest integrity.
The invitation here, is for you to experience the freedom that comes from experiencing situations that are painful, and deciding powerfully, “This person has just shown me who I’m NOT choosing to be, how I’m NOT choosing to behave.”
Later, if you want to, you could also consider the fact that only people who are in pain, do things to others that are hurtful and painful. If you want to, you could get curious about this person’s origin story and send a wish that their pain would release, because if their pain releases then they don’t go on to hurt others.
But that’s only if you want to, and there’s no obligation to do that work. The whole thing where we rush to compassion is just more self-help-isms that lack the appropriate nuance. Sometimes, the healthiest thing we can do for ourselves is to not give someone else another thought. I support that choice.
What I don’t support is war, and that’s what name-calling and doing unto others what we wouldn’t want done to ourselves, adds up to. If we accurately identify someone else’s behavior as harmful, we are no better than they are, if we then perpetuate more harmful behaviors.
If you are evolved enough to recognize harm, let yourself be evolved enough to practice the antidote.