The internet is full of talk about toxic people. Searching for “toxic person” yields 295 million hits on Google. That’s a whole lotta toxicity.
If someone is abusive, you deserve to a) be free from them, and b) call them toxic or whatever else you might choose. But those 295 million online hits aren’t all talking about abusers. It seems like toxic person is one of those terms that gets thrown around so freely that it ceases to have any clearly defined meaning. A similar thing seems to happen, to a lesser extent, with the notion of an “unsafe person.”
It really starts to grate my rutabagas when the toxic person label starts to encompass people with mental illness. Ashley’s so negative all the time. It just sucks the life right out of me. She’s really toxic. I’m making that up, but it’s conceivable something like that might come up if I actually had contact with people. Toxic=negative seems to be a common equation, and mental illness is often all too happy to help out with negativity. The attitude about toxicity is probably in keeping with the toxic positivity message that happy is the only acceptable way to be.
Who’s talking about “toxic people”?
Forbes offers up this gem:
Whether it’s negativity, cruelty, the victim syndrome, or just plain craziness, toxic people drive your brain into a stressed-out state that should be avoided at all costs.
The article identifies toxicity subtypes, including temperamental people who have “absolutely no control over their emotions” and “Dementors,” who will “suck the life out of the room by imposing their negativity and pessimism upon everyone they encounter.” Sign me up for that job, and bring on the craziness!
And then there’s the icing on the cake: “Toxic people drive you crazy because their behavior is so irrational.”
An article in Bustle says this:
And if, when you try to offer support and more positive ways of looking at a situation, they shoot you down and dismiss you as a naive Pollyanna, then they’re putting you in an impossible situation. Everyone deserves the occasional vent session, but some people seem to be negative all the time and they don’t want your help or advice.
If not wanting people’s help, advice, or positivity makes me toxic, then hand over the toxicity crown; I’ll wear it proudly.
Then there’s this from Lifehack:
These people spread negativity like a contagious disease. Try to get vaccinated by avoiding them at all costs… These are the people who are always anxious, worried, pessimistic, depressed and complain a lot.
The Lifehack article adds that “We have enough stress of our own to deal with, without having to deal with stressed out people hovering over us. We need to distance ourselves from them to survive.”
This is perhaps the only time ever that I will be anti-vax. Contagious disease, my ass. And if people like this want to stay away from my depressed self at all cost, I’m completely on board with that.
What are we calling toxic?
Now that we’ve seen some of what people are saying about toxic people, is the whole concept valid in the first place?
Human beings are multidimensional, and the idea of labelling a person in their entirety as toxic just doesn’t make sense. The concept itself is very ill-defined, and seems to mean whatever the person talking about it thinks it means; as a result, not everyone’s talking about the same thing.
While there could absolutely be toxic behaviours or relationships, the toxic person concept seems to cast a much broader net, so suddenly you’ve got people with mental illness lumped into a category alongside people who choose, for whatever reason, to engage in behaviours that are harmful to others.
Negativity is a major theme in the articles I looked at. While there was some reference to people who are negative about you and put you down, there was also plenty of talk about people who are negative about themselves and the world.
The “unsafe person” label
When I came across this Instagram graphic image shared on Pinterest, my first reaction was that there are a whole lot of unsafe people in the world if that’s how we’re defining it. Some of these are clearly problematic, like attempting to hurt the other person.
There’s also the other stuff that starts to encompass much of the population dealing with mental illness. Unable to regulate emotional states? Impulsive? That casts a pretty wide net. Difficulty communicating? Frustration? Um, yeah. Name-calling? Sure, when the healthier coping strategies are offline. Lack of self-trust? I think there’s a whole army of people’s self-critics who are totally on top of that shit. Assumes others’ intentions? That’s a cognitive distortion called mind-reading that’s easy to get tripped up by, especially when things aren’t going well.
We each have a toolbox of coping strategies that we have available to us. The more stress we’re under or the more unwell we are, the less likely it is we’ll be able to access the more advanced, healthy skills in our toolbox. The more primitive strategies may be all that’s left, and while their level of effectiveness is pretty low, you gotta do what you gotta do.
The problem with whole-person labelling
It doesn’t work very well when you use behaviours to generate a label for a whole person. Behaviours don’t define a person; they’re temporary, and there are many factors that influence what behaviours turn up at a given time. The fact that I threw a hissy fit at someone at some point when I was unwell doesn’t say anything about who I am, although it may say a bit about my illness.
Abusive behaviours are more black and white are more black and white in terms of being acceptable or unacceptable, but people are complicated. Irritability can be a symptom of both mania and depression. I’ve had short periods of intense irritability in the past as part of my depression, and it is not a pretty sight to behold. Is screaming and swearing at people acceptable? Nope. Does it make me unsafe? Perhaps until the irritability blows over. Does it make me a bad/toxic person? Of course not.
The need for boundaries
Whole-person labelling can deflect from the responsibility that we each have for setting personal boundaries. I have very limited resources for coping these days, so I tightly control what I allow into my world that I’ll have to put up with. If I’m unable to deal with behaviour [X], that doesn’t necessarily mean that person [Y] is unsafe, toxic, or whatever. It means I need to stick to my boundaries and carry on.
On the other hand, I wonder if sometimes labels like “toxic person” are used to allow people to feel self-righteous in their boundary-setting. No, they’re not bailing on their friend who’s mentally ill; they’re being proactive in removing a toxic person from their life.
Bring on the negativity
It’s my party and I’ll be negative if I want to. If people don’t like that, then they’re totally free go elsewhere, but it doesn’t make me toxic. There’s a lot of shit in the world, and some of that shit is caused by mental illness. It just seems ridiculous to suppress whatever is going on inside and putting on a fake smile for someone who’s decided that positivity is the law of the land.
Maybe instead of slapping labels on people, we’re better off deciding what/who is working and not working in our lives, and then acting accordingly. To borrow something else you can find on Pinterest, labels are for jars, not people.
What do you think of the toxic person/unsafe person concepts?
The post Happiness Is Not a Choice is the hub for all things toxic positivity-related on Mental Health @ Home.