MH@H Mental Health

The “Toxic Person” Label and Mental Illness

Are there actually toxic people, or is that an overused label? Graphic of a toxic waste barrel

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.

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 be 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.

Bring on the negativity

That’s what’s really an issue for me with this whole concept. It’s my party and I’ll be negative if I want to. If people don’t like that then they can 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’s 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.

I wonder how much of this is about allowing people to feel very 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.

Maybe instead of talking about toxic people, it would be better to talk about who we choose to have in our lives, and the boundaries that we choose to support us in setting whatever life we want to live, without that kind of labelling.

What do you think of the toxic person concept?

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36 thoughts on “The “Toxic Person” Label and Mental Illness”

  1. I guess that there a so many people, so many flavors. You can’t expect everybody to feel happy happy joy joy at any given time.
    I think that the ‘authors’ forgot that even those ‘toxic’ people will find friends and like minded people. They do not need to be labelled just because they don’t fit into your group of friends at that time in their life. People can also change no?

    And the term ‘toxic people’ doesn’t gel with me because it makes me think about toxic waste that you need to get rid off. On the other hand, no energy without toxic waste at the moment. I wish we all could go green but it is just not the case (yet with the environment) and maybe never with people.

  2. I was not so familiar with the phrase “toxic person.” I guess I probably would seem toxic to a lot of people. It’s why I rarely tell people how I really feel.

    Btw, I’d be wary of starting posts with “Phrase X gets Y number of hits on Google” as Google’s search algorithms take into account previous search history, so the number of hits two people get would not necessarily be the same (I just got 4,500,000 hits for “toxic people” – obviously Google thinks I’m more toxic than you 😉 ). It also used to be the case that if you skipped a few pages of Google search and go to page six or seven, you’ll often see the number of hits drop significantly, but looking at it just now that doesn’t seem to still be happening (I don’t use Google anyway).

  3. I don’t really agree with the phrase “toxic person”. I know there are definitely abusive people and overall mean people, but to label someone as “toxic” doesn’t really make sense. You’ve hit the nail on the head here. I agree that there are people we can’t and shouldn’t have in our lives, but just because the relationship isn’t good for us doesn’t make them a toxic person.

    Also, with these definitions of “toxic people” then apparently I am a very toxic person! News to me!

      1. This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently. I vented on my Facebook a while back, about nesting urges and not being able to do anything by myself. A family member (really old, like over 85) commented and was going on about how I shouldn’t be so negative and to focus on what I can do. This really got on my tits because I wasn’t actually being negative, I was simply sharing the irony of the situation. Then a week or so later I uploaded some photos of me and bump, really nice ones and I wrote a long-ish status about being grateful for what my body is capable of. The same family member commented and, no lie, put “well done for positive thinking” – I may be overreacting or my hormones are playing up but to me, this person has been nothing but toxic and patronising. I’ve since removed them from my Facebook because I’m not going to be ‘praised for being positive, and be put down because of one supposedly negative post. If anything, I’ve found positive people can be really toxic. I’ve never based it on mental illness, just on the person’s attitude.

  4. I love that you wrote about this – From my own experience, I have a bit of a weird relationship with this “toxic person” label. I am a very understanding person, compassionate, an advocate for individuals with mental illness (including myself) and a strong believer that our society has a hard time understanding that we can’t be “good vibes only” all the time.

    That being said, I also have had some experiences (including a soul sucking abusive relationship) in which people know that I am a safe, non judgemental person to vent to and where they can be their true selves, and they’ve taken advantage of that. These people I’m talking about ALWAYS came to me to vent and be upset about things, but never gave back the energy they took from me by listening to my feelings. This came to the point where I was mentally not well, always emotionally drained, would find myself reluctant to talk to them and resented them for this. I don’t think they deserve the label “toxic person” but I think from that I learned that we can’t expect people to stop feeling the way they feel, but we can create barriers to help protect how WE feel. Some of these people I have created physical barriers in the ways of breaking off our relationships because they were harmful for my own health, but for others who I wasn’t as harmed by, I have created spiritual/mental/emotional barriers (whatever you want to label that as). I make sure to check in with my own mental and emotional state before I volunteer to give my energy to them.

  5. Huh. Very interesting blog post! When I think of toxic, I think of someone who’s way more than negative–someone who projects that negativity onto others in a somewhat deliberate attempt at ruining someone’s day. If someone were depressed, sad, or in a bad mood, that alone wouldn’t qualify as toxic, even remotely. There has to be an element of manipulation, underhandedness, scheming, cruelty, etc. Just being unhappy or negative simply isn’t toxic. It’s all about seeing someone else’s happiness and deciding to target it with cruel comments and backstabbing viciousness. Like, take my mother for example. She’s chronically negative. This is fact. But she deliberately tries to impose her negative beliefs onto the rest of us with snide, cruel comments. Now that’s toxic!!

  6. We agree with your perspective: labeling people as toxic allows other people to treat them poorly. It dehumanizes them so that they can be mistreated without compassion. This is very dangerous in a slippery slope. This is how discrimination and genocide are justified. Let us choose to resist this label and speak out against it when we encounter it. It is a human rights issue.

  7. I’m currently dealing with a “toxic person” right now. She’s not just negative. Toxic people are much more complex than “just negative.” I’m naturally a negative person and I’m pessimistic by default but “toxic” is a whole other animal.

    I’m currently dealing with a toxic person who is so emotionally draining. Yesterday she threw her fire at me, and turned it around so I was the bad person because I wasn’t joining in with her rant. She wants someone to listen to her about how much she hates the government, and how shitty her life is, and how none of this is her fault and everyone else’s fault. How much she’s a victim and how everything is going to hell. So much swearing and victim-blaming I can not tolerate her negativity (I prefer to call it negative energy) anymore. It left a bad taste in my mouth yesterday after she flipped it around to make it look like I was the b**** and is now ignoring me… but I stand my ground. I’ve told her to stop countless times and she doesn’t listen, which is a sign that she doesn’t respect my feelings/opinion and has no plan to stop. It’s bad vibes man.

    Toxic people are a thing, but perhaps this article isn’t the best example of what a toxic person is. We need to spend time around people who we resonate with, and some people will drain us of life. These are the people I don’t want to spend my time with. ✌️💕

  8. I truly believe it is a word that is too frequently used. <3

    The words "toxic" and "narcissistic" seemed to become immensely fashionable at some point.

  9. I didn’t realise that the term “toxic” was used so loosely. I’ve always been afraid to be brutally honest about how I’m feeling because I’m afraid of dragging them down, now this adds a level of concern that you might be considered toxic for doing so. Too many labels 😢

  10. I like when words mean things. Toxic is poison, so to me that means a person is extremely bad for your health. They may be a physical abuser or a financial parasite or an emotional bully. Simply being negative or anxious or OCD isn’t toxic. You can distance yourself from those things pretty easily ~ and if not, why not? I’ve had exes who would get negative attitudes about everything and I’d end up ignoring them and reading a book. But eventually all my relationships ended. Maybe I’m toxic!

  11. Toxic people are weak .Because of weakness they spread toxicity for strong person to make him weak .Toxic people find other fault by hiding their faults .ignore them .

  12. Thanks for writing this. I just went through a deep bought of depression. During this (while waiting to get medication) I reached out to a friend i hadn’t talked to in depth in a while in a panic. She responded by calling me a toxic person and basically throwing me out of her life. Using that word hurt so much, especially when I knew I needed help and was trying so hard to get it.

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