The “Toxic Person” Label and Mental Illness

The "toxic person" label and mental illness - post-it note with the word toxic

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 to 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 put 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 Toxic Positivity: What It Is and Why It’s Not Helpful is the hub for all things toxic positivity-related on Mental Health @ Home.

35 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. 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.

  6. 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. ✌️💕

    1. It’s understandable if someone is causing a serious problem for you and you need to distance yourself from them. There is a cause of “toxic” behavior. Here’s the problem, people seem to assume that “toxic’ people are just inherently “toxic” without a cause and only deserve to be rejected. “Toxic” behavior can be caused by various things such as how they grew up, negative experiences in their life. trauma, abuse, being bullied, mental illness and personality disorders. There’s a reason why they are emotionally draining and treat others poorly. They are suffering from something themselves and are not aware and or/ not able to manage it or find it very difficult to manage, especially without professional help. They are still human beings and still should be treated/viewed humanely even from a distance. They still deserve to have their opinions, express them and be heard albeit in a civil way. About the toxic person you deal with, is she a friend? Do you respect her feelings as you expect her to respect yours. It’s a two way street. Respect doesn’t necessarily mean you agree. Maybe she doesn’t express her opinions in the right way but you should try to do the same as you want her to do. Does she have any positive traits. Has she done anything positive? Do you remember a time when she wasn’t “toxic”? Most people have positive traits. You say you’re negative. Couldn’t that be a contributing factor in how you react to her and not just “toxicity”?

      This article is talking about the problem with the label in general even when it seems suitable and how it includes people who are mentally ill. If someone has a physical problem they won’t likely get criticism and/or rejection for that. But if it’s a behavioral/psychological problem they will receive criticism and/or rejection. There’s a Nietzsche quote that goes like this: “One often contradicts an opinion when it is the tone in which it was delivered that is unsympathetic.” I think that’s what’s happening when toxic people communicate. The true message gets lost or overlooked in the delivery because of the tone and the words. I feel down and I need a little support becomes you never care about me nobody every cares about me or I am the only one who’s needs care, for example. And that in turn affects how to treat them/think about them. If they communicated in a more healthy, peaceful, considerate way I think they would receive more positive responses. Underneath the “toxicity” is really a hurt person a lot of the time or they might lack empathy because of a personality disorder like NPD or lack of remorse or guilt from APD. Personality Disorders are not their fault and can be treated even though they are difficult to treat. We shouldn’t be cold to those who are hurting. Try to read between the lines. And give the benefit of the doubt even though it hard. I don’t think “toxic” people always have bad intentions.

      I don’t believe that people only deserve kindness when they are doing well and feeling good and behaving in a positive way. Mercy is a good thing. And “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven up on the place beneath. it is twice blessed. It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”- Shakespeare, the Merchant of Venice. We just need to learn to set boundaries while not hardening our hearts. “If those who owe us nothing gave us nothing, how poor we would be.” — Antonio Porchia. Forgiveness is also good because we’re all imperfect. In the bible it says to love our enemies. Now, someone labeled as “toxic” is not necessarily our enemy but we might feel like they are. It also says to “admonish the disorderly” and to “speak consolingly to the depressed souls” and to “support the weak” and “be long suffering towards all. See that no one renders injury for injury to anyone but always peruse what is good to one another and to all others.” Unkindness is not the solution to unkindness.

      We should consider the person’s motive. Are they really trying to being you down? That might be the effect but not the intent. That’s important to acknowledge. “When we see a lack of empathy this really leads to many other problems. At some level we really have to be able to empathize with other people in order to treat them appropriately.” – Dr. Todd Grande. That goes for both “toxic” people and people who aren’t “toxic”. I don’t think its a good idea to judge people or be unkind or unempathetic to them because they we don’t like their views or the way the express themselves and label them as “toxic”, which supposedly means they are bad by nature and undeserving of any kindness or understanding. “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.” – WEDIDITPTSD. The behavior(s) might be a real thing but the problem is with the label and how it caused people to treat those they label. We need a better, more compassionate description. Unfortunately, I don’t think the popularity of the “toxic” label will cease. How we label people affects how we view them and treat them. We’re all imperfect.

      People who are not labeled “toxic” aren’t morally superior. I don’t believe this good person vs bad person dichotomy. I think the “toxic” label contributes the stigma of mental illness. It’s not in itself a mental illness, but the behavior could be caused by (or a reaction to) a mental illness. People with mental illness need compassion and understanding because they are suffering and the root cause is not their fault. just like people with physical illness need compassion. Sure, it’s not your job to help them or fix them but we all benefit from other people in the world who do things that are not their job but are kind and compassionate things. Love them from afar if need be. But love them. Many people only love who is easy to love but let’s widen our circles of compassion. The ones who are difficult or different from us or drain us or are negative deserve love too. They really do. We can cut people out if that’s necessary and love them at the same time. Cutting them out should be the last resort in my opinion.

  7. 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.

  8. 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 😢

  9. 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!

  10. 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.

  11. “Toxic” was originally a synonym for “poisonous”. I don’t think it’s a good idea to repurpose words like that, because it clouds what the real issue might be.
    What we’re calling toxic people could refer to narcissistic people, but if so, that’s what we should call them. I’ve known a few of those, thankfully not many. And I don’t just apply that term to everybody I don’t like, either. Narcissists are easy to spot. If you try to discuss something in a civilized manner with them and they sense you’re even alluding to the fact that they might be wrong, they become very angry very fast, and they insist they can’t be wrong because they’re the standard on which right is based. They’re the grown-up version of a bully. Some people are true victims of narcissistic abuse, and it’s a real thing.
    But the misuse of the term “narcissism” is akin to the misuse of the term “panic attack”, as in “when I saw the letter from the IRS a had a panic attack”. Did you? Did you suddenly feel like you couldn’t breathe? Did your heart start pounding? Did you get chest pains? Did you rush to the ER because you thought it was a heart attack? Because that’s what happens when you really do get a panic attack. I know. I have them, and I take medication for them. We shouldn’t assume that everybody who uses the term “toxic” is exaggerating, but we shouldn’t assume everybody we don’t like is toxic, either.

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