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?
Embrace Acceptance: A Guided Journal draws on concepts from acceptance and commitment therapy to help you move towards a place of greater acceptance. It’s available from the MH@H Download Centre.