Our Social World

Are You an Unsafe Person?

Are you an unsafe person, or is that just an unhelpful label? - skull and crossbones diagram

This post was inspired by something I saw on Pinterest about safe vs. unsafe people, but it’s along the same lines as what I’ve written before about the toxic person label. Is that kind of whole-person labelling actually useful?

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. Something like trying to be right is basic human nature that we may or may not be able to keep a lid on.

Unhealthy coping

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

So, what’s my point? 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.

That kind of labelling also deflects 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.

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.

Maybe instead of slapping labels on people, we’re better off deciding what’s 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.

COVID-19/mental health coping toolkit from Mental Health @ Home

The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

44 thoughts on “Are You an Unsafe Person?”

  1. This is such a good post Ashley “labels are for jars, not for people.” That is genius. When we put labels on other people or, indeed, ourselves we create all sorts of problems. I say smash the labels (along with the jars)!

  2. Great writing Ashley!
    I would hope that I am not defined by a certain behavior, such as; being grouchy.
    It is my feeling that putting labels on people is a learned trait. We more than likely heard it from within our home or immediate family. Maybe, even during a very primary school years.

  3. I suppose I could be defined as “unsafe” in the dating world, which is partly why I exited it. I didn’t like the person I became in that arena. It’s filled to the brim with unsafe people! Part of how I adapted was to turn cold and nasty at times. Ick…

  4. I feel unqualified to comment on whether labeling someone as unsafe or toxic is harmful or necessary. I’m fortunate that I don’t feel like there is anyone in my life who is unsafe or toxic that I needed to identify as such and distance myself from. I don’t love the idea of reducing whole persons to labels, but if it is necessary for people experiencing trauma or abuse survivors, to identify people to stay away from and keep themselves safe, I don’t know that I can judge.

    Where whole person labeling bothers me more is in the world of politics. I think it’s a stretch to conflate all people who voted for Trump (people choosing from a limited slate of lousy candidates in a deeply flawed electoral system) with “Trump supporters” (which to me means people who support Trump no matter what) with “racists” (not necessarily true, and ignores the fact that people could have voted for another candidate and still be racist). I didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 or 2020 and am not at all a fan, but the conflation of labels making polite civil political discourse impossible really troubles me.

  5. “Toxic” is a term coined in the business world that the layperson world (Twitter) stole and tried to apply in a generic way. It’s absolutely useful in the business world… it doesn’t matter WHY someone is toxic, you’re not there to teach them the skills their parents did, you’re there to work and earn a living. Regardless of their reasons, most managers (the conscious ones anyway) don’t want someone like that in their organization.

    Outside of that context, calling someone toxic is just an insult and usually evidence that the person doing the name calling shouldn’t be casting stones. Lol

  6. I’m glad you wrote this. I’ve always had trouble with the counsel to “avoid toxic people” because it feels like an all-out condemnation of an entire person based on certain of their temporary behaviors. Also, what is “toxic” to one person at one time may not be toxic to another person at another time. There’s something wrong with self-help philosophies that build people into “better people” than other people. It doesn’t give room for mutual growth, or for corporal growth in the society.

    1. I agree, and I think learning to establish boundaries is more useful and empowering than deciding one is better than someone else.

      1. Yes, as you pointed out in this post, and I agree. I will admit however to being somewhat tainted by my own past experience. For years I lived in a world where it was basically impossible to “avoid” anyone. If a couple of young “thugs” had hit me over the head with guns and stolen my laptop, I would see at least one of them at the Community Breakfast the next morning. I had no door to separate me from the outside world — let alone lock or deadbolt — because I lived outside. So I learned how to get along with everybody (or else!).

  7. Well said. That’s one problem I’ve always had with the pith social media infographics is that they present as all-encompassing. There’s a large amount of people who make mental health and relational assessments based on these things without investigating the nuance. You did a great job calling attention to this. My favorite part was, “Behaviours don’t define a person; they’re temporary, and there are many factors that influence what behaviours turn up at a given time.”

  8. The problem with labels (at least as I see it) is that somebody is putting another person in a specific box. The labelled person might be having a bad day, being dealing with any number of personality or health iggies that the labeler doesn’t know about because hello! Invisible illness much? Nobody can see the pain that sometimes causes me to be very irritable indeed. Nobody knows intimately (and it’s none of their business either) what my history and upbringing was. I have been told over the years that I lack good communication skills. Well yeah. I was never taught to have any. Same thing with boundaries. I wasn’t raised to know about those, let alone about healthy ones. The labeler might see me as rude, mean, nuts, or unsafe. What they don’t know and what I have to work on (and am working on) is the fact that I’m speaking out at all is HUGE. For most of my life I was silenced. Once that dam broke so to speak, it has all come flooding out. And because of lack of good communication skills and boundaries, my speaking out probably is rude and the other labels I’m assigned. I have ceased to care very much. I feel heard for the first time in my whole life. To me? Being labeled unsafe is a fair trade-off. Except when the cops get involved (hasn’t happened so far except once). 😉

    1. Hmm, WordPress marked this as spam for some reason. But yeah, people are complex, and there are all kinds of reasons and historical stuff behind the things people do. Just keeps the cops away!

  9. Before I read your post….when I read the title….there was so much I was about to say….but I have reigned it in….xx

  10. Ugh, that psychologist actually dissuades people from therapy and some other stuff. These days she talks about being “cancelled” on Instagram.

  11. I couldn’t agree more. When I think of safe vs unsafe, I think of what is likely to cause harm to someone, and this list totally ignores the ability or lack of ability of the person faced with said behaviors.

    As a bartender, its literally my job to deal with everything on the “unsafe” list every shift I have, and I am capable of do so without taking any of it personally. So for me its not unsafe. While other people can’t handle it, so for them it is unsafe.

    In other words, safe and unsafe is more about the how you personally cope with the behaviors of other people, rather than the behaviors themselves – so long as we’re not talking about violence, which is of course unsafe for everyone.

  12. Nice piece, I’d also like to add – not confronting. It is something I’ve learnt about myself with time, I tend to over analyse a situation which can easily be addressed just by talking about it. There’s a sense of calm in letting our thoughts free and addressing them. The more we keep them to ourselves, it adds pressure and makes it worse

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