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 the image above 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 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.
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 act accordingly. To borrow something else you can find on Pinterest, labels are for jars, not people.
The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of resources to support better mental health and wellbeing.