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5 Reasons Why I Don't Call People Toxic

Updated: May 29, 2023

1. The Innate Worth of Every Human Being

I don’t compare people to hazardous waste. I believe in the innate worth of every human being. This is the big one. You can stop reading now (although hopefully you are interested and keep reading) because on some level all the other reasons are off-shoots of this reason. I know this may be an unpopular opinion. I just don’t think it’s helpful. People hurt other people in families and relationships, and it doesn’t make anyone a hazardous waste product. As a therapist, I often work with people at dark times in their lives, struggling with deep shame and self-doubt, and often this work is focused on regaining a sense of worthiness after living through trauma or other experiences which have told us we are less worthy of love, care, or compassion than other people. I don’t think using dehumanizing language to describe our problem with someone helps anyone.

Can workplaces be toxic? Sure. So can positivity and masculinity. Diet culture? Always. Can a relationship be toxic? Maaaaybe, but I’d rather call it what it is and name unhelpful patterns, rather than writing the whole thing off. We stay in relationships because we value the other person, so writing the relationship off as toxic really erases what is valuable about the relationship. And if a relationship is truly abusive (ie. an ongoing pattern of one person misusing power), I want to call it that, rather than downplaying it or dressing it up in a euphemism.

2. Cut-off Culture

Calling people toxic contributes to “cut-off culture.” What’s that, you ask? Spend a minute on relationship Tiktok or Instagram and you’ll find a thousand posts on Cutting Off Toxic People and Recognizing Red Flags. It’s true that sometimes it’s time for a relationship to end, but I would argue that we are having a cultural moment in which walking away is being framed as the best way to solve problems, and knowing when to walk away as the only relationship skill that matters.

This is probably a reaction to the past, when social norms dictated that people, especially non-cis-male people, endured harmful relationships without pushing back. I’m not in favour of a return to that culture, but with my clients I teach assertiveness, problem-solving, and repair. On a personal level, cutting off every person we deem toxic isolates us and doesn’t give us a chance to learn assertive communication, or to have the deeper relationships that come from processes of rupture and repair. Taking a wider lens view, cut-off culture fractures communities, and when communities are fractured, there’s a lot less collective power to push back against oppressive social dynamics: racism, ableism, and heteropatriarchy.

3. It Ignores the Social Context

Calling people toxic downplays our own responsibility, and it downplays the social environment we live in. Once we write someone off as toxic, we are off the hook for trying to consider their perspective. We are also off the hook for examining how our own behaviour contributed to a problem, because we were in a relationship with a toxic person, so clearly the problem couldn’t have been even in part anything we did.

I can definitely see why this is tempting, because it absolves shame. It stops shame in its tracks before it even starts. However, the more we avoid shame, the less able we are to tolerate any small feeling of shame when it comes up; often leading to more anxiety in the long run as we desperately try to get ahead of shame. If you work with me as counsellor, you may hear from me that no relationship is ever less than 40% or more than 60% your responsibility. And outside of situations of abuse, I really believe that to be true.

So is your mom toxic? You could say it that way, or you could say your mom grew up in an environment shaped by heteropatriarchal values that causes her to put an undue amount of pressure on you to be a certain way, because she thinks how you are doing is a metric of her worth. Yes, she is responsible for her behaviour, but the culture she grew up in is not her fault. For me, speaking truth to power (and identifying as a feminist therapist) means being willing to name these things and put the blame squarely where it belongs: the ableist, racist, heteropatriarchal capitalist society that is the backdrop for all our interactions.

4. Pathologizing Normal Human Experiences

Related to Reason 3, calling people or relationships toxic pathologizes normal human stuff. If you do counselling with me, you will probably find again and again that I normalize your experiences. Sometimes we suffer because we think we are alone with a problem; the only person experiencing it, when it turns out what we are going through is actually a pretty normal thing. I think this is an isolating way to think about our pain. My perspective on this comes from both feminist and mindfulness informed approaches to counselling. I think unnecessary suffering is often the result of believing that all problems are the result of internal, individual deficits: either yours or someone else’s. I would argue that some suffering (conflict, hurt feelings) is a normal part of life and having relationships, and some suffering is caused by injustice, misuse of power, and inequitably distributed resources in the world.

5. Ableism

A lot of the people who get called "toxic" are neurodivergent, living with trauma, or both. And these are my people; I feel fiercely protective of people in all these categories. When I look at those Tiktok lists of red flags or toxic traits, what I typically see are lists of common neurodivergent traits. Neurodivergent people generally care about others, but many do empathy differently - they may not be able to take the perspective of others, and it doesn’t mean they’re bad people. Some of the things that end up on these lists are social rules that neurodivergent people may not be able to apply consistently - like a person with ADHD taking up room in a conversation, talking about something they’re excited about, or a person with autism not asking how you are unless they really want to know (**these are just examples and don’t apply to every person with these diagnoses**).

People with NPD and BPD get the brunt of this, despite the fact that they are human beings and deserve love and care as much as the rest of us. Someone living with BPD may have explosive anger that means that people who have witnessed it do not feel at ease near them - and it doesn’t mean they are hazardous sludge or that you need to cut them off. In the same breath as calling people with PDs toxic, relationship Tiktok and IG frequently go right to suggesting that there is no safe way to be in relationship with these folks. For people newly diagnosed with these conditions, reading this content on the internet can be absolutely devastating.

Going back to the example of whether your mom is toxic - yes, you could choose to describe it that way, but what if your mom is neurodivergent? Older generations, racialized people, economically disadvantaged people, and non-cis men have typically had less access to diagnosis, and are less likely to receive support with some of the more challenging parts of being a neurodivergent person. I’m not saying every mom who gets identified as “toxic” is neurodivergent, but I do think this is another example of how our social world shapes who gets compared to hazardous waste on a regular basis. And frequently on social media, I see this term getting directed at mothers and mother-in-laws, who are likely to have had less information and access to mental healthcare than later generations or cis men. A lot of relationship Tiktok is directed to non-men, and a lot of the people relationship Tiktok pathologizes are non-men. There’s a word for this, and it’s lateral violence. As a feminist therapist, I feel a deep obligation to call a spade a spade when I see these power dynamics come up.

I don’t think it’s helpful to sort people into piles of toxic and non-toxic, healthy and unhealthy. It's something we do when we feel unsafe, because sorting things into black and white categories lets us feel like things are under control. In general, rigid, black and white thinking is something that can contribute to suffering, and as a therapist I do my best to support nuance, greyscale, and mental flexibility. I also believe that no interpersonal problem exists outside of a social context, which is always worth examining. Finally, I believe in the power of accountability, conflict resolution, and repair. While they are not always possible, I have observed that individual people and their communities are better resourced and more able to stand up to real injustice when they have ways of dealing with conflict and hurt which are fair and kind and grounded in the belief that every human being has inherent worth.

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