Toxic is HOT. It’s like a designer label everyone is using. But what does it really mean?
“Oh she’s toxic. I ran as fast as I could.”…. “I blocked her from my life, she’s toxic you know.”…“Him? He turned out to be toxic! Who knew, he seemed so normal on the outside. Crazy!” …”My ex is toxic. I can’t be around that kind of negatively.”…
“Toxic relationship” is a new kind of catchall phrase people use that describes what we used to call a “dysfunctional” relationship.
Have you stopped to think about what it actually means, or what it implies? I’ve used it too. Then I realized that “toxic” is just another label. Whoops. After discussing this topic in workshops, I started to see a pattern. I started to see people being labeled.
When I teach defense classes (to both men and women), invariably someone asks the question, “What is a toxic relationship?” Students want to know why certain people are a struggle for them to be around, drain them, or bring out the worst in them. Then they have a new awareness and they begin to put words to something that was only a vague uncomfortable feeling. Something they hadn’t understood consciously before. Now they are able to share stories because they’ve realized someone in their lives was or is toxic.
1. Of, pertaining to, affected with, or caused by a toxin or poison: a toxic condition.
2. Acting as or having the effect of a poison; poisonous: a toxic drug.
They say that it finally makes sense why they never trusted that person.
“I knew something was up but they seemed so nice! They said they only wanted to help me. But I couldn’t trust them. Something wasn’t right.” Or why they were uncomfortable around them, why things seemed off, yucky, draining, weird, or why they wanted to get away. “I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, I just dreaded spending time with them. It wasn’t one thing in particular, I just felt like I didn’t want to be there!”
I teach how to draw appropriate boundaries so people can feel safe if they are around someone toxic to THEM. Drawing boundaries is a great way to set yourself up for safety. You can maintain your own energy and safe space. I tell students I’d love for them to learn to ask, “Who’s good for me, and who isn’t?” without the need to label any of those people.
Seven concepts to understand about “toxicity.”
#1 — Each person has their own unique energy thumbprint, think of it like a bubble.
#2 — Energy in itself is neutral. It’s not good or bad.
#3 — Some energy bubbles don’t mix well. It doesn’t matter how “nice” someone is, it’s energy.
#4 — Being around some energy bubbles bring out our shadow sides, qualities about ourselves we may not like. Some energy bubbles drive us a little nutty. Some bubbles drain us. Some energize us. Some make us want to get out of the room.
#5 — Some people are toxic to us, but they aren’t always toxic to everyone else. Be aware of labels.
#6 — Labeling someone else “toxic” doesn’t let you off the hook. It’s important to understand what role you played. And what you learned from it. So you can stay aware and it doesn’t happen again.
#7 — Setting boundaries is for your benefit. You set them so that you can feel safe and not drained. Learn how to do this.
(NOTE: Some people suffer from the types of disordered empathy or personalities that make it unsafe for you to be around. I call them ‘paths. Read more here or here. This is not intended to dismiss those relationships; as a defense instructor I will always tell you to “GET SAFE.” In those situations an action plan and healing plan may be necessary.)
It’s my mission to assist people in understanding their innate power.
Handing out labels like psycho, crazy, stalker or “toxic” isn’t always place of power. Learning how to read when others are good for you, and which ones aren’t: that’s powerful.
Yes, two people create toxic relationships and some people are considered toxic to others. But the truth is that this person doesn’t just work for you; they aren’t functional with you. You don’t thrive around them. That doesn’t mean that the same person you labeled as “toxic” will be the same energy to everyone in their lives.
One way to think of it: not everyone is allergic to bees, peanuts, milk, gluten, or cilantro (tastes like soap to me.) But no one enjoys wasps stinging them or eating soap. Yuck.
Have you ever wondered why someone who is obviously unhappy, negative, and draining to you isn’t that way to everyone in their lives? Or the angriest person you know is only angry around you? How people with labels have normal-seeming functional lives? I always wondered how that was possible. Then I had to explain this in classes. And I finally understood.
And this is where the distinction lives — people aren’t just “toxic”. We don’t get to write them off. There was a part of you in that relationship.
In a relationship, any relationship, toxic means something doesn’t work: it’s not functional. It’s harming in some way, on some level. It can be between friends, family members, acquaintances, or in intimate relationships. Someone you’ve known for a long time can become toxic to you, or someone you recently met and thought the world of can prove they are toxic to you. Toxic to YOU. They are draining, poisonous, or effectively like a toxin to you. That’s when you draw boundaries. And keep them.
When you realize that someone has become toxic to you, the best thing you can do for yourself is to draw bounds, limit contact, but ask yourself the questions; “What is this here to show me? What about me did I need to see that this person showed me?”
By learning to draw boundaries you not only keep the toxins out, you keep the good IN. The good in YOU. And you don’t have to slap a label on anyone to do it.
Would you like to help us shatter stereotypes about men?
Receive stories from The Good Men Project, delivered to your inbox daily or weekly.
Photo: Flickr/Douglas Muth