Toxic Behaviour: A Brief (no means conclusive) Guide
Yesterday, I uploaded an Instagram Reel with a tongue in cheek approach to walking away from those who exhibit toxic behaviours. Whether that's away from the conversation, or the person completely, there's certain more to discuss than simply the "toxic person".
So, for responsibility and context's sake, here's some of what I know about toxicity, a brief guide to what I have in my head on the subject. I will update as and when, so feel free to keep and refer back to.
“She cancelled? That’s so toxic” she says, as I hold back an eye ball roll at the way this word has infiltrated common speech.
You can imagine the scene it, can't you?
Not taking in to account someone else plans?
What else they might have going on?
Dismissing the whole person with this one label?
It feels so unnecessarily harsh…
And here we go. Because I too, hold tightly onto beautiful hypocrisy. Which, by the standards of many, measures high in toxicity.
Now before I mention the T-word one more time, again and again, let's begin with toxic definition:
Drama; manipulation or control; self centred neediness; highly critical of self and others; jealousy; gossip; substance abuse; unwillingness for change; undermining and invalidating behaviour.
You get the drift.
Sounds familiar, right?
It reads like the blerb for an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, like a social media comment section. Or the simmering undercurrent every bible study social group I used to attend.
The drift is easy to jump aboard because toxicity is deeply ingrained in the society we live in, and therefore in our social conditioning. Yes, even you. No matter how much you may object to those qualities.
So, when we move toward identifying toxicity in our lives, and relationships, it’s much less about the person, and more the behaviour; defining these and the overflow they have into our lives.
- How has this toxicity seeped its way into my life?
- How do I manage that?
- Where am I responsible?
There’s a lot of cover, so we’ll begin. But please be aware this is of course, a much large conversation and something you're invited to develop your own understanding of, using trustworthy and reliable resources.
Here, in the following, I cover a few elements of toxicity that tend to crop up, but it's by no means conclusive. So, read on with an open mind that there is always more to discover.
There are currently 5 sections, after each you will find a 🔥bonus 🔥 which invites you to explore what this area may mean to you. You may like to do this with a friend, your therapist or on your own, journalling.
1. OVER USE
The toxic label gets passed around like a bad joint at a party, it hits and soon everyone’s high on *something* but no one quite knows what it is.
The first thing to note is that this term comes with the proud status that for many is their first foray into self regulation, boundaries and social assertion.
When you’re raised not expressing your wants/needs/desires/feelings/emotions in a safe space (was ANYONE!?), or believing they’re important, it’s quite something to be given the forum and tools, in this case language, to express them.
Like a bird spreading its wings, or free pouring your own wine, it feels good when you’re given control.
The second is that this identifying and expressing oneself, putting boundaries in place and categorising feels good.
In fact, more than that; it feels safe.
That’s what boundaries, identification and assertion do, they help us to feel safe. And so, when someone has their feelings hurt, while they are learning what the true cause of that may be, defining X as toxic can be part of their language and personal development.
They’re using a tool they have to create definition that permits them a feeling of safety where they may have felt destabilised.
So, that’s one of the reasons the toxic term may find itself spread thinly across situations that are, truthfully, just situations happening. Some of which may be toxic, and others which “are not”. (You don't get to decide this premise for another)
Overuse is common when someone is navigating definition, because while they may not mean “toxic” in its worse possible terms, it may be the newest phrase or best definition housed in their vernacular.
What trumps all though, is that we don’t get to define another persons experience and say “oh no you’re wrong!” when someone voices how they feel. The most important part is that people feel they’re given the space and validity to speak, lest we fall into the pit of toxicity ourselves. eep.
The most you can do to help ease this viral spread is take responsibility for your language, keep conversations going and lean into the development of what we actually mean. Share your experience, what you’ve learn and encourage others as they express themselves.
🔥Bonus: if you find yourself overly reliant on the word “toxic”, you can encourage yourself to broaden your terms by feeling in to the actual experience you’re having; perhaps “I’m disappointed”, or “I feel betrayed” may be more articulate.
2. “YOU DON'T WANT TO BE EXTREME!"
Next up is the cause for concern drawn from pushing people away and cutting off relationships too soon. Aka going to "the extreme".
Now, we start here by saying that YES let’s have that conversation but also highlighting that “aren’t you being extreme?” Is a brilliant way to destabilise someones self navigation, especially if they’re just starting out.
When it comes to social situations - and I’m going to use the sweeping generalisation that anyone reading this or who resonates with my work sits in this camp - we are raised to be *sensitive* to others, to be people pleasers and to keep people on side.
If you’re someone who struggles to assert themselves and defining toxicity in your relationships is something new to you, chances are *drumroll please* you haven’t done it before.
Is “cutting someone off too soon” something you may do before you’ve learned how to healthily communicate your needs? Yes.
Can that then form an important backbone in developing your relationship with yourself and learning how you wish to communicate? Also yes.
It can feel particularly anxiety inducing to have your voicing of your needs and boundaries thrown into further question by whether or not you’re over reacting… yeesh. You’re then potentially silencing a need you have at the time in order to control a particular outcome or get it “right”.
It starts to get pretty icky.
The best way to start listening to yourself, setting boundaries and showing up in healthier relationships is to start.
Should you consider your actions and choices? Yes pls. I bet you are, too.
Blaming a friend and cutting them off for a one time incident that happened to trigger a wound that predates your friendship is, in short, good to know. But distancing yourself from a friend who repeatedly lets you down, even after communicating how you feel and how this is a valid area you’d like to rebuild trust and confidence in - okay, sound.
The thing is: if cutting someone off is what you feel you need to do. You do that.
I'm one to whole heartedly encourage autonomy.
But should you ONLY do that? I wouldn't recommend it.
The next unfolding will be what you learn following on from that, perhaps that’s to revise the conversation, or develop your communication skills. It isn’t about whether that’s “right or wrong”, it’s about you LEARN|NG into your relationships and how you communicate your needs, desires and boundaries.
If you feel that was the “wrong way to go about it”, the beautiful thing is, you still have your ability to communicate that.
I know, for myself, I spent far too long NOT cutting people off soon enough that I bore the brunt of that, believing I was “sparing” the relationship and instead harming the one I had with myself.
I sincerely would never encourage anyone to be isolating themselves, cutting off all communication with everyone you know because you haven’t learned how to engage in healthy discourse, negotiation and conflict resolution.
Cutting someone off isn’t the only option, but it may provide you with a valuable breather and exercise in autonomy.
Learning to listen to oneself is perhaps the most complex and beautiful journey any human being can have. There is no getting it “right” or “wrong”, only what is a fit that feels conducive to what you desire. That takes time, education and practise.
Some questions you may like to ask yourself to review this would be:
Is “cutting someone off too soon” more or less damaging than “not cutting someone off soon enough”?
What would the price to your wellbeing, and the relationship to yourself be?
Are you preserving THAT relationship over the one you have with youself?
Rather than cutting someone off, other options include:
Changing subjects or topics
Setting boundaries for what you feel comfortable with
Learning to listen to oneself is perhaps the most complex and beautiful journey any human being has, it's the path of you coming into life. The pressure of it are there from the start, so releasing "right or wrong" thinking can give you the permission to blossom, rather than see it as a tick box exercise.
3. THE RELATIONSHIP ITSELF
Those of us who have (or still do) find it difficult to set boundaries in relationships, romantic or otherwise, tend to fall into the same group with one striking outlook: that you are the primary carer for that relationship. That without your precise action and diligent dedication, the relationship would crumble and fall.
So, here’s a kind reminder from someone who lived to learn this lesson: in every relationship there are two people. Both of whom are responsible for it.
Feeling otherwise, a sense of greater responsibility than the other, may be indicative of an ill weighted understanding of equality, or your value.
Of course, a place this may be pardoned would be in the case of children. Expecting a child to take equal share in relationship management is perhaps where many have picked up their aforementioned over-weighted sense of responsibility in the first place.
In the case of adults, it is fair and just for you to expect others to pull their weight.
This means you’re allowed to talk. This means you’re allowed to voice your feelings and have them heard. This means you don't need to shrink yourself for the convenience of others.
The way you two relate, is the relationship. So this is where the 'toxicity' or otherwise is found. In the relations that are chosen.
This also means that any claims of “toxicity” is what lives in the space between you and another, the energy that is generated by your joint engagement.
This can bring an immense relief to those who have felt they’ve carried the burden.
When reviewing “toxic” behaviours, it can be helpful to ask yourself to observe accountability, communication and what’s really at play.
Do people make absent minded comments? Yes. Are people capable of learning from and correcting their absent minded comments when pulled up? Yessir.
However, if they don't listen, make fun or or dismiss what you're saying, is this where you see the toxicity generated? YEAH.
Therefore, it’s not solely the comment that is made, but instead, the way it's handled, right? The energy that is created from it. The relations.
You bailing out "too soon" on a friendship that's doesn't feel like a safe space isn't necessarily just down to you, if that person also doesn't listen or take accountability for their actions.
It's the way the relationship survives is not helpful. The interactions are not sustainable. Much more so, rather than being unsustainable, they are detrimental.
It's not just you taking time away from something that was your sole responsibility, its you acknowledging that something doesn't function in a way that feels supportive.
Shifting your idea of "toxicity" to being defined in the ongoing role a relationship plays between you, and then your capacity to manage that as two adults, rather than as a singular behaviour may help you in navigating incidents or being flippant with your wording.
Observing “toxic” behaviour, in the space between you, rather than soley placing at the feet of the other person, can support you in pruning out your own negative cycles that allow space for relationships like that in your life in the first place, supporting you create room for those you would like to have.
Some questions you may like to consider to observe joint responsibility in a relationship:
- How does this relationship make you feel?
- How do you feel this person holds their side of the relationship?
- When you express yourself, does this person allow you space for that?
- How is conflict/disagreement resolved?
- Do you feel a disproportionate responsibility in the relationship?
- What role do you play in any "toxic" dynamics in this relationship?
NB: These questions are not to determine the presence of toxicity, more to prompt you in observing the relationship itself.
4. Learn how to communicate.
No man is an island, and even loving and caring relationships can include big fallouts. Loving one another, platonic or otherwise, asks us to create space for one another.
With a number of different relationships in your life, it’s fair to say you’ll also have different levels of complexities. A new friend may be otherworldly inspiring, while your oldest school friend may leave you feeling like a rotten apple, with the occasional gold sprinkling of fond memories.
A parent, for example, may be particularly critical. Can you just stop talking to them? Yes, of course. Is it always that easy? No.
And, Is it even what how you’d like to handle it? Probably not. Unless, of course, you’re reacting from a position of defence or you feel it’s truly best for your wellbeing.
Does reaching old age having not spoken to a sibling for 30 odd years sound like a romantic ideal? No. Could it be what’s best if all attempts at communication fell flat? Yes. Would grieving this loss be normal? 100%. Does that grief make it the wrong choice? Absolutely not.
You can love someone and decide that for the benefit of your wellbeing and mental health that from afar is the best position.
But thinking this thought and making a conscious decision can play a healthy part in this, rather than just doing it on a reactionary basis. This is one of the many reasons therapy, and your own learning is important.
Relationships are rarely, if ever(!?), black and white. Complex by nature, we all carry our own conscious and sub-conscious needs, expectations and projections. Think you don’t? That’s cute. Unless you’re repping Dali Lama levels of consciousness, let’s just be honest, shall we.
Whether it families, friends, partners, lovers or even acquntancies, we all have needs, expectations and in many ways a role we like others to play, to enjoy. Is this toxic? Nah, it’s just part of being human, relationships and structuring the world around us.
You’re allowed to have needs you’d like met in relationships, standards you uphold and values you keep. That doesn’t make you demanding.
However, it’s the expectations and the management of these that set the tone:
Do you call someone ‘toxic' because they don’t meet needs or expectations you’ve never expressed?
In what ways do you allow ‘toxic’ behaviour to continue by not expressing your needs or expectations?
Is there room for this ‘toxic’ behaviour to be a reflection of the relationship you have with yourself?
How do you communicate and resolve tension? Disappointment? Unmet needs?
Maintaining relationships with others is beautiful, of course. Community forms part of a healthy self. But as the one in charge of discovering and giving yourself what you need, either giving this to yourself or exploring your resources for who supports this is vital to your wellbeing, happiness and success. Communication is key to this.
Having conversations that help prune out “toxicity” can be shaky to start. Expressing your feelings, you needs, articulating yourself to someone close to you and anticipating whether they will respect and hear you
You may enjoy these steps to encourage structure when developing communication in spaces that feel “toxic”:
Set time aside to have the conversation in a considered way, not just in the *heat of the moment*. “Can I have a quick word”, or going for a coffee and voicing how you feel when X is said or Y is raised, allows you to create intentional space and places you in a position of control. Rather than raising something when you’re caught off guard and maybe your feels.
Then, observe how is this received? How is it handled in the relationship, in the space between you? With care? Or do you feel dismissed, is the conversation twisted or blame seeking? Review here as above in the relationship itself section.
Take some time to clearly express your expectations and boundaries, “moving forward, please don’t comment on my weight or what I eat”
Evaluate how you feel on reflection of the conversation and monitor moving forward. Did you feel heard? Are your boundaries being respected? What, if any, references are made to your conversation? (do they make fun of the situation etc)
*for these conversations, you may find non-violent communication a useful tool as you learn to express yourself*
Learning to communicate your needs, and identify toxicity that is present, takes exactly that; communication. Much of the ‘toxicity’ will show itself on reflection of your own development, as you lean into yourself. But keep developing, toxicity isn’t a wall to hide behind, but instead a way to filter what doesn’t serve you, and move toward what does.
5. IS IT YOU?
As highlighted above in the relationships section, taking full accountability for your own toxic patterns is sure fire the qucikest way to out any and all from your life.
Relationships are a reflection of the one you have with yourself, and so learning about your own, setting boundaries with yourself and up-leveling the love you expect from yourself sets a whole new standard.
This can include but is not exclusive to the way you speak to yourself, how you invest your time and energy and what patterns you allow to persist unchecked.
Of course, there is the time and space you can create in this too for others to offer you feedback, to voice their feelings and let you know about "toxic" roles you play.
And just the same, how you respond to this determines your own "toxicity".
Will you give others the space you expect? Will you respect the boundaries that are asked of you? Can you appreciate that you're just as capable of being the "toxic" one, even when you don't mean to be? And of course, how does all of this inform the ways you show up managing your own.
As I said at the beginning, it's big and it's complex.
But when personal responsibility is the name of the game, someone exhibiting toxic behaviour does not make you the victim, it leads you into what responsibility and choice you have for handling that.
As always, what we say about others defines more about us than it does about them. So, a great question could be:
What does this relationship and your observation of this "toxic" behaviour say about you?
Discussing with your therapist, or journalling, you may like to ask yourself
- How will you handle it?
- What is this showing you?
- Who is responsible for resolving or moving through to another space; either in or out of that relationship?
- Is it one specific area or the whole relationship?
- What does this situation remind you of? Are there old relationships or events that this reminds you of?
- Is this representative of a broader area in your life?
- Does this issue go away if this relationship does? Is it the only area in your life that sustains it?
This is a HUGE subject, that is vast and sprawling. It's also ripe for misinterpretation, so please take what resonates and leave what doesn't.
I encourage you into your full autonomy, so keep doing, testing and learning.