The Myth of Toxic People

by Gail Jankovski on October 5

There are a lot of articles out there on how to identify and banish toxic people from your life. But what if I told you that there is no such thing as toxic people? I actually cringe when I hear the phrase “toxic people”, and would love for it to be eliminated completely from our discourse.

What makes something toxic anyway? One would probably say that poison is toxic, but even that is relative. You can sit a bottle of poison on the table beside you forever without it affecting you in any way—only in drinking it does it become “toxic” to you. So it’s not the substance itself that is toxic, but rather how we interact with it. The same can be said for these so-called “toxic people.”

People Are Complicated

Labeling someone as toxic (or difficult, negative, or any variation thereof) reduces them to merely a caricature of their most negative traits, without extending to them any empathy or understanding of their innate complexity. People behave the ways that they do due to a whole set of circumstances of which we have little or no knowledge—it’s entirely possible that they aren’t even fully consciously aware of the reasons behind their behaviours.

I have done stupid things in my life, I’ve fucked up, I’ve hurt people—we all have (well most of us have, if you are perfect you can stop reading). I have also done a lot of soul searching and self-inquiry to get to the root of my own personal motivations and demons. That can be a difficult process, and it is definitely a very personal process. I am the only one who is privy to my own unique history, because really, the external events of our life stories are merely the beginning. How we perceive, process and internalize those events is what really shapes our character and informs our actions.

In short, I am the only one who is fully aware of the complexity that makes me tick, and there are a whole lot of layers there. So to be identified, and to identify others, based on the minuscule bit of information that our interactions reveal to us is both inaccurate and uncharitable. Once we begin to recognize and grant others the same complexity we possess ourselves, they simply stop occurring to us as toxic.

It’s Not About You

In your day to day life how often do you think to yourself “I really want to annoy my co-worker today – I think I will try to be as difficult as possible?” Probably not very often. By the same token, most people you would consider toxic really aren’t out to get you either. They probably aren’t even thinking all that much about you.

The player who trampled all over your heart didn’t do it in order to crush your self esteem—he did it to build his own. The crazy, needy ex who won’t leave you alone isn’t really obsessed with you—she’s obsessed with whatever is lacking in her own life. The whining, complaining co-worker isn’t really trying to bring you down—he is looking for connection in commiseration. Even the spouse who cheated on you didn’t do it to hurt you—but rather for reasons that have to do with something within them.

The problem of toxic people often lays not in their actions, but in our taking those actions personally and making them about us. When someone treats us badly, as in any of the scenarios above, we can begin to question our own worth and value. But we don’t have to drink the poison. When we let go of the habit of a making other people’s actions mean something about ourselves, we also let go of taking on other people’s perceived toxicity, and find more freedom for ourselves.

Or—Maybe It is About You

While other people’s “negative” actions aren’t really about us, we can certainly use our experiences, interactions and reactions to them to kick start some self-inquiry. Behaviours in others that hit on our own emotional triggers can be powerful mirrors into our own psyches, and we can use those reflections as catalysts for personal discovery and growth.

My experience is this: the people who trigger the strongest negative reactions in me, especially if those reactions occur repeatedly as a pattern, are the people who can teach me the most about myself. In short, those who one might consider the most “toxic” often present the most opportunity for growth. If someone else’s behaviour repeatedly triggers a negative emotional reaction, it is valuable to look at why that is.

Often the negative traits that we despise so much in others are a reflection of something that we don’t like about ourselves. When I dug deep, I realized that my discomfort with what I had always perceived as my mother’s controlling behaviour was shining a light on my own need to be “in control” at all times, which helped me transform my relationship with my own children. Similarly—the friend who I perceived as being repeatedly condescending towards me helped to bring to the surface my buried belief of never being “good enough,” and pushed me towards finally confronting that limiting belief head on. And the relative that snaked me out of money unearthed my disappointment that I wasn’t where I wanted to be financially at that stage in my life, and impelled me towards remedying that situation. None of these realizations changed the situations or behaviours, but they removed the emotional charge—the toxicity—from them.

It is said that what we resist persists. By perceiving people as “toxic” and building walls protect ourselves we create resistance. I have found more freedom in reframing my perceptions, and in granting others their complexity. We don’t need to keep difficult people in our lives, and I don’t suggest continuing to interact with people who repeatedly treat us badly. I have certainly let some of them go from my life. But I have gained more value in doing so with empathy, compassion, and even gratitude for their contribution to my growth.

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Gail Jankovski

Gail is a certified hypnotist, life coach, and aspiring writer and poet. Her approach to personal development is pragmatic: baby steps are OK—and small changes can add up to big rewards. She also keeps busy as an admin assistant, wife, and mom to three grown children.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim Arendse October 5, 2015 at 3:41 pm

You might have heard the NLP presupposition, “Everyone is doing the best they can with the resources they have”. It’s easy to feel compassionate for others with that in mind.

I lived that presupposition for a lot of years, but what I forgot is that I don’t owe anyone my time. Although someone is doing their best, I can still make a choice about whether I want that person in my life.

Dropping the label makes a lot of sense, but I’d love to hear you weigh in on what comes next. Do you let go with love and compassion?

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Gail October 5, 2015 at 4:01 pm

Hey Tim – Well for me personally I have yet to fail the “self-reflection” test. Meaning that I have never encountered a difficult or so-called “toxic” person that on deeper inquiry I couldn’t see at least a little bit of myself reflected in. So compassion for them, and self-compassion, are all tied up together. Sometimes self compassion is the harder of the two, but in forgiving oneself we automatically find forgiveness for others. On a practical level – these steps tend remove the emotional charge/toxicity from the situation. So whether the people stay or go in my life is not all that relevant, because they don’t occur to me the same way, as “toxic” if you will. I can simply observe their behaviour without any emotional investment. But yes some have drifted off – to let go with love and compassion, instead of holding on to “negative” feelings, is preferable for me.

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Tim October 5, 2015 at 4:12 pm

That’s an interesting response, Gail. Thanks for that.

I’m not too familiar with reflection, look forward to hearing more about it.

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Simone October 6, 2015 at 12:13 pm

Hi Gail,

Great article! Can you give an example about the reflection of oneself?

“I have never encountered a difficult or so-called “toxic” person that on deeper inquiry I couldn’t see at least a little bit of myself reflected in”.

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Gail October 6, 2015 at 4:15 pm

Thanks Simone! For example the friend I spoke of in the article, who I always perceived as condescending or talking down to me – it got to where I would probably have considered it “toxic” to interact. That was reflecting back to me my own gremlins and feelings of “not good enough”. Someone can talk down to me all they want, but if that doesn’t trigger an emotional reaction in me then it’s not really toxic. So it is our emotional reaction to the interaction with the person, that is harmful or “toxic” to us. When we deal with the what is being reflected back to us in our interactions, then we might observe the same behaviour, but without the emotional charge it once may have had.

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Simone October 7, 2015 at 3:54 am

I see, but for me logically I know to do that, but it’s another thing to remove an emotional charge. How do you do that?

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Sandra October 7, 2015 at 8:40 am

Not Gail, but personally it depends a lot on what is going on. If for example I feel put down because I don/t have enough self confidence, it means I need to work on my self confidence and the emotional charge will dissapear.

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Gail October 7, 2015 at 11:43 am

Once I accepted myself as deeply flawed, seeing that reflected back to me in the perceived “flaws” of others evokes feelings of empathy. And by deeply flawed I dont mean “bad” – I mean perfectly imperfect. As my own self-inquiry has led me to realize that any behaviours I have engaged in thay may be perceived as “toxic” have always been born of pain and fear, when I allow that experience to others how could I feel anything but compassion for them?

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Gail October 7, 2015 at 11:52 am

So yes – as Sandra said it all starts from within – with our own self-inquiry and self-acceptance.

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Leah McClellan October 7, 2015 at 9:32 pm

I read this when it was first posted and now skimmed again because I was puzzled. I agree with you, for the most part and, in other parts, in theory. But I don’t agree that the concept of “toxic people” as a whole is a “myth.” It’s just one way of looking at things or understanding things, perhaps just looking at the surface of a choppy ocean rather than analyzing deeply.

I think the concept “toxic people” is useful for those who are just learning that, for example, we can make choices. That we can have boundaries. That we can avoid or remove ourselves from situations we can’t handle or that are destructive to us. That we don’t have to suffer or let people hurt us.

As an example, my neighbor’s niece. She’s 27, a high school grad (I believe) who works at a fast food place, and she’s struggling with drugs and alcohol. She was abused as a child and through her teen years. When I see her hanging out with certain people, I know she’s using. When she’s hanging out with other people, I know she’s back on course. (The difference is obvious.) Her aunt and I have talked with her about how important it is to not hang out with the “toxic” people. She can’t handle the temptation of being around old friends who are using. And there’s no point trying to. So “toxic people” for her is not a myth; it’s a construct she understands (and her slips are rare these days). Another way I’ve put it to her is to “change your social circle” (and exclude the bad influences aka toxics). This young woman—at this point—would not grasp anything in your post. There’s no need right now. So for her, “toxic people” works. And she’ll need to learn some finer degrees later on, in addition to just users vs. non-users.

Sure, other people’s actions aren’t, technically, about us. But we’re all interconnected, and we all affect one another. And when we’re talking about dire situations like drug abuse, physical and emotional abuse, and anything extreme like that, toxic people (by any name) need to be recognized. Yes, they deserve love and compassion as well, and they are acting out of their own suffering. And yes, they may represent something we don’t like about ourselves and that we want to change. And when we want to change, we might need to just stay away from them because they’re detrimental aka toxic to our progress and we don’t yet have the skills to deal with them (and perhaps we shouldn’t even try).

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Gail October 8, 2015 at 1:55 am

Thanks for reading, and for your thoughtful comment Leah. I share this perspective as something that has been personally very powerful and transformative in my own life. Of course different strategies work for different people, and I totally respect that others may use a different framework based on their experiences.

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Ethan Bridges October 24, 2015 at 12:33 pm

Hello Gail,

Nice post. But I don’t know. I don’t know if I agree with everything you said here.

Everybody else could be “toxic” to anyone. (Yeah, the term “toxic” could just be due to the lack of a better term.) 🙂

Toxic people are given at least a shining moment in which they can learn why others perceive them to be toxic. And because it’s a moment of enlightenment, these toxic people agree. But when routine gets them again, giving them another chance to become “toxic,” they unlearn everything.

There’s no point, after all, every time. Hence, the term “toxic.” At least to those who give a hoot in making the world a better place.

But I could also be “toxic.” I just don’t think I’m as toxic as the others. 😉

Thanks.

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proofreading-services.org June 11, 2017 at 8:20 am

toxic people don’t let you move on and develop your personal qualities, they push you down and it’s regression! I think we should take these people away from our lives!

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