Not Everything Is ‘Toxic’ Just Because You Don’t Like It

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
If something is toxic, it is poisonous. If ingested or inhaled, its toxicity can make people sick; it can even be fatal. Toxic things are to be treated with extreme caution, black and yellow tape, red triangle warning signs. Toxic waste gets dumped away from people, in the middle of nowhere, or else it is sealed up forever. 
The chemical element radon, lead in drinking water, car exhaust fumes: these are just a few examples of toxic substances.
Yet scroll through Instagram or TikTok and 'toxic' warnings are not attached to any of the above. It’s not individuals who have committed serious crimes — it’s your ex, your relationship, your mother, your father and perhaps even some of your friends that might supposedly be poisoning you. 
The hashtag #toxicpeople has 429.6 million views and counting on TikTok. On Instagram there are 660,413 posts. 
Now that they’re so ubiquitous, it’s worth pausing to ask where ‘toxic’ people came from. I don’t mean that literally. I mean the construct of the ‘toxic person’, which implies that there is a universal category for anyone who has ever wronged another person, who has ever done something that someone else experienced as painful. 
A California-based woman named Lillian Glass says she coined the term ‘toxic people’ in her 1995 book, Toxic People: 10 Ways Of Dealing With People Who Make Your Life Miserable. For the record, Glass is not a psychologist. She is the self-described "First Lady of Communication", and a "body language expert and communications consultant". 
In her book, Glass describes a ‘toxic’ person as "anyone who has poisoned your life, who is not supportive, who is not happy to see you grow, to see you succeed, who does not wish you well. In essence, he or she sabotages your efforts to lead a happy and productive life."
Everyone, absolutely everyone, will have felt unsupported by someone they care about at some point in their life. Likewise, everyone will have encountered jealousy. If this is the definition of a 'toxic person', no wonder they are everywhere. People are flawed, they will let you down and even those you love may struggle with negative feelings. They may not always want the best for you. Hell, you may not always want the best for them. You might catch ugly thoughts racing through your mind from time to time and be forced to challenge their origin. If that happens, does it make you 'toxic'?
According to Glass, yes. In her book there are even 'toxic children' who, she writes, are not the responsibility of their parents (who don’t mean to fuck you up etc.) but, instead, external influences such as "the media, peer pressure, the pressure to achieve, drugs, gangs, violence in the schools, and random violence". 
"I know many model parents whose children have ended up as drug addicts, single mothers, or gang members," Glass writes. This goes against much of the thinking in modern psychology, which, as anyone who has ever attended therapy will tell you, works on the basis that all of us are the product of our childhood experiences and then expands from there.
According to Glass and the countless Instagram memes which riff on her ideas, there will always be ‘toxic people’ in your life. You may even have given birth to them. But they will never, ever be your responsibility. Your relationship with them is not a conversation in which you have played a part. 
In these stories about ‘toxic people’ there are only two characters: the villain (the ‘toxic person’) and their victim. This binary thinking can be reductive and limiting, says Eleanor Morgan, a trainee psychotherapist who will shortly complete years of training in integrative therapy. 
Morgan is also the author of two books: Hormonal: A Conversation About Women's Bodies, Mental Health and Why We Need to Be Heard and Anxiety For Beginners
"I understand how comforting [the idea that someone is ‘toxic’] could be when a person has experienced real pain in a relationship with someone else, whether it’s a family member, friend, lover, colleague or partner," says Morgan over the phone. "To use words like ‘toxic’ or say that you were a ‘victim’ of someone’s ‘toxic’ behaviour might provide comfort."
Ultimately, Morgan adds: "Whether a person is perceived as ‘toxic’ depends on how another person has experienced them. It is inherently subjective."
The obvious caveat here, as above, is that there are situations where humans do abuse one another, such as domestic violence and sexual assault.
"The word ‘toxic’ seems to be more prevalent on social media than in some of the places I work where there is very real trauma," she adds.
Morgan would like people to interrogate the reasons why they feel that someone is ‘toxic’.
"I’m really interested in the stories we hold about ourselves and about other people and I think people can get addicted to the idea of the feeling of grievance or feeling like they have been the victim of someone’s ‘toxic behaviour’ and that can become a really compelling narrative to live by," she explains. "If someone’s behaviour has made us feel hurt, rejected or scared, it’s actually quite familiar to use words like ‘toxic’ because it means that we don’t have to look inwards and examine whether we are part of the pattern."
The shadow figure of the ‘toxic person’ is, of course, the narcissist: another label that can be yelled as the ‘victim’ throws their hands up in the air, giving away all responsibility and agency for the relationship they entered into with their supposed ‘villain’. 
"When you throw the word ‘toxic’ out there, it’s almost protective," says Morgan. "You create a shield around you once you’ve said it – it’s like saying to someone: ‘Well, you’re absolutely terrible but there’s nothing wrong with me!’ And I suspect that underneath it there is often shame and vulnerability. It’s a pretty immovable thing to say, to condemn someone as ‘toxic’. How can you repair that?"
So quick are we today to label people ‘toxic’ and dump them in the rubbish bin that we risk our own development in the process. All relationships are dynamics born of the interaction between two or more people. Everyone plays their part. 
Have you ever done anything that might be considered ‘toxic’? I know I have. I like to think that the older I become, the less likely that is to happen. But I can say with no doubt whatsoever that when I was younger I said things I now regret and certainly didn’t mean in arguments and disagreements, particularly in my early romantic relationships. I did not handle difficulty in the way I hope I would now. The ability to self-reflect is a muscle that we must regularly work out, as is empathy. 
Nobody – not even the eternal ‘victim’ who is always wronged and never in the wrong and not the supposed ‘villain’ – can grow or evolve if we dismiss every behaviour we do not like as ‘toxic’ instead of examining it.
Consider where else in the world you might find a ‘toxic’ substance. Many animals produce toxic, poisonous substances to protect themselves from predators. 
While there is obviously no excuse for physical abuse, verbal abuse or sexual assault, it is possible that in less serious situations, a supposedly 'toxic' person might be acting out because they are in pain and they don’t know how to handle it. That doesn’t make their behaviour right or any less hurtful to experience but it doesn’t mean they are ‘toxic’ and cancelled forever either. 
Ultimately, says Morgan, if we dismiss people as ‘toxic’ and hold onto anger, we might miss out on something incredibly valuable: peace. 
"It can be really vindicating emotionally to blame other people for the way that we feel," she adds. "I can imagine it feels really satisfying to say that someone is ‘toxic’ in an argument or when describing an argument to other people but what it does is in condemning someone else, you let go of self-reflection."
Cultural narratives abound in which women (it’s mainly women) are ‘victims’ while men are ‘villains’. Instead of calling people ‘toxic’ it would be helpful to challenge these narratives so that we might leach out the poison and grow beyond them. 
If someone has hurt you? Be vulnerable; say that. If someone has made you feel disrespected, say that. If someone has made you feel lonely or insecure, say that. If you do, you might find not only that you’re able to heal but that you are never again in a situation like the one that has caused so much harm. Few (if any) people are inherently bad, evil or ‘toxic’ but the current predilection for condemning those who cause us pain certainly is. 
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