Move over, “narcissist.” Over the last few years, there’s another label that’s been used to describe someone you categorically do not want to be involved with: “toxic.”
Toxic is such a fixture in offline conversations and lifestyle articles (including —full disclosure — quite a few on this site), it was even the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year a few years back.
As the internet headlines will tell you, there are toxic partners, toxic bosses, toxic friends and a whole lot of toxic mother-in-laws.
The thrust of these articles is usually pretty apparent: If these signs sound familiar, you should cut this person out of your life. (Well, with the possible exceptions of your boss and mother-in-law. Sorry, you may have to deal with those two.)
The word gets bandied about with such frequency you have to wonder: If everyone is toxic, is anyone really toxic? At this point, has the catch-all become kind of meaningless? And if you’re calling everyone in your life “toxic,” maybe it’s you who’s the toxic person?
What does ‘toxic’ mean, anyway?
The problem with the word “toxic” is that, unlike narcissism ― a personality disorder that’s listed in the authoritative psychiatric guide the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders ― there’s no agreed-upon description of what it means to be a “toxic” person.
“When we ask someone to define a ‘toxic’ person, a habitual gossip might come to mind while another might think of an overly critical person,” said Melanie Ross Mills, a counselor and friendship expert.
As humans, we love a label, and the fact that “toxic” leaves a lot of room for interpretation makes it especially sticky, said Suzanne Degges-White, the author of “Toxic Friendships: Knowing the Rules and Dealing With the Friends Who Break Them” and a professor and chair of the department of counseling and higher education at Northern Illinois University.
“For so many reasons, some even hard-wired into our DNA from prehistoric days, people want to label and classify others’ behavior and use those labels to warn others about the dangers a person presents,” Degges-White told HuffPost.
Because the word is so ill-defined, some therapists say they try to steer their clients in another direction when they use the word “toxic” to describe someone.
Instead, they might try to gauge what the situation is based on with any facts and stories about the person, said Akua K. Boateng, a psychotherapist in private practice in South Philadelphia.
“So many resort to using the label or even name-calling as the end result and forgo truly understanding the conflict,” Boateng said. “I would rather we describe the relationship implications associated with these traits instead of using a generalized label.”
That means instead of calling a friend “toxic,” we call out how they make us feel.
For instance, does an evening with one of your girlfriends leave you strangely deflated? Maybe it’s because she monopolized the conversation and never asked one question about how you were doing.
“If a friend is always asking you for favors or support but is never available when you need their support, the relationship can feel ‘toxic’ and one-sided,” Degges-White said.
“Some people are wired to take as much as they can from others with no intention or ability to offer any support to others,” she explained. “We need friends we can depend on — not just friends who depend on us.”
With her clients, Ross Mills prefers to call family or friends that bring on stress or consternation “unsafe” people rather than toxic people. (Not quite as catchy as “toxic,” though, is it?)
“As we learn to recognize unhealthy people, we can identify traits of jealousy, emotional manipulation, self-absorption, unrealistic expectations, anger issues, bitterness, competition, passive-aggressiveness or conflict avoidance,” Ross Mills said.
Any of those behaviors (especially in concert) might leave you feeling “drained, manipulated, controlled, insecure or unappreciated,” the counselor said.
Instead of calling someone toxic, ask yourself these three questions.
Clearly, there are myriad ways to be perceived as “toxic.” Pinpointing how a person makes you feel and what behaviors are off-putting is far more helpful than just labeling them “toxic” if you’re trying to figure out the value of the relationship. Labels ignore just how complex human relationships can be.
If you’re worried that a friendship is no longer worth your time or a friend’s behavior is unacceptable, Degges-White recommends asking yourself three questions about the relationship:
- Do I feel better or worse about myself or life, in general, after spending time with this person?
- Do I find myself ignoring texts or phone calls from this person or canceling out on plans to get together with this person?
- Has this person’s presence in my life done more harm than good?
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with reaching for “toxic” at first, but if you’re trying to make a clear-eyed decision about someone, you have to dig a little deeper.
“If we want growth for ourselves, we should really try to figure out what exactly the person is doing so that we can learn more about ourselves and what we need from others for healthy relationships,” the therapist said.