So you may be wondering what makes me qualified to comment on Toxic People. After all I don’t have a pseudo-psychological self-help website, nor am I going to divulge my ‘wisdom’ in just 8, 9 or 10 easy to swallow bullet pointed pieces of bullshit. The reason while I feel like I can talk about Toxic People is because, according to the so called definitions being used to describe this ‘phenomenon’, I am a ‘toxic’ person sometimes, and so are you. We are all ‘toxic’ people sometimes. Or, to put it better, there is no such thing as a ‘toxic’ person, just people who are more than capable of being both wonderful and shit.
We are living through what could be described as the age of the detox. In strictly medical terms, detoxification represents a series of treatments for removing levels of drugs, alcohol, or heavy metals that are dangerously high within the body. Usually, however, the healthy body has kidneys, a liver, skin, even lungs that are detoxifying all of the time, all by themselves. There is no way of making a perfectly healthy, fully functioning body function any better than it already is. The whole idea of the detox is essentially a massive fraud. And yet we are being bombarded with detoxifying diets, smoothies, tablets, tinctures, tea bags, face masks, bath salts, hair brushes, shampoos, body gels and even hair straighteners. Yoga, luxury retreats, and massages will also all erroneously promise to detoxify, and then there is colonic irrigation. In order to keep our bodies healthy – and therefore detoxifying effectively – we don’t need to buy any of these supposedly detoxifying products or therapies, what we actually need to do is not smoke, make sure we exercise and eat a healthy balanced (which means no obsessing with ‘superfoods’ or cutting out particular good groups) diet that contains all of the protein, amino acids, unsaturated fats, fibre, starches, vitamins and minerals that our body requires to stay healthy.
We have reached a point now where our obsession with being ‘healthy’ has in certain cases become deeply unhealthy, to the extent that the term ‘Orthorexia‘ is now being proposed as a distinct new eating disorder in which people are solely concerned with the quality rather than the quantity of the food they put in their bodies, refining and restricting their diets according to their personal understanding of which foods are truly ‘pure’ and which are unclean, poisonous, shameful (because they are too pleasureable) or bad. We talk about rape culture being a society where rape is so normalized that many victims do not even recognize it. It has been argued that we now also live in an eating disorder culture whereby eating disorders (sometimes wrapped up in the guise of detox diets) have become a mainstream way of life.
Why have we allowed ourselves to be conned into buying the idea of the detox? Is it because we are hard-wired to want to do so? Many of the oldest religions practise fasting and purification. But the ancient religious tradition of renunciation – of which Ramadan and Lent are obvious examples – doesn’t involve neurotically regarding enjoyable experiences as dangerous or shameful. Rather it is about willingly deciding to deny yourself certain easy forms of escapism and distraction, with the idea that fronting up to reality without them might, at least for a short time, have some benefits. Is this where the urge to detox comes from? Or is it simply that – as I discuss in the post Capitalism and the pursuit of healthiness, the ‘health and wellbeing’ industry has becoming increasingly good at coming up with strategies for helping us to shed many pounds (from our wallets), and that we, eager to believe that we can simply undo the harm we inflict on our bodies through our hedonistic consumption driven lifestyles, are happy to buy into them?
While the desire to detox may have its roots in deep rooted religious ideas relating to self denial and self development, in its present guise it is much harder to see the possible benefits for anyone other than the companies peddling these ‘remedies.’ While eating large amounts of Kale or less processed and refined food is probably quite a good idea health wise (providing it isn’t just Kale that you eat), some of the more extreme forms of detox available such as fasting, strict dieting or the use of coffee enemas and laxatives are much more likely to do more harm than good, whether this be in the respective forms of disrupted gastrointestinal fauna, nutrient deficiencies, septicaemia and rectal perforation (lovely) or constipation (laxatives give you constipation, oh the irony).
So maybe we can agree that detoxing is a bit of a silly idea in its current guise. But what about toxic people? I was blissfully unaware of the concept until recently when a friend posted an image that contained the very same text included in this rather lovely image:
Without really thinking about it I found myself about to like the post – as many people already had. After all it is rather reassuring to think that whatever unpleasant things somebody who has treated us badly might say about us, eventually people will see through their lies and get to the truth. As well as being comforting it is also probably more than a little naive – after all politicians and the media provide us with a fairly considerable body of evidence to suggest that misinformation can be an extremely effective way of influencing peoples opinions not only about individuals but entire groups of people.
But the possible naivety of the statement wasn’t what stopped me from ‘liking’ it. Nor was it the idea of there being some kind of a fixed and absolute truth for people to finally ‘see.’ Again it is a comforting thought to think that there is a single objective truth just waiting to be uncovered as opposed to a multitude of different and sometimes contradictory perceptions of a ‘true’ reality that always remains somehow tantalisingly just out of reach. I’ve probably just demonstrated that I can be a bit of a pedant but that wasn’t really what bothered me either, after all I like and would like to believe in the overall sentiment that if you let nasty people fling shit around eventually people will see through it. What actually really bothered me about this statement is the idea that a person can be toxic or would be described as such. Much to my despair, this phrase – having only entered my consciousness recently – now seems to be popping up everywhere.
So what is a toxic person anyway? A quick google search quickly reveals all, or does it? Interestingly despite the depressingly endless pages of search results talking about toxic people, most of the definitions of what constitutes a toxic person seem to consist of telling you how to identify one based on your own feelings or emotional responses to that person. This is interesting in that again it feels a little subjective to me. After all, aren’t we supposed to take responsibility for our own feelings? To acknowledge that cause and effect does not work in quite the same way in the emotional world as it does in the physical and accept that other people do not ‘make’ us feel anything, we just react to different circumstances in ways that draw upon our own ideas, beliefs, hopes, previous experiences and fears? Surely identifying a toxic person becomes rather difficult if the feelings they engender in us may have more to do with ourselves than them?
What if we move beyond the idea of other people making us feel a certain way to try and understand ‘Toxic people’ in another way? Maybe people are Toxic because they are bad people who do bad things? If we cannot rely on our own emotions to identify a toxic person perhaps looking at their actions could provide a more objective measure? According to the eternal wisdom of the internet, toxic people try and control, undermine and belittle us, seeking to impose their own emotional needs, negativity or insecurity onto us. Is this moving us a little closer? The idea of action rather than emotion being the determinant of a Toxic person fits a little better with what the ‘experts’ seem to have to say, namely that Toxic people are not really toxic at all; rather it is their behaviour towards you or your relationship with them that is actually toxic.
But doesn’t the label of a ‘toxic person’ become totally misleading if it is the behaviour of a person in a particular relationship that might actually be the problem? And given that two or more people are (normally) involved in a relationship, what if the behaviour of more than one person contributes to its ‘toxicity’? This is a sensitive and complex subject. I’m very keen to ensure that this isn’t misunderstood as some kind of a justification for abusive behaviour or as a way of blaming the victims of abuse. Abusive behaviour is unacceptable and never justified, and yet abusers often try and blame the victims themselves as a way of avoiding taking responsibility for their own actions. The very reason that I am seeking to challenge the idea of the ‘toxic person’ however is because I feel that it is important that we all take responsibility for our own actions and their consequences – which in this case means thinking about the way in which we chose to label each other and the reasons we might have for doing so.
Could it be in some cases that the labelling of one party in a relationship as toxic might be a little simplistic? Could it be that sometimes labelling the other person as toxic is a useful way of absolving oneself of ones own possibly ‘toxic’ behaviour? According to Jodie Gale (MA) often the toxic person is deeply wounded and unable to take responsibility for this wounding, feelings, needs and subsequent problems in life. But according to this definition, couldn’t somebody who feels deeply wounded as a result of how somebody else ‘made’ them feel, who behaves unpleasantly towards them, who also decides to label that person as toxic, and who, in doing so, is seeking to avoid understanding not only themselves and why they actually feel the way they do, but also the possible role they may have played in the emergence of this ‘toxic’ relationship, well… might we describe this persons behaviour as ‘toxic’ too?
The idea of a toxic person is getting more and more confusing. It is interesting that much of the search material I found on toxic people was explaining how to deal with them, which in most cases consists of information on how to remove them from your life and justifications for doing so. Now i’m not suggesting for a second that people who are in an abusive relationship should hang around in it, or that its wrong to need to have space from people at times, or to maintain healthy boundaries. I should probably repeat that just to be clear; i’m not suggesting that people should feel in anyway obligated to spend time with people who treat them terribly, or that there is anything wrong with establishing boundaries or walking away from people or situations that are not doing you any good. It seems like common sense to me that this is absolutely what people should do.
It is the use of the word toxic that really worries me though. It seems to be increasingly used not just to describe people who are abusive (and even then I would argue that it is a poor choice of word) but also people who – for example – have ‘too much’ drama in their lives, are too negative, who get jealous, or who are prone to behaving in passive aggressive ways at some points. Because hang on a minute there, surely what is being described here are character traits that every single one of us – sorry to anybody out there who is completely perfect but you are almost certainly in self denial and probably need to take a long hard look in the mirror – have displayed at some point in our lives, and most probably when we are struggling and feeling insecure? What if, rather than people being Toxic, people are just simply having a hard time and not coping very well? I can think of no better portrayal (albeit fictional) of the bizarre and terrible ways in which people can behave when they are pushed beyond their breaking point than the wonderful Argentinian film Wild Tales, in which people… once pushed beyond their natural limits reveal themselves to be capable of murder, infidelity and a range of other violent and destructive ‘toxic’ behaviours.
We all have a certain amount of shit to deal with in our lives, and just like everything else in society it does not tend to be evenly distributed. Some of us may be better equipped to deal with these challenges and be able to do so more gracefully than others. This may be a result of the relative stability of own childhoods and the absence of historical or ongoing trauma in our lives, the result of painful lessons learnt or the consequence of us just having worked bloody hard at our own self development. Whether our own relative resilience or emotional stability is the result of luck or just plain old hard work, does that give us the right to label anybody, no matter how bad a job they might be doing of coping, no matter how unpleasantly they may be behaving, of being toxic? And should we really be encouraging each other to push people out of our lives? As unpleasant as their behaviour may be, it is not necessarily a simple reflection of an individual desperate seeking to either cling on to or abuse the power bestowed on them within a system of capitalist patriarchy. Rather, could it not be the consequence of an absence of power; a manifestation of the experience of low self-esteem, trauma, discrimination and depression? Might there therefore be other options available to us when we are dealing with people like this?
Calling other people toxic can allow us to turn our gaze away from the darker aspects of our own personalities and our own ability to – in the wrong circumstances – behave in similarly unpleasant ways. It can allow us to turn away too from the potential role that we may have played in the emergence of so called ‘toxic’ relationships, and it can prevent us from doing the kind of soul searching that may reveal a deeper understanding of the nature of our own emotional reactions to certain situations and where they may actually originate from (clue; we never just react to another person or situation, we also react to our own experiences of previous people and situations whose connection to current events we may still be totally unaware of). One thing is for sure, calling other people toxic certainly doesn’t help us to become more compassionate towards each other.
But using the toxic label is not just holding us back, it also stigmatizes the people that we label in this way, potentially adding to the separateness that may already underpin the struggles they are experiencing and the reasons why they are behaving in such a problematic way in the first place. When any kind of relationship between people begins to fall apart or go wrong, we can only ever come out completely clean if we label somebody else as being completely at fault. It is important that people take responsibility for their own actions, and in some cases (such as with abuse) the blame may lie very clearly at the feet of one person. But when we apply the toxic label to difficult relationships in general, do we not risk simply reducing somebody down to a caricature of their most negative traits – even as we seek to obscure our own in the process? How flattering would any of us look in this light? It might makes us feel better in the short run to do this but whether you believe in Karma or not, what good does it actually achieve?
What if ‘toxic’ people might behave the way they do because they are experiencing or have experienced periods of profound stress and trauma? Unless – and I hope that this isn’t the case – we only really care about ourselves and our own wellbeing, we might hope that by removing these people from our lives we are not only doing ourselves a favour but also, through our display of ‘tough love’, actually encouraging them to heal or ‘de-toxify’ themselves. But that is a difficult thing to achieve in isolation. Healing, according to so many Indigenous teachings, is an on-going collective project. Shame is not meant to be privatized or isolating and can become profoundly damaging when it manifests itself in this way. The pain you experience from trauma and how you manage or mis-manage it might be your own responsibility, but the roots of that trauma are not all singularly yours, but rather a product of the society that you live within and the people that make it up. When we label people as toxic we fail to acknowledge this fact. Instead we set boundaries that exclude them from our communities when we could be involving them in processes of community accountability that might allow them to transform their behaviour and our understanding of why it happens. As I asked in my previous post A conversation about Lemonade; what happens to all of the people we dump on the trash-heap for failing to be unaffected by the piece of shit system that we live within, and what chance does it give us for creating the kind of world we would all like to live in?
So let me suppose – and this may be a rather large leap of faith given how popular these frankly charming toxic people memes seem to be – that you agree with me in thinking that our attitudes towards toxins and toxic people might both actually be a little messed up. But what should we do instead if we accept that detoxing ourselves or our social circles might actually do more harm than good? Perhaps we can take some inspiration from a hero and villain of the detox debate; namely ‘naughty’ booze and ‘super’ broccoli.
Lets start with the booze. As I already mentioned, an alcohol detox is an all too real medical procedure that normally takes place on a medical ward. The idea that stopping drinking for a while will allow your liver to detox itself is, on the other hand, a complete and total fallacy. This becomes readily apparent when you understand how the liver works. The liver breaks down alcohol in a two-step process. Enzymes in the liver first convert alcohol to acetaldehyde which is a very toxic substance that damages liver cells. The acetaldehyde is then very rapidly converted into far less toxic carbon dioxide and water which the body then removes. Drinking too much booze is problematic because it can overwhelm these enzymes, leading to acetaldehyde buildup and liver damage. Drinking a little bit of alcohol on the other hand seems to be helpful, possibly because it keeps the liver primed with the detoxifying enzymes it needs to help it deal with other toxins. Surprising as it may seem, broccoli, the supposed “superfood” of many a detox salad, also helps the liver out in a similar fashion. Broccoli, like all brassicas, contains cyanide, and eating it therefore provides the small quantity of poison necessary to prime the enzymes in your liver to deal better with other toxins.
If the limited exposure of the liver to harmful substances can actually help it to detoxify our bodies, can a limited / boundaried exposure to difficult and unpleasant people also be of benefit to us? Rather than labelling these people as toxic and seeking to exclude them from our own self-constructed ‘clean’ lives (in much the same way as the Orthorexia sufferer seeks to exclude impure food groups from their diet), can we expose ourselves – even if it is only mentally – to the reality that they may actually just be plain old people like you or I? Can this help us to detoxify ourselves and to bridge some of the ever growing divides within our society? Might these people help us to understand what it is within ourselves, our experiences, and our psyches that make them so difficult to bear, that trigger the emotions we find so difficult to manage, and that makes us want to brand them so resolutely as ‘other’ to ourselves and as the sole bearers of responsibility for our failed and failing relationships? Might they help us to become better prepared for the next difficult person – and god knows there always will be another one – who is going to come along in our lives? Can they not act as a mirror for ourselves, enabling us to face and accept the darkness, the chaotic and destructive potential that lies below the tranquil, ‘together’ and emotionally stable facades that we may be able to hold together when all is well, but which will likely begin to crumble if and when things go seriously wrong? And might our growing acceptance of people who are in this space encourage others to treat us with more compassion if and when we find ourselves there too?
There is no such thing as toxic people… there are only people; infinitely complex, wonderful, bizarre and puzzling in equal measure. There are, on the other-hand, no shortage of toxic attitudes (of which the concept of the toxic person is just one) with which we judge those around us, and which stop us from seeing ourselves in each other.