If you've opened a self-development book or read a women's magazine in the last few years, you've probably heard the same advice I have: avoid toxic people.
Friend who complains all the time? Toxic! Dump her.
Co-worker who spends lunch talking about her poorly behaved children and clueless husband? Toxic! Stay away from her.
Cousin who monopolizes family gatherings with his cynical conspiracy theories? Toxic! You don't need to invite him to Thanksgiving.
While there are people in this world who are really actually hazardous to us — emotionally and verbally abusive individuals who pose real threats to our mental health — it seems that society has amended the meaning of "toxic."
These days "toxic" can mean anyone who's negative, annoying, argumentative, contrary,or just less-than-totally pleasant. And I'm having none of it.
Calling people 'toxic' is complete bullshit. Here's why:
When we label someone as toxic we're putting them in a position of power and ourselves in a position of victimhood. Sweet, innocent, well-meaning people that we are, we were just minding our own business when that Toxic Person swooped in and ruined everything. If we'd never encountered them, things would have gone perfectly.
Surely, this toxic person is completely responsible for our bad mood, our failed business venture, our abandoned diet! Certainly, our struggles or less-than-phenomenal results had nothing to do with us!
See how victim-y that sounds? Gross.
The "toxic person" label also allows us to avoid tough and important conversations. Picture this: a friend is going through a rough patch. In the last year, she's been dumped, laid off, and received a serious health diagnosis. Every time you see her, she's negative and cynical and spends most of your time together saying mean-spirited things about mutual friends.
You basically have two choices.
1. You can label her as toxic because it may feel like she is. She's hard to spend time with and it's draining to see her.
2. Or you could summon the courage to say, "friend, I know you've had an incredibly tough year. I can't even imagine what it feels like to have gone through what you've gone through. I love you and I want to do what I can to make you happy. I feel sad and overwhelmed when we spend our time together bashing our friends and saying negative things. I'd love to make our time together more positive. How can we do that?"
Calling someone toxic is judgmental and unkind. Most of us would hesitate to label someone as a bitch, an asshole, or a total waste of space. That's so mean! So totally uncalled for! But passing judgement on someone as toxic is, uh, judgmental. And I think most of us, myself very much included, are happier when we're less judgmental.
I think it's also good to remember that one woman's toxic is another woman's hilarious. Your toxic might be my "just keeping it real" or "honest in a really refreshing way." Or vice versa! All the judgments that we pass on people (and that they pass on us) are completely subjective.
One last thing — defining other people in terms of toxicity makes the world seem like a scary, uncontrollable place. When we view our fellow humans as emotionally dangerous, potential-day-ruiners, the world becomes a much scarier place. What if we enter our favorite coffee shop in a great mood but then we get that toxic barista and she derails us? Well, clearly we should just stay at home. Should we even bother sharing our big idea at the staff meeting when our toxic coworker will just shoot it down?
We're all just people. The barista and your co-worker and you and me. We're all just humans doing our best with what we've got — no better, no worse.
Plus, there's an alternative — speaking up and having the tough conversations. Is it hard? Yes. A little scary? Also yes. Will those conversations always turn out how we want or change a challenging person into our new best friend? Nope. But it's important to put on our Big Girl Pants, suck it up, and say what we mean.
When we speak up, we'll immediately feel better about the situation and the relationship because we took a step in a new direction. We're also flexing our communication muscles; every time we have a tough conversation with anyone, it gets easier to have tough conversations with everyone.
We can choose not to take things personally. The way people treat us is usually 95% about them and 5% about us. The barista snapped at me because she didn't sleep well last night, not because she hates me as a person — she doesn't even know me. My coworker shot down my idea in the meeting because I look like her of high school arch-nemesis.
There is a certain comfort that comes with realizing that we're not actually the center of the universe. What a relief! We can make an active choice not to take things personally. Next time someone reacts to you in an unduly negative way — remind yourself, "this probably isn't about me."
Remember that even the most challenging, negative person is someone's child, parent, partner, or best friend. Yes, even the neighbor you can't stand, your whiny aunt, your gossipy co-worker. Someone loves that person and looks forward to their emails. Someone has their birthday circled on a calendar and kisses them goodnight.
We all have redeeming qualities. We're all worthy of respect and love.
There are, of course, people we really shouldn't allow into our lives. There are a few, select people who should be avoided for our own mental safety and sanity. But our whiny coworkers and our rough-around-the-edges neighbors probably aren't those people. In fact, if we approached them with compassion and courage, we might actually like them.