Very few people are truly toxic. To understand how to actually change ‘toxic’ patterns, we must first understand a number of very nuanced layers. One layer is that we have a cultural legacy of staying in relationships no matter how bad they get. Another is that I’m immersed in the personal growth world, where people treat unhealthy relationships as “opportunities for growth,” or places to ‘learn lessons’, which is something I’ve been speaking out against for over 15 years. Nowadays however, the pendulum seems to have swung in the opposite direction, where people are calling other people ‘toxic’ left and right, at the drop of a hat.
I don’t say this to try and sweep under the rug the real abuse that does exist, or pretend there aren’t some people who do intentionally manipulate & hurt other people. You can learn more about what constitutes abusive behavior here. In abusive situations, what is important is getting safe and getting out. Outside of abusive situations is a whole realm of people calling other people ‘toxic’, when in reality they’re just not right for each other, and have likely created a toxic dynamic together. When we call people ‘toxic’ we abdicate our responsibility, and in doing so lose a lot of our power to actually effect change in our lives and relationships.
The majority of humans aren’t toxic.
There are some people who may be genuinely evil and truly in essence narcissistic, but that’s not the majority of humans, or even something that is common. And yet, I hear so many people talking about how they got out of a toxic relationship, or out of a relationship with a narcissist, and when I do the math, I just think there’s no way that many people can be toxic and/or narcissistic. I think the greater truth is that some people are just not meant to be together, and others stay together too long. Anything overdone becomes toxic.
People are responsible for how they treat you.
It must always be explicitly clarified that how a person behaves towards you is always their responsibility. Every human is responsible for how they treat other people; they are responsible for what they said or did. Nothing that you say or do justifies another person verbally, physically, emotionally, or sexually abusing you. Nothing that you say or do makes it OK for a person to be violent or mean towards you, or violate your boundaries.
You are responsible for how you let people treat you.*
*Again, it must be said that trauma and cultural conditioning, as well as systems of power inequality can make it challenging to leave abusive relationships. There is help out there, and I highly recommend seeking help if you are in an abusive relationship.
Understanding that you are responsible for how you let people treat you is the deep inner work that comes from these situations. We can take our own power back by looking at where we allowed behaviors at all (often by not having the courage to leave) and where we allowed behaviors to continue past their due date. Again, this does not apply to abusive relationships, where often the victims life is at risk. Outside of that, we must have the courage to set and sustain boundaries in relationships to the point where we develop enough trust in ourselves to know we can meet & rise above any circumstance — even the toxic ones.
One of the principles I live my life by is that, if I am unwilling to allow a certain behavior in the first place, the person does not have the opportunity for their behavior to ferment in toxicity. This requires creating and sustaining clear & strong boundaries, and boundaries are notoriously a struggle for many of us. If this is you, a great place to start is with my 4-week, on-demand learning program, Beyond Boundaries.
What if they’re just not right for you?
The willingness to not suggest someone is inherently toxic, and to instead imagine that maybe they are just not right for you is a powerful place to come from. It is often easier to blame another person for being ‘toxic’ when we are deeply unhappy in a relationship. It is far more vulnerable to recognize that they may not be right for us, or us for them; or that they simply cannot offer us the kind of relating we desire – which is not a failing on their part (or ours). If we can vulnerably tell the truth to ourselves in this way, we begin to step back into our own power: The power to choose the relationship we actually DO want! So long as we are blaming the relationship for not working on their being ‘toxic’, we are not yet owning the power we do have to choose & create relationship(s) in the way we truly desire.
Instead of naming someone as ‘toxic’, what if we just said that person is not right for me?
Take an apple for example. An apple can be many things. There’s the whole apple to begin with, and apple juice, hard apple cider, and also apple cider vinegar. They are all beneficial in some way, and you may not like some of them. Maybe you like apple juice, but not apple cider vinegar. But maybe your best friend loves apple cider vinegar. Or you don’t enjoy apples, but love a good hard cider.
The point here is to be honest with yourself about what you like & don’t like, without judging that which you don’t like – just because it’s not your preference.
If you’re in, have just entered or are exiting an unhealthy relationship, use these ideas as places to explore & get curious about yourself & what you can learn in order to create healthier relationships going forward. There’s no value in beating yourself up for the past. There is, however, a lot of value in an honest appraisal, so you can grow as you move forward.