It started with a new, budding friendship that I noticed rapidly going awry. At first, she seemed nice and friendly. She was super interested in getting to know me and had a very funny and outgoing personality herself. However, as time went on, I noticed her attitude changing.
Suddenly, when we met, the energy would just be … off. It felt like an unspoken hostility appeared out of nowhere. She was quick to criticize and demean me, and then snap at me if I said anything that was even slightly critical of her and her behavior. I no longer looked forward to seeing her — getting a text from her put my stomach in knots, and I was overall perplexed as to how a dynamic between two people could change so unexpectedly.
I should mention: the word of the year for me, an aging millennial who has officially ended her 20s and is thus entering a new stage of adulthood, is “self-care.” I have the skincare routine, the relaxing candles, the sheet masks that make me look like a koala, and I am overall attempting to adopt a more positive and anxiety-free attitude, which is hard since worrying was my ninth stage of development as a child.
But I am trying. All in the name of self-care. Which brings up another word often attached to the self-care phenomenon: toxic. The Yin to self-care’s Yang. A quick Google search for the definition of toxic reveals that its literal definition is simply: poisonous. But what about when we, as a society, apply that word to a person? Toxic people are everywhere.
And my new friend easily fit the definition. Spending time with her was draining. My guard was always up, and my anxiety sky-rocketed. She threw a giant wrench in my plans to live a worry-free life.
Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I was right in my assessment. Is this an accurate depiction of a toxic person, or am I misusing the term?
“I think the popularization of the term ‘toxic’ in regard to a partner dissuades people from assessing the real nature of the issues with the partner, the relationship or themselves. It’s a simple solution to put a ‘toxic’ label on a person, rather than look deeper to what is really happening with the relationship, or each individual,” says Amie Harwick, M.F.T., a therapist based in Los Angeles.
To me, this sort of thing matters — as powerful as social media has become in inspiring people to take priority in their mental health and personal psychology, I do see where downfalls can occur. Buzzwords catch on and spread like wildfire without an adequate deep dive into what they mean and how they should properly be used.
Toxic is one of those. For a word that is spread so frequently in social media, especially in the specific realm of betterment and self-improvement, I noticed that I had never seen a clear-cut definition of a toxic person.
And Harwick says that while she doesn’t use the word toxic in her sessions, her patients sometimes do. “If you are in a relationship of some type with a person that is showing unhealthy behavior, that person may be abusive, lack boundaries, be negligent, manipulative, or dishonest. These typically are the traits that I see associated when people use the word toxic,” she says.
the word “toxic” with “unhealthy for me.”
If we agree to view toxic as an umbrella term as opposed to key specific traits, it means I am right to say that my sort-of friend is toxic, and everyone who gave me their descriptions of toxic behavior is right, too. But something still feels off to me about the whole thing.
Is it the right thing to do, to label someone so easily as toxic? Excluding those who are highly abusive or physically violent, not all toxic people are actual villains. And labelling someone as “toxic” leads to a word that is potent and deeply stigmatized. It creates an instant good and evil binary, wherein the labeller is automatically in the “good” category. Instead, Harwick suggests replacing the word “toxic” with, “unhealthy for me.”
“This takes the attention off of the other party and focuses on your own responsibility to engage or disengage with somebody that is doing something unhealthy for you to be around,” she adds.
There is nothing wrong with removing yourself from someone who you know to be unhealthy for you — that is the choice I made with the person in my situation. However, I also took the time to acknowledge my faults. I know that I can be sensitive, and non-confrontational to a fault with friends and loved ones. But when it comes to my love life, I have no problem being up-front about my feelings, and calling my partners out when they are not being emotionally available enough for me. I am different in different settings. But I am working on it, and I am doing so without keeping that particular person in my life. That, at the end of the day, is self-care.
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