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Do Toxic People Even Exist?

Whenever I hear the term “toxic person,” I picture a glow-in-the-dark green zombie covered in radioactive waste.

Personally, I consider this to be the proper definition of a toxic person. I don’t think too many people agree with me, though.

There are tons of blog posts out there, not to mention comments on Facebook and other social media, urging us to purge so-called toxic people from our lives.

Someone talks trash to you? Kick ’em to the curb.

Do they rain on your parade and stick pins in your dream balloons? Send them packing.

Are they giving you the silent treatment? Good riddance!

Is it really that easy to fix your relationships that way?

Um…

I don’t think so.

Real life rarely consists of villains and heroes.

Most of us are part villain, at least sometimes, and part hero. We muddle through and do our best.

Sometimes, without wanting or meaning to, we become the villain in someone else’s life.

Other times, people become villains in ours.

Who’s toxic? And who’s judging?

By the way, I’m talking here about garden-variety villains. These are not rapists, murders, thieves or criminals of any kind; they’re just people who make us feel bad.

We like to label them “toxic” as if they had the power, like radioactive zombies, to infect everyone around them.

But really, the yuck is not about who they are, but about what’s going on between us and them.

If I get into a relationship with someone, and come away feeling more bad than good, I have to ask myself, “What is it about this relationship that feels bad to me?”

If I ask myself instead, “What is it about this person that feels bad to me?,” I’ve lost an opportunity for personal growth.

There’s nothing for me to learn about myself if that person is just toxic. Except that, Gee, aren’t I a good judge of character? Good thing I dodged that bullet!

Let’s say I have a “toxic” friend who’s always putting me down.

If I label her as a toxic person and throw her out of my life, I’ve learned nothing except how to remove people from my life. (Admittedly for some, that’s a good lesson.)

But if I ask myself about the relationship, including my part in it, I might discover that I seem to be attracted to people who put me down.

They reflect my low self-esteem, remind me of home, or in some other way keep me stuck in self-defeating patterns.

Yes, some people do seem to alienate just about everyone around them. But if you refuse to engage in a toxic relationship with them, even the most relationally challenged person can be reasonably good to you.

If you’ve entered into a toxic relationship with someone who’s advertising for a partner (“Come be my friend! Get insulted and undermined at every turn! I will make your life miserable!”), there’s something there for you to learn.

Individual people aren’t toxic, but relationships definitely can be.

Photo courtesy of www.FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Tina Gilbertson

Tina Gilbertson is a psychotherapist, speaker and author based in Denver, Colorado. She specializes in supporting parents of estranged adult children through therapy, consulting and other resources, and offers assertiveness training and executive coaching for organizations. The author of "Constructive Wallowing: How to Beat Bad Feelings by Letting Yourself Have Them" and the "Guide for Parents of Estranged Adult Children," Tina is often featured in the media as an expert on communication and relationships. Her blog on PsychologyToday.com is called "Constructive Wallowing."
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11 Responses to "Do Toxic People Even Exist?"

  • Snowburst
    July 25, 2015 - 2:40 pm Reply

    A: If I ask myself about a relationship, I am not considering the circumstances I’m in it for at first, but only the relationship itself. Am I arguing with them, isolating myself or getting isolated, what happens when I go out ansomewhere? Do they get suspicious, or does it feel ok to do so? Are the confusions due to me, them, or both of us? W hy? Is the relationship itself toxic for some reason?(outward focus)

    B. If I ask myself, what is it about this person that is not good for me, (which is easy to identify) then it can be an opportunity to look in the mirror and ask myself, what is it about me that allows me to get attracted to, or attracted by, such people? I don’t have much of a track record for intimate relationships, but of the ones that do, if I look back upon them, I can see a common denominator (or two or three!!) and discover something else about myself that I need to work on.

    Then I think there’s a C. What does the overall picture look like? Are these problems repeating themselves over and over again, or is progress being made? Is the other person working enough tot keep it worthwhile to continue, or am I bearing the brunt of the emotional and practical factors (or whatever other factors need to be considered) Is this relationship worth continuing?

    And, D: What if you don’t have a choice? What if this is a coworker, or heaven forbid, a superior? A family member I am dependent on for whatever reason?

    My opinion is, yes, most certainly there are “toxic” people. My mother and sister, for example. These are people who, if you get too close to them (which is usually not very close) they easily start not just getting defensive, but mean. Not bully mean, but mean, mean. Of course nobody wants to have any kind of a bully for a boss. Perhaps toxicity could be regarded on a sliding scale; some people are mean just to keep others from getting too emotionally close. But others just bring it on before anyone can get any kind of close at all. And I think that, among other possible motives, is driven by jealousy. My definition of an ultimate toxic person would be, someone who says or does hurtful things without even a clue that what was or wasn’t said, or done or not done, was hurtful or destructive. Not just no regard for others, but not even any awareness of others’ needs, feelings, or points of view. Their view of the world is through their lens only. They think they have it made, and have “arrived”. They know how the “real” world works. And actually know nothing about the real world.

    Here is my most recent example of what I think a typical toxic person is like: Recently, within the last week, one of my BFF’s (long term alcoholic) needed a 911 call because he had become lethargic to the point he could not get up and blood was coming out of his mouth. On that occasion, I rode up front in the ambulance discussing and answering my BFF’s information. After that being done, related discussion followed with the ambulance driver. His tone of voice was rather crass, and it occurred to me suddenly that blood was coming out of my BFF’s mouth for no known reason, of which there could be many. Some of them immediately. So I asked (probably a teensy bit crassly back) why wasn’t he using lights and siren for a patient with blood coming out of his mouth? His reply was, “people gotta die sometime”. Seriously. No ****. He sounded like an old crotchety teacher who was about to retire and couldn’t get there fast enough. Only, an old crotchety teacher who’s decisions often make the difference between life and death. There’s more of the same to that story but I’ll save that for my book.

    For me, I think the key is catching those things in the moment. (which has become a personal life-long journey in itself) When I can do that, I can see right away what’s happening and fire right back if I feel the need to do so, or at least not go there with them. The thing that works best for me when that happens is to stand my ground and repeat myself and not get distracted somewhere else in the conversation. That also allows me a few seconds to think of what else I want to say, such as, “I don’t want to argue about it. I’m just trying to get my point of view across to you”. Rather than defending myself from what they just said. That will suck me right into their territory, and when that happens, I wind up continuing to try to defend myself and eventually the bully will come out on top. I truly hate it when that happens.

  • Cheryl Peddie
    July 25, 2015 - 4:36 pm Reply

    Thank you Tina!! AWESOME article! You keep us all grounded and working towards personal growth.

  • S Leslie Thayer
    July 25, 2015 - 6:22 pm Reply

    I can really relate to this.  I was dropped by someone I thought was my friend.

  • Bill kress
    July 27, 2015 - 11:11 am Reply

    I worked with someone who, for some reason I couldn’t see, really hated me. His every action was to tear me down, subtly sometimes, sometimes overtly.

    I’m still not sure about why, but I do think that some people may be toxic to you and it is possible that there is no healthy response but to eliminate them from your life,

    Luckily I’ve never had the same reaction from anyone else.

    Thank you for the thought, as always your posts lead to useful introspection and contemplation.

    – Bill

    • Tina Gilbertson
      July 27, 2015 - 12:35 pm Reply

      Bill, that same thing has happened to me too, and it’s very hurtful.

      The way I explain it to myself is that I must look like someone who was cruel to that person when they were young and vulnerable. Everything I do and say to them goes through a filter that turns it evil. Evacuation is often the only sensible option.

      If my hypothesis is true, these haters shouldn’t necessarily be considered “toxic,” just wounded and inappropriately blaming.

      Remember that pithy saying: Hurt people hurt people. Sad but too true.

  • Jasmine
    July 27, 2015 - 8:50 pm Reply

    Tina, I would be very interested to know whether you believe there is such a thing as a Narcissist? Are they just hurt, damaged people, who could benefit from being more feelings-friendly, or is it possible that they are in fact TOO accepting of their own perspective? I ask this here, because it seems to me that a narcissistic person comes closest to qualifying for the “toxic” descriptor. I have found that I recommend Constructive Wallowing to almost everyone I know, but hesitate instinctively when I suspect someone of a narcissistic style of personality.

    • Tina Gilbertson
      July 28, 2015 - 4:33 pm Reply

      I do believe in narcissists, and I have to admit I totally forgot about them while I was writing this post. I’m also aware of sociopaths and people who sprinkle on public toilet seats without wiping up after themselves, but I digress.

      We’ve become quick to diagnose each other. Not you and me, Jasmine. I mean as a society of amateur psychologists we love digging in other people’s mental closets. I just think we have to take care not to use our knowledge as a way to keep the focus off ourselves.

      No matter how awful other people’s behavior can admittedly be, we still have to tend our own gardens. … But those toilet-seat-sprinkling types are certainly hard to bear. Oh yes, and the narcissists and sociopaths, too!

  • Snowburst
    July 27, 2015 - 11:27 pm Reply

    Tina, I am so glad I got a chance to “air” my feelings here; today I stood my ground, and the other person involved got angry and left rather than me having to argue about it… and I did not have to feel bad about it either when I realized this different angle of what was also going on. It makes me sad when I’ve had to do this with someone I really care for. But also now I can see better that even though that is a factor, I still need to take care of myself and not allow anyone to drain me like that.

  • Snowburst
    August 7, 2015 - 1:50 am Reply

    Oh, yeah, and, speaking of being quick to diagnose each other, my mother took a correspondence Psych 101 course in the early 70’s, and also “spoke to” a psychologist, so I guess that made her capable of diagnosing all of the family’s woes (except her own!) which, to me, was an extremely toxic situation. I found out through my daughter’s own story about some incident that happened, and was told by a family member that she must have her mother’s (as in, my,) “schizophrenia” . Although I have no solid knowledge of it, there is only one source I know of who would say that about me.
    When I told my sister about that, she then told me her own story of when our mother said the same thing about her at a family restaurant in front of several people who knew them both! (in Estacada, where everybody you are sitting next to is someone who knows you!)… and upon pondering that, I suppose in my mother’s dysfunctional denial-based reality, (which of course, is not reality at all) she would, rather than met up with her own contributions to the family’s disorderly conduct, would tell others such things (about her own children, nonetheless) that she knew relatively nothing about than face the facts of her own damaging doings. I think there really is such a thing as being “so ignorant, you don’t know how ignorant you are”. Which I think is what self-awareness is all about (or the lack of it).

  • Edwin M Gonzalez
    March 4, 2017 - 8:22 pm Reply

    Bravo! First time i see something different from the typical “how to get rid of toxic people” article. People like to live in a bubble, if someone pop the buble is labeled as toxic. Somestimes realistic people are seeing as toxic as well. Thanks for the article.

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