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?
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 can be hard teachers.