What If You're The Toxic One?
If there were such a thing as a hall of fame for overused labels, there are a few that would top that chart; Triggered – often used when you know someone is about to project exactly what they are feeling onto you to avoid feeling it themselves; Narcissist – a catch-all phrase ascribed to a smorgasbord of unpalatable behaviours, and my personal favourite nerve jangler; Toxic – used to label characteristics of a situation or a person as a way to communicate that that they are not healthy. Nothing toxic is good for us and so no doubt you have heard that you need to cut the toxic people out of your life. Whilst this is a wise choice if you’re looking to uplevel your life, what do we do if the most toxic person in your life is you? Is everything always someone else’s fault? What if you are the toxic one?
It is so easy to identify the toxic behaviours of other people and very hard to identify our blind spots. It is so easy to feel hard done by, because of other people’s behaviour but could you identify your toxic and unhelpful behaviours? Yes, the word toxic is incredibly grating and triggers me too (see what I did there), and it is for this very reason that I think that it might be a useful and important topic to explore in a way that isn’t critical or shaming, but more of as a point of reflection, with a dash of curiosity and humour. Let’s hold a mirror up to ourselves to see what lessons we can learn about where our behaviour and ways of finding connection might be considered toxic and more importantly, what we can do about it. I’d recommend doing this with the support and guidance of a therapist so please do reach out if this topic resonates with you.
Let me say now that I do not believe that human beings in and of themselves are toxic beings, it is more that we might have picked up ways of getting our needs met and coping that are harmful and may be considered toxic. We can’t change what we don’t acknowledge so acceptance of this is crucial to think about what we can do to change this (if indeed, we want to!) it is worth noting that most of the time, toxic behaviours are not always a conscious choice, especially when it has been repeated over and over again. I am certainly not saying that something like abuse is okay because it might be coming from an unconscious place, nor am I saying to move on from incidents where you have been wronged simply because the person might not have been wholly aware of what they were doing. Sometimes people do know precisely what they are doing and the effect that it will have and they chose to do it anyway. I am saying that it is entirely possible that we can have traits that might be considered toxic of which we are not even aware. You can think that you are the most aware person who pays attention to their thoughts, feeling and behaviours, but we all have blind spots and because people, in general, do not like to upset one another, your behaviours that are potentially hurting others are not being highlighted to you.
In the same way, you notice things in other people, but you may not feel comfortable telling them (or even how to start such a conversation). Once we can bring awareness to our unconscious behaviours, then they become conscious and now that we have a choice, we also have accountability and responsibility. We can be good people with unhelpful behavioural traits. Read that again. Both of these things can be true and co-exist. It doesn’t mean that you are intrinsically “bad”. It means that these coping mechanisms are no longer working because they are fracturing your relationship with yourself and others.
So, what if you are the toxic one? What happens when you realise that you are the biggest contributor to your unhappiness? What happens when you realise that you have been so focused on how toxic everyone else is and everyone else’s red flags. What about you? Have you stopped to take stock of how you may be contributing to the negative patterns and results that you are seeing within your own life? Carl Jung refers to this work as getting to know the Shadow, and I believe it is some of the most important work that we can do on ourselves. This is because it helps us to take accountability for our actions by acknowledging that yes, external factors can contribute to the way that our life is but the biggest contributor is me.
Everybody’s story is different but a good starting point to look at five signs that you may indeed be a toxic person in your life and most importantly, what to do about it:
Conflict is uncomfortable, and it is especially uncomfortable to deal with tricky situations directly. So, we may find creative ways of getting around them. However, if beating around the bush is a consistent pattern in your life and still hanging onto hostility, and behaving in sullen and stubborn behaviour, it means that the issue is not resolved and has become amplified into a much larger problem. Passive aggressiveness is painful and not helpful to anyone involved. Stop being passive-aggressive, effective immediately.
Being indirect and snappy about things that bother you is one of the most toxic habits. Confrontation isn’t easy for everyone but neither is being ignored for no good reason.
The Solution: Start being honest about the way you’re feeling. I am not saying drop truth bombs like there’s no tomorrow but consider this permission to be upfront about your feelings. In the long run, isn’t it easier to be clear about what’s going on? Have that conversation that you are dreading. Do it. Oftentimes, difficult conversations are scarier and more confrontational in our heads than in reality. Our fear may mean that we simply haven’t had enough practice. The more you have these conversations, the easier they become. If you worry about being overly emotive, then a good guide is to ask yourself how you can say this in a kind way and of benefit to the other person.
Do you always need to compete?
We all know that one person cannot listen to anyone else’s stories without topping them with their own war stories. Telling someone how you went through a similar experience as they did is not the same as trying to show someone how much worse you have had it. The first is to resonate with the other person and connect to them using empathy. The second is turning it into a competition. Interestingly, many people seem conditioned to have some sort of seemingly objective metric of what’s worse; physical health issues are prioritised over mental health difficulties, and for anyone who appears to be living comfortably, we dismiss it with the label “First World problems” over someone who is in abject conditions. Sometimes we’re filled with indignation if we’ve been through worse and think, “How dare they?” Or sometimes, we genuinely believe someone is being weak and should just suck it up because we have had to do so ourselves. Pain is not a competition. Regardless of a person’s diagnosable condition or lifestyle, pain is pain. When we try to convince someone their situation isn’t so bad, or at least not as bad as we are, we are effectively invalidating their experiences.
The Solution: Be aware of why you feel the need to “compete”. Perhaps it is a way of feeling validated. It is hard to look at our shadow but sometimes, honesty is the best gift we can give ourselves, no matter how scary it is. If we can be honest with ourselves, we can be honest with others and have empathy for them too. If expressing compassion for someone else feels hard, it helps to think about what you would like someone to say to you in your position.
Tell The Truth
Everyone tells small lies now and then and that is fine, for the most part. Sometimes, keeping the truth about your feelings to yourself can even be good for your relationship; your partner doesn’t need to know that you briefly considered leaving him when he was chewing too loudly at breakfast. However, this is different if you find yourself being consistently dishonest with people. This type of dishonesty usually is fear-based; a fear that the truth will get you into trouble (or hurt someone else) or fear that you won’t be loved if you reveal your inner truth.
The Solution: People who aren’t honest with others usually aren’t honest with themselves. Start by getting real with yourself and in turn, that will help you to be real with everyone else.
Build, don’t break
We all want to be around someone who celebrates with us. And if that’s not you and you find yourself looking for ways to bring others down, it’s time to ask yourself why? What does belittling people get you? If it’s a sense of superiority, the ego needs some adjustment by an honest assessment of what matters to you.
Maybe you feel you have to do this if you have felt attacked and to even things out a little. Regardless of where the ‘attack’ comes from, don’t rise to it. Sometimes we might also try to ‘test’ people, to see if they are committed to our friendship or love. Testing people might give you momentary reassurance, but repeatedly asking for reassurance starts to get draining for those around you. Constantly subjecting others to ‘tests will lose you, friends and lovers, as no one wants to feel like they are failing or getting it wrong all of the time.
Gossip is another way of expressing a kind of toxic putting-down of others. If you are a person who enjoys spreading a rumour, it might be time to ask why that is. What does this do for you? If something is missing from your life, does gossip make you feel better and for how long? What about the person who’s being talked about? What would they feel if they knew what you said about them?
The Solution: Be encouraging, be forgiving and don’t gossip about people or take part in spreading rumours. You likely want to be encouraged, to be forgiven and want people to think well of you, too, after all.
Accountability & Vulnerability
If you’re in a habit of pretending that all is well, that you’ve never done wrong, or denying others’ feelings, this can get pretty tiring and toxic. If we are really honest, we want to be around people who are like us. Nobody is perfect.
Showing vulnerability is important if you ever plan to get beyond the small talk stage with someone. There is nothing more toxic than opening up to someone, only to find they use it against you, punish you for it or never reciprocate. It is damn hard to ever have a real relationship with someone who can never accept fault. It makes other people uncomfortable, denies their emotions and leaves them feeling wronged too.
The Solution: We all screw up sometimes, Fact. However, if you did say something you know doesn’t sit quite right, don’t wait to see if the other person noticed or not. You can acknowledge that what you said didn’t come out as intended and then you can tackle it directly, openly and honestly. The ability to talk through things openly is the key to deep relationships.
Like all things in this life, letting go of toxic habits is a process. Beware of not putting too much pressure on yourself to be perfect as that may make you spiral back into bad habits. Be patient with yourself as you learn new ways of coping and try to enjoy the process.
One final thought to hold on to; engaging in toxic behaviours does not make you a bad person. It just means that you’re human and, if you have got this far, you should be proud of yourself for making changes and wanting to better yourself as a person. If you want to talk to me about toxic behaviours or any other challenges going on for you, please do reach out.
Photo by Davide Baraldi: https://www.pexels.com/photo/glass-bottles-on-shelf-1771809/