The Toxicity of “Toxic”

fort tryon in springWe gain much of our strength, versatility, and wisdom from difficulties and challenges. Yet today a cult of convenience squats in each field of life. Often, when people refer to others as “toxic,” they are not just using words carelessly; they are suggesting that the people they don’t like (or don’t immediately understand) are bad for their existences and deserving of expulsion.

Would the scene in the photo exist if no one could be bothered with difficulty? It took some adventurous sculpting and grappling with stone and plants (and that’s an understatement). What about a great friendship, also a mixture of nature and sculpture? If people dropped friendships as soon as they became difficult in any way, what would be left?

Again and again, I see advice about how to eliminate “toxic” people from your life. The criterion for “toxicity” is basically inconvenience or unpleasantness. Those who speak of “toxicity” rarely distinguish between people who pose difficulties for you and people who really hurt you.

On her website Science of People, Vanessa Van Edwards, author of the forthcoming Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People (Portfolio, April 25, 2017), declares that you “deserve to have people in your life who you enjoy spending time with, who support you and who you LOVE hanging out with.” The site has been discussed in comments on Andrew Gelman’s blog; while there’s plenty to say about the references to “science,” I’ll focus on “toxic” instead, since that’s the topic of this blog post.

In her short article “How to Spot a Toxic Person,” after describing seven toxic types, Van Edwards lists some tell-tale symptoms that you’re in the presence of someone toxic.  She then assures her readers that they don’t  need these toxic people–that they deserve the company of wonderful people, with whom they can be their best selves. Here is the list:

  • You have to constantly save this person and fix their problems
  • You are covering up or hiding for them
  • You dread seeing them
  • You feel drained after being with them
  • You get angry, sad or depressed when you are around them
  • They cause you to gossip or be mean
  • You feel you have to impress them
  • You’re affected by their drama or problems
  • They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no’

Now, of the nine symptoms listed here, only one clearly has to do with the other person’s actions: “They ignore your needs and don’t hear ‘no.'” The others have to do with the sufferer’s own reactions and assumptions. Of course those reactions also matter, but they do not necessarily reflect meanness, selfishness, or obtuseness in the other person.

So what? someone might ask. If someone’s company leaves you miserable, don’t you have a right to detach yourself? Well, maybe, up to a point (or completely, in some cases), but it makes a difference how you frame it, even in your own mind. It is possible to keep (or work toward) some humility.

If your explanation is, “This person wants more time and energy from me than I can give,” then it makes sense to try to set an appropriate limit. If that fails, either because you weren’t clear enough or because the other person does not accept the terms, then a more drastic resolution may be needed–but even then, it doesn’t mean that the person is “toxic.” It just means that you have incompatible needs. Perhaps you were like that other person once upon a time; many of us go through times when we particularly need support or seek it from someone who cannot give it.

If the explanation is, “I don’t like the kind of conversation I end up having around this person,” then one option is to change the topic or tenor of conversation. Another is to limit its length (or try to do something together instead of mainly talking). If neither one works, there may be a basic incompatibility at stake. Even then, it doesn’t mean the other person is “toxic.” It just means that you have different interests.

Now, of course there are people who use, harm, and control others. There are those who gossip aggressively and meanly, promote themselves at every possible opportunity, or treat others  as their servants. When describing such people, one still doesn’t have to use the word “toxic”; a clearer description will lead to a clearer solution.

Why does this matter? The concept of “toxicity,” as applied to humans, has become a fad; people use it to justify writing off (and blaming) anyone who poses an inconvenience or whose presence doesn’t give constant pleasure. Philosophers, theologians, poets, and others, from Aristotle to Buber to Shakespeare to Saunders, have pointed to the moral vacuity of this practice. Yet the “toxic” banner continues to fly high in our hyper-personalized, hyper-fortified society (and always over the other people).

There are ways to be around people and still hold your ground, draw provisional lines, and take breaks. It’s possible to limit a relationship without deeming the other person awful. It is not only possible, but essential to public discussion, substantial friendship, and solitude. Who am I, if I must dismiss and disparage someone just to go off on my own or be with others? Doesn’t that cheapen the subsequent aloneness or company?

As for whether we deserve to be around people we love, people whose company we enjoy–yes, of course. But we also deserve to be around those whose presence is not so easy for us. When appropriately bounded, such a relationship can have meaning and beauty. Some of my best friendships had an awkward start; they grew strong when we let each other know what we did and didn’t want.

I hope never to call a person “toxic”; if it’s my reactions that trouble me, I can address them appropriately; if it’s the person’s actions, I can find a more specific term.

Image credit: I took this photo in Fort Tryon Park.

Update: Here’s an article by Marcel Schwantes (published in Inc.) advising people to cut “toxic” co-workers from their lives as a way of keeping “good boundaries.” Here’s a quote:

5. Cut ties with people who kiss up to management.

They will go out of their way to befriend and manipulate management in order to negotiate preferential treatment–undue pay raises, training, time off, or special perks that nobody else knows about or gets. Keep an eye out for colleagues who spend way more face time with their managers than usual. The wheels of favoritism may be in motion. Time to cut ties.

What? You don’t even know why the person is spending “face time” with management. Why conclude that it’s “time to cut ties”?

This anti-“toxic” stance of this article (and others like it) is much too self-satisfied and self-assured. 

A Cry for Coherence

bikerideTwo Jewish cemeteries in the U.S. have been vandalized over the past week: one in University City, Missouri (just west of St. Louis), and one in Philadelphia. Donations for repairs have been pouring in; much more needs to be done.

I don’t need to explain why people across cultures bury, honor, and remember the dead–and what this means in Jewish history and faith. I imagine that the criminals know some of this already; that may be why they toppled the headstones. They may have thought that they could hurt the dignity of the living and the dead at once.

If so, they are wrong. They caused damage and anguish, but the dignity they hurt was their own.

Yet I doubt that they fully understand what they did. They may not have considered the grief they were causing, and the depth of that grief–how many families of the deceased have relatives who died in mass graves or were burned alive. They may not have known what it means to have a burial and a stone with a name–a sacred place–and what this has meant over the centuries. If they did know, then they must have broken with those they were hurting; they may have thought, “This has nothing to do with me” or “These people deserve no better.” They probably did not know that when you break a grave, you break yourself, not only the self of the moment, with its immediate wants and needs, but the self that goes back in time, that is not only self but also ancestors, neighbors, strangers met in passing.

That doesn’t make the situation better or more comprehensible. The hate crimes over the past few months–against people of a range of backgrounds–have been far-flung and confusing. Some of these acts seem to be provoked and incited by Trump; some may have been long in the planning. Some may come from individuals, some from organizations. Some may have sources and motives that we don’t yet know. The responses, too, have been scattered–many responses have come over Twitter and have consisted of broken expressions.

Coherent speech resists the fragmentation. Sometimes the words don’t come; sometimes they come slowly or don’t come out quite right. (I started this post last night but had trouble putting words together, so I waited until morning.)  Sometimes words are not even needed or appropriate. But a full sentence is not to be taken for granted; it can be built up and broken down.

Many people are responding with donations, volunteer work, and more. The mayor of Philadelphia has said that authorities are doing all they can to find the perpetrators. There will be more information on specific actions that people can take. But the response is internal, too; there is nothing trivial in the gathering of thoughts, feelings, and words.

My thoughts are with those who those who lie buried in these cemeteries, those who have loved ones there, and everyone in pain over what has happened. I will speak up as I can, as well as I can, and will watch for more ways to help.

Image credit: I took the photo when biking along the Hudson the other day.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.