#48lessons Lesson 4 – There are NO Toxic People



"Blame is simply the discharging of pain & discomfort"

Brenè Brown


Ok, I’m going to take a deep breath on this one. I suspect it can be quite triggering, BUT I share this because it has been an immeasurably empowering lesson for me.


Thus far my lessons are records of the impact and value of relationships. Not all relationships feel empowering and gratifying. Some are turbulent and testing. In the past few years, these have drawn all sorts of labels of which ‘toxic’ and ‘narcissistic’ appear to be the most prevalent. Personally, I’ve suffered my fair share of whiplash watching online and in-person accusations of toxicity between people, some of whom don’t even know each other.


As a result, I have tried to understand what it means when people are ‘toxic’. I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘toxic’ is an easy and reductive label to attach to the people who test us. It’s also a convenient mechanism through which we escape responsibility for our part in the co-creation of the embattled relationships in which we find ourselves from time-to-time.


“Toxic people” don’t actually exist. What does exist, though, is toxic behaviour.


By applying simplistic, reductive labels to people, we deny their complexities, their struggles, and ultimately our own power with them. People are not static, and change all the time. We ALL have times when we allow bad or destructive behaviour to take over. Sometimes this is momentary. Other times, we lack sufficient self-awareness and the self-belief and self-leadership to move on from our destructive patterns. This does not mean that we are inherently toxic, nor does it mean that we are unable to change the ways in which we engage with the world around us.


Toxic behaviour conceals fear, insecurity and low levels of esteem and personal efficacy. It also conceals a complex cocktail of self-judgments, misguided beliefs and intricate justifications for the behaviour. Together with narcissistic patterns it belies a deep lack of self-love and self-compassion. Either way, any person demonstrating toxic behaviour is enduring their own torments and lacks the skills to process or to even recognise their own pain.


Toxic behaviour is driven by:

  • A desire for control. People who demonstrate toxic behaviour have a strong need to feel ‘in control’. Few things unnerve them as badly as feeling like they are not in control. Because they cannot actually control anything, they simulate control of a situation through ‘controlling’ people. They want to know everything about them, thinking the information gives them power. They overreach in the interest they have in people and in their expectations and demands of people.


  • Using emotional manipulation. Toxic behaviour inevitably involves some sort of overt or subversive blackmail. The blackmail is another form of control in the face of fear that people will not comply and that things won’t go as desired. Because this will result in feelings of powerlessness, and being out of control, the person who subscribes to toxic behaviour will use every trick in the book to maintain his/her façades.


  • Blaming others and putting them down. In as much as the person who employs toxic behaviour want to be in control, the risk of accountability in the situation feels too high. As result, this person avoids accountability by deflecting their self-judgment to others. The strategy for avoiding personal responsibility is to blame and to point out other’s errors and faults.


  • Hiding jealousy and envy. Because of deep insecurity, fear, attachment and scarcity thinking, celebrating the success of others becomes virtually impossible. Other people’s independence and achievements are seen as a threat and toxic behaviour becomes a coping mechanism.


Toxic behaviours are a bit like a magic show. It uses smoke, mirrors and misdirection to create a reality in which we do not need to own up to our own judgments, victimhood and vulnerabilities.


Through labelling others as toxic we really are revealing gaps our inability or willingness to take responsibility for our own boundaries, and our impulse to rescue others. It suggests that we are unwilling to practice agency for fear that we may be disapproved of. We transfer responsibility for how we feel to someone else.


We distance ourselves from our personal power, by handing our power to someone else, for them to do with as they wish. We lose sight of the fact that we are at choice.

We fail to see, in that context, that we are at choice. They may not be easy and comfortable choices, but we are nontheless at choice.


One of the choices available to us is to see how we must grow in order to step into our agency so that we can no longer fall prey to toxic behaviour. Another is to accept the person as they so that we are no longer triggered by their behaviours. Untriggered, we can see the toxic behaviour for the subterfuge it is and address it accordingly.


You can’t address toxic behaviour in general terms. There are always degrees, levels, and contexts, and each situation must be addressed on its own merits.


Sometimes toxic behaviour is too ingrained and the only thing you can do is distance yourself. But that doesn’t mean that you should isolate that person. It is critical that some effort is made to alert them to their destructive behaviour. This is only ever useful if conveyed from an untriggered state.


Conflict in relationships is inevitable. Equanimity is possible, but rarely without effort, and definitely not by reducing people’s behaviour to simplistic, nondescript labels. Equanimity is also impossible without introspection and looking for one’s own role, options and power in the situation.


Dialogue, fuelled by curiosity and a willingness to see the other side for what it truly is, will always be the best way to find common ground. In truth, this calibre of dialogue is not possible if you view the person through the lens of toxicity. Judgment is the quickest way to disable dialogue.


Interestingly, when you aren’t engaging in toxic behaviour, you have the ability to recognise it for what it is, and to take action to limit attempts at control and manipulation. If you permit them, enable them, tolerate them, or silence them, it means you are following the same destructive logic.


The best way to help someone who engages in toxic behaviour is by not allowing them to do it. All relationships have rules, implicit or explicit. You shouldn’t ever tolerate manipulation, disrespect, and condescension or any other behaviour that degrades or uses you.


Look for the ways in which you employ the toxic behaviours of blame, judgment, victimhood, powerlessness and envy. These are just patterns that you can change with self-awareness, curiosity, self-compassion and a deliberate practice of processing your fears and emotional wounds.

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Fairland, Johannesburg

South Africa

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