The phrase “toxic” is everywhere now as the new buzzword for anyone we don’t like or get along with. It’s often used as a vague excuse to write people off for any reason deemed valid to us in the moment and feel no guilt. However, there’s a big difference between real toxicity and people who are just thoughtless or preoccupied at times.
If someone is truly toxic, they’ll do obvious mean things, including but not limited to: stabbing you in the back, trying to sabotage things in your life, insulting you, or generally making you feel horrible about yourself. Real toxicity is a pattern of behavior and attitudes. These people are master manipulators and usually narcissists. You know you’re dealing with this type of person if you always seem to be the one in the wrong, and you usually feel belittled or pathetic after interacting with them. Toxic people become the way they are because they have low self-esteem, jealousy, and a host of other issues, so to make themselves feel better, they need to bring you down. Going along with the manipulation factor, they’ll gaslight you into thinking you’re the one who’s always wrong, making dumb choices, or generally failing in life.
As straightforward as all of that sounds, sometimes it’s hard to ID in real life. Here’s some insight into specific groups of people.
Toxic family and friends look something like this: They don’t acknowledge anything positive in your life on their own. They don’t congratulate you, they don’t take an interest in you, they don’t do simple little things to show support, and when you talk to them, it’s all about their lives and what they have going on. If you bring up an accomplishment of yours, they’ll try to one-up you, give an uninterested “Oh” and quickly change the subject, or flat-out say it’s not that big of a deal, and counter with someone they know that did it more/better/first/faster. These folks also rarely make an effort to keep in touch with you. If you find you’re always the one reaching out first, especially after multiple attempts to have a relationship with the person, you know you’re dealing with a toxic person or someone who just doesn’t care. Either way, move on.
Toxic—or fake, as the case could be made—people give themselves away by never managing to like your social media posts or post anything about/with you, but they have attention to spare for other people. They brag about other family visiting and post photos galore, but you’ve visited many times and get no mention. Toxic family and friends act out their passive aggression by “forgetting” to send you a card, support your small business, or like your posts of your wedding pictures. Their main motive, from my guess, is jealousy.
Toxic coworkers look something like this: They’re so hot and cold with you that you’d swear you were back in middle school. They put you on edge because you never know what mood you’re in for that day. One day you’re best friends, the next they barely speak to you. The concept of checking your personal life at the door is foreign to them, and you have to deal with their mood swings over their ill parent or bad relationship every time you work together. Toxic coworkers are also control freaks and will boss you around more than your actual boss; they have no respect for you as an equal. They’ll do everything they can to make you feel inferior or look stupid in front of clients or customers, and if they’re really mentally still in junior high, make faces about you behind your back (bonus points if customers can see). You can report their mouth and attitude to your boss, but since they’re also usually a kiss-up and the favorite employee, since they have no purpose in life other than this job, nothing will change.
Toxic coworkers could also be nice, friendly people to your face but step on you on their way to the top, grabbing opportunities for themselves and shutting you out of the “cool” clique at lunch. A friendly face means nothing if actions and integrity don’t back it up.
On the flip side of all this, if someone doesn’t always acknowledge all your achievements or get very involved in your life in a positive way, it doesn’t necessarily make them toxic. You have to weigh the specific person and situation, because each one is unique. If it’s someone really close to you, then that’s questionable behavior. If it’s not, sure, you could intentionally be an afterthought to them because they’re jealous, or they could just be rude by nature. But maybe, and probably more likely, they simply have a lot on their mind from their own life, or they just completely blanked and forgot. Watch for continued patterns of behavior over time, especially ones that continue after you’ve expressed your feelings or needs.
It’s important to have insight into what “toxic” can look like in practice so you know how to deal with people in your life accordingly (and not let them upset you), and it’s also important to have perspective so you don’t potentially shut out people who don’t deserve it. Give people the benefit of the doubt until repeated behavior tells you not to before labeling them “toxic.”