There are 2 big reasons we need to differentiate between the person and the behavior.
True confession: I hate the phrase “toxic person.”
I get what it is and why it’s used, but I hate how it seems to both damn and absolve the person in question. They’re damned because they’re “toxic,” and toxicity doesn’t change. But at the same time, they’re absolved of the responsibility to change (and even the freedom of agency necessary for change) by being labeled “toxic.” In one word, they’re both measured and cast aside.
It wasn’t until I was reading an article at Bustle by a woman describing how she used to be a toxic person and the ways she changed that I realized that one of the reasons I hate the term “toxic” is because it resonates with me:
It was impossible for me to be happy for anyone when they came to me with good news. I coveted my mom’s new car at a stage in my life when I neither needed or wanted a vehicle. I resented how good my friend got at Zumba, even though I hated it. My envy ended up seeping into even the most remote corners of my social life. I wasn’t actively choosing to be jealous all the time, but much of my time was spent thinking about other people’s accomplishments and possessions instead of finding ways to make myself happy.
Oh man, I have been there, sister. There was a period of time when I literally would not even return phone calls and text messages because I was so furious that everyone else’s life seemed to be going so well while mine felt like a pit of despair. It was a gradual slide into going incommunicado … at first I tried to confide in my family and friends, one by one (in order of most sympathetic to least, naturally). But one after the other, they responded in the most unfeeling way possible: by suggesting ways for me to fix it myself.
As if I wasn’t doing enough already just existing in the mire of life! As if I could possibly to anything to improve the mess life had thrown me into, that I had no responsibility for creating and no power to change!
I genuinely did feel victimized by my own life (which, obviously, was made up of my own choices). I felt helpless and powerless to attain any of the things my friends and family had, so I cultivated my resentments instead of my relationships. It was a sad, lonely, and horrible time in my life, and I did a lot of damage to the people who loved me.
But they didn’t just label me “toxic” and write me off. They did draw boundaries, which seemed cruel at first until I began to adapt to them by looking at my own behavior instead of pointing the finger. In fact, it was the boundaries that my friends and family drew that helped me begin to overcome my sense of victimization and helplessness. I knew that they loved me, so I also knew that they wouldn’t treat me badly or hurt me on purpose. If I felt hurt by everyone, all at the same time (and all the time), the problem was likely me.
I will always be grateful for the ways my family and friends helped me through that time, particularly because they did so despite my mistreatment of them. But I will also be eternally grateful that none of them ever labeled me “toxic” and walked away.