The ‘Warning: Toxic Substances’ Label
Doesn’t Come on People

Mihika Kumar

“You’re ‘toxic’, I’m slipping under’” – lyrics from Britney Spears’ song ‘Toxic’ that perfectly capture what a “toxic” person can do to you. Although interpretations of the song’s meaning are very different from the kind of toxicity this article will tell you about - keep it at the back of your mind, and we’ll come back to it.

What does ‘toxic’ mean? Who is ‘toxic’?
The simple definition of ‘toxic’ is something poisonous, harmful, or dangerous. Toxic people exhibit similar qualities and characteristics. While they’re unlikely to give you literal poison (although they could), their traits can be poisonous for your mental and emotional well-being. Similar to actual poison, their appearances don’t stand out. They look just like everyone else, and could even be one of your friends or family

Toxicity can take various forms in people - maybe it’s always stirring up drama, maybe it’s being two faced, maybe it’s being overly judgemental, and so on. There are so many behaviours that can constitute toxicity that sometimes it becomes extremely challenging to identify someone who is toxic for you or how to label them as toxic. There are hundreds of articles you’ll find when you google ‘toxic person’- all of them giving you information about signs you’re dealing with someone toxic. To an extent, they are all right. They can give you ideas of someone who displays similar habits. But what these articles won’t tell you is that toxicity is quite subjective. Someone who is emotionally draining for me may be a bundle of positive energy for you. There are no fixed criteria of who fits the title of ‘toxic’, especially because people change their behaviour based on specific people and situations. You need to understand if they are toxic for you. This does not mean that anyone who disagrees with you, or has a different opinion, is toxic. People are not toxic if they have different stances than you, but people who make you feel belittled, unwanted, manipulated, guilty, or overly conscious. They can influence your behaviour around them, make you comply with their desires, feel weak, powerless, and sad for no apparent reason- just to name a few effects. The damage that they inflict upon you is often very subtle, leading you to believe that you are overreacting, being oversensitive, or misinterpreting their actions.

Stop Making Excuses
Identifying and dealing with these kinds of people is very testing. It is especially difficult when they are someone who means a lot to you. It becomes a challenge to come to terms with the fact that they are affecting you in a negative way. In order to be kind to them,  you start making excuses - not just for their behaviour, but also for you to keep putting up with them. You begin to think that the issue is with you and not them, that you have some sort of obligation to tolerate their actions, or that there’s some reason as to why you must continue this unnecessary struggle. View  it from another perspective. It’s like looking at someone struggling to chop a fruit with their bare hands when a knife is right next to them. That knife is the power you have over your life; reclaim it. You may not be able to control a lot around you, but you can certainly control the kind of people you choose to interact with. There’s a fine line between understanding and forgiveness, and making excuses. The latter will only hurt yourself; you deserve to push forward, not back.

The steps forward
Taking time to face the fact that someone is unhealthy for your wellbeing is completely normal. Give yourself the time to give it thought, come to terms with it, and figure out how you want to approach the situation. There are several paths you can take - the common bottom line is to set some sort of boundary. You can change your behaviour without changing theirs. This means being more mindful of the times when you go out of your way to please them, to change yourself for them, or fulfil their requests with unnecessary dedication - and stop. Remind yourself that only you are responsible for your choices, and that only you can dictate your own actions. You can also choose to tell them about their behaviour and how it makes you feel, whether it’s intentional or not. This can be a particularly tricky method in some situations, but a conversation, no matter how tough, is always a step forward. Using assertive statements, or “I” statements can help. For example, rather than saying “You do a certain thing”, an alternative would be “I feel a certain way because of this. I want certain things. I am telling you this because…”. This conversation may even illuminate someone as to how they were acting without their conscious knowledge. Perhaps the hardest way to deal with the situation is cutting them off completely. This means ending or minimising your interaction with them for the purpose of protecting your wellbeing. It also means avoiding their involvement in your life as much as possible - whether that means having a conversation about them (which includes gossip), or talking to them directly. Indirect interaction can continue to take a toll on you. All three of these methods take time to ultimately appreciate, which goes the same for any other method you choose to carry out, so remember that nothing happens immediately. Even after a long time, these memories can still creep into your mind and hurt. Remember that your goal should not be fixed at a certain standard of your relationship with them and yourself, but for progress.  

Can you relate?
From numerous personal experiences, I can tell you that dealing with toxic people, no matter how many times you have done it before, is always an obstacle. I used to feel like the problem was me, constantly changing my ‘opinions’ and behaviour so that it was ‘acceptable’ to a person or group. But no matter what, it was never enough – I was never enough. For the longest time, I felt like something was wrong with me. I would feel emotionally drained just in the presence of these people, questioning and rethinking a hundred times before I said or did anything, because I feared what they would think of it. But there came a tipping point when I realised that I couldn’t go on like this. Here is the truth - it wasn’t immediately liberating. I did not feel stronger or better. But over time, I realised that I wasn’t the problem. I had people who loved me and made me feel happy, I met people who felt the same way I did around the same people. I channelled all the pain pressured inside of me into the work I did, and got creative with it. The most important takeaway from all these experiences is more to do with who I have become today. Subconsciously, I’ve grown as a person. Without my knowledge, without any thought, I hardly tolerate the kind of behaviour that I previously did. Maybe I can’t overcome all the hurdles, but I can jump over at least one more than I could before.

Rising over, not slipping under
One of the most important things to keep in mind is that leaving overwhelming or draining relationships isn’t giving up, it’s growing up. Given the fact that you’re on your journey of overcoming a toxic entity in your life - you have tried. Giving up on a relationship means that there has been no effort. Life is a series of incidents where you learn, move on, and grow. Coming back to Britney Spears - do you want to slip under, when you could be looking up at all the beautiful experiences, things, and people that the world has to offer to you? Don’t slip under and hurt yourself, because you deserve to be flying on a healthier course.