A New Perspective On Toxic People

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I am a self-identified healer. Here, in this moment, I shamelessly announce, that the past few years of life, though filled with immense growth, beauty, and joy, have been the hardest years of all. I have struggled, feeling completely stuck and lost, throwing adult-sized tantrums in my personal life, causing chaos and harm, and being labelled as certifiably “toxic”. Yet, simultaneous to the harms I have caused in my alleged toxicity, I have also helped so many loved ones and clients. I believe this paradox is something to elaborate upon, which might help us all relate to who or what is “toxic”, in a new way.

Within these past years, I have struggled with finding my own power. In many ways, I have felt as though I am drowning in a deep pool of self-hatred, shame, and absolute failure. I have made an art form out of panic. I have grasped for a life raft, and at times clung too tightly to whomever and whatever I could use as my flotation device. I have had several people who used to be my closest confidants, literally up and leave me, because they couldn’t handle my panic, how much I apparently hurt them, and how lost I seemed to be in my life.

I am not naive to the fact that in the eyes of my most intimate counterparts, they currently define me as a “difficult person”, to say the least. I have had to face places in my self that I have never wanted to love, but yet I could no longer hide from. I have also had some “friends” show me they couldn’t love these parts of me, either. I don’t blame them, because I have been chaotic, messy, and quite ugly. However, for this whole experience, I am grateful, as my path has taught me so much. The rejection from those closest to me has clearly shown me how to love my self, as well as who can handle being in relationship with me at my worst, and thus, who deserves my day-to-day time, energy, and love.

In reflection about why people have left me, I see how I have formed friendships around being someone who is easy to love, so people would want to keep me around. I believed deep down, that I wasn’t allowed to be more fully human, without the risk of people rejecting and abandoning me. As we all tend to do, I then enlisted the help of other people to continue to reinforce this belief about my self.

These “friends” were used to the Ava that could pull herself together, and seem strong and composed. They were used to the Ava that would put on an act of cleanly and efficiently learning powerful life lessons, and offering them up to others, dressed with a dainty bow. While I was in this process of learning these life lessons, I would make sure not to inconvenience or frustrate anyone. Instead, their comfort was my priority. They were used to the Ava that would essentially suffer alone, and not possibly bring anyone along with me. They were used to the Ava that was reticent to desperately seek help. They were used to convincing me to go through the act of accepting their help, though usually this “help” was on their terms, and not actually very helpful. They could feel good and powerful, by convincing me to let them help me, while I made sure they would experience the least amount of discomfort possible while “helping”. These friends would come in to save the day, after I had already gone through much of my immense suffering, in silence, and I helped them feel so good about themselves. My desire to not burden anyone was, at a superficial level, a frustration to them. But also, I believe on a deeper level, they felt relief in never actually being called to truly show up for me. They got to benefit from my wisdom, compassion, empathy, love and strength, that I had gained from dealing with immense pain, all alone, without being there with me, in the throes of my suffering. I made it easy to love me, because I made them feel adequate and helpful, and I gave a whole lot in return for their friendship, so they would keep me around. When I stopped this act, things changed dramatically, and many did not approve.

Now, in my more honest, accelerated and intense explorations of my own darkness and chaos, the depths to which I have experienced fear, have caused people not to like me. In fact, they have been repulsed and disgusted, by me. Or even “worn out” by being exposed to me. People don’t see the purpose of staining the stable, or rather homeostatic lives they have created for themselves, while repeatedly dealing with me, as their friend in crisis. Many don’t want to be in the throes of pain and panic with me, even though they have given great lip-service to wanting to be there. They are instead repelled by the ways in which I struggle, where I have reached desperately and often counter-productively, for help. It is easy to judge and distance from me when I have been freaking out, instead of acknowledging their impulse to get away from me, comes from fear of truly being there for me, on my terms, and in the timing I might need.

These past few years, I have been called, “not fun”, “selfish”, described as having a “victimization complex”, and been referred to as “toxic”, among many other things. People who I have shown such love, compassion, non-judgment, great generosity, and strong devotion to, especially during their most vulnerable and challenging times in life, have up and disappeared, under the implicit or explicit reasoning that they just can’t deal with me anymore.

At first this was horrifying to me, as it confirmed that I truly couldn’t be loved and wanted for being who I am- for being authentically me, imperfect, desperate, and with many, many warts. But, after my friend group reached an even smaller size than I ever anticipated it would, I began to realize something. It hurt less and less when someone said something judgmental, made me out to be inferior or unworthy, and painted who I am, and what my life is about, as being, essentially toxic.

It is not that I think they are wrong about me. I am not disputing their reflections about my darkness. I see I HAVE been difficult and have caused harm and pain. It is more that I have come to accept that I am toxic.

I see we are all toxic to some degree, because we all have elements of self we are unaware of. We all at times unwittingly cause harm or pain in others, because we don’t see ourselves, feel out of control of our self, and also forget our own loveability and personal power. When we experience drowning in disempowerment, we do and say toxic things. When we are incapable of more equally giving to others and offering what they perceive as valuable, we can be toxic. When we need to be particular about what we receive as support, are not just willing to take support and care on the giver’s terms, and need to be a brat about it, we can be toxic. When we have a requirement of greater patience, understanding, compassion, attention and resources from others, because we are not knowing how to access this within our self, we can be toxic. When we routinely project onto others and blame them, because we can’t bare the pain to be accountable, we are toxic. When we are spreading negativity, and we feel completely unaware or unable to stop it, we are toxic.

My relationships and these multiple contexts where I have been shunned, have shown me a lot about what toxicity is. And, in these contemplations, I have also come to find that I am toxic to some people, but not to others. I haven’t lost all my friends, and in fact, several of my friendships have deepened and blossomed. We both have mutually grown and thrived in our relationship, in the midst of others in my life believing I am a dirty, disgusting force of contamination, they must protect themselves from.

To the potential dismay of my “friends” turned haters, this has caused me to begin to view toxicity as more of a dynamic issue, rather than an issue that defines who and how I am.

I understand that in some cases, with severe addiction, sociopathy, psychopathy, and with personality- disordered people, most people might experience them as toxic, and thus label them as such. However, I also now realize that what creates “toxic” people, is the fact that in their times of need, people have repeatedly projected onto them, harmed them, blamed them, invalidated them, and shamed them, while labeling them as bad or unworthy. These people have, in fact experienced such repeated violence, abandonment and rejection, from “healthy” and “toxic” people alike, that they have not learned the resilience, strength, and self-love that it takes to end relating in a toxic way. This “toxic” identity has become their set-point, as how they behave and who they have become in response to these traumas. These “toxic” people continue to bring up such strong negative responses in others, they repeatedly are not shown the love, strength, acceptance or compassion that could help them become more “healthy”. My more nuanced understanding of those who could be labeled as undeniably “toxic”, still speaks to toxicity being a dynamic issue.

Given this dynamic-based view of toxicity, I began to get curious about what was going on whenever my self or anyone, as the “healthy” party, would describe another as “toxic”. I believe the label “toxic” is used by someone to describe a relationship that repeatedly makes them feel ways they don’t want to feel. Usually this undesirable emotional experience, shared by both parties, and initially catalyzed by the “toxic” person, is constructed of hopelessness, powerlessness, shame and felt inadequacy. “Healthy” people then feel frustrated and stuck with these powerful emotions. When these “healthy” people reach a breaking point, they get triggered in to shame, anger, and (self-)hatred. Without keen awareness, this “healthy” person then projects the mix of all of the feelings triggered by this “toxic” person, out onto the “toxic” party. This projection allows them to feel and believe the “toxic” person is disgusting, unworthy, and disposable. The “healthy” people, can then also justify dehumanizing the “toxic” other, and cutting them out of their life completely.

“Healthy” people confuse those they label as “toxic” as being the cause of their pain and suffering, when in most cases they wouldn’t need to cut the “toxic” person out, if they were just willing to deal with their own feelings of powerlessness, hopelessness, shame, self-hatred, anger, and fear.

Whether you find yourself to be one of these difficult, “toxic” people, or you know people who are like this, perhaps consider that what we all view as a toxic person, is literally a person who is challenging us to heal and grow. The incredible gift of this challenge to grow, is that in order to remain in relationship with this person WE MUST absolutely face our deepest darkest wounds within us, that through normal, comfortable relationships, we can often bypass.

So, for all you “healthy”, “normal”, and “toxic” people alike, here are our two options: we can take the invitation for the deepest possible healing and growth that the most difficult people in our life provide, through being exposed to their darkness and chaos, OR we can create our little ego-based fortresses of what is clean, known and predictable, and judge whomever is difficult as “toxic”, and thus cast them into the position of society’s untouchables.

What shall you choose?

Coach. Psychologist. Writing about new perspectives, love, relationships, Narcissism, healing, transformation, & culture. www.avapommerenkphd.com

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