Why Therapists Avoid Using the Word ‘Toxic’

Illustration: Malte Mueller/Getty Images

OOne of my most important rules as a therapist: Ignore all adjectives. When one of my clients says someone in their life is selfish, or cold, or hot-tempered, it doesn’t tell me much about the problem. Adjectives aren’t facts.

That’s especially true of “toxic,” an adjective that’s become increasingly popular in and outside of my office (it was even the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2018). It’s also easily overused — a way of reframing a difficult relationship as one not worth having.

So when I have a therapy client who uses “toxic” to describe someone, I don’t ask them to clarify, or to reconsider the word. Instead, I focus on the facts of the challenging situation they’re telling me about.

People use all sorts of words to describe their relationships. But when you sit with people long enough, you begin to see how wildly these descriptions will fluctuate based on their mood. We tend to feel more threatened by others on days we feel anxious, and we tend to be more forgiving on days we feel confident or hopeful. We love to hear that our feelings are valid, but I think another question is more important: Are these feelings useful?

Labels like “toxic” are emotional shortcuts

When you feel anxious around another person, your brain will begin to take emotional shortcuts that usually involve fighting, fleeing, or complaining to others. You quickly label the person as “toxic,” declare their toxicity as the cause of your anxiety, and assume that escaping them will fix your distress. And you trust that this handy label can help you can act quickly and avoid future anxiety. But there is a cost to these emotional algorithms: Instead of responding to reality, you’re responding to your worst fears about that person.

When one of my clients starts getting into adjective-heavy territory, I redirect them with questions like, “What did they do?” “When and where did this occur?” and “How did you respond?” Notice that none of these questions have the word “why.” This is because “why” usually requires you to guess a person’s motivation, or label them as a certain kind of person. Staying focused on what’s objectively true helps you generate a more thoughtful response to a challenging relationship.

Labels ignore the complexity of human relationships

One of the most fascinating things about being a therapist is seeing firsthand how people can experience and understand the same event in completely different ways. One person might view a behavior as helpful, and another might see it as overbearing. One might see criticism where another sees concern.

So before you put the toxic stamp on someone, it can be useful to zoom out, and observe how each person in the relationship is responding to the situation. You can ask yourself questions like:

  • How high is the anxiety in the room?
  • How is each person responding to this anxiety?
  • How do these different responses cause conflict or harm?
  • How would I like to respond to this reality?

When you begin to see a person’s actions as their best attempt to calm themselves down, a funny thing happens. You no longer see them as a toxic villain. You see them as a person who, for better or worse, is doing what they know best to get themselves through a challenge.

You might not agree with what they’re doing, and you don’t need to put up with it, but at least you can see it as a response to tension, rather than simply an evil motive. You’ll see how each of you is responding to the other’s anxious behaviors, and how this causes conflict in a relationship. And once you’ve processed that information, you can make an informed decision on the best way forward.

Labels keep the focus on others, not ourselves

When you feel threatened by another person, you tend to invest a great amount of energy focusing on them. You might scroll through their social media, quiz other friends and family, or flip through your own memories, looking for reasons to justify your belief that they’re toxic. What I call “other-focus” often leads to increased sensitivity to the other person’s behaviors — meaning that it takes less and less for you to feel disgusted, annoyed, or afraid of them.

It’s much more productive to take that other-focus and flip it back onto yourself. Instead of organizing people into toxic and non-toxic categories, think about how you want to respond to specific behaviors. Let me give you some examples.

Other-focus: She’s terrible for expecting me to pay for everything.

Self-focus: I will not become responsible for other people’s finances.

Other-focus: He’s toxic because he’s verbally abusive on the phone.

Self-focus: I will set the appropriate boundaries when others use harmful language with me.

Other-focus: My mother is hateful when I disagree with her about politics.

Self-focus: I will decide when it is important to share my beliefs, when I should change the subject, or when I should leave the conversation.

Again, whether the labels are true or false isn’t the point. When you have principles about how you should act in human relationships, especially when you feel harmed, used, or misunderstood, you’ll never have to decide whether a person is “toxic” or not.

Having these principles also helps you maintain strong relationships with the people you love. It’s a lot harder to stand up to a romantic partner who’s making unreasonable demands, than it is to a coworker you’re not emotionally invested in. But by staying focused on who you want to be, and what you’re willing to do and not do, you’re less likely to focus your energy on getting people to like you, or excusing harmful behaviors.

We all have people in our lives who we may be better off without. But it’s worth thinking twice before you stick them with the “toxic” label when talking to your friends, your therapist, or even in your own head. When you use facts instead of adjectives, it’s easier for others to help you with your dilemma. It’s also more difficult for others to dismiss your argument. You help yourself and others when you stay focused on reality, and acknowledge that we owe each other, and ourselves, more than simple labels.

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

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