Why Therapists Avoid Using the Word ‘Toxic’
Labeling others can stunt your own growth
One 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…