I didn’t really know what ‘toxic’ meant in reference to people until Oprah did an episode on it in the early 2000s.
I can remember getting my mum to tape it off the TV because EVERYONE was talking about it. It seemed to be the first time that someone was brave enough to say ‘Hey, you know what? Some people are a bit shit and you don’t have to hang out with them anymore.’
It gave people power. Power to disengage from the co-worker who constantly complains. To stop calling that life long friend who does nothing but bitch about other people. It gave us permission to stop inviting that couple to group dinners because they were constantly belittling everyone and then scrimped on half the bill. It was an historical time in the self improvement space because it was like Oprah turned on a switch, everyone saw the light and realised they didn’t have to keep hanging out with people who didn’t add anything to their lives. Genius.
The problem with this philosophy is that we’re all a bit shit and we’re all a bit toxic. We like to think we’re all perfect but honestly, no one is. There’s not one person on this earth who hasn’t displayed one of the top behaviours of toxic people. No one like that exists and if they do, they’re so not invited to my pool party because they’re probably a giant yawn fest.
Toxic behaviours in humans is subjective. We all respond differently to different things. I’m a writer in the self improvement space (as you know because you’re reading this) and I get at least one email per year from a person who has felt judged or shamed by something I’ve written. Was that my intention? No. Does it stop that person from feeling those feelings? No. Have other people read those exact words and felt the opposite of being shamed and judged? Absolutely. So where does that leave us?
Wide open to take a look at ourselves and how we operate in the this world. It also gives us an amazing opportunity to try to be less shit to each other.
Sometimes when I feel a bit rubbish after an interaction with a person, I’ll dissect what happened and try to figure out if I could have changed my behaviour in any way to avoid the unpleasant interaction. I’ll also look at how the other person could have changed their behaviour. I’d love to be able to say I’m never at fault but that’s just not realistic. I know my triggers. I get defensive if I get called out for doing the wrong thing. My even temperament means I sometimes don’t recognise or give enough time to other people’s feelings. I’m incredibly passionate about self improvement and I’m a big cheerleader for people wanting to make positive changes but as I mentioned before, encouraging someone to make healthy food choices can result in that person feeling shamed or judged about their past life choices.
This is a quick tour of some toxic behaviours you may have let slip into your life that you might want to check up on. I’ll be making a pledge at the end of the post to improve my most toxic behaviours. Join me?
1. Taking things too personally
There’s a concept in behavioural psychology called the ‘spotlight effect’ which basically means that we’re all focussed on ourselves. We can try to market ourselves in a less selfish light, but we’re all seeing and experiencing the world through our own lens so naturally our first response to most situations is ‘What about me?’. Most disagreements and feuds come from one or more people taking things too personally. This is exacerbated with the modern use of social media too. Keyboard Wars give people the chance to say the things they wish they said in an argument they had last week. There’s a French term ‘l’esprit de l’excalie’ which translates to mean ‘wit of the stairway’. You know that moment when you think of the perfect come back when you’re already out the door? That’s wit of the stairway. With social media, we’re all given a second chance to use that come back when another person strikes up the same argument on Facebook. The problem is, it’s a different argument this time. We tend to take the things people say on social media as add ons of the argument we had last week and it’s actually a brand new conversation. This all falls under the umbrella of taking things too personally. I remind myself daily that not everything is about me and it serves me very well.
2. Disregarding people’s feelings
People of even temperament and emotion (like me), can often seem callous and disrespectful of other people’s feelings. When I get sad or angry, it’s generally for a tangible reason and I have a very quick recovery time. It took me a long time to realise this is unusual and most people need more time to process their feelings. I also struggled because I love finding the answer to problems and when people are upset or angry, there usually isn’t an answer to the problem. My tip? Don’t say anything. Just listen. I have terrible foot-in-mouth syndrome so when I’m consciously trying to be supportive, I shut my damn mouth. Works a treat.
3. Judging people
Pay attention to your thoughts and monitor them for negativity aimed towards other people. If you find yourself walking down the street and inwardly fuming at badly parked cars, other people’s outfits, parents ignoring their children or teenagers who are clearly skipping school, it might be time to turn the microscope on yourself. Think about the last time you were truly happy… what was happening in your head? It’s unlikely you were yelling at people for accidentally running into you or huffing and puffing in line at the post office because it was taking too long. If this is a toxic behaviour you see in yourself often, start checking in with it and make moves to ditch it.
4. Consistent negativity
Just for one day, keep a tally of every conversation you had. Draw a table with two columns, one with Positive written at the top and one column with Negative written at the top. Every time you have a positive conversation, put a stroke in that box. Every time you have a negative conversation put a stroke in the negative box.
By lunch time you’ll probably start monitoring yourself to skew the results more towards the Positive box but that’s the whole point of the exercise. To make yourself aware of how much negativity we exude without even trying. Do it for a week and you’ll find yourself consciously avoiding having negative conversations. It’s such an incredible mood booster and all it takes is monitoring your negative thoughts for a few days.
5. Playing the victim
This one goes hand in hand with blaming other people. If you’re constantly in arguments with a selection of different people and the common factor in all of those arguments is you, then you need to be looking at whether or not you’re consciously or unconsciously playing the victim. If you get called a drama queen quite often, this may be one of your default toxic behaviours.
This week I’m going to focus on positivity and keep my tally every day to make sure I’m having more positive conversations than negative ones.