Have a conversation with someone today, and more often than not, the word toxic creeps in. The boss who expects you to reach the office on time every day is toxic, as is the partner who disagrees with you about the flavour of ice cream to be served to guests at the party. And yes, if your mother tells you to clean up, she could soon be branded a toxic parent too. Sounds familiar? You’re not alone. The word toxic is overused nowadays, often applied to relationships every time dissent creeps in or where the other party’s expectation doesn’t align with your own.
So what really is a toxic relationship? And where does healthy disagreement (normal in any relationship) end and toxicity begin? Experts cite that the term toxic can include any behaviour, relationship, experience or dynamic that can potentially have a harmful impact on a person. Some of these include traits such as endlessly blaming the other without taking accountability, engaging in passive-aggressive or manipulative communication patterns or injecting unwarranted negativity into a relationship.
A toxic relationship becomes a space where one cannot express themselves freely, function effectively or grow without fear. It could be personal or professional; however, the feelings that it manifests are often very similar: inadequacy, guilt, self-doubt and fear. A toxic relationship is likely to threaten your sense of emotional, psychological and even physical well-being. Considering the gamut of behaviours and interpersonal relationships that can be potentially toxic, we dive deeper to understand what is and what isn’t toxic.
Are we abusing the term?
Imagine this scenario: It is your anniversary. You decide to surprise your partner with a fancy candlelit dinner. By 8 pm, when your partner usually comes home from work, the food is laid out on the table, you’re all dressed, and the wine is perfectly chilled. Just then, your partner calls to tell you they are running late by an hour. The evening is ruined for you, and you stomp off to bed, convinced that this is “toxic behaviour”. Is it? Not necessarily. While a partner who is tardy all the time, especially when they know that tardiness is triggering for you, can be labelled as toxic, a one-oft incident is far from that.
“Situations that are one-off and infrequent need to be perceived as such, without an assumption of an underlying pattern of toxicity from the other end,” points out Hansika Kapoor, a clinical psychologist and research author at Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai, a not-for-profit, academic research organisation.
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While behaviours and relationships are complicated, it is essential to understand that there are many times when the term isn’t warranted. “In relationships, there are bound to be times when the other person does not comply with us or agree with our words, actions, and thoughts. This can be distressing and bring up in us a wide range of emotions - from anxiety to fear to aggression,” says Divya Srivastava, counselling psychologist and founder of Silver Lining Wellness Centre, Mumbai.
While acknowledging your feelings is essential, labelling the situation as toxic isn’t necessarily the right thing to do. Srivastava says that doing so is often an act of dismissal because it makes us believe (mostly falsely) that we are safe if we leave the person or the situation and won’t feel any of these distressing emotions in the future. “It can become an escape mechanism that stops us from looking within and working on our issues, conveniently making us blame the other person or situation for our distress,” she adds.
On the other hand, Dr Amit Malik, the founder and CEO of Amaha Health, Mumbai, provides another, more nuanced outlook. He feels that it is true that more individuals today are beginning to recognise that a situation may be toxic for them and trying to emerge from it. “Hence it may seem like that the term is being used more often, as people are learning more about their well-being and mental health,” he says. He believed that while we may not realise it, unhealthy behaviours towards others are often normalised and seen as something that needs to be accepted. It becomes difficult not to view leaving a situation as a sign of weakness or lack of endurance and commitment. He also points out that it is vital to remember that the experience of negative emotions is subjective; what may seem threatening to one person may not be so overwhelming or discomforting to another. “That does not invalidate the experience of the former,” he says.
Understanding toxic behaviours
From a scientific perspective, there is no formal term in psychology for what we see as “toxic” relationships, says Kapoor. “However, it is closely related to aggressive, narcissistic, and demanding behaviours,” she says, pointing out that there can be toxic personalities, actions, and interactions across various contexts, including the workplace and personal relationships. “Usually, you can identify a person with toxic tendencies if you feel confused or exhausted after interacting with them,” she warns. Toxic does not imply inconvenient or annoying behaviours; it also does not imply one-off behaviours. Toxic personalities consistently exhibit patterns of being difficult, rigid, adversarial, and tend not to respect boundaries. She affirms that it is likely that when things do not go the way one hoped or planned for, or when one encounters an individual who may not budge from their position, it can be misinterpreted as ‘toxic’. “Uncomfortable situations can also be misperceived as toxic. It is important to remember that toxic personalities are toxic no matter the context. It is a pervasive pattern of behaviour,” says Kapoor.
Srivastava shares examples of toxic behaviour in various scenarios. For example, a boss who constantly piles a ton of work on a particular employee and sets unrealistic deadlines can be considered toxic in the workplace. “To overcome toxic and hostile work environment, it is imperative that the organisation pays attention to leadership training and conducts employee wellness programs to combat burnout and stress, and help the employees develop assertiveness and a sense of belonging,” she says. In the case of romantic and familial relationships, it is equally complicated, with toxicity emerging when establishing power or status. Some toxic behaviours in romantic relationships include ghosting, attention-seeking, and playing the victim even if one is a perpetrator. “I feel anything that makes you feel unsafe or uncomfortable should not be something you should tolerate,” she says, pointing out that even something like body-shaming, a frequent occurrence within families and by intimate partners, is unhealthy behaviour.
Here are some things you should look out for, courtesy Dr Amit Malik
Harsh criticism or sarcastic jokes at someone else’s expense.
Shutting someone out or making them feel they can’t communicate with you.
Causing someone to question their own sanity, experiences, and reality.
INDUCING DOUBT & FEAR
Making subtle comments that make an individual doubt their abilities and proficiency
Dismissing their feelings about something and shifting the attention from what they feel or need to what they supposedly did or didn’t do.
Projecting your own feelings onto others.
Trying to control someone’s behaviour based on what you think they should be feeling, thinking or doing.
MISLEADING & CONFUSING
Engaging in misleading and confusing behaviours where you may express something through words, but your behaviour is contradictory.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist