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4 Consequences to Labeling a Friend 'Toxic'

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Names like frenemy and toxic friend are becoming part of our vernacular. Books and articles continue to warn us about the unhealthy women with cute names like Negative Nellie, Sabotage Suzie, and Fault Finding Fran. Do a google search with two words that by definition shouldn't be in the same sentence, "avoid" and "friend," and you'll get a list of 409,000,000 articles helping you figure out which friends to drop.

It's certainly true that there are extremely unhealthy people who hurt us and drain us, with whom we need to set very firm boundaries. But before we too quickly label someone as "toxic," I'd like to suggest that we consider four potential personal and relational consequences that happen when we get label-happy.

1) Labeling Distracts Us From Our Growth
Recent research suggested that 84% of women admit to having had a toxic friend. That means we either all know the remaining 16% of women who are the poisonous ones, or that some of us putting the labels on others are also the ones wearing them.

I'm repeatedly reminded that we all have a shadow side, a place where our tireless egos try to hide our wounds from others or seemingly protect us so we don't keep getting hurt. Don Riso and Russ Hudson in their book "The Wisdom of the Enneagram" point out that "we tend to see our motivations as coming from the healthy range. The defenses of our ego are such that we always see ourselves as our idealized self-image, even when we are only average or even pathological." That's humbling enough to remind me that I have a good chance of exhibiting the faults I see in others, even if I do it in different ways.

Look at the list of what we think makes someone toxic (according to the recent survey conducted by TODAY.com and SELF.com) and you tell me if you haven't exhibited one of these at some point? The number one source of toxicity, say experts, is narcissism (65 percent). The list continues with being too needy (59 percent), too critical (55 percent), giving backhanded compliments that undermine (45 percent), and proving to be flakey or unreliable (37 percent). I'd say, to some extent, that's a list that we all struggle with not because all we're poisonous but simply because we're human.

I don't condone these behaviors, but I can acknowledge that they're normal, albeit unhealthy, habits that develop out of our own insecurities. None of us started our adult journeys from a place of enlightenment. We are all still on our own paths toward becoming centered, present and awake.

But pointing to someone else in a devaluing way, while it may make us feel more healthy/righteous, could distract us from the growth we need to be stepping into ourselves.

2) Labeling Risks Victim Mentality
Believing someone is toxic undermines our own power. The obvious loss of strength comes just in merely believing that someone is inherently poisonous.

First, this is a value judgment that weakens how we feel about ourselves since it's impossible to put out judgment on others without also putting it on ourselves.

And second, we destabilize our peace when we dare to believe that someone else can affect us the way that drinking poison would, as though we're victim to them once we've allowed them into our lives, unable to withstand their toxic fumes. It gives them the power that we should hold for ourselves; the power that says my peace is mine -- you don't get to vote whether I have it or not.

We give too much power away when we use the word "toxic," subtly telling ourselves there is nothing we can do about it. Believing that anyone has that kind of influence on us doesn't remind us that we choose our own feelings and responses.

3) Labeling is Harmful to Others
Labeling people as toxic doesn't inspire loving transformation. It is not only ineffective, but also damaging.

It's ineffective, in part, because blame and shame only invite egos to yell louder in an effort to defend themselves. People often cannot see their own flaws or the impact they are having on others. So to have it pointed out in a way that stems from judgment almost guarantees that the words will not land on fertile or transformative soil.

Labeling is damaging because we're risking someone believing the label as an indictment of her personhood, her being, rather than her behavior. That's a crucial difference. It's the equivalent of a parent disciplining a child by saying "You're a bad boy" versus "What you did was a bad thing." For anyone to believe that they are inherently bad, toxic, or irreparable prevents them from ever trying to change. (The term "unhealthy" at least suggests there is the expected state of health.) What we want is to put the focus on the behaviors that are impacting us and therefore on the possibility of transformation for both of us.

We each, even the most damaged among us, have a blessing to offer the world. A label doesn't remind us, or them, of their essence, their spirit, their being, their potential gift.

4) Labeling Minimizes the Role of Relationships
And here's the ultimate irony. The truth is we cannot all wait to be in relationship until we are healthy, for it is in our relationships that we can become healthy. We don't grow more loving in a loveless vacuum.

We are relational beings. Which means that relationships are the curriculum and context for our opportunities to grow, mature, and become more whole. If we jump out of them when they get difficult and tense, for whatever reason, we can short-circuit our growth and the growth of this separate organism of life called the relationship.

Before I go on, let me give a caveat: I am not encouraging anyone to stay in abusive situations or to put up with unhealthy behaviors that are damaging. Sometimes we have to be willing to establish very firm boundaries with people who continually hurt us, and that might mean separating ourselves at some point.

That said, what often gets labeled as toxic (as we see from the above list) are actually quite subjective designations often given too quickly. For example, few of us are qualified to diagnose someone with the emotional disorder known as narcissism. And yet what happens is if someone doesn't live up to our expectations, most of them unstated, it is far too easy to feel like we've given more than we've received. We then conclude that the other is inherently selfish -- that he or she is incapable of getting us and giving to us. They think only of themselves, period. We are using our feelings of lack and our own unmet desires to then label them toxic. There may be a different way of seeing the situation?

Imagine entering into our relationships with the purpose to learn our personal and relational lessons in our journey toward becoming more mature and whole. That could mean choosing to withhold slapping the label of toxic onto her for a while as we together worked in our laboratory of love to grow this relationship as far as it can possibly go.

In the end, if we both need to separate from each other, we do so having learned our important lessons and grown in our ability to love more effectively.

The good news in focusing on the interaction between us that can change, versus only focusing on the label we've judged her with being that implies it cannot change, is that now there is space for both of us to grow together.

A Better Way to Respond?

Responses to the research that more than 8 out of 10 of us can point to a friend who is toxic, and 1 in 3 saying it has been their best friend, seem to be one of two options: "Put up with it" or "Get out of it."

I dare say there is third way. But that's for my next post.
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