Sam Holstein

Stop Telling Us to Cut Toxic People Out of Our Lives

Stop Telling Us to Cut Toxic People Out of Our Lives

Today, I popped open my feed to see the usual mix of self-help stories, financial advice, and societal commentary the algorithm usually suggests for me. In amongst those stories, one headline stood out:

“7 Types of Toxic People You Should Remove From Your Life!”

It’s a common type of self-help story. Teaching readers how to identify toxic people, how they can drag you down, and how to cut them out is a regular favorite of self-help writers. And for good reason! Toxic and abusive people can be poisonous to your quality of life. Left unchecked, they can ruin it.

But these days, I’m finding that particular piece of self-help advice to be a little one-dimensional and immature.

Everyone is Toxic Sometimes, Even You

“The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside of us.”

— Sirius Black

Listicles about toxic people are often written in a style that implies there are two kinds of people: Non-toxic people, like you and me, and toxic people, like your abusive father, narcissistic ex, or greedy friends. Just look at these headlines:

The body content tends to have a similar kind of tone as well…

One of the ways you can identify toxic people is narcissism. Toxic narcissists will make sure the conversation is always about them. If you notice some interrupts you frequently or the conversation always seems to be about their life when you are with them, you can be sure you are dealing with a toxic narcissist.

But the world isn’t split into toxic people and healthy people. That kind of thinking is childish.

The older I get, the more I realize the complete opposite is true — everyone has a mix of respectful, healthy behaviors and disrespectful toxic ones. Everyone can be kind at times, and everyone can be abusive at times. If you think you haven’t ever been abusive, you probably just haven’t been to enough therapy yet to realize how.

There are gemstones of pure abusiveness and toxicity in humanity, of course. Hitler comes to mind. The man who “raised” my father (and beat my grandmother bloody) comes to mind as well. But very, very few people are truly so cut and dry.

I mean, think about it. It’s easy to read listicles describing “toxic people,” but when it comes to the real people around us, things are never that black-and-white.

Black-and-white thinking about people makes us wonder if we should cut these people out of our lives despite all the good they’ve done.

No, we shouldn’t.

Stand Up to Toxic People, Don’t Cut Them Out

None of this is to say we should just let toxic people keep being toxic all lah-dee-dah. But there is a way to stand up to toxic people without just cutting them out.

For one, you can always stand up for what’s right. When mom misgenders you, you can refer to yourself with your preferred name and pronoun. When Dave interrupts you, you can gently point out that you invited him out to celebrate your promotion and he hasn’t even mentioned it. Next time Susan texts you for emotional support, you can text back “Long time no see” and tell her how you feel. It isn’t the kind of dramatic self-help advice that does well on Medium, but a lot of times, it works.

It’s not surprising that it works. Most people don’t want to be toxic, so if you gently and honestly point out how they’ve been hurting you lately, they will say something like “Oh shit, I’m sorry!”

The vast majority of toxic behavior doesn’t come from a desire to see people suffer. It’s just an artifact of the way we were raised. People who were raised by self-absorbed people become self-absorbed. People who were raised by angry people become angry. You get the picture.

If you are skillful with your words, many people are surprisingly receptive to the idea that they are unwittingly damaging their relationships. In short, you can talk things out.

Telling them will not be enough for them to stop altogether. Psychological habits formed in childhood are hard to break. But they’ll probably make an effort, and that makes more of a difference than you think.

You Can Back Off Without Cutting Someone Out

I’ll admit, sometimes trying to talk it out doesn’t work. There are some people in my life I’ve gently confronted over and over and over to no effect. But I haven’t cut them out. I just see them less often — and when I do, I steer away hard from hot button topics.

Isn’t this what most people do with their parents? They don’t cut them out, but they do resolve to visit them less frequently, and when they do, they never talk politics or religion.

You can do this with friends, too. Sometimes they drift away of their own accord without you having to cut them out in dramatic fashion. Sometimes you lose touch for a few years only for you to reunite years later, both changed, and enjoy a renewed friendship.

I intentionally lost touch with my best friend from early high school because I was too straight-edge for his drug-experimental lifestyle. But by the time we were adults, I’d become much more welcoming of drugs and he’d become much less welcoming of hard drugs, and we became fast friends again. That wouldn’t have been possible if I’d labeled him a “toxic friend” and cut him out.

Years Ago I Cut My Best Friend Out, and I’ve Regretted It Ever Since

Around 2015, when I was first becoming aware of how profoundly mentally ill I was, I had a best friend we’ll call K. She and I hung out all the time. We spent every free hour of the day together going shopping, scrolling Tumblr, complaining about men and rich people and all the other things it’s trendy to complain about.

After two years of protracted mental health struggles and personal issues, it dawned on me that my friendship with K seriously contributed to my suffering. When we hung out together, we tended to do things that made our lives worse: We complained, we made excuses, we ate junk food, and we enabled each other.

When I realized this, I had no idea what to do. None at all.

The only scrap of wisdom I’d read on this subject anywhere was from websites like YourTango and Medium, and they tended to say the same thing: “If you’ve identified a toxic person in your life, cut them out!” So I did. Clumsily, awkwardly, rudely, over the process of three or four weeks, I stopped hanging out with K.

That was great — for like six months. I quit a bunch of my bad habits and really started taking care of myself. Cool! But I also fucking missed K. And it wasn’t because I was experiencing some kind of weird toxic-narcissist withdrawal or whatever self-help writers call it. I missed K because she was cool and I liked her. She was the best friend I ever had.

And instead of trying to talk to her about things, or resolve conflict in a healthy way, I just stabbed her in the back.

Cutting K out in such a clumsy way is one of my biggest regrets in life. I did it because my head was filled with crazy ideas about how “cutting toxic people out” is “the only way” to live a good life. What horse shit.

If someone had told me there was another way, I might have taken it. Things might be a lot different for me today.

Romantic Relationships Are Different, But Not That Different

There’s something to be said for the fact that you can’t distance yourself slowly from a romantic partner. You’re either committed to the relationship or you’re not. In this, there is a case to be made for dumping a toxic partner ASAP.

At least, that’s what people tell me. I don’t usually dump toxic partners ASAP. My problem when it comes to romantic partners has typically been that I don’t dump toxic partners fast enough.

But part of the reason I hang on so long is that I am a little disgusted by the lack of loyalty I see around me. Lovers will tell each other they will always be there, only for a few weeks of bickering to lead to the dissolution of an entire relationship. So much for love.

To me, love is love even when the other person is being toxic. Love is when you’re angry because your partner is totally stressed and losing it and just complaining about everything and everyone and is totally being an ass, and fixing them dinner anyway.

I think people can be on their best behavior for the first few years of dating, but over time, everyone goes through “toxic patches” in their life. Over a decades-long marriage, there will be years where one partner or the other is being an ass. Everyone is toxic at some point in their life, remember? If you find that unacceptable, I’m betting you probably won’t stay married forever.¹

That doesn’t mean you should ignore toxic or abusive behavior. If your partner starts chronically yelling at you, you should go to couples counseling, and if your partner puts their hands on you, you should move the fuck out. But I think if you expect someone to always be a good partner all the time, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

In Conclusion

If someone is getting physical with you or verbally abusing you every day, cutting them out is the way to go. But most toxicity we experience in our lives falls short of these black-and-white extremes. In those cases, we can find safety without cutting people out entirely.

And once you’re safe, you can assertively confront people and see how it goes. Maybe they’ll react like a shithead and you’ll be glad to see them leave, but maybe they won’t.

Isn’t it worth finding out?

1: But then, what do I know? Not only am I not married, but I have a tendency to keep picking toxic partners. Probably because for most of my life, I’ve been toxic, and we tend to fall for people who are similar to us in key psychological ways…

EDIT 08/11/21: Enjoy this article? You might like this article: Sympathy for Narcissists: Can we stop maligning people with a highly stigmatized mental illness? It’s one of my favorite articles on the internet and it shaped my thinking on this matter a great deal. Maybe it will for you too.