The Toxicity Of Calling Everything 'Toxic'

by Elisha Beach
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy

The new favorite buzzword is toxic. It seems everyone is calling everything toxic and it’s starting to feel like a sweeping generalization to classify anything that offends or triggers someone. But constantly labeling something as toxic just because you feel triggered by it is actually toxic behavior.

The word toxic has been around from quite some time. It derives from the Greek term “toxikon pharmakon,” meaning “poison for arrows.” The current definition of the word is “acting as or having the effect of a poison.” And poison is a substance or chemical that can kill, injure or impair an organism. Based on these definitions, toxicity is fairly dangerous and harmful, but these days the word seems to have morphed into a bit of a metaphorical slang word.

I hear toxic thrown around on the internet and in real life way too much. It seems that everything is toxic. There are, of course, toxic lovers, friends, bosses, parents and all kinds of toxic people. And there are also toxic environments, TV shows, songs, political rhetoric, masculinity, femininity and even toxic positivity.

I am beginning to believe that using the word toxic is more like a defense mechanism against anything that triggers, angers or hurts people. It gives an excuse to disengage with zero responsibility. Or it’s a way of validating or removing yourself from the situation rather than dealing with the problem at hand.

But if a friend, partner or family member calls you out on something you did, that doesn’t make it a toxic relationship. When someone gives an opinion in opposition to yours, that is not toxic behavior. A man flirting to express interest is not toxic masculinity. And if someone shares their love of fitness and the results of their hard work, that is not toxic diet culture.

I am not saying that we need to put up with annoying our disrespectful behavior. You should absolutely call someone out when they cross a boundary. But we have to consider that we live in a society made up of humans and we are very far from perfect. And it’s unrealistic to expect perfection for another human being.


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All of us have good days and bad days. People have misunderstandings, disagreements and lapses in communication. Humans make mistakes, bad judgement calls and unintentionally hurt the people we love. And we should have the space in most relationships or situations to be imperfect.

Moreover, things don’t have to be organized into just two categories; toxic or non-toxic. There is a lot of gray area. There is annoying, disrespectful, thoughtless, naive, crass, insensitive, culturally unaware, ignorant, lacking of understanding … We have all been at least one of these things at some point in life. And a singular quality or action doesn’t make someone or something toxic.

Toxic behavior or a toxic situation exist because of a consistent pattern of destructive behavior. Posting one rude comment is very different from consistently demeaning and trolling someone online. A loved one arguing with you over a disagreement is very different from verbal and emotional abuse. And a work environment where a boss pressures staff to meet a deadline is very different from a boss who consistently bullies employees and promotes a culture of fear to get results.

But people are quick to grab at the negative connotation of the word without contemplating if it actually applies to the situation. It’s almost as if using the word toxic makes you a part of the “cool kids’ club” or somehow makes you more “woke” (yet another overused word). But throwing toxic out when someone offends you is like a metaphorical way of slamming the door in someone’s face. It’s an immature response that doesn’t solve anything.

I am not belittling toxicity at all. In fact I am trying to do the exact opposite and get people to take the term much more seriously. People should use the word toxic sparingly. Actual toxic practices, relationships, situations or environments are extremely harmful to a person’s overall wellbeing. And when you throw that word around willy-nilly, it takes away from how awful real toxicity can be.

People grow up in toxic households, survive toxic relationships and endure toxic situations. And they are often left to confront major mental, physical and emotional challenges on their own. The last thing they should have to deal with is their pain being minimized because people undermine the true meaning of the word toxic.

I want people to stop overusing the term. Because when someone really does experience a toxic situation it should be seen as a significant problem and not something that people can just brush over. Having toxic people in your life and dealing with real toxic situations is traumatic. And when we throw the word around carelessly, it diminishes that trauma.

Bottom line is, calling everything toxic is — in and of itself — toxic. So, before you go about abusing the word, take some time for a little reflection. Figure out if the actions or situation you are experiencing are actually harming you. Or are you simply triggered and using the word as an escape from dealing with a problem? Try not to be that toxic person.

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