The truth about the terms “toxic” and “bullying”

I’ve noticed that along with the increased tendency to call things narcissistic, gaslighting, and bipolar when they’re actually not, many people are overusing and misusing the terms “toxic” and “bullying.”

Part of it is that our culture now is just mean. People say rude things to each other all the time (including our president, who is both reflective of this standard and further justifies it.) The things people say to each other are so far beyond what was acceptable when I was a kid that I am often just stunned by it. If you object, people tell you that you’re too sensitive and need to lighten up.

That said, though, I see a lot of people throwing around the words “toxic” and “bullying” in situations where they really don’t apply. I especially see this in the online support groups for victims of narcissists and in memes about mental health.

Many people behave in ways that are sometimes toxic. Sadly, this sometimes includes me. But I think a lot of people don’t mean to do it; again, myself included. I don’t ever mean to hurt anybody. People who are suffering or struggling to get better sometimes say or do thoughtless things that can hurt others despite their intentions.

Sometimes two people have a tendency toward toxic interactions with each other but are normal with everybody else. It doesn’t mean either person is toxic in themselves, just that they have an unhealthy pattern that probably means they should limit their interactions.

But that’s different from being a toxic person overall. Occasional toxic behaviors don’t necessarily mean a person as a whole is toxic. I don’t know if you can tell yet from previous entries, but I really don’t like the idea of characterizing an entire person based on their worst traits (especially if they’re aware of them and are trying to get better.)

Similarly, “bullying” gets thrown around a lot. And bullying is definitely a very major problem that I believe is partly responsible for the increase in suicides, so I’m in no way trivializing how serious and devastating bullying can be.

But it weakens the meaning of true bullying when you say it refers to someone making fun of the way you look (which is just a rude one-time behavior) or someone telling you they have a problem with something you’re doing.

Bullying is “intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power. Kids who bully say or do something intentionally hurtful to others and they keep doing it, with no sense of regret or remorse — even when targets of bullying show or express their hurt or tell the aggressors to stop.” (That definition comes from this website, FYI.) It also says that the key aspect of bullying is the ongoing nature of the behavior, which leaves the victims feeling powerless and fearful.

Based on that definition, a one-time rude comment can’t be bullying. A disagreement with someone, even if it’s a recurring disagreement, probably isn’t bullying, either.

Having been bullied and having been in relationships with people that had unhealthy communication, you know the difference when you see it. In my experience, being bullied almost always involves fear of that person and it’s relentless. Poor communication or unhealthy relationship dynamics can certainly make you miserable and are usually a sign that you need to do something differently (if not outright get out of the situation), but it’s not bullying.

It’s not bullying any time someone says or does something that makes you feel kind of bad about yourself.

Often it’s a sign that you need to re-evaluate your relationship if it’s happening regularly. But sometimes it’s also a sign that you need to work on improving your self-esteem, learn how to take things less personally, and develop more confidence in yourself.

I say this because, in many ways, I have had to develop a lot of the same skills. I used to be really thin-skinned and take everything super personally. A rude comment from a stranger would send me into a tailspin for hours. I would second-guess myself and replay interactions over and over in my head, unable to let them go.

I still struggle with this, but less often than I used to. It’s something I’m in the process of changing; you can’t just snap your fingers and stop having a problem as soon as you acknowledge it. You have to retrain your thoughts and your initial reactions, and that takes time and practice. And I have experienced myself that when you work on it, it gets better.

But ultimately we’re buying into the larger social problem of people being unable to communicate with each other and assuming others are our enemies. We damage people when we pigeonhole them so much based on certain behaviors, rather than looking at the overall person.

Sometimes people behave badly because they’re assholes. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re always assholes or that you deserve it or that you have to label them with some kind of psychological issue. It’s often just a snapshot of who the person is in that moment, that interaction. Maybe the best thing to do is just to try to forget it and move on…maybe permanently, if it’s someone you see frequently and they do it on a regular basis.

I think we’d all do better to give each other more grace, including ourselves, and stop looking for more offense than is intended.