Not feeling well? Jump on social media and you’ll be barraged with strangers assuring you you’re fabulous, amazing, a total badass. Have problems? That’s because there are so many toxic people. Avoid toxic people and surround yourself with fabulous, amazing total bad asses.
But what if these "toxic" people have been told they’re fabulous, amazing, total bad asses who are perfect just the way they are? And what if some of these fabulous, amazing, total bad asses are all too often toxic people? When everyone is fabulous and toxic people are always other people, reality can turn out to be confusing.
Liberace was fabulous. Aretha Franklin was amazing. And Bonnie and Clyde were total bad asses. As well as toxic people. But most of us aren’t fabulous. We’re not all that amazing. And total bad ass is a trendy term applied to women (rarely men) who drink and swear too much but keep us laughing. As for toxic people, what once may have been a useful term for those rare people who do more harm than good, has become a term applied to anyone who causes us the slightest bit of discomfort. In other words, to avoid seeing ourselves and the people who surround us in a realistic light, social media (and often our friends) have provided us hyperbole to support us when we’re down.
Let’s get real. Viewing ourselves through hyperbolic lenses is comforting but we all know it’s no more than illusion. And while it never hurts to dabble with illusion, once we dive straight into it, we’re worse off than we started. We fear the truth might catch up to us. Others might catch on. If they only knew we aren’t so fabulous our friends would flee in a heartbeat. That’s why buying into the fabulous illusion leaves us feeling worse off than we started—but all the more confident that we don’t have to do anything to fix ourselves because we’re perfect just the way we are. And anyone who suggests otherwise is clearly a toxic person.
Just who are these toxic people anyway? True, they might be the sociopath next door who will feed your new puppy to their pet snake. They might be the coworker who spends more time plotting to sabotage you than doing any actual work. They might even be the person sleeping next to you each night who unbeknownst to you has six passports, three wigs, and a deadly arsenal buried under the floorboards.
But most times it’s the friend who is depressed. You’re told to stay away from Debbie Downers. Or the coworker who files a discrimination complaint. Your mentors urge you to avoid them at all costs. Or the sibling who’s encouraged you to address your own anger issues. Or your drinking. Or your pattern with relationships. Or your spending. Or the way you treat your friends or family. All you need to do is frame them as toxic people, and you’ll be surrounded by well-meaning friends and strangers who will assure you that you should avoid such toxic people.
There are many reasons to pay attention to red flags, to that feeling of discomfort we feel around certain people, often for reasons we can’t articulate. As a private investigator I once knew told me, “If someone comes to me and says their spouse is having an affair and tells me exactly why they’re so sure, they’re almost never having an affair. But when they come to me and say they think their spouse is having an affair, but they can’t quite put their finger on what it is that makes them think that, they almost always are.” Our senses with other people often work that way. Having a sense that something’s off can be reason enough to steer clear.
But dismissing people as toxic because they bring us discomforting truths about ourselves, or because they are grappling with problems in their own life, says more about ourselves than it does about them. We’ve constructed social lives around social media in such a way that interacting with real people for any length of time is foreign to us.
By living in the illusionary worlds of social media, we’ve embraced illusions about other people that either hyperinflate their joy and perfection, or their level of toxicity. And we’ve embraced illusions about ourselves that rate even our most modest accomplishments as amazing, while at the same time becoming so sensitive to any critique or discomfort that we banish those who don’t recognize how fabulous we are just the way we are. In other words, we’ve constructed social worlds without real people. We needn’t be real, our friends needn’t be real, and our interactions and growth over time needn’t be real.
The world is not comprised of good people versus bad. And most of us are not nearly as good—or as bad—as we think we are, or as we think other people are. By casting off the emotional supports of hyperbole that have rendered our descriptions of ourselves and friends and foes like bad Madison Avenue ad copy, we’re better positioned to see others for who they are in all their imperfections and find space in our lives to embrace them.
We’re also better prepared for recognizing our own flaws and fixing them, than denying they exist at all or plummeting to the depths of self-loathing once we get a whiff of them. And we’re better able to live with some discomfort and accept that not everything or everyone is clear and understandable.
People—whether yourself or others—tend to be as complex as they are simple, as good as they are bad, and as problematic as they are entertaining. Once you accept that premise, you’ll have no need for hyperbolic supports. And that’s when life gets interesting, and people even more so.