Have you seen this meme about cutting people out of your life or a variation of it? They’re everywhere. Sometimes the memes seem to be posted snarkily, directed at the latest person the poster is angry with while other times it seems to be about the poster’s hard-won peace. Whatever one’s motivation in posting these toxic people memes, I am sincerely proud of anyone’s ability to recognize toxic behaviors and individuals and cutting those people out of their life. But this plethora of memes got me thinking: I’m glad that we’re encouraging ourselves and others to abolish toxicity…but why aren’t we also encouraging recognizing the problematic behaviors and individuals and keeping our distance in the first place? Then we can leave the scissors down, there’d be no need to cut them out of our lives in the first place!
An Argument for Discernment
When I was in my 20’s I was a sucker for Toxic People. I’d hear stories illustrating the perfectly horrible nature of some dude I was trying to date or some person I was trying to befriend and think, “But they won’t be like that to ME.” Wrong. Or, once I’d been mistreated “Oh, but they said they’re sorry, and, anyway, they had a really rough childhood, etc, don’t be so judgmental.” No. I was using the wrong word. Judgment implies that you see someone’s character and assign negative value to aspects of it. That can be a problematic behavior. Discernment is observing someone’s character impartially and making an informed decision (without assigning value) about whether they should be in your life. We all need to practice more and better discernment.
Hear Their Words, Then Cut Them out of Your Life
If you come from a background of abuse, it may be difficult for you to recognize toxic behavior. If that’s the case, my first piece of advice is to listen. People will tell you who they are. There are no secret clues to behavior that you need to look for. People will literally just tell you. No need to cut them out of your life if you listen and just stay away.
Here’s an Example from My past to Illustrate This
I used to be involved with a man who went to rehab for alcoholism at the beginning of our relationship. That should have been a clue to get the hell out of Dodge, but I was determined not to be “judgmental.” For those involved with a partner with addiction issues, perhaps the unique difficulties that come with that arrangement are worth your peace, in my case it wasn’t and in most cases it isn’t. His mother and I were driving to visit him in rehab one day. I can’t remember the exact flow of the conversation, but she was complaining about his ex-girlfriend and she said something like: “K’s mother would call me and she would say, ‘Look what he did to my daughter!’ and I’d say ‘Well, look what she did to him!'”
Let’s unpack that, in just a few words my ex-boyfriend’s mother was disclosing that:
- My ex had a history of assaulting his ex-girlfriend.
- That physical fights were a common dynamic in that relationship.
- That my ex’s mother was such a toxic, enabling person that she thought it was appropriate to fight with her more than 30-year-old son’s girlfriend’s mother about their relationship.
- This was not a person or a family that I should want to be involved with.
I wish I’d jumped from that moving car and never looked back. Instead…I laughed. If someone tells you “I’m just so bad at relationships” or “I’m a bad person,” believe them. Practice listening, truly listening: not simply hearing words through the filters of your expectations, romanticism, past experiences, or hopes.
Once I learned how to listen, my standards began to sharpen. If a person’s social media posts are constantly whiny or dramatic then I don’t interact with them in real life. If I’ve heard lots of recent stories about a person engaging in terrible behavior I’ll glare at them until they learn to circumvent me. People are what they repeatedly do. Period. Full stop. Sure, they may lay their trauma-laced justifications for their behavior at my feet, but I’m old enough to know now that sad stories are just sad, not a reason to become entangled with someone and create your own sad story. If you’ve heard gobs of philandering stories about a person you are interested in dating, stop being interested in dating that person. If someone who constantly posts drama invites you for a cup of coffee, don’t go.
Lately my standards have also included staying away from individuals who make loads of disastrous decisions. This can be tricky as “disastrous decisions” is such a subjective standard. And it’s true that they may be making these choices due to mental illness, trauma, etc. In this set of standards I practice loving detachment. These would not be people I would glare at, but they are not people I would to invite into my home either. I’m still learning what exactly “disastrous decisions” mean to me and how to best deal with those individuals.
Yes, by all means, let’s cut out the toxic people in our circle. But let us also learn to be bouncers, lovingly guarding the entrance to our best life. Not everyone deserves to be let in and that’s just fine.
Are there any toxic people you need to start cutting out of your life? How can we “nip” more than we “cut?” Comment below, I’m curious.