Toxic and Abusive Are Not the Same Thing
If you’ve ever been heartbroken by a relationship and gone looking for answers, chances are you’ve stumbled across advice on whether that person is “toxic” or “abusive.” “Toxic” and “abusive” are often used interchangeably to describe negative or unsavory behavior in relationships. These terms are related but not the same. All abusers are toxic, but not all toxic people are abusers.
Like most complexities of life, toxic and abusive behavior exist on a spectrum. To understand where an offense might fall, consider what boundaries were crossed, how many times the behavior persisted, and the intent of the action. All of these factors can help determine how serious it is.
Some toxic behavior is relatively benign and can be described more along the lines of being disrespectful, a bad habit or poor choice, such as, say, swearing in front of Grandma, forgetting to feed the cat or not replacing the roll of toilet paper. If someone does these things once or rarely, it can hardly be considered toxic behavior. Repeatedly doing these things, especially if confronted about them in the past, points towards toxic behavior. Doing these things with an intent to harm means the behavior is abusive. Many survivors of psychological abuse can attest that it’s the accumulation of “little things” done with the intent to harm that causes anguish.
Let’s look at another example: a friend who shares your secrets behind your back. Betraying trust like this even once is toxic. It could cause considerably more harm than an empty roll of toilet paper ever could and could require an end to the friendship. This behavior, if repeated, or with an intent to harm, is abusive.
Sometimes, toxic behavior is a trauma response. Perhaps someone means well but is repeatedly snowplowing other people’s boundaries or making poor choices that hurt their intimate relationships. Trauma doesn’t excuse bad behavior. When relationships get complicated due to a history of trauma, boundaries and compassion need to be practiced in equal parts.
There’s a lot of subjectivity to these terms, and truly abusive people tend to exploit that. An abusive person might project their behavior onto another and accuse them of being the abusive one. All of the focus then goes to trying to defend oneself. Because it’s difficult to prove the intentions of another, abusive people often deflect responsibility for their actions. Being around an emotionally abusive person stirs up so much chaos and confusion, it’s hard to think clearly.
It’s not always necessary to define someone’s bad behavior as “toxic” or “abusive” in order to figure out what to do about it. Sometimes, the greater priority is to ask yourself how this behavior makes you feel. If the behavior makes you feel unloved, undervalued or unsafe, changes need to be made in the relationship. If the behavior exists in the “toxic” range, there’s a chance that two people who mutually agree to work on their own issues can improve their relationship. If the behavior exists in the “abusive” range, it’s far less likely that things will work out. A “toxic” person may want to change. An abusive person will not.
Another factor that determines a person’s tolerance for toxicity is repeat exposure. Say you decide to varnish a table in an unventilated space. The first few minutes you’re exposed, you might notice a chemical odor, but it otherwise might not affect you much. However, if you spend the whole day in that space, chances are you’ll develop symptoms, such as a headache. If you varnish tables every day in unventilated spaces without proper safety equipment, minor symptoms will become major ones. Eventually, your body will become so over-exposed, that any exposure anywhere to benzine, the toxic chemical in varnish, will cause an extreme reaction. Your table-varnishing days are done, and you may experience long-term health issues that impact your quality of life. It can be the same way with exposure to toxic people.
The range of “toxic” and “abusive” can look different to different people. Sometimes past trauma can cause an otherwise “benign” situation to become unbearably toxic to one person, but hardly an issue for another. For those who are in recovery from chronic narcissistic and psychological abuse, many are so over-exposed to lying, gaslighting and manipulation, they simply cannot have these behaviors around them in any form, or their bodies will react with migraines, chronic fatigue and panic attacks, among other things. Some might have a higher threshold to “handle” a narcissistic person in their life. For others, that threshold may be extremely low.
Bottom line, our brains and bodies require an emotionally healthy environment just as much as we need a physically healthy environment. Making mental health a priority often means letting go of toxic and abusive people in order to thrive.