There is something seriously toxic about the world right now. Every direction you look there is another news story about human poison (religious and political extremism, sex abuse, racism etc).
Societies are being driven apart by political upheaval and unprecedented events. Through the division and conflict caused by these events (Brexit is a big one here in the UK right now), we are intoxicated by the need to be right, to win, to beat the other side…and increasingly, the toxic affect of apathy, shoulder shrugging, and despair.
What do you do when you need to handle something toxic?
When faced with a toxic substance our instinct is generally to protect ourselves. We use things like barriers, protective clothing, and measures to minimise exposure to the source of toxicity.
Desensitised and Safe
A couple of years ago, I was called to a hoarder’s house where a woman had lived for decades, and suddenly died. We were called there in the middle of the night. (Un)fortunately, the lights didn’t work. The house was floor to ceiling with ‘stuff’. There was only the narrowest pathway to the chair where the lady was resting.
My colleague and I had to don disaster suits with face masks so that we were protected from the potential risks that were everywhere. I put three pairs of gloves on, in case of sharps.
It wasn’t until that day that I actually knew what hoarding looked like. Incredibly sad. I will never forget the sights and smells.
In layering up the protection, I was struck by the fact that I was desensitising myself. I couldn’t feel anything with my hands. My vision was restricted because of the hood. And I could hear and feel little more than my own breath through the face mask.
The protection was necessary. But I was also very glad to get out of the situation, and out of the suit.
Protecting Against Toxicity in Everyday Life
We protect ourselves when we encounter toxicity. And there’s a price to it, which we must be aware of. We might use defence mechanisms, shut ourselves off, turn away from the source of toxicity. When we do this, we potentially desensitise ourselves.
In this week’s podcast we look at some of the everyday toxins, which creep into our lives. So that we can better manage how we relate to them, and avoid shutting ourselves off from them all together.
Toxicity is the transformative affect within an organism, which, over time renders it unable to carry out the functions it was created to do.
Toxic is the name we give to a potential source of toxicity.
In this sense, anything can become toxic. Toxicity can emerge anywhere. Even in places that are otherwise healthy. For example, a toxic relationship is one where one partner prevents the other from growing, being, and living life as themselves. They may use tools like abuse, manipulation, and control, to diminish their ability to live in a way that is true to who they are.
This kind of ‘poison’ is not always immediately obvious. It creeps in over time, and it isn’t until there are a lot of toxins already within the organism that you start to notice the transformation that is being caused.
Toxicity in everyday life starts with small doses of intoxication. Just like with drugs or alcohol, we consume toxins, without acknowledging the potential harm they might cause.
People still smoke cigarettes. Even though packets display a terrifying warning about the consequences of doing so.
A glass of wine or cigarette can calm you down and make you feel good. But a few glasses later you might become unable to carry out basic functions. That’s why you’re not allowed to drive. You are intoxicated (rendered incompetent by a toxin).
A little while later the toxins begin to leave the body, and you’ll eventually get back to normal functioning. The transformation is temporary, and short lived.
Over time, if this toxin is consumed consistently, a biological addiction may form (transformation of the organism to depend on the substance for normal functioning).
Social toxicity is like that. It’s something that might affect us in a big way in the short run, but ultimately we have a choice over time whether or not to keep doing it, whether or not to keep believing that it is good, and to choose to find better alternatives to the things that are causing long term toxicity.
In the episode we explore these areas where poison can creep in:
1. Toxic Tribalism
We are tribal beings. It’s a part of our development as social beings over millennia. But when these instincts kick in as we interact in our modern world, they can lead to some very toxic consequences.
2. Toxic Labels
Labels like introvert, HSP, extrovert, etc can carry an insidious poison. If we don’t use them intentionally and maturely, they can become a dominant lens through which we see ourselves, other people, and the world. They end up restricting our experience of life. And when we place expectations and judgements on other people, labels run the risk of becoming toxic.
3. Toxic Productivity
Mike Sturm says, “Toxic Taskulinity describes a harmful set of attitudes and behaviors that have become increasingly accepted in our work lives, but that fly in the face of a balance and sustainability — in both business and in life.”
It is underpinned by fetishisation of quick hard growth, an expectation that people should ‘always be on’, idolisation of the hustle mentality (doing stuff and staying busy), and ‘self-hacking’, in a way that involves quite a bit of showing off and competition (not deep self-development work).
4. Toxic Relationships
A person only has the power we give them. A relationship is an exchange of influence. If we recognise that a relationship is causing us to feel, say, and do things that are alien to where we want to be, then it may be toxic. Not necessarily because the other person is toxic, but rather, because the relationship is no longer functioning as it once did.
5. Toxic Habits
Habits are neutral. They are neither good or bad. Our assessment of whether or not they invite toxicity into our lives can be made based on whether or not they bring about the conditions for us to be who we want to be. Or whether they chip away at our wellbeing and render us unable to function at our best.
6. Toxic Emotion
How we relate to emotion is a big potential source of toxicity. Either because a person is emotionally volatile and reactive. Or because they are emotionally shutoff. They’re both opposite ends of a spectrum where toxicity can exist and it can be destructive to us in the long term.
7. Toxic Envy
Comparison becomes toxic when it’s mixed with an unhealthy sense of competition. Envy kicks in when we compare ourselves with others and desire what they have and resent them having it. Envy becomes the the toxic byproduct of comparison, when it drives resentment, bitterness, and the desire to belittle the other person. It is poison within the person carrying the envy.
8. Toxic Laziness
Laziness is not something we’re born with. It’s something we develop over time. It’s a poison that creeps in. We often make the lazy option the acceptable option. To choose anything else requires backbone and thick skin.
9. Toxic Self-Help
This becomes toxic through self-abuse, and self-rejection. It can set us on a perpetual hamster wheel, causing us to jump from one thing to the next, desiring to feel fixed but never getting there in an abstract quest for completeness, wholeness, and happiness.
10. Toxic Sensitivity
If we don’t develop a healthy relationship with sensitivity, we can experience it as toxicity itself. If we focus on the negatives, and refer to the overwhelm of why scents, sounds, sights, textures, events, emotion, and so on, are terrible, we shut down any sense of potential to see the good that we can experience within it.
It doesn’t take much to turn things toxic. We don’t notice it happening. Like our human propensity to adapt to new circumstances. We might experience toxic stuff in our lives without realising it’s happened.
We sleep walk towards a life that has transformed beyond recognition, away from its original purpose. It can be hard to know how to get back. How to unpick those toxic parts that have become normalised.
But this is not the end of the story.