We all have the capacity to be toxic in love and friendship. The sooner we all accept that we have likely been the toxic one at one point or another, the sooner we can love—ourselves and others—best.
Words by E.R. Pulgar. Illustrations by Praew Jutatip.
As Omicron cases surged in New York, a friend and I sat on his stoop in Bed-Stuy and caught up. Over a box of Malbec, we spent the quiet December night reminiscing on an afternoon that had become an evening, a magical summer day spent drinking and talking shit for several happy hours. With Jake, I could always speak frankly. He reminded me with a giggle of a human moment I had that day.
“You set me up for a story about you having trouble with a roommate and then said, dramatically, ‘I was shocked to realize I was the toxic one’,” he said giggling. “You were so honest about it, I couldn’t help but laugh.”
When it comes to my own toxicity, I have always had a problem with selfishness. You can pin it on a number of factors: embodying the “oldest son” archetype, being young and not wanting to think twice about consequences, being born with Saturn in Pisces in my 9th house, learning to rely on myself and only myself after processing the trauma of past living situations. No matter how you slice it, my actions have distanced me from lovers and friends I cared deeply about. I could have avoided these situations had I done the painful grown-up thing and held myself accountable for my actions.
All of us have stories like this, but few of us want to admit that we’ve been toxic. Why would we? Why would anyone want to stare themselves in the face in that most dirty of mirrors, discerning the hard truth of lack of self-accountability with unflinching eyes? In our simultaneously disconnected and connected world, this deflective attitude stems from our having forgotten the importance of, to quote American Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield, “[the] essential art of taking time to converse with our heart.”
But why are we so afraid to earnestly have these conversations with our heart? In my experience, it’s because I was so deeply afraid of admitting fault even when I was at fault. I held onto the assumption that because I am inherently a good person with a kind heart and good intentions, I cannot possibly be toxic.
Toxicity can look like a lot of different things beyond the classic extremes. It goes beyond someone who is outright manipulative, dishonest, aggressive. It can look like the friend who decides what is good for you and takes all of your burdens on top of theirs before eventually resenting you. It can look like the lover who doesn’t quite love bomb you, but loves you so much it’s asphyxiating. It can look like the family member who is overbearing with their kindness, who leaves their child or sibling no space to create healthy boundaries.
Toxicity can look like a lot of different things beyond the classic extremes.E.R. Pulgar
Kind toxicity can drain a person just as much as a more obvious form of it. The kicker? All of us are capable of toxicity, and all of us will likely be toxic to someone at some point, no matter how hard we try not to be.
To hold ourselves accountable and face this fear of toxicity is to have the self-respect Joan Didion waxed poetic about in her seminal 1961 Vogue essay on the subject. To quote Didion, true self-respect, which allows us to face ourselves and those we have wronged, is “[concerned with] a separate peace, a private reconciliation.”
Before apologizing to others, there must be a moment of communion with that ashamed child inside each of us who was caught breaking the vase, who colored on the expensive painting, who took the joke too far and was put in timeout. It’s the easiest thing in the world to fall into the trap of self-loathing after we have done something wrong. It is impossible to hate ourselves into a version of ourselves that we can love. The fact of the matter is that only by loving ourselves — by giving ourselves the grace we will be rightfully denied by those we hurt — can we move differently enough to embody a better person.
This self-love is key when it comes to processing one’s own toxicity. It cannot be rooted in pride. I recently had dinner with a friend of mine who had hurt me. After a week of taking space, we had dinner. That night, I laid out my anger and my pain out like playing cards, letting them know how disrespected and surprised I felt at their behavior. They apologized and left me thinking we had a chance to start over. Before I went to sleep, a late-night text from them: “I’m still fixated on the respect part. I don’t tolerate being talked to disrespectfully.”
It took a moment to step out of myself and acknowledge my own anger in how I had spoken to them, but to entertain this would have completely disregarded my self-respect. When you toxify the waters of a relationship, you’re at the mercy of the other person’s patience as they assess if they will ever trust you or treat you like they used to, if they even want to mull it over. To hold the hurt person’s hurt reactions up to the jury is to continue the cycle of anger and to miss the point entirely. It’s the ultimate deflecting of responsibility.
Forgiveness and compassion are always linked.bell hooks
When moving through the patchy aftershock of a toxic situation we caused, the process of reflection and self-accountability must be imbued with self-love. It is the only thing that will allow us to slap ourselves upside the head, sit with what we did, assess, and act accordingly.
The late great writer and theorist bell hooks said in a 1998 interview with Maya Angelou that “forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” We all have the capacity to transform into better versions of ourselves. Whether the person we hurt sticks around to see that, something that depends fully on how much love remains after the break, we must be brave enough to admit to them, and to ourselves, that we fucked up and be willing to learn from that.
This important effort of reckoning with one’s own toxicity, apologizing, and committing to be different has as much to do with fearlessness than anything else. To show up for love as fully as one can, one must toss fear out the window. One must be unafraid to embody even bad things — and to own up and fix it when we do.