Andrea O Smith
Toxic or Tiresome?
The word "toxic" seems to be a popular buzz word in our culture these days. It is, undoubtedly overused and therefore, misunderstood and overgeneralized. Many Christians wrestle with a great deal of guilt when they are unable to make relationships work or love their enemy into treating them fairly. We often excuse a great many detrimental abuses to "keep the peace." So how do we know if we are dealing with someone who is toxic or just tiresome?
We need to acknowledge how we excuse bad behavior. We might quote a part of scripture that says, "...if anyone slaps you on your cheek, turn to him the other also." (partial; Matthew 5:39) Or we replay what Jesus said, "And you shall Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no commandment greater than these." We think to ourselves that we want grace when we mess up or have a bad day, so we should give people the same grace. We absolutely should. I am not going against what Jesus has to say. He literally knows best! This practice of giving of ourselves is good and holy. However, when this crosses over from intermittent offenses to a continuous string of abuses, then we need to stop making excuses.
Let's now discuss what I would consider a tiresome person. I had a great-grandmother that we called, "Granny." She lived in a small trailer with her snappy poodles and her ever disobedient, table-jumping cats. I don't remember a time when her TV wasn't running either with daytime soap operas or the news. A constant stream of cigarette smoke soaked the floors and ceiling. She would usually light another cigarette before the first one had finished smoldering. No doubt life had handed her a few hard blows and she appeared to be quite bitter and exhausted. On occasion we would go visit our Granny. She spent most of the time complaining about us not visiting enough, but would bribe us to stay longer by keeping a full box of Nilla Wafers in her pantry closet. It was not what I would consider a delightful experience and we usually wanted to leave soon after arrival. It was her way of starting conversation to nit pick our outfits or some other criticism of our behavior. However, she always wanted a kiss before we left. She had a poky little mustache and somehow simultaneously smelled of stale and fresh cigarette smoke. She wouldn't settle for a cheek smooch either. I would remember leaving and thinking how frustrating it was to sit in the stink and listen to her complain about everything and everyone the whole time. While she was a tiresome person, we loved her. She never seemed to be intentionally hurtful. She was just a woman whose heartache was shaped by the losses of her husbands and the fact that Stefano never really died (a Days of Our Lives reference for you young folk). While it was never really a highlight of our day, her behavior did not change ours.
You'll know a person is toxic when they are corrosive to the core of your being. If someone is treating you with such intentional disdain that you are unable to control your actions and emotions, then you need to step back and reassess how much access this person needs to you and your life. You will behave in a way that is completely unbecoming of you. For an excruciatingly long time, I would try to make excuses for my abuser. I would quote Forrest Gump when Jenny would say, "He [she] just doesn't know any better." I had compassion for the world that person grew up in. I understood the pain that had forged this person's personality. I could take the hits, turn the other cheek, serve in any way I was able to and even put my own family on the back burner in attempt to prove my depth and dedication of love. It took several friends, my husband and even one of my children to point out that this was sapping me. If my abuser decided that they were having a bad day and wanted to project their feelings onto me and call me terrible names, it would wreck me for the rest of the day. Why couldn't they see I was not the things they called me? Why were my intentions constantly misunderstood? It would send me into a downward spiral. What's worse, is I believed the projections. Maybe I am selfish. Maybe I am that swear word. Maybe I do need to do more to show that I care. It ate away at who I knew I was. It was not who God said I was. It was not who my husband or my friends said I was, and yet, I let it tear apart the molecules of my identity. I didn't want to forgive, but I did. Not only that, I continued to make excuses. Maybe if I only showed more love, it would make this person be nice to me. It did not. This person felt all good things were owed to them. It made me bitter, angry and I felt ugly inside when I interacted with this person. I had lost the ability to hold my tongue. My heart had been changed and my behavior around that person followed suit.
Therein lies the difference: tiresome people may rub you the wrong way, but do not push you to change your behavior; toxic individuals trigger you into behaving unlike yourself or who you want to be. Paul had some good advice about this in Romans 12:18, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." We can absolutely try to get along with everyone. However, if you are unable to be your authentic self around someone, then they are toxic for you. "Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it." (Proverbs 4:23) If your heart is constantly being attacked, then you need to take the necessary steps to keep it safe. If their treatment of you negatively affects how you behave towards them or those around you, then it is time to set healthy boundaries to ensure protection for you and your family. I highly encourage counseling if the other party is willing to participate. If after that work is done, and they still don't want peace, then it might be time to take a break for a bit. The verse from Matthew 10:14 seems to apply to this scenario too. "If anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or home." Jesus was explaining to his disciples what to do when they went to tell people the 'kingdom of heaven is near.' He said to give peace to the house or home that was accepting of their words, but to take back the peace and knock the dust off their sandals to those who would not listen. I do not want to make the mistake of misconstruing the Bible, but I feel like this can be applied to relationships where you have done what you can to explain that someone is constantly hurting you and they actively refuse to listen or do their best to turn it back on you.
God designed you intentionally and uniquely. You are loved, cherished and adored. If someone intentionally makes you feel less than that, then protect yourself Dear One.
Dear God, We know you have a plan for us. You see the big picture and know how we fit in and why you designed us the way that you did. Please help us protect our uniqueness. Please help us protect our peace so we can best serve you. Guide us to understanding whether a person is just a little tiresome and needs more love or wether a person is toxic to our mission and we need to guard our hearts. Thank you for the good friends in our life who can help us sort out the wheat from the chaff in order that we may have our blindspots revealed. Help us discern wether we need to work more on ourselves or to step back from attacks. Thank you for loving us through our flailing and fumbling through this life. We seek earnestly to please you and bring you glory. We don't want to spend our time wallowing in what another human says to us or does to us, we want our thoughts to be constantly on you. Thank you for sending the Holy Spirit to guide us through our trials. In Jesus' name we pray, Amen.