Why is it so hard to admit we might be the toxic one?
Just last month, I came a hair’s breadth from bailing on my friend Catherine’s hen party at the eleventh hour. I had initially been thrilled to be invited – but as the date approached, my anxiety loomed. The thought of the long train journey, the awkward small talk with people I didn’t know, the cost – it all made me feel uneasy. What if I couldn’t make good conversation? What if no one liked me? And what if I had to watch her play Mr and Mrs while feigning interest in what her fiancé’s ‘most annoying habit’ might be? It was so far from my comfort zone. Cancelling would surely be a win for self-care, with me taking control of my life and putting boundaries in place… right?
As I typed, deleted and then re-typed my message to Catherine, I confided in another friend about my dilemma. She said that to let Catherine down on such an important event so last minute would be rude. (Note to self: cancel earlier next time!) That by not going I would be giving in to my own selfish needs. Her response was a blunt wake-up call. I went to the hen. And when I arrived, Catherine was thrilled to see me. In fact, the whole weekend was great – I needn’t have worried. She later revealed her own anxieties that no one would turn up to the event she’d spent so long planning. I was so glad I hadn’t let her down.
In considering bailing, I had been responding to the clarion calls of social media self-care gurus, who endorse setting boundaries and living life on our own terms. The hashtag #selfcare has more than 30bn views on TikTok, with #boundaries at 2bn and #cancelplans at 9m. Under the hashtag #notleavingthehouse, users comically rejoice in cancelling on friends and opting to stay in. I scroll past hundreds of cute and colourful illustrations on Instagram on a daily basis, which affirm things like, ‘It’s okay to cancel plans,’ and, ‘Embrace the word no.’
So is there any wonder my immediate instinct was to cancel? And look, boundaries and self-care are incredibly important when used wisely. But in putting ourselves first, how often are we truly exercising a much-needed safeguarding of our mental health, as opposed to just being a bit, well, lazy?
This ‘looking out for number one’ attitude has even seeped into the world of work, where the age of going the extra mile is well and truly over. Last year, the concept of ‘quiet quitting’ went viral on TikTok which, in case you missed it, refers to employees choosing to prioritise their personal lives over pleasing their bosses. There were more than 1.2m Google searches worldwide for the phrase some months, with us Brits accounting for 12% of these.
American TikToker @saraisthreads summed up the trend in a video in which she unapologetically claims to ‘act her wage’, by turning up to work with a Starbucks Frappuccino in hand, laughing at the expectation of taking more than 500 calls, lingering around the staff room and leaving a minute before 5pm. Several other videos mocked the different workplace attitudes of overly keen millennials who are willing to work all hours compared with the more boundaried Gen-Z workers.
It’s no surprise that such messaging has put down roots during a time of immense political and financial uncertainty. Even before the pandemic, millennials were being referred to as the burnout generation, trying to balance work and side hustles with an active social life, saving for a house, practising a wellness routine and getting eight hours of sleep a night (not to mention all those hours spent picking out the perfect pair of skinny jeans and perfecting the ultimate side parting). The backlash to the ‘always on’ narrative has been quick, brutal and much welcome.
And it makes sense. Saying no, prioritising rest and knowing our limits is healthy behaviour. And yet, for every meeting we miss or ball we drop because we input our own limitations, there’s probably someone else facing the consequences and picking up where we left off. So what if laying down our limits is actually turning into an excuse for being flaky friends, lacklustre employees and rubbish partners who simply dig our heels in and end up saying no in response to anything we just don’t want to do?
When 23-year-old Rebecca* broke up with her long-term boyfriend, she felt her best friend wasn’t quite supportive enough. Where normally the pair would get together over a glass of wine and chat about all the things causing them stress, coaching each other on everything from their horrible bosses to what to wear to a friend’s wedding, suddenly Zara* was pretty absent – just at the time when Rebecca needed her most of all. With every one of her unanswered texts or calls, Rebecca would feel increasingly let down, with her disappointment soon morphing into frustration – and then anger. Rebecca began to pick holes in their relationship and saw Zara’s behaviour as "toxic" and even disloyal. "I felt like she was a terrible friend, and that a good one should always be there for you," she says.
In a moment of frustration, Rebecca wrote a series of messages to Zara, accusing her of being a poor friend and detailing how fed up she was of things being so one-sided. Even though the two remained amicable, Zara began to distance herself from Rebecca. To this day, Rebecca regrets what she sent. "I feel mortified looking back and re-reading my messages. It just reveals how toxic my own behaviour had been." Rebecca turned to a therapist for support. In doing so, she came to realise something. "I had unrealistic and unfair expectations of our friendship. [Zara] had a lot of her own mental health struggles, and I shouldn’t have expected her to always take on my problems, too."
According to psychotherapist Nicholas Rose, Rebecca’s story is part of a wider pattern, in which everyone is striving to do things the best they can, but far too often are in autopilot mode and act without thinking. "When we’re dealing with our own struggles there can often be a loss of empathy and understanding of how things are for other people," he tells Cosmopolitan. "If you only look externally, you’ll keep repeating negative patterns of behaviour and you’ll forever remain unaccountable." Rose suggests that looking inwards from time to time and taking a moment to reflect on our behaviour can reveal certain aspects of ourselves we may not have considered before. "We tend to have a process of reaching decisions and maybe not wanting to go back over and re-evaluate them. Was this the best thing to do or not?"
So why is it so much easier to find fault in others and more challenging for us to see where we’re going wrong ourselves? When I asked friends about experiences where they eventually realised their roles in conflict, many were reluctant or vague about details. Go figure. Rose attributes this in part to the vulnerability it reveals in us when we openly admit where we’ve gone wrong. In his book, Better Together, Rose suggests that dealing with problems or conflict can only be done effectively through teamwork. Whoever we believe the problem belongs to, "it only gets solved when both put [the blame] to one side and say, 'What is going on here, and what can we do to change it?'"
We’ve all been in a position where we expect ourselves to take centre stage in someone else’s life (hello, main-character energy). In this age of self-care, it’s easy to feel entitled to put our problems on to others and expect instant soothing. But our increasing desire to become armchair psychologists and diagnose others as ‘self-involved’ or ‘toxic’ could, in fact, be hindering rather than helping us.
"We’ve got an ever-increasing sophisticated lexicon of psychological language such as gaslighting, narcissism and toxicity being used online," Rose explains. While these terms are entirely valid in some situations, when used excessively and casually in everyday life, "such labels risk putting all the focus externally on to others, instead of holding ourselves accountable and looking at our own potential to behave in certain ways".
Sheri Jacobson, psychotherapist and founder of Harley Therapy, feels similarly. She agrees we seek to label people too quickly. "Someone isn’t toxic just because you feel they have disappointed you," she says. Jacobson advises putting your phone away, taking a step back from social media and reflecting on the source of your mental health advice.
It’s unsurprising that the age of unaccountability dovetails with the current societal challenges we’re facing. Recent data proves just how burned out and fed up we’re feeling (something I’m sure you don’t need to see the actual stats to believe, but…): a 2022 YouGov study found that at least one in five Brits have sought help with their mental health, while the Office for National Statistics recently concluded that the number of people who have left work since 2019 and have long-term illness and mental health problems has risen by as much as half a million. While anyone struggling with mental health should always seek help from their GP, it’s hardly a wonder we’d take solace in easy advice that seems to offer a cheap, quick solution at a time when many of us are feeling disillusioned and anxious about the future.
This tracks with Rose, who sees a wider sense of societal malaise as why unaccountability may be reigning supreme. "We’re collectively dealing with anxiety around our own survival. The pandemic and difficult situations in the world all link to our sense of security." He adds, "When our security is threatened, we’re defensive and more likely to scrutinise how other people are behaving. We’ll be on a higher alert to behaviours and problematic experiences."
But does our desire to help ourselves have to come at the expense of others? Is the only solution to carving out our own #boundaries to throw someone else under the proverbial bus? When we’re going through a tough personal situation, it may be natural for us to assume that our problems are at the centre of other people’s worlds just as they are for us, but this sort of blinkered thinking may actually be doing more harm than we think to the people around us, says Jacobson. "Ultimately, accountability comes in two forms – both to self and to others (society included)."
Setting serious mental and physical health conditions aside, most of us "can demonstrate self-care while still balancing external commitments. It means understanding what we need to do to keep ourselves fundamentally ‘well’, while simultaneously appreciating that our choices do have an impact on others. Reciprocity is generally a good strategy to play – give-and-take benefits all parties, compared with the unilateral take-take or give-give," Jacobson says. "Softening our expectations can really help. We’d be wise to remember that self-care does not mean we should feel, or act, entitled. It’s generally helpful to adopt a gratitude stance rather than feel we are owed more and better," she continues.
For Jacobson, instead of pulling back from our work and friendships, doing the opposite may actually help to improve our sense of wellbeing more generally. "A negative view of others and unrealistically high expectations are a recipe for disillusionment," she explains. "If we’re able to contribute to society (at work and with friendships), express gratitude, consider and show respect to others, all in a framework of self-compassion (which is not mutually exclusive), we’ll tend to be better off in our mood, optimism, physical and even financial health."
At a time when most of us feel our sense of control slipping through our fingers, it’s easy to see how placing the blame on others for our unhappiness can be enticing. Instead of being an active participant with agency over our choices and decisions, seeing others as the ‘bad guy’ feels like the safe and easy option. But our relationships, whether that’s with a friend or a work colleague, are two-way streets that require our cooperation, collaboration and empathy in order to be fulfilling. After all, who wants to be friends with someone who bails on plans all the time, or to work with someone who is dropping everything the second that the little hand hits five? I know I don’t.
*Names have been changed.
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