Why Your Toxic People Memes Are Kinda Fucked Up: An Inquiry Into Toxicity

Oh, the holidays. I hate this time of year. 
Its not even about Christmas per se. I get really into the special gift giving & sentimentality parts well enough, [chosen] family, food, whatever. 

But my broody moon in Cancer coupled with a five year pattern of being newly broken up with right before the chorus of distant relatives get the chance to ask the tepidly feigned ‘so, are you seeing anyone special???’ question transforms my usual giggles & champagne demeanour into a sun sign in scowl with Liz Taylor chain smoking cigarettes on a stage rising.  

Yes, my disappointment in love is as trite as it is cliche, but welcome to the world of a million chronically depressed PTSD survivor divas. We aren’t all about loss, you know. We’re also the ones who keep it interesting, make arias out of belly aching. We are beautiful and clever and on a lifelong quest to find new humour in pain. We–I, am also someone you’ve called toxic.

I’m relatively new to a lot of the current language in relationships connected to ‘boundaries’ and there are interesting and important reasons for that. On the surface, when first introduced to this language, I understood it to mean a set of rules that a person employed in order to feel safe. And at first I was in complete agreement. However what I quickly realized, was that the discussions of boundaries were often happening the same way– I was informed of another person’s rules, and instructed to abide. The same courtesy was not taught or extended to me. Thus the beginning of a specific accrued frustration. 

Certain bodies are marked boundary-less. As a person quite physically disabled from birth, I have three decades of understanding that my body is merely entitled to everyone *but* me. To react to, to comment on, to touch, to probe, to fuck. To reject. Until recently, I didn’t understand rape. Until recently, I didn’t understand trauma. Because that would mean that my body was my own and my body had never been my own.

What bodies in what contexts can expect boundaries to be upheld? In a time of heightened anti-Black violence, we don’t need to go far to observe the state sanctioned and vigilante led war on Black bodies. Boundaries and innocence do not exist; citizenry is inherently questioned. 

This is a serious reality. What does it have to do with friendships and intimate relationships? If certain bodies are deemed more disposable, this will influence how we react to our needs and ‘boundaries’ and safety. If one partner is a survivor of child abuse and experiences triggers and the other person is not, unquestionably, the challenge will be to value both people’s needs, instead of equating the survivor as too much.

But what if the survivor is a white cis straight man and the other partner is a white queer trans woman? Odds are that the former person will struggle less to have their boundaries validated and respected than the latter. We often witness how the person with less identity power struggles more to have their needs met. When this relationship inevitably ends, this person is left feeling disposed of. 

We just finished Sag season so I know y’all are feeling me. This time of year brings up loss and resentment. And memes. Quick doses of oversimplified pseudo-philosophy that reassure our fragile egos with ‘don’t worry’s and ‘you did okay’ and ‘next year will be better’s. ‘Oh. And those relationships that didn’t work out? Those people whose needs all of a sudden threatened your feelings of security in the world? They were just toxic. Good for you for cutting them out!’

But WHO are we calling toxic? And for what purpose?  

(This is a Google image searcch of ‘toxic people’ and it makes me feel like shit about everything.)

Instead of creating vague generalized characters again, I will use my own experience as example. I have often been accused of being ‘too much,’ whether directly or indirectly. Lovers leave, friends back away, folks engage less; my shrinking is encouraged from all sides. I have struggled for years with a particular pattern of self. Once I have made the things I need small again, regained the false sense of self-sufficiency I’ve bolstered through years of head down, hide, lie, self-protect, trust only yourself, then I am desirable again. Like new. 

But it is most certainly an imperfect system, one built on the need to survive. Because as community and relationships and love regrow, vulnerability becomes necessary, and needs resurface. The moments of being called toxic have all found me during moments of stress from trauma. I am wrong to have let what I am assured is not my fault, spill out of my pores into a mess on the floor. I need to be left alone with my leaking. My pain has crossed Boundaries.

nayyirah waheed

Healing, according to so many Indigenous teachings, is an on-going collective project. Shame is not meant to be privatized or isolating. My pain from trauma is my responsibility, but its roots are not all singularly mine. And yet in the setting of boundaries, the processes of community accountability, the manifestation of revolutionary aspirations, we fail. We’ve been failing because the world is failing. 

My experience is informed by my white privilege in this regard. In struggling to see myself as someone capable of having their own shiny set of boundaries, I don’t face the same threat as trauma-surviving racialized bodies when it comes to asserting myself at the possibility of losing community or livelihood over my anger. It doesn’t threaten my life in the same way. Nor am I ever presumed to be hostile by those that may not know me.

In a North American framework built on and necessitating staggering inequality of wealth and welfare, we are encouraged to accumulate in accordance with a manufactured idea of scarcity, and protect our shares once we do. It is this myth of scarcity that makes toxic people scary. ‘You only get one life, Jim! And that person… that person is a leech!’ 


This toxicity has on-going ideological implementations. When we refer to human beings as toxic, we are locking into the colonial entitlement of the settler. It’s in the news. The welfare of Indigenous people? The manner in which we discuss the Palestinian genocide? The debate over Syrian refugees? Toxicity requires xenophobic vitriol to survive, to keep white power and wealth in tact, and to ensure that those deemed valid ‘citizens’ are so invested in this idea that they self-police. When ‘toxic people’ are white, they are simply struggling, are perhaps victims to cruel circumstance. When they are not white however, it is their fault, their legacy, as matter of fact.  

Ergo; the casual assault of the meme.

You may think that to be a gross amount of power to place on a silly image passed around on the internet. But if you’ll allow me to get a little McLuhan for a second I’d ask, what frameworks currently shape our consciousnesses? What mediums shape our social messaging? Sculpt our desires? Reflect the Self? It’s a mirror, and we have several, one literally called Face-Book. 

If what is making a person ‘toxic’ is the hardship and stigma of their oppression, then there is no option to NOT be toxic, for that person. It’s a stain that can’t be removed, and a trauma that is unresolvable because it is lived. With agency removed, we have condemned a person’s existence as criminal. ‘Toxic’ as an inhabited space is a necessary construct to distract us from the reality of toxicity. The poison of late capitalism is in all of us, all the time, moving in and out. We can let that fear convince us to accumulate Stuff and Cut People Out and think that the surfacing of re-enactments of traumas from wars on our bodies is about the Other Person and not us, but it’s not. It is a collective reality that is putting many in harm. Often localized harm. And anyone with access to settler privilege has the ability to set up borders (or ‘boundaries’) yet flee freely.

When it comes to loving each other, boundaries seem like beautiful things. I’m a little in love, despite my seasonal swearing *off* love. But I also know that their application involves a reality of collective need that will be as limited as it is ever-shifting. It’s about assessing what you need and what you can give in a current moment of being, as it happens alongside other beings. And as sure as my experience in the world has taught me as a person as small as a salted peanut, I will approach many more contexts in which my needs are compromised in the future. But this will not be my fault, nor will it deem me or any other human person toxic. There is harm in need of collective remedy.

So fuck your memes. Merry Christmas. 




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2 Responses to Why Your Toxic People Memes Are Kinda Fucked Up: An Inquiry Into Toxicity

  1. kate says:

    Beautifully worded and a wonderful acknowledgment to survivors of all race, I have been struggling to have my pain of betrayal and abuse understood especially in a time of so much racial unease, I am sympathetic and understanding to all survivors of any opression…. Thank you, I stumbled upon this after an “episode” outburst of emotional trauma, one I know if someone else saw me cry that way I would be called toxic. I am living with PTSD and some of your words made me felt very understood, I hung onto them like they were my own, so again, thank you. Xox

  2. Pingback: 2015: Year in Review | À l'allure garçonnière

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