What Is Toxicity?

Brice Laughrey
11 min readJun 5, 2023

Toxicity is an increasingly common term, so let’s talk about what it means and some of the ways it can help us talk about different experiences.

What Does Toxic Mean?

In a literal sense, toxic means poisonous, such as toxic waste. Probably the more common, colloquial usage, though, is “very harmful or unpleasant in a pervasive or insidious way.” Google gives the example, “A toxic relationship.”

Not everything that is harmful is toxic; things become toxic when the harm is part of ongoing behaviors and systems. In a toxic relationship, for example, one or more people have regular behaviors that make the relationship physically or psychologically harmful, but just because friends get into an argument or hurt each other’s feelings, that doesn’t necessarily mean the friendship is toxic.

Consider the idea of toxic waste as a metaphor. When we hear about toxic waste being disposed of improperly, the issue isn’t just about the moment of disposal. The issue is about the broader effect the toxic waste has on environments and ecosystems and the ways that those effects ripple into things like physical and mental health. For example, toxic waste can contaminate water sources, which can lead to chronic health issues in surrounding communities and animal populations. In that way, toxic waste becomes a pervasive issue in a particular area.

That’s the idea behind the metaphorical toxicity that’s often being talked about today. These are discussions about behaviors, environments, world views, philosophies, and theologies that have continual, harmful effects on people.

When I say, “Today,” I’m not saying this is a conversation that’s never been had before. I’m only pointing out that the term toxic is becoming more commonplace in everyday conversations. While the ideas being discussed about harmful behaviors, systems, and structures aren’t new, I think it’s important to let our language evolve to suit the concerns of a time and place. Toxic identifies the main concern in most of these conversations: something is continually harming people, much like a poisonous waste that pervades an entire area.

Toxic Behaviors

Toxic behaviors are things we regularly do that are harmful to others. Everyone harms someone in some way, but it’s important not to let that distract us from identifying harmful habits and behaviors. As with most things, there will be some who try to boil down toxic behavior to general, interpersonal conflicts in an attempt to shut down the conversation. They may argue that people are simply oversensitive and need to toughen up or stop taking things so personally, etc. I find that such arguments are often defensive; the people making them usually have toxic behaviors, so they feel the need to shield themselves from conversations about toxicity.

Some broad examples of toxic behaviors are manipulation, erratic emotional responses, ignoring boundaries, a need to be in control, aggression, self-centeredness, and being judgmental. Usually, if not always, these categories of behaviors lead to harm. Also, they’re not strict categories; many of them are related or could be combined depending on what kinds of specific behaviors are placed in each category.

Manipulation

Manipulation is often related to a need for control and/or self-centeredness. I like this definition from Verywell Health:

Manipulation is when a person uses controlling and harmful behaviors to avoid responsibility, conceal their true intentions, or cause doubt and confusion. Manipulation tactics, such as gaslighting, lying, blaming, criticizing, and shaming, can be incredibly damaging to a person’s psychological well-being.

Geralyn Dexter, PhD, Signs of Manipulative Behavior: Emotional Manipulation and Tactics

The important qualifier is that these behaviors are doing harm. Some manipulative behaviors, such as gaslighting and shaming, are always harmful. Others, such as criticizing or being silent, aren’t inherently harmful. What makes a behavior toxic is the way it’s being used and the effects it has on ourselves and others. Remember: discomfort is not the same as harm. As quoted, these behaviors are harmful when they are used to avoid responsibility, conceal intentions, or cause doubt and confusion.

Erratic Emotional Responses

Almost everyone can experience a broad range of emotions, each to varying degrees. It’s part of being human, so when we look for erratic emotional responses, we’re not talking about simply being sad on one minute and happy or angry the next. We’re talking about emotional dysregulation — lack of impulse control, lack of awareness of one’s own emotions, avoidance, disproportionate emotional responses, etc.

Erratic emotional responses make it difficult to have consistent boundaries, which can be psychologically harmful for others who don’t know when, where, or why something might cause an extreme emotional response. Things could even turn physically violent if a person is unable to regulate their emotions.

Ignoring Boundaries

Boundaries are important to healthy, safe, vulnerable spaces, which are important for healthy relationships of any kind. When others ignore our boundaries, we often feel unsafe and unheard, so when this is someone’s regular behavior, it becomes toxic. As with other behaviors, this can be psychologically harmful and/or physically harmful. Unwanted touching, violence, cat calling, unwanted nicknames, domineering, and unwanted third parties in shared spaces can all be examples of ignoring someone’s boundaries.

In healthy relationships, boundaries are communicated, and there can be struggles setting and transgressing boundaries as people learn to understand each other. It takes work from everyone involved, which is why I didn’t call this category transgressing boundaries. The behavior is toxic when we ignore boundaries.

I think it’s a good sign when people assume certain boundaries until otherwise stated, as opposed to assuming a lack of boundaries. People who have been ,or are being, abused may not know how, or be able, to effectively communicate their boundaries, and abusers may use that ineffective communication as a way of gaslighting victims into believing it’s their fault. This is where discussions about basic human rights and ethics is very important. Abusers can argue that if something wasn’t communicated, they didn’t know, and that’s a red flag for toxic behavior. For example, “I didn’t know having sex with someone who’s unconscious is rape,” indicates that a person doesn’t acknowledge others’ physical boundaries as inherent.

Needing to Be in Control

Needing to be in control is sometimes accompanied by other categories of behaviors, such as manipulation, erratic emotional responses, or ignoring boundaries, but it doesn’t have to be, which is why I list it as its own category. Still, manipulation, erratic behavior, and ignoring boundaries can all be ways of controlling others, and losing control or not having control can manifest in emotional outbursts or violence. Shame seems to be an especially common tool for controlling others.

Watch for people who don’t seem to be able to handle being wrong, criticized, or even challenged. Those same people often condescend or flaunt their rightness and criticize or challenge others. I see this a lot with fundamentalist Christians.

Aggression

Aggression is probably one of the easiest toxic behavior categories to spot, whether it’s physical or verbal aggression. Ignoring boundaries is often coupled with aggression. Physical abuse and violence, verbal abuse, domineering, and regular displays of anger can all be manifestations of aggression.

Remember, being angry and expressing that anger aren’t inherently toxic, but regular aggression within a relationship and violence as a default response are signs of toxicity.

Self-centeredness

Self-centeredness is when a person considers oneself more important than others and expects others to acknowledge that. Acting entitled in ways that ignore, dismiss, or demean others is a common self-centered behavior. Narcissistic behaviors are extreme manifestations of this category and bring up an important point: sometimes, toxic behaviors are related to mental disorders. I’ll circle back to that later.

I think the main qualifier about self-centeredness is that it ignores the needs of others. Healthy boundaries require honesty about oneself and self-care, but they also require recognizing and acknowledging others and their needs. Self-focus becomes toxic self-centeredness when we only focus on ourselves.

Being Judgmental

Being judgmental is about condemnation as opposed to making judgment calls. Judgments are expressions of beliefs and preferences, but when those beliefs and preferences become definitive condemnations of others, they become harmful to our relationships and, therefore, toxic. Moralizing other people’s choices and preferences is a common judgmental behavior, which seems to be often expressed using shame. It’s not simply that we like different things; what you like is “bad,” or you’re bad/stupid/ignorant/threatening/etc. for liking it.

I find that judgmental behavior is often coupled with aggression, but it doesn’t have to be. The most recognized forms of American evangelicalism tend to be the extremes of aggressive judgment (e.g. Westboro Baptist anti-homosexual protests; “God hates fags!”) and “gentler,” non-aggressive judgment (e.g. a gentle voice telling you how much of an evil sinner you are and that you should repent so you don’t burn in hell). Both can be toxic.

Toxic Environments

Toxic environments are created when harmful behaviors are part of the systems and structures that create a space or when harmful behaviors are tolerated within a space. There aren’t any limitations on the types of spaces that can be or become toxic. Religious spaces don’t get free passes; they’re not above toxicity or immune to it. Secular spaces don’t get passes, either; they’re not beyond toxic philosophies or power structures. Any space — any environment — can become toxic, because toxic environments are created by toxic behaviors, which come from people, and people are everywhere.

My main experiences with toxic environments are in religious and corporate settings. These are spaces where people (particularly men) are often rewarded for toxic behaviors (e.g. toxic masculinity). Some examples:

  • Aggression is called assertiveness.
  • Control is called leadership.
  • Self-centeredness is called ambition.
  • Manipulation is called sales, marketing, or persuasiveness.
  • Being judgmental is called competitiveness or loyalty.
  • Ignoring boundaries is written off as someone knowing better because of wisdom or experience.
  • Emotional dysregulation is called passion.
  • Sexual harassment or abuse is written off as a misunderstanding or dismissed through gaslighting.

Many people in toxic environments don’t say anything, because they know they’ll be shunned, disfellowshipped, fired, etc. We go along to get along. We tell ourselves it’s just a job for a paycheck, so we can suffer through the workday and look forward to the weekend, but over time, the sinking dread of Monday takes its toll on us. We tell ourselves it’s just once a week at worship, but the shame of our decreasing motivation to be present takes its toll throughout the week.

The psychological harm of toxic spaces can begin to manifest in physical symptoms, like nausea and indigestion, depressed immune systems, high blood pressure, chronic headaches, fatigue, chronic muscle tension, or decreased cognitive functions. Or, we might manifest psychological issues, like anxiety or depressive disorders.

When talking about self-centeredness, I mentioned narcissism. Valeria Sabater, in her article Dr. Brené Brown’s Definition of a Narcissist, explains Brown’s claim that narcissism is rooted in incredible shame and fear, and Exploring Your Mind has another article on some of the causes of narcissism, which include abuse, neglect, and parents’ inconsistency. In other words, narcissism is a result of toxic environments. This is just one example of how toxicity can relate to mental disorders.

Toxicity often breeds toxicity because of the pervasive and continual physical and psychological harm.

Identifying Toxic Environments

We can start to identify toxic environments by understanding toxic behaviors. Because behaviors are the catalysts for toxic environments, they essentially look the same. In a workplace, for example, we can look at boundaries, control, manipulation, etc. Do the managers and executives empower subordinates to take ownership of roles and responsibilities, practice trust, and encourage teamwork, or do they subvert their own employees, micromanage, spy, reward infighting, and take credit for other peoples’ work? Are there are clear job descriptions to define each employee’s role, or is everyone expected to do extra work outside their role without additional compensation? Is there consistency between what’s said in meetings or private conversations and what’s actually done in front of other coworkers, customers, or the public?

Questions like these can be applied to religious contexts, as well as secular, especially if a church is being handled as a standard business. The idea is that we’re trying to identify structures and policies that are built around toxic behaviors, such as a need for control, ignoring boundaries, manipulation, etc. I mentioned that behaviors inform the environments, and toxicity breeds toxicity, so if the leaders have toxic behaviors, the environment will follow suit. However, in situations where we don’t interact with policy makers directly, the environment can indicate toxic leadership.

Toxic Theology

Ignorance doesn’t negate toxic behavior.

Toxic theology, then, is theology that is harmful to people. The debate among Christians is usually not about the existence of toxic theology. Rather, people debate the criteria for “harmful.” This is an especially passionate debate in evangelical Christian circles, because much of American evangelical Christianity is cultic in its authoritarian control and extremist beliefs. To even imply that evangelical theologies are harmful is a threat to those legalistic, shame-based, authoritarian systems, and threats are often met with vicious verbal assaults, slander, and even violence.

Already, we can start seeing warning signs of toxicity: shame, authoritarianism, verbal abuse, violence and aggression, inability to handle criticism, etc. When toxic behaviors are rooted in theologies and religious traditions, we can be sure the theologies are toxic.

For people whose entire conception of Christianity rests in such toxic theologies, escaping that toxicity can mean disconnecting from Christianity as a whole. While I don’t believe that all Christian expressions and theologies are toxic, I do believe that safety and healing are primary concerns. We should understand that asking someone to “give us a chance” to prove that “ we aren’t toxic” shouldn’t be our goal. Removing a person from a poisonous environment and helping to heal the effects of the poison should be the goal.

Also, I think it’s important to recognize that toxic behavior doesn’t prove conscious intent. Many people have toxic behaviors without realizing it, and religious circles are no different. Even if leaders in a community are intentional in their manipulation, gaslighting, shaming, silencing, etc., that doesn’t mean laypersons in that community understand what they’re part of or recognize their own participation. However, ignorance doesn’t negate toxic behavior. This is why recognizing toxic theology is important.

Theologies are frameworks for individual and communal conduct. In other words, theologies are like philosophical environments, and just as environments can be built around harmful behaviors, our theological frameworks can be built around harmful understandings of God. Such theologies are often used to prop up oppressive systems, like how fundamentalist Christians are using their theologies to justify oppressive legislation against trans-kids and their families.

In the same way that people trapped in abusive and toxic relationships often have difficulty acknowledging that reality, let alone resisting or escaping it, people trapped in toxic religious communities and who believe in toxic theologies often have difficulty recognizing it, let alone resisting or escaping it. Similarly, just as many abusers will self-justify, many Christians will use their theologies to rationalize toxic behaviors. I strive to be gracious even to such Christians, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of truthfully identifying and resisting toxic theologies.

Toxicity and Shame

This post is already too long, so I’ll save most of this portion for another post. I’ll just mention that shame is a huge part of many toxic Christian theologies. If you’re just now learning about these things, I suggest starting with this question: “Am I being told that something is inherently wrong with me?” If the answer is yes, there’s a good chance that’s shame.

“You are sinful. You are evil. You are wicked. You are selfish. You are displeasing to God.” These are all examples of shame-based teachings and evidence of toxic theology. Please resist such things; you are human, and you are loved.

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Originally published at http://breakingbreadtheology.com on June 5, 2023.

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Brice Laughrey

Owner of Breaking Bread Theology and co-founder of 1310 Ministries. Currently living and worshiping in Las Vegas, NV.