Recently, while trapped in my taxi-mom car awaiting my next “fare”, I read a few opinion pieces I encountered while wandering through social media which were attempting to advise me as to the types of people I should eliminate from my life…which they labeled toxic people. I thought about this for quite a while (taxi-mom duty comes with tons of idle thinking time…which I lovingly call my forced me time) and came to some conclusions.
It is a simple fact of life that I…you…we…are all going to have to deal with these kinds of people whether we like it or not. As much as the online world may make it possible to restrict true interaction, we still live on this planet with a whole lot of other people, so unless we can build ourselves indestructible and self-sufficient little bubbles in which to live out the rest of our days (don’t think I haven’t sometimes seriously tried to work out the logistics of this option: my bubble is going to be positioned on a warm sandy beach…with that fine white sand that runs through your toes and over your feet like silk when you walk on it… on a remote island somewhere, and it will only let in nature, sunshine and warmth, while filtering out the harmful rays, and death inducing nature, of course…Ok, I may have dedicated a little too much energy thinking about it.). Maybe one of the biggest problems of our time is the tendency to want to limit our exposure to only those people whose opinions closely match our own, so that we need not wander from our comfort zones and find ourselves analyzing and defending our points of view. Maybe we imagine that this is in some way taking care of ourselves. Perhaps, however, the best way to learn to live successfully and more comfortably with all different kinds of people and to work through our differences toward a common good is not by reading articles about who to avoid, but through direct experience with…all types of people.
So much is being said lately about how we need to allow our children to fail because this is the best way for them to learn: through raw personal experience. I totally agree and would ask, should we, as adults, deny ourselves the benefits of this same proven method? Yes, it sucks when someone we trust lets us down or when we are fooled by someone who pretends to be a friend in order to fulfill a personal interest or goal. Yes, it hurts to be scammed…it hurts to be hurt. This pain, however, could be like the burn we got as a kid when we reached up and touched a hot pan on the stove-top. The resulting lesson not being to never touch pans again or to completely avoid stove-tops (ok…those of you who hate to cook can use this as an excuse, but you know in your hearts that it is not valid). The lesson learned should be that we need to approach hot pans and stove-tops in a specific way in order to successfully navigate them.
While I was looking at one of those lists of “toxic people to avoid at all costs”, I thought to myself about how boring and limited my life would be if I completely avoided everyone and anyone with any of the characteristics they listed (you know who you are…Just kidding! Relax, I am on there, too.). Peaceful for a bit, perhaps, but ultimately ending the way my days end up when I overshoot the bounds of catching up on sleep and wander into the territory of sleeping myself into a brain addling stupor… Of course, it is not healthy to be anyone’s physical and emotional punching bag (so, yes, if this happens, definitely avoid those people). At times, however, people have some of these characteristics (needy, lashing out, self-centered) because they are going through something difficult or need those around them to help steer them in a better direction, and sometimes, the undesired character trait is simply one among so many other positive ones. People are notoriously and beautifully multifaceted. Who among us hasn’t been a bit needy or self-centered? Who among us has not seen some (or all) of these traits rise up in our own children as they grow, mature and try to find their way in the world. The thought of others possibly considering them toxic because of it and just dropping them disturbs me. Oh, and I mention children given the surprising number of them with internet access who are reading this very type of article. My own teenager, my Moon, recently asked (right before I confiscated her school computer), “do you think I am too needy? I took this test online and it says I am too needy.” I’m not saying that there will never be people that you may need to ultimately avoid for sanity’s sake (people who make those bubbles seem like more and more of an option). I am just saying that we need to be careful not to paint with too broad of a brush and not to miss the important life lessons that we can learn from exposure to all different kinds of people.
Ultimately, we have about as much control over who we are going to run into and have to deal with over the span of our lives as I had over where, when and what my middle daughter was going to burst out singing when she was four and going through her Mamma Mia obsession phase: “Dancing Queen” in the car…or “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (a Man After Midnight)” in a crowded tennis club or supermarket. I will let you guess how that usually turned out…. Obviously, this can bring with it a certain amount of stress (regarding the dealing with lots of different people…though the whole Mamma Mia thing was also a bit intense). Leaving one’s comfort zone always does. Thank goodness we are equipped with adrenaline to help us heighten our focus…or run like hell if necessary.
So, since my idea of taking care of myself at times involves interacting with people who may not necessarily share my opinions and perhaps engaging in some verbal sparring and adverse idea sharing (in a respectful manner, of course. Once respect exits the scene and a touch of humor is unable to bring it back, I’m outta there!), how do I make sure the stress does not build to an unhealthy level without diving head first into gallon-sized containers of ice cream and buckets of coffee, causing a whole different kind of health issue that even adrenaline won’t steady? Well, sometimes I sit and write…and write…and write until I feel that I have purged just the right amount of pressure from my unbrushed head; sometimes I hide in a book or a show while unfettered laundry and daily clutter menace me from all sides; sometimes I sit with the kids and watch a movie instead of washing the dishes after dinner; and sometimes I play fetch with the cat (yes, the cat) in the front hallway causing a release of fur that could be used to construct an entire other cat. The point being that if someone were to pop in for a visit at any of these times, that person may very well be concerned for my well-being given the disarray that would inevitably greet them (…that is, if I were to swallow my pride and admit to being home), even though I am likely at my most relaxed. Actually, I am generally much more stressed when my house is squeaky clean, if only for the realization that no matter how hard I worked to get it that way, it will take but a fraction of that effort for my children to once again give it that charming lived-in look.
Life is messy and challenging. Relationships and encounters are messy and challenging. And, I promise that even when I am messy and challenging, I am actually doing my best to take care of myself….