Beyond Lemon Water: Toxic People and Self Care
By Abigail Johnson
Cut dairy, cull sugar, avoid gluten like your ex at a party. Do yoga, meditate, make affirmations, and listen to dolphin noises to help you sleep. Invest in superfoods and supplements, roll them into balls while standing on a Shakti mat.
Wellness and self-care are booming industries. And rightly so. It can make for a clearer head and healthier digestive tract - when done right.
But the self-care battle cry is also employed by marketers to sell fermented tea, essential oils and the even more essential $300 diffusers to burn them in.
“Take Care of Yourself,” they scream, “It’s as easy as an activated charcoal latte and a handful of goji berries!”
And still, it’s completely worthwhile.
People should purchase facemasks, bath-bombs, and scented oils if that’s what works for them. People should drink tea and light incense, if that’s what blisses them out.
People should take care of themselves. People should seek happiness and health. Listen to inspirational podcasts, nourish your body, take time out, and drink more lemon water than a Victoria’s Secret model. If that’s what works for you.
Pay $50 for a pilates class on a strange machine. Memorise Dr Libby, drink that green smoothie, and meditate until you’re exhaling rainbows - if that’s what works for you.
But when it comes to self-care conversations, we tend to leave them there. As a society, we’re doing the stuff, we’re buying the things - but we’re still only splashing around in the shallow end of the magnesium-salted bathwater.
Let’s dive deeper.
If self-care was a religion - and some might say it already is (albeit a slightly culty one) - “Remove Toxic People From Your Life” would be commandment number one.
The well-intentioned epithet has spread like a dry wildfire across self-help books and podcasts. It’s swallowed advice columns whole.
And, I wholly endorse it.
In a sense.
As a mantra it’s deceptively simple: Detox from intolerable people like you would from a food that’s giving you gas.
But there are a number of ways to unpack it.
When toxic people translates to abusive people; yes, I agree, remove them. When toxic people translates to stress-inducing people; sure, cut them out. When we’re talking needlessly draining gossips; okay, slice away.
Except, and here’s the kicker, for when you can’t.
Sometimes the stress-inducing person in your life might be a person who keeps you on your toes. It might be a role model. Or a mentor.
Someone who doesn’t proffer praise easily, but makes you earn it. I do my best work under the guidance of these people, even if they do stress me the hell out. We all had that teacher who told us, “I think you can do better”. At least, I hope we did. They’re a person who builds character, the teacher who makes you cry when you graduate.
And I mentioned above the needless drainers. The gossips. The first world whingers. Ideally, you could slice these ones like rind from a block of cheese.
Unideally, this person sits three metres away from you at work. They’re a person you have to interact with five days out of the week. Or they’re a relative who’s always going to be at family barbeques.
If you could have cut these people out you’d probably have done it by now. But being a functional human means interacting, hopefully cordially, with people we don’t gel with. It means finding a way to co-exist. It means swallowing the much crueler cliche our parent’s bore into us; life isn’t fair.
Because sometimes life is really, really, unfair.
And people, through no fault of their own, find themselves in a really complicated and shitty situation with no illuminated exit sign.
Maybe you are in a truly toxic relationship, not like the Britney Spears song, but a really horrible, abusive one.
Whether it has come about from romance or you were born into it, the toxicity could be coming from a person in your life who puts a roof over your head. They might be a partner, a parent, or a co-parent.
The reasons a person may not quickly and cleanly remove an abuser from their life will be myriad and complex.
Sometimes it’ll mean jumping blind into the hands of flimsy community resources. It might mean making themselves even more vulnerable. And sometimes the only option, at least for now, might be to stay.
To this person, a picture of a filtered sunset with “Remove Toxic People From Your Life” overlaid is condescension of the highest order. To an abuse survivor self-care might look more like a conversation with a non-judgemental friend. A friend who doesn’t ask why they don’t leave.
People have varying levels of toxicity in their lives - some irritating, some suffocating, some threatening. And perhaps there’s another layer, too. Perhaps another way to unpack the mantra is to examine whether sometimes we’re substituting toxic for challenging.
Sometimes a toxic person and a challenging person might make us feel the same way: Embarrassed. Confronted. Uncomfortable.
But the difference is key. A challenging person is someone who expands, rather than minimises, our understanding of the world. And they have no obligation to do so kindly.
A challenging person is someone who calls us out on our internalised racism (read: sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism). They’re the person on your feed who exposes instances of white privilege. They’re the person in your friend group who calls you out for using a casual homophobic slur. The older coworker who offers some blunt advice without an atom of sugar coating.
And self-care beyond herbal remedies and nut mylk involves precisely NOT cutting these people out of your life.
In fact, it means following a more diverse range of people on social media. Seeking out media from sources leaning an opposite way to you.
It means opening up your bubble, rather than keeping it tight and comfy. It means listening to people of marginalised groups when they say they are hurting.
Self-care does not mean lulling yourself into a state of numb comfort. It means pushing yourself deliberately into discomfort. It means opening up your privileges and examining them honestly.
Self-care means improving oneself. Much as it might hurt. And it’s fine if you want to do it in the bath, with a facemask on, and the lights dimmed.
But it’s also fine if you want to do it quietly and slowly. Because self-care isn’t a one-size-fits-all concept. Sometimes it can be bought from the expensive aisle at New World. But sometimes, self-care is about safety. Sometimes, it’s about survival.