21 Aug Mentally Ill Folks Are Not Toxic People
A response to the article ‘20 Diversion Tactics Highly Manipulative Narcissists, Sociopaths And Psychopaths Use To Silence You’.
‘Words are powerful. They can cut and kill or they can love and heal’- author unknown
I have only recently had the chance to read the aforementioned article published on Thought Catalog which was authored by Shahida Arabi. The article has been shared quite a lot on social media, usually without any contrasting insights from the sharers, and I believe that goes to show how many people agreed with the opinions of the author. Now that I have read it, I couldn’t help but find it problematic and ableist. And as someone battling a mental illness, I feel it is my duty to air my concerns about the article’s discriminatory tone against folks who may be suffering from mental disorders. The opening paragraph alone (see below) gives a picture of what is a carelessly written, insensitive article that pays no heed to the impact of its patronizing tone on people living with mental illnesses or their loved ones or acquaintances.
“Toxic people such as malignant narcissists, psychopaths and those with antisocial traits engage in maladaptive behaviours in relationships that ultimately exploit, demean and hurt their intimate partners, family members and friends. They use a plethora of diversionary tactics that distort the reality of their victims and deflect responsibility. Although those who are not narcissistic can employ these tactics as well, abusive narcissists use these to an excessive extent in an effort to escape accountability for their actions…”
First of all, language matters especially when we are talking about marginalised groups of people or those whose experiences or health statuses continue to be stigmatised. In the article, the author seems to have placed or split people into neatly defined categories of good/non-toxic and bad/toxic. To the author there are those who are narcissistic and those who are not – no grey areas or shading. This is false! There are no people who are inherently good (non-toxic) or inherently bad (toxic). There is a big difference between saying “toxic people” and “people with certain behavioural traits are toxic”. Furthermore, there is big difference between saying “narcissists” and “people with narcissistic tendencies”. The former (toxic people or narcissists) degrades and dehumanises the individual and reduces them to their hurtful actions or mental condition. By labeling a group of people as toxic, the author shows an inability or unwillingness to reconcile the bad qualities of an individual with the good qualities that they would also have into a coherent and consistent perception or understanding of the said people. The author clearly chooses to elevate this one (unfavourable) quality/ tendency/ predisposition while overlooking the other quality or any possible grey areas. It seems their focus is on showing people exhibiting what is most likely symptoms of personality disorders as bad people who need to be avoided at all costs. “They are bad and the good folks should preserve their sanity always.” That seems to be the core message of the article.
I am not sure if Shahida Arabi is a certified psychotherapist with a better placement to talk about behavioural tendencies that are symptomatic of personality disorders. I highly doubt it. While they may have told what is their truth, the article is downright insensitive, misleading and perpetuates the stigmatisation of mental illnesses. Shahida talks about the diversionary tactics that anyone could use in our day to day engagements with friends, loved ones, acquaintances or even strangers. The article does not pay enough homage to this truth and seems to only focus on highlighting these tactics as some of the unforgivable, intolerable shortcomings of those battling (what are) personality disorders. This failure reduces the article to an attempt to shame specified groups of people. Either that or the author seems to carelessly bestow these titles (narcissist, psychopath or sociopath) on anyone who exhibits the tactics talked about.
Yes, people need to be held accountable for their actions and yes, folks battling mental illnesses are not immune to this accountability. But, I strongly believe that shaming, bashing or demonising people for these shortcomings is not the best and most effective way to go about it. Mental illnesses are as serious as physical illnesses. If the latter can garner sympathy and/or empathy from society then why is it seemingly so hard for people to treat mental illnesses with the same compassion? If someone defecates in their pants when they are suffering from diarrhea and have not been able to reach the toilet quickly enough or even had the strength to get out of bed, do we shame them for not being able to control something they could not or were not able to control? Is it our lack of an understanding on mental illnesses that leads us to display such intolerance and heartlessness towards folks who act in ways they otherwise would not, if they were of a sound mental status?
“Don’t ‘project’ your own sense of compassion or empathy onto a toxic person…”. The author advises readers to beware and run for their lives if need be. Shahida is of the belief that people need to cut ties with these “toxic folks” because no one (the non-toxic group) should have to subject themselves to someone else’s “cesspool of dysfunction”. I agree, self-care is important and people need to be at liberty to walk away from any situation that is a threat to their sanity. People can and do reach a point when they can’t take it anymore and decide to withdraw their support for or any form of interaction with folks whose mental impairments lead them to engage in ways that hurt themselves (and other people). This can happen even when the loved ones or acquaintances are equipped with sound knowledge on how to deal with loved ones battling mental illnesses. People reach a breaking point and that is OK! As someone battling a mental illness, I can tell you that life under such mental conditions becomes an emotional roller coaster and everyone caught up in this ride does not enjoy it. It is hurtful and it is extremely frustrating. It sucks when one finds themselves being abandoned because of their hurtful behaviours. Sometimes, it even exacerbates the mental illness and might lead some to engage in ‘numbing’ activities. It hurts, hurting hurts, hurting loved ones hurts and folks with these disorders know it, otherwise they wouldn’t try to deal with that painful reality in whatever way possible to them.
Shahida even goes to the lengths of quoting mental health experts in the article to back what is clearly a bias towards and obvious othering of people battling mental disorders. The author is clearly treading on dangerous ground as they seem hellbent on painting mentally ill folks as toxic, immature, attention-seeking, unintelligent, manipulative, irrational, absurd, obsessive, self-centred, delusional, judgemental beings who are out to hurt and use people; have an inflated sense of self and just cannot be reasoned with because they possess “the mental age of a toddler”. This is not only hurtfully condescending – folks battling mental illnesses do not ‘love’ to manipulate people (as the writer seems to posit). The battle against mental illnesses is not ‘a game’ and folks who are ill do not have some ulterior objective to ‘win the game’. Battling a mental illness is not a sign of immaturity nor is mental ‘soundness’ a signal of maturity. What does maturity even mean anyway? Is it just another word society uses to control people’s behaviours and ensure they fit into predetermined boxes of what’s considered normal or acceptable?
Mental illnesses need to be given as much attention as physical illnesses. After reading this misleading and manipulative article which seems to portray certain groups of people as abusive rather than ill folks who need help to get better, it is clear that there is a huge need for accurate and quality information on mental illnesses. It is even more important to understand the value of the language we use, especially how and when we use it because it has power and can do further damage to folks battling mental illnesses. Yes, communicating with or dealing with such folks can be frustrating and hurtful and that is why there is need for an understanding regarding mental illnesses. The process requires a lot of patience and endurance – being there for a loved one who is sick is never a walk in the park anyway. Walking away is usually a last resort, (after all has been said and done to be there for the individual) because people who love someone aren’t quick to pack their bags at the first sign of trouble.
Folks battling mental illnesses need and deserve love and help to get better. Underlying all the acting out, the rage and what might be seen as all things Shahida mentions, there could be someone in pain and crying for help. People who are ill are in pain, even if they might try to hide it. They need support and empathy. And yes, it is important that they know the truth about the realistic impact of their actions on self and/or others. Excuses or protection from the consequences of one’s behaviour only results in the folks abdicating their responsibility over their actions.
It is absolutely essential however that the truth about this reality should be conveyed in a way which avoids shaming or blaming.
This is not easy but definitely worth it!