Today on The Best of You podcast, we’re diving into how to discern toxic vs. healthy patterns of behavior. There is no one-size fits all when it comes to setting healthy boundaries. It requires discernment and wisdom; strategy and skill. That's why it's so important to understand what I call the Spectrum of Toxicity. I also weigh in on the topic of evil (a topic so many of you have asked me about!)
Here’s what we cover:
1. What is toxicity? How does it relate to what the Bible calls evil?
2. What about people who are consistently choosing to do harm?
3. The spectrum of toxicity
4. Behaviors that show up on the healthy side of the spectrum
5. Behaviors that show up on the toxic side of the spectrum
6. The key ingredient that distinguishes health from toxicity
7. The best way to become a discerning, wise (& healthier) person.
8. What does the Bible say about toxicity?
Thanks to our sponsor Organifi —Go to www.organifi.com/bestofyou and use code BESTOFYOU for 20% off your order today!
While Dr. Cook is a counselor, the content of this podcast and any of the products provided by Dr. Cook are not specific counseling advice nor are they a substitute for individual counseling. The content and products provided on this podcast are for informational purposes only.
- Learn more about the Spectrum of Toxicity and scripts for setting healthy boundaries inThe Best of You: Break Free From Painful Patterns, Mend Your Past, and Discover Your True Self in God, by Dr. Alison Cook
- The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis
- People of the Lie, by M. Scott Peck
- Live No Lies, by John Mark Comer
- The evolution from Tom Riddle to Voldemort is demonstrated in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, by J.K. Rowling
- Surprised by Hope, by N.T. Wright
- Romans 1:24-25 The Message
- Romans 1:28-32 The Message
- Proverbs 5:9 The Message
- Proverbs 14:7 The Message
- Matthew 10:16
Episode Twenty-Four The Best of You Podcast 12th October 2022
With Dr. Alison Cook
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Alison: Hey, everyone, I'm Dr. Alison, and I'm so glad you're here to discover what brings out the best of you. This podcast is all about breaking free from painful patterns, mending the past, and discovering our true selves in God. I can't wait to get started as we learn together how to become the best version of who we are with God's help.
Welcome back to this week's episode of The Best of You podcast. I am so glad you're here and I want to thank you so much for your comments and questions every week. But especially about last week's episode on Sin and Woundedness, and how those two things go together. That's such an important topic and I so appreciated hearing from you.
Several of you asked me what is the best way to get me your feedback on a specific episode? And the best way to do that is to go to the episode webpage on my website at dralisoncook.com/podcast. Each episode has its own page, and you'll find a place there to leave comments, you can interact with others. You can also visit the episode post on my Instagram or Facebook Feed. It's @dralisoncook both places and leave a comment.
I can't respond to all emails or comments, but I try to read as many as possible to get a sense of what your questions are. So I do take into account all the questions and comments I'm getting from you. And today's episode, a big chunk of it comes out of several questions that you sent me.
So I appreciate that so much, thank you for listening, thank you for engaging. I am so grateful for this opportunity to just connect with you in this way.
So far in this series on Boundaries and the Bible, we've been laying a foundation about how to first connect to yourself. The importance of making a promise to yourself. The importance of learning how to even know, deep inside yourself, what you need, what you want.
Maybe when one of your boundaries has been violated, it's hard, as I say a million times. It's an incredibly hard to set healthy boundaries with other people, if you don't know what you need to say yes to in your own life, in your own soul, in your own work of healing first.
So we've really been laying this foundation. Last week we went into looking at our areas of wounding, even at our areas of sin, where we might be tempted to react out of our hurt instead of respond in a healthy way. So we've been really doing this inner work.
Well, today, it's finally time, we're going to start to look externally, to the patterns of behavior that are around us in the other people in our lives. So finally today, we're going to get into how we can understand those behaviors that come our way, and how we can be wise in responding to other people's behaviors. Whether it's toxicity or even healthy people, who are behaving in a way that we need to address.
So here are a couple of thoughts that a few of you shared with me, after last week's episode, and they lead into today's episode. So I want to read them out loud to you. Austin wrote in and said it reminded him of a quote, and this is the quote, we're trying to figure out who said this. So if anyone knows please leave a comment. But the quote is, "We are more wounded than wicked." And I thought that was a really great way to summarize last week's episode.
Yes, we have to pay attention to the sin in our lives. But as we consistently move toward health, move toward healing, turn away from those impulses, we become more healthy. And, yes, we'll still have wounds, but we're going to move away from this word, "Wickedness". We're going to get into that today.
Here's another question that came my way that I want to get into today, what about evil? So a few of you left me notes with questions like these, after last week's episode.
"How does this idea of woundedness apply to narcissists and even sociopaths? Do we still think of them as wounded, or is there a point at which someone is simply acting out of sheer malice?" That's a great question, and it raises this topic of what I'm going to call evil.
So if we're mostly wounded and mostly sinning, as a result of woundedness. And we're constantly working to notice where we've been wounded, where we might be tempted to miss the mark, there's hope.
There's so much hope. There's hope for healing. There's hope that we can become increasingly healthy. There's hope that we can continue to show compassion for ourselves, for our loved ones, as we are on this journey that we'll never fully achieve.
We're never going to fully become the healthiest, best version of ourselves this side of heaven. But we can certainly become more and more, and more healthy. So there's a lot of hope right in that message.
But in this question, that a few of you sent me, there's this idea of, but what about people who are consistently choosing to do harm? They're not turning away, as we talked last week, they're not repenting or just turning away from sin. They're not turning toward this work of healing.
They're instead doing the opposite. They're consistently turning toward going their own way. They're consistently turning toward these acts of destruction, these acts of harm, these acts of taking matters into their own hands.
It's a series of choices over time that gets so destructive, that there's very little goodness left. And we do see this, and I don't want to be naive, there are folks, and let's pray first and foremost, that we are not these people.
There are folks who are so consistently choosing the path of sin. The path away from healing. The path away from facing wounds honestly, before God, that they begin to move in the opposite direction. They're moving away from health and moving toward increasing levels of toxicity.
Now, we use this word toxicity a lot, and if you think about the word toxicity, it means poisonous. If you ingest a toxic substance, it's poison to your body. Similarly, to our psyches, to our souls, if we expose ourselves to toxicity, it is soul-killing. And really, another word for this, or the biblical word for this, or the spiritual word for this is evil. There is a father of lies. There is a father of toxicity.
So I'm not going to get into a theology of evil in this episode. It's outside of the scope really of my expertise, although I do believe it exists and I do believe that we don't want to be naive about it. A couple of books, and I'll link to these in the show notes.
That if you're interested to learn more you might consider The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. The People of the Lie by M. Scott Peck, it's an excellent book. And a more recent book called Live No Lies by John Mark Comer.
But there's a really great example of this in a lot of literature. In the Narnia Tales we see this. In Lord of the Rings we see this. If you're a Harry Potter fan, there's a really vivid description of this process, in the sixth book where we see this dark Lord Voldemort who is the epitome of evil, in the movie. He's the bad guy, he's the destructive force, he's gone completely toxic.
But in the sixth book, they show him as a young boy and you get this sense of the million tiny decisions this boy made. Sure he was wounded. Sure there was pain there.
He's smart, he's fascinated by power, he's fascinated by danger, and instead of moving toward healing. You see him, they depict him making a series of decision, after decision, after decision of choosing the dark path instead of moving toward healing.
So there's a series of choices, and as a psychologist, I see this from time to time. I'll see a life, someone who had options, they had opportunities. But they make a million tiny steps toward not facing their shame honestly, not facing their wounds honestly. Blaming other people, going after other people, lying, covering up, deceiving, and it becomes increasingly and increasingly toxic.
And I want to say to those of you who are saying, "What about a sociopath?" Yes, a sociopath, who knows, was there a wound there at the very beginning? Probably. At what point did that person just choose over and over again to move toward darkness. To move away from the healthy, beautiful work of healing that God wants us to move toward and move toward the opposite of that, which is toxicity.
At whatever point that became so toxic that there's no hope left, I don't know. I don't know the answer to that question. As a psychologist I'm always going to hold out hope, but I don't want us to be naive.
And I want to give you just two examples; one from Theologian N.T. Wright and one from a Bible passage that I think speak to this, again, in the interest of not being naive. So here's an example from theologian N.T. Wright, how he talks about this phenomenon.
It's from his book, Surprised by Hope, page 182, and basically what Wright says is this, "It is possible for human beings so to continue down this road, so to refuse all whisperings of good news. All glimmers of true light. All promptings to turn and go the other way. All signposts to the love of God that they can." And I quote him here, "Progressively cease to reflect the image of God, right?"
So he's kind of talking about this, that these million choices to go in the wrong direction. To keep moving away from God's path, from becoming the best of who we are, that in Wright's words, "That person can progressively cease to reflect the image of God."
Now, the Scripture passage, that comes to mind, that underscores what Wright is saying, is from Romans 1:24-32. And I'm going to quote it from the Message version, which is Eugene Peterson's modern-day version of this passage.
And here's the quote, speaking about this kind of person, this is the quote from Scripture, "So God said, in effect, 'If that's what you want that's what you get.' It wasn't long before they were living in a pig pen, smeared with filth, filthy inside and out. And all this because they traded the true God for a fake God, and worshiped the God they made instead of the God who made them, the God we bless, the God who blesses us."
And then the Message goes on to say, quote, "Worse followed, refusing to know God they soon didn't know how to be human either. Since they didn't bother to acknowledge God, God quit bothering them and let them run loose. And then all hell broke loose, rampant evil, grabbing and grasping, vicious backstabbing, they made life hell on earth, with their envy, killing, bickering, and cheating."
And it goes on and on to describe, again, this type of person. That essentially in Eugene Peterson's words, God is kind of saying, "Turning them loose. If that's what you want, then here's what you get."
We do reap what we sow on some level, and if we choose again and again to cover over our woundedness, to cover over our shame, through all of these things that are just listed.
Through grabbing and grasping, through backstabbing, through hurting other people, through projecting onto other people, we are going to become less and less like that beautiful soul that God made us to become. And we're going to become a really terrible, toxic person.
So it's not a pleasant topic. I don't love talking about this, but it's a reality, we need to be wise, we need to not be naive. And the point is, I don't want to minimize the reality that some people turn so consistently towards sin, toward destruction. That at some point it's hard to find any glimmer of goodness.
A couple of points I want to make, I don't think this is common, it's very real. I don't think it's our job to try to discern when someone has crossed over to that point of no return, I don't know when that is. It's not something I'm comfortable trying to sort out.
I'm always going to hold out hope that somebody can turn back toward God. I don't think that's my job. But I do think it's our job to discern how someone else's consistent patterns of behavior, over time, are impacting us and I do think it's our job to protect ourselves.
Remember boundaries are about protecting you. They're not about analyzing, changing, condemning, judging, criticizing, or figuring out someone else, they're about being wise. So this brings us to what I call the spectrum of toxicity, and I spell this out in chapter six of The Best of You. And I think it's critical to understand in this work of setting healthy boundaries. So let's get into the spectrum of toxicity.[00:15:42] < Music >
So as you consider your own relationships, you need to recognize that healthy behavior and toxicity exist on a spectrum. Very few people are totally toxic, as I already said, and no one is entirely healthy. This means that the work of setting healthy boundaries requires nuance and skill. You don't want to come down with a hammer on a behavior, when a fly swatter is what's needed.
You also don't want to let someone who is using toxic strategies get the best of you. We can err to both extremes when it comes to setting healthy boundaries with other people's behaviors.
Now, remember sometimes we're setting healthy boundaries just by saying, "No", no one's done anything wrong. But today we're really talking about what do we do when someone else's behaviors start to impact us in a negative way, and we need to push back. We need to bring in those boundaries to address that situation. We need to tighten up those guardrails.
Sometimes when someone else's behavior hurts us or causes us to get activated, sometimes grace is needed. Sometimes that's what's needed. Sometimes you need to speak up for yourself. You need to be assertive, you need to advocate for yourself, and sometimes it wouldn't be safe to speak up for yourself. That would actually give the other person more ammunition.
So those are three examples of where we have to know what we're dealing with. What we know, number one, is something happened. "I've been hurt. Something is going on I don't like. Something is harming me. Something is going on in this relationship that I need to address." We've got to know what we're dealing with, so we can approach that instance in a strategic, wise way.
So how do you gauge what response is required? Well, first, you have to assess where your particular situation falls on this spectrum of toxicity.
So let me explain what I mean by that to you. Imagine a half circle and on one end of the spectrum, on the far right hand of the spectrum, are people who are mostly healthy. On the other end of that spectrum, all the way to the left side of that spectrum, are people who are mostly toxic, and that's what I mean by a spectrum.
Most of us fall in that upper, hopefully, we're mostly healthy. We're more toward healthy, somewhere right up in the middle of your, imagine an arrow that cuts that half circle in half. Someone's kind of right on the edge, there's a little bit of toxicity, but there's some health. We want to stay on that healthy side of the spectrum.
So what qualities do we see in the behaviors of people who are on the healthy side of that spectrum? Well, these are people who are taking responsibility for their own behaviors. It's not that these are people who don't get things wrong, who don't make mistakes, who might not hurt you from time to time, but they know how to take personal responsibility.
They can have a conversation about ruptures or conflicts that might have occurred in a healthy way. They can honor that they might have blind spots, there's humility. They can consider the possibility that they might have made a mistake. There's room for conversation.
They can apologize when they've made a mistake. Bottom line is people who are behaving in a healthy way are not perfect people. But they are people who are doing the work of taking responsibility for their own actions.
They can communicate, you can talk things through, they can apologize, there's humility. In general, there's a posture of kindness, they're not cruel, they're not coming after you when they've done something wrong.
We see the fruit of God's Spirit. We see self-control, we see patience. We begin to see more of those types of qualities in someone who's on the healthy side of that spectrum. Again, not perfection, but personal responsibility.
Then we get to the middle part of that spectrum. Where I was saying someone who's got some of those healthy qualities. But they're also sometimes committing boundary fouls in a consistent way.
This might be a parent, an in-law, who genuinely cares about you, who genuinely cares about your children. But at the same time she does some things that are annoying. Maybe she doesn't respect your rules, they're not toxic, but it's challenging.
You're constantly having to say, "Hey, mom. Hey dad, you can't do that when you're with my kids." Maybe you have a friend who's pretty self-centered and they're often talking about themselves.
They're not cruel, they look out for you in certain ways, but you're never really going to be able to get them to hear you. They're not someone you're going to turn to when you need emotional support. That's what I mean by they're healthy for the most part. They're not cruel, they're not hurting you, but maybe there's some limitations there because of some of their own un-faced wounds.
Maybe it's a friend who likes to gossip and you love that friend, but, man, you're always having to steer the conversation away from that gossiping part of her. Again, these are folks who aren't toxic, but there might be a limit to how deep you can go with this type of person. And sometimes we find ourselves in this category.
Sometimes there are parts of us where we haven't done enough work, or we're still struggling a little bit. Where we've done a lot of work toward health, we're moving toward that healthy side of the spectrum. But there's still parts of us that we're still working on. We're still works-in-progress. Again, there's no shame in any of this. We're trying to understand. We're trying to name not shame.
Now, we move into that toxic side of the spectrum. These are individuals who are living mostly out of the worst of who we are. And in their behaviors we see that they're not able to take responsibility for their own actions.
Instead, they tend to blame other people. They tend to shame other people, they tend to criticize, manipulate, guilt trip, belittle. They tend to go after others because they're not doing their own work.
They don't want what's best for you. They're worried about their own image, and we talked about this in the series on buzzwords, on psychology buzzwords part two. We went through a lot of these toxic behaviors, and I also have a whole webinar on some of these toxic behaviors.
But, in general, these are toxic because not only is that person not doing their own work, that would be one thing, so there's limitations. That's why we're more in that center place. But where we move toward this left side of the spectrum is they're A, not doing their own work. But B, because of that, they're engaging in these behaviors that are toxic to you, that are going after you.
This might be a parent, who's never done their own work to heal their own pain. And, so, as a result, they try to control you. They try to make sure you never bring shame on them. And, so, they're constantly controlling your behaviors, that's really toxic to you, especially, if you were raised in an environment like that.
You might have a spouse or a friend who cannot take responsibility for their own mistakes and, so, they blame shift. They might say, "It's your fault that I lie."
"It's your fault that I started down this toxic path." It might not be malicious, it doesn't matter, it's still toxic. Someone on this side of the spectrum is not taking responsibility for their own healing, and as a result, their behaviors are designed to make you feel like it's your fault.
Because when you can't face, we've talked about this in so many other episodes. When you can't face your own stuff, honestly, you have to take it out on other people. You have to blame other people.
Now, on the extreme left side of this toxicity spectrum are those who are downright abusive. We're getting into this area, that we were talking about earlier, where they are trying to harm you. There's intent, there's malice, they want to cause harm.
They want to harm you physically, emotionally, spiritually, these are major boundary violations. This behavior cannot and should not be tolerated, and there's a very specific way you have to address a person like this. You're not going to use the same strategy with this kind of person, that you're going to use with someone who's relatively healthy and who made a mistake.
So my point with this spectrum of toxicity is for you to understand the importance of context. You have to take into account the context. You have to begin to study patterns of behavior.
Consider the following example, let's say, situation A, you have a friend who hurts you. Maybe they talk behind your back and it gets back to you, and it's painful, you've got to deal with that. What that friend did was hurtful.
But here's the thing, is this a one-time offense? Where this friend got pulled in to a toxic behavior, but overall, they're apologizing. They're taking responsibility, they're showing that this is not a pattern of behavior, this is a one off. It still hurts. You still have to deal with it, but there's a context to that behavior.
On the other hand, situation B, you have a friend who talks behind your back and it comes to your attention, and you dig into it a little bit and you start to realize, "Oh, my gosh, this is a pattern. They are constantly criticizing me, throwing me under the bus, behind my back. They aren't a friend to me, they're never really coming to my aid. They're in fact saying slanderous things. This isn't a friend at all."
And, again, this seems like an obvious example. But you start to dig a little deeper and you start to go, "There's a pattern of behavior here, where this person is really demeaning me consistently, and I have to take a completely different course of action in setting boundaries with this person. This is toxic. There's a pattern of behaviors here that is toxic."
So in both cases, you're going to need to set a boundary, but it's going to be very different in situation A, where the person is coming to you, they're saying, "I'm sorry." Or maybe you had to confront the person, but still they're saying, "I'm sorry. I did it, I was wrong. Here's what was going on with me, I'm not making excuses, but I want you to know this is not who I really am."
And you start to pay attention to their character over time. Versus situation two, where the person makes excuses. The person doesn't admit it, the person blames other people, and you start to realize, "This person talks behind everybody's back, this is a part of who they are. They're not a faithful friend."
Now, next week I'm going to walk you through the different types of responses to the different types of boundary fouls. So today I want you to become aware of context; "Is this someone who's mostly on the healthy side of the spectrum, and therefore I've got to figure out how to address this in a very specific way?"
"Is this someone who is in a gray area? There are some patterns of behavior here that aren't great. But there is some good and, so, that's going to take some nuance in how I approach this."
Or, "Is this someone where it's mostly toxic? And then I've got to take a whole different approach." So stay tuned next week for what I'm calling Three Categories of No. And in the meantime, I want you to remember the following, the more you do this work inside yourself first, the more discerning and wise you will become with other people.
And this is what Jesus says, He says, "Always look at yourself first before you go to remove the speck on someone else's eye." In my own life, as I've confronted my own wounds, as I've looked honestly at my own temptations to miss the mark. As I've gotten really honest with myself and with God, I begin to grow wise.
Humility breathes wisdom, as I'm humble before God and face my own blind spots, my own temptations to lash out, to criticize, to lie, to cover over my mistakes. As I become more and more aware of those pulls on my own soul, and I learn more and more to do the hard work of turning toward truth. Of turning toward honesty, of turning toward healing in my own life. Guess what, I become way more perceptive about noticing what's going on in people around me.
As we take responsibility for our own behaviors, as we learn what a genuine apology looks like when we make mistakes. As we learn to face our own shame, our own wounds. As we talk honestly about areas where we're struggling with God.
As we notice where we're tempted to veer off course or miss the mark. As we notice where we're tempted to lash out, to lie, to manipulate. Not to shame ourselves, but simply in the interest of this honest, self-examination, we become more wise. We become more discerning. As we become healthier ourselves, we have less tolerance for toxicity in other people.
Finally, as we close, here's some wisdom and the biblical basis for this work of establishing healthy boundaries. So many of us have been taught to love others, to always be kind. But here's the thing, it's also biblical to be discerning, to be wise, and to be brave. In particular, the Bible cautions us to be wary of fools, mockers, and hard-hearted people who, due to their unhealed pain, harm others.
Here are some examples from Proverbs 5:9, "You don't want to squander your wonderful life. To waste your precious life among the hard-hearted."
From Proverbs 14:7, "Escape quickly from the company of fools. They are a waste of your time, a waste of your words. From Matthew 10:16, Jesus said, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves."
These are powerful statements that I think we need to hear more about in our faith communities. We do need to love others. Grace is a powerful antidote, especially, to those who are wounded and trying to heal.
But we also need to be wise and discerning because not everybody is doing that work. Not everybody is doing the work of trying to turn toward healing, and we are not called to love others while, simultaneously, causing injury to ourselves. That is not the example we see in Scripture. Yes, we are to love others, and yes, we are also to be wise.
I can't wait to join you next week, to talk through these three ways of saying no. And in the meantime remember to ask yourself this question; what's bringing out the best of me? And moving toward that is the foundation to all these nos, we're going to learn how to say.[00:33:32] < Outro >
Thank you for joining me for this episode of The Best of You. Be sure to check out the show notes for any resources and links mentioned in the show. You can find those on my website at dralisoncook.com. That's Alison with one L- cook.com.
Before you forget, I hope you'll follow the show now so that you don't miss an episode, and I'd love it if you go ahead and leave a review. It helps so much to get the word out. I look forward to seeing you back here next Thursday. And remember, as you become the best of who you are, you honor God, you heal others, and you stay true to your God-given self.[00:34:09] < Music >
Thank you so much for this podcast. I am looking forward to hearing more about boundaries with toxic people in your podcast next week. I have grown so much over the past few years as I have dug deeper into truths about my relationships and my part in how things have gone wrong. I know that I can only control my own actions, but wish for healing in my heart for past toxic behaviors from others and how to discern when to trust someone. Thank you for your gentle ways of reaching into people’s hearts without shaming. Your book The Best Of Me and your podcasts have helped me greatly!
Thank you – so much gold in this episode. I am going to recommend it to some family members. The idea of toxicity being on a spectrum is very helpful, and the examples you gave help to further clarify. This episode encouraged me to look at myself and others in light of the spectrum, and also gave me some empathy for certain people in my life. Maybe some of their behavior stems from previous wounds. Thank you!
Sylvia M. says
Thank you for this series, Dr. Alison. I am a spiritual director (trained through Selah) and know that I am kind and compassionate. I also know that I sin and make mistakes. But we are currently in a family situation where an extremely toxic personality has become so unsafe toward me in her verbal abuse, mostly made publicly, that my husband and I are at the place of needing to figure out what releasing this relationship will look like. We need to let our son (who I think is co-dependent in this situation) that his wife is no longer welcome in our home. And the implications are huge: in particular, being separated from our 6 grand children. We believe we need to walk away, and are trying to figure out HOW. We don’t want to cause any more destruction than there already is.