How embracing your toxicity became the latest internet trend

People are airing their 'most toxic' traits on TikTok. Is it proof of a more authentic digital future or another cheap grab for attention?

by Isabelle Truman
18 November 2021, 5:35pm

Photos via @lindani_zikhali @princessmillan_

Displaying your #authenticself online has been a rising trend over the last few years, as people push back against the unhealthy highlight reel approach to using social media. But throw a pandemic into the mix and the art of orchestrating the perfect shot is as good as dead. Not only are we reentering the world looking different — embracing Y2K maximalism in all its butterfly accessory glory — but we've given our digital selves an overhaul, too. On Instagram, blurry photo dumps have become standard in lieu of hyper-stylised images; and it’s now deemed cringe to pretend you have the perfect relationship (or post any hint of your partner, bar their blurry left elbow). Even celebrities aren’t immune to the changing tide: just last week, Bella Hadid posted a carousel of images of herself crying to her 47 million followers on Instagram, saying she finds it “harder and harder to not share my truth on here”.

Proof we’ve hit peak digital authenticity is the growing number of people announcing their worst — or most #toxic — traits online. On TikTok, which has been deemed “more authentic” than other social media apps, users are posting videos listing everything from commitment hang-ups (“I never let myself feel anything for people so I don’t get hurt”) to their unidealised personality traits (“I get jealous really easily” and “I have a huge ego”). Claiming one's toxicity, or potentially harmful attributes, has even made its way to Twitter. In recent weeks, posts like “My toxic trait is acting mean when really I love you” and “My toxic trait is my sadness turns into destructive anger” have been racking up thousands of likes and even more reshares.

Though it sounds kind of strange to list your bad behaviour publicly, using the internet as a form of therapy is nothing new. Take, for example, Reddit's ‘Am I the Asshole?’ forum — consistently one of the site's most engaged sections — where users crowdsource answers to questions about whether they’re acting fairly or unjustly in situations. Though some posts verge on absurd (AITA for eating too many cucumbers?), overall conversations encourage critical thinking, empathy and understanding. The problem with this latest spinoff is figuring out where self-awareness and helpful analysis of one’s personality turns into virtue signalling: inauthenticity dressed up as authenticity. Are we simply masking a desperate need to feel unique and different, even if we get there through pointing out our flaws?

This growing trend parallels that of a similar recent online phenomenon whereby people (all of us, according to TikTok) diagnose themselves and others with pathologies, such as ADHD or being a highly sensitive person (HSP). These prognoses are being doled out generously by everyone from high schoolers to registered psychologists, prompting some to worry about over-diagnosis, illness appropriation and eye-rolls from others who see the posts as nothing more than a new way for people to talk about themselves: main character energy but make it medical. As with much of the social media discourse around these conditions and disorders, many toxic traits currently being aired aren’t toxic at all. You need alone time? Same. You find it hard to be vulnerable and as a result have pushed people away? Me too.

It’s easy to be dubious of the lasting effects of such digital movements. However, embracing your toxicity could be seen as an antithesis to the rise of toxic positivity — the cultural tendency to dismiss negative emotions or traits and instead respond to distress with superficial assurances. In other words, a “rose-tinted glasses” way of seeing the world, something which has recently manifested in a new strain: toxic productivity. “Being aware of our less desirable traits can indicate self-acceptance, which is an aspect of psychological well-being,” says Dr. Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, Director of the Creativity and Emotions Lab at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. “Acknowledging one’s less desirable traits can be an individual action aimed at greater authenticity and combating the harmful belief that people should always maintain a positive mindset.” Whether the trend is inherently healthy, Dr. Ivcevic Pringle says, depends on what is being aired: “Sharing traits related to introversion or emotional sensitivity can be a sign of embracing one’s vulnerability. But sharing traits or attitudes related to narcissism or Machiavellianism is less positive.”

The rise in such content also facilitates a place for young people to find community during a time when we are desperate for connection. While ‘AITA’ threads are anonymous, toxic trait posts are not. Even when shared to TikTok accompanied by a catchy song, the trend encourages young people to not only examine the negative sides of their personalities but to own them, creating space for conversation, learning and growth. On Twitter, the post “My toxic trait is that I don't know how to ask for help, I disappear and come back when I’m feeling better,” received thousands of responses such as, “You're not alone,” and “Are we the same person?”

For TikTok user Allegra, the trend has even resulted in real-world friendships. At first, posting her toxic traits — which include that she’s “incredibly possessive and jealous”, is a “good liar and manipulator” and that she can, “cut people off with zero remorse” — was not that deep: she saw others posting theirs and wanted to join in. But the experience ended up being cathartic. “Posting about my issues on TikTok feels like a release. It’s a way for me to express and share feelings I maybe wouldn’t be speaking about or interrogating otherwise,” she tells i-D. “Seeing and speaking to other people who are also struggling really helps, too.”

Allegra has clocked the recent spike in people being more authentic online and says that posts like these have resulted in forging lasting connections, both online and off. “Most of my life I was bullied and didn’t ever feel accepted, but through TikTok I was able to find a community of like-minded people who went through the same shit as I did.” Leilene, whose toxic trait of “wanting to end the whole relationship” when she’s mad, went viral, and she feels the same. “Posting it made me really assess why I act that way and accept the reasons behind it,” she says. “I realise now that I have serious trust issues and I’m beginning the process of actually unpacking and overcoming them.”

It’s not only social media that’s been in desperate need of an authenticity overhaul. People have long expressed their disdain for dating app culture, where those who swipe on apps are encouraged to upload photos and captions that portray them in both the figurative and literal best light. For Sophie, who routinely posts about her mental health and struggles, the movement away from that facade feels overwhelmingly positive. “Sure, there are some people jumping on a bandwagon to get likes or in an attempt to go viral, but overall the messaging is pretty positive,” she says.

Like Bella’s tearful post and the influx of toxic traits being owned online, the openness of strangers on the internet makes Sophie and others like her feel less alone. “I have actually been on a date with someone who messaged me initially to talk about a post I wrote about my bad relationship habits,” she adds. If nothing else, listing one’s toxic traits seems like a less narcissistic way of spending time than detailing why you’re more empathetic and creative than others (because you’re a HSP, of course). A suggestion for Hinge’s next round of question prompts? ‘How are you toxic?’

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