This is an edited version of a podcast episode. If you prefer to listen, click Make Me Whole Podcast to find this and all my other episodes.
This post is in response to a question that was posed to me after the last segment: “Why We Need to Talk About Bruno!”. In that post, I talked about dealing with close family members and ending our toxic relationships with them. Well, then how do we deal with our toxic friendships? Let me define that a little bit. Toxic friendships, what are those? Well I think first of all, especially now, we value the people that we call friends. They are not people we just casually associate with. These are people that we've let in and usually have a strong emotional bond with.
I was recently watching a TED Talk by Sharon Livingston, and she talked about the same topic: the idea of the toxic friend. The way she presented it was by telling a story about a guy named Joe who was walking down the street one day. As he was walking, all of a sudden all this shattered glass fell from above, right on top of him. Right on top of his head! He brushed off the pieces of glass, but didn't immediately see that he had gotten hurt. Eventually he saw that he was bleeding from a small nick on his neck and got something to cover it up. By the time he got home, the blood had already dried and it looked like this injury was on its way to being healed. Twenty-five years later, Joe was experiencing excruciating pain in his neck and head. He had no idea what was going on. Finally, he got to the point where he had to go to the doctor. After the evaluation, the doctor asked him, “When did you get shot?” Joe gave him a look and asked, “What are you talking about?” Then he remembered the day of the glass shattering, and what he hadn't realized was that he actually had a bullet lodged in the base of his skull. He had an immediate surgery, and they were able to remove the bullet. He still has a scar on the back of his neck, but the procedure allowed him to get back to a normal life. Having a toxic friendship is like having a bullet stuck in your head, but it’s one that you decide to carry. If Joe had addressed it earlier, he could have probably lived a more fulfilled life, a fuller life. The same is true for the toxic friendships we engage in. If we know the signs along the way, we can make changes sooner so that we're not suffering long-term and we're not being held captive in a bad relationship. We've all been there, right?
I don't know about you, but friendships have always been really crucial to me. Because of their importance, I have found myself often doing things and allowing things to happen that I might not have in other situations. This, of course, was always done for the good of the friendship or to show that I was a good friend. One particular relationship stands out to me. I had a really close friend whom I got along with effortlessly. We had similar interests. We were on the same page when it came to life. We both got engaged around the same time. We're planning weddings and children, and it seemed like there were so many things we had in common. During that time, we were able to support one another as we were navigated these new life stages. That's usually what you look for in the beginning of your friendships. You look for that good chemistry. For a while, there was so much fun, so much laughter, and then slowly things started to change. Honestly there's no way that anyone can predict how a friendship is going to turn out.
There is research that has come out that shows that having a good relationship with friends promotes better health. For example, the company of good friends leads to a quicker recovery for those who have had surgery. There's also research on the other end that shows that being involved in a negative relationship can create adverse health conditions, such as high blood pressure and heart attacks.
Going back to that friendship I was talking about, all of a sudden, after having spent so much time with one another, the friend started talking about regrets. They began complaining about things that they hadn't been able to do and about how they felt trapped in their life. They insisted that our relationship was part of what was holding them back because not only was I unable to recognize what they were going through, I also refused to admit that I was experiencing the same thing. I really wasn't feeling that way, though. I felt like my life path was moving towards motherhood and creating a family, and I was actually pretty satisfied with many of the things I had already accomplished. They weren't, and as a result, they began choosing really impulsive behaviors that they didn't want to be judged for. Sometimes it got to the point of them expecting me to give them praise for this sudden rebellion. They wanted me to be happy about the decisions they were making no matter what. Honestly, I started to step back because I kept getting criticized. But also, I wanted to be a good friend and listen. You know I'm a therapist, that's what I thought it was supposed to do. However, after lots of long conversations that had shifted from sharing our lives with one another to negative verbal vomiting about how no one was going to stop them from doing what they wanted, I reevaluated. There was no room for me to share my own feelings or for them to realize that I also had needs. So I stepped back even more. I realized I was never going to be given the opportunity to communicate about how I truly felt, especially about their acting out and impulsivity. If I did, it was just going to be met with anger, frustration, and conflict. I felt like I had to walk really lightly around them and be careful of what I said, making sure that I made myself present for them even if they didn't do the same for me. I still remember that sickening feeling inside of me, not knowing what mood I was going to get. But I still felt a connection that I needed and wanted to have. This was someone I was close to, and not being in their company, not having them as my friend, maybe it meant that I had failed in some way. Maybe the problem was that I couldn't handle someone who challenged me or thought differently than me. Was I was limiting myself to only having certain people around me if I wasn't able to handle the difficulties my friends were going through? What did that say about me as a friend?
Now, I can go on and on about the struggle or how sick I felt or how when they were happy I was happy and when they were unhappy I was unhappy. I based my own self worth on how good or bad our relationship was. Do I have to really say that the relationship ended? I didn't think so, but in case you wondered, yeah. It ended pretty abruptly, and that hurt in ways I never imagined. Looking back now, of course I can say I'm grateful to have gone through that experience because it gave me an understanding of just how important it is to be a friend to myself. There were things I was missing out on because of the energy I put into being a chaos coordinator, and honestly, I wasn’t being a true friend. So if someone were to come to me and ask, “Well, how do I deal with it? How do I process the heartbreak of losing a friendship that I once cherished, but which became bad for both of us?” First thing I'd ask, “Well, how did that friendship make you feel? Have you allowed yourself to actually feel what you feel? You have to mourn that loss.”
As I said before, friendships are so critical, and we hold them as these lifelines outside of our immediate family. We trust that these are people we can talk to, who will support us, who will help us understand things from different perspectives. So to lose one is significant, and those feelings due that loss need to be honored. Holding it in does no one any good. The lava just heats up, and eventually the volcano will erupt. After the initial pain and processing has occurred and you recognize not only the problems your friend brought to the table but also those that you contributed, spend time figuring out what to do so you can prevent it from happening again.
The first person you need to put your energies into and be a better friend to is yourself. The more you focus on that, the more you believe in you, the more your joy is going to radiate everywhere. Believe me, sometimes we have to go through certain painful things in order to see how much stronger we come out in the end. Over and over and over and over again I have said to my clients the same sentence. I actually think I'm going to put it on a t-shirt soon enough. The biggest frustration we encounter is that we can't change the behaviors of others. The only person I have the power to change is myself.
When we start making these changes within ourselves, we can leave the door open for better people to come into our lives. Even more exciting is when we work on some of the relationships we already have that maybe we didn't give enough time or attention to. Either way, the majority of the relationships are much better and we find that reciprocation is a real thing. The door is completely open for improved friendships, and let me say something about that. There's this perception that the highest quality friendships are those with two people who are “highly evolved”, who know everything about being supportive and understanding, who just get it. But better than that is when we can come into a relationship understanding that each of us is flawed, accepting the imperfections, and celebrating all those times we win together.