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How To Recognise A Toxic Friend

How To Recognise A Toxic Friend

Hanging out with Jerrah on my last US trip and catching up with so many old and new friends has got me a bit philosophical about exactly how blessed we should feel having good friends. It reminded me just how valuable friendships are to our own happiness and wellbeing.  

I have always believed that people come into our lives for a reason, a season, or forever (that is something you will probably hear me say a LOT!). And this applies to friends also – some of them may teach us something about ourselves (reason), for some of them it may be just during junior school and then they change schools (season), and some of them will be forever friends (whether they are in our daily life or not). This way of thinking helps us to both value the good friends in our life (we never know when we may lose them) as well as come to terms with losing good people from our life.

It also helps us understand why the not-so-good (toxic) people come into our lives, and why it is okay to want to protect yourself from them. Events of the last few months (relatively external to me, my friends and family) have also helped me indirectly to feel some sense of closure on some of the more difficult times of my life and a sense of understanding and acceptance of a particular “failed and difficult” friendship, which for years I had been beating myself up over. (Just needing to add a little note that this friendship was not from school, sport or even from my neighbourhood and that the name of this person is irrelevant really – because I am sure everyone has had their own “toxic” friends in their life at some stage). It’s relevant now to me because, as I said, events have validated, for me, the choices I made to abandon that toxic friendship, and the very reasons why I needed to.

For the last few years my head and heart has been filled with doubt about whether I should have stayed, thoughts that I should have been more tolerant and forgiving, I should have done more to please her, to make her like me, even to let her treat me the way she did, I should have pretended it was okay to be treated like that. But I have now realised that I did the right thing … the ONLY thing I could have done … and I shouldn’t feel bad about it anymore.

I actually wrote a poem at the time which expressed a snapshot of my pain and emotional hurt (as poems tend to do) at that point in time. Finding it, in amongst some of my writings earmarked for my book draft, reminded me of those emotions all over again. It also helped me more than anything else to realise that I, and we all, should trust our judgement and our gut instinct when it comes to friendships. Through the poem I was expressing and feeling a lot of emotions that really distressed me (anger, disappointment, intimidation, vengeful, hurt, envious, disrespected etc), I feel the need to remind you that IT IS OKAY TO FEEL THESE EMOTIONS! I was angry. I was disappointed. I was intimidated. I did actually want her to experience hurt like I was. Which is horrible I know! But I did. I wanted her to understand how it felt. I was extremely hurt. I had been extremely disrespected (and so had my family). I did not want to be lied to or lied about. I was envious that no one seemed to see through her mean ways and felt it was so unfair that she could be so charming to get power – I didn’t want the power, I just didn’t want to be on the receiving end of such horrible power. And I was certainly tired of seeing the way her horrible power negatively affected others (only if they disagreed or questioned her of course). If you had an opinion that either opposed or challenged hers, she would be the most manipulating, mean and cruel person. But if you complied with her and agreed (either consciously or not) to be submissive and do what she wanted you to do, she would practically kiss your feet.

In retrospect, she was not a "friend" at all. She was a horrible human who fed off making other people feel inadequate and belittled. I actually think she secretly thrived off knowing how miserable she was making me (and others!) feel... She had eroded my self esteem so much that deep down, I wanted and almost desperately needed others to know the deceit behind the sweet mask she so innocently wore. At least then I could walk away from the friendship and have others know that I had tried my hardest, and not to believe the lies she was spreading. I kept it all to myself however, put it in a poem, and walked away. After all, if I was to tell others about how horrible, cruel, mean, manipulative and condescending she was, that would have made me just as bad as she was.

So it is NORMAL to feel these emotions… and it is OKAY if you decide you do not want to be around such negative, draining and toxic energy. To make such a judgement however, you really need to look at exactly how much and in what ways you are being affected. So, for now, let’s look at the possible traits of a toxic friend.

Friends are supposed to share both their ups and downs with each other – that capacity to care about each other is what friends are all about. However, a toxic friend gives off negativity the majority of the time.

  • They can be hard work.
  • They can seem to drain away all the positive energy that you might be getting from elsewhere or others (a bit like a Dementor from Harry Potter).
  • Toxic people can’t see that things can be good – for them the world is never good enough, it never treats them fairly, everyone misunderstands them.
  • They play the “victim” role really well even if they need to manipulate or misinform (lie) to those around them to reinforce their illusion of being vulnerable and victimised.
  • A toxic friend can make you feel like it is your responsibility to make them feel better, or make you feel like it is your fault they feel bad.
  • A toxic friend will not consider how their actions or words might affect you or how other people see you.
  • They can be quite willing to compromise your feelings to get what they want.
  • They can be quite willing to take any success at your expense.

Healthy friendships are all about spending time with people who care about you just as much as you care about them.

It is really healthy to have disagreements and arguments in any relationship. Through our relationships with peers and siblings we learn the art of social interaction, anger management and conflict resolution. If a friend gets angry with you for the tiniest thing, blames you for making her stressed, and if the argument leaves you feeling shaky, apologetic and intensely guilty (for no rational reason), it is likely you have just been on the receiving end of a toxic attack. Other types of toxic attacks can also make us feel shamed (again for no rational reason). When criticism is hidden behind a pretence of “honesty”, and it is relentless, it starts to poison our soul and damage our confidence and self esteem.

It is important to be helpful and support friends through their bad times, but also make sure it doesn’t affect your emotional wellbeing (remember YOU can’t be the kind and compassionate friend you want to be when you are emotionally drained). While a toxic friend will rely heavily on you to listen to their problems, in depth, and commiserate (literally “be miserable with her”), they do not support you when you really need some support. Having a friend like this, especially when it’s a bestie, can leave you feeling very lonely and alone at those times when you could most need a good friend. The focus seems always to be on them. They never ask about you and your life, and it often leaves you feeling devalued, like you don’t matter.

What can really feel toxic in a friendship is when your friend can’t even be happy about your successes and celebrate your achievements with you. In healthy relationships, good friends empower one another. Sometimes we try to tell ourselves it is only trivial, and it shouldn’t matter, but when a friend betrays our trust, we should really see that for the toxic behaviour that it is. Trust isn’t trivial! Betrayal is a big red flag in any relationship.

And last but not least, a toxic friend uses manipulation and deceit to pressure, shame or force you into doing things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. The anxiety for you is intense as you know they will make you feel like the most uncool loser ever if you don’t join in, and you know it’s not going to be a good thing for you if you do join in either (that “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” feeling). There is a huge difference between encouragement and coercion.

So there we go, toxic traits in 1000 words or less.

Do you recognise any of these in some of your friendships? While every now and then, all friends can have moments of self absorption, negativity, apathy etc and niggle away at your happiness and sanity, it’s important to see that these might still be really good friends. Toxicity in relationships is more about the intensity, frequency, or longevity of the toxic behaviours, and most about how it makes you feel and the impact it is having on your inner peace, self-esteem and overall happiness. Think about that for a while and in Part II we will look at that dilemma – “do I stay or do I go?” – and discuss some of the strategies that we could use either way.

* Results from BAM may vary. Strict adherence to the program is required for best results.

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