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On Toxic Friendships

By Galia Barhava-Monteith

A special friend of mine (I’ll call her Sally) was recently tracked down by a childhood friend of hers who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

This friend (I’ll call her Brenda) felt that the only person she could trust was Sally, she’d only agree to see mental health professionals if Sally accompanied her, and she only trusted Sally to make the right decisions for her. All this despite the fact Brenda is married and has a family that lives nearby. Sally, feeling like she was obliged to care for Brenda, has put her life on hold and proceeded to take her in, and basically handle her care completely.

Brenda was not a close friend of Sally’s but they go back a long way, and when it came to this crisis Brenda wanted Sally there. Now, Sally is everyone’s ideal mum, she’s warm, reliable and extremely resourceful.

On the face of it, being held in such huge esteem, so much so that Brenda turned to her in her greatest hour of need, is a great compliment and endorsement. But is it good for Sally?

Sally is a single mother of two who works full time. It occurred to me that if Sally is so special to Brenda, perhaps Brenda should have made more of an effort when she herself was well and had the chance to be a good friend to Sally in her time of need – a chance that Brenda let slip by.

This saga and other experiences, led me to think about toxic friendships and why we should be more aware and open about them.

What Are Toxic Friendships?

I’ve read many different definitions but basically, a toxic friend is someone who makes you feel worse rather than better. These are the friends who, after you have spent time with them, leave you feeling drained rather than energised. You regularly end up feeling hurt or upset.

I think most people have had their share of toxic friendships. One friend I had was always late; her life was full of dramas and busy action, all of which required my support and understanding. She felt very comfortable asking me for ‘favours’, but if I asked for her help more often than not she had excuses as to why she couldn’t help me – usually involving the dramas.

But, she appeared very supportive in times of need and stress, in fact when I was down or weak she was ALWAYS there, asking me about how I felt and wanting the details of my crisis. However, what eventually hurt me badly was that I felt she wasn’t happy for me when I was happy and doing well perhaps because I was worse off than her and through helping me she felt better. But when I was doing well, she felt insecure and envious and became dismissive or manipulative.

You might ask why I stayed friends with her in the first place? Well, I didn’t realise how toxic she was because we had been friends for a long time and I felt very loyal to her.

It turns out that I’m not alone. Many women (yes, this is especially relevant to women) find themselves in similar situations. Often, a friend isn’t toxic to begin with, as was the case with my friend. But over time, for whatever reason, they become this way. The difficulty is to recognise it. We might feel it’s our fault or we simply brush it aside as ‘a passing thing’. Sometimes, it is. Sometimes, friends go through tough times and end up taking it out on us. Hey, isn’t that what friendships are for? Support and companionship in the good times and the bad? I think they are, but there comes a point when the cost is simply too high.

How Do You Recognise a Toxic Friend?

In my case, it was a combination of other people’s perspectives and a case of one too many incidents. On occasion, I’d tell my husband and other close friends about what this woman had said or done and eventually they started pointing out to me what was going on – that after I spent time with her I was irritable and quick to anger and that the things she was saying and doing were just not on.

I did try to rescue the friendship but wasn’t successful. Some experts advise us to ‘talk about it’. As a consequence of my reading widely in positive psychology, I am no longer an advocate of always talking about things. I don’t think that woman was morally bad or being toxic on purpose. I think she has her own issues but the revelation for me was that I am NOT her therapist to solve them for her.

Ultimately, toxic friendships are in the eye of the beholder. It was toxic to me. I don’t think she even realises how she made me feel.

What Are the Signs of Toxic Friendships?

My view is that the key sign of a toxic friendship is that after you spend time with that friend you consistently feel drained, used and sometimes even abused.

In line with a positive psychology approach, I figured that rather than spending too much time thinking about toxic friendships, I am better off thinking about great friendships. I wanted to be clear in my own mind about what good friendships should look like. It might sound simple, but it isn’t. Try it: ask yourself what you think a great friendship is about.

For me it turns out that a great friend is someone who makes me feel energised and supported after I spend time with them. That’s not to say that I don’t want to support my friends in their time of need. I absolutely do. But some people seem to consistently need support. To me a great friendship is one that feels reciprocal and where everyone knows where the boundaries are.

Finally, I realised that I like my friendships to be EASY, where you just stream along. You don’t have to constantly worry about what they’re thinking/feeling/doing, you hang out, you have fun, you disclose what needs to be disclosed and there isn’t much drama!

What You Can Do 

If you do find yourself in a toxic relationship, ask yourself the following things:

  1. What is driving this character to behave the way he/she is?  Try to understand their character traits.
  2. Can I tolerate their behaviour?  What is my tolerance level?  What am I prepared to put up with?

If you find that it is an intolerable situation at work and leaving is your best option, ask yourself – what is the worst that can happen?  If you are reporting directly to this person then they more than likely have control over you getting promoted and getting a pay rise.  If they are further up the hierarchy then you may require a regulatory or monetary reason for the company to remove them.  It may be that it is better to leave the situation for your own health and well-being. 

Always do this in a dignified manner, however, as you never know when your paths may cross again. Remember three important points:

  1. Always be clear on professional and personal boundaries.  If your co-worker is behaving differently at work and outside of work it is time to state what your expectations are.
  2. Self belief – “To Thine Own Self Be True”, know who you are and what you are willing to put up with.  If you decide to confront the person or leave the situation, what is the worst that can happen?
  3. Perspective – get some trusted advisors to give you perspective on the situation.

Back to Sally

I haven’t told Sally all this but I might do so. I think Sally should ask herself who are the friends who support and energise her and who are the ones who just keep on taking and taking because she has so much to give.

If this piece got you thinking and you’d like to learn more, you can read about the six types of toxic friends and also read extracts from the book When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal With Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You by Jan Yager (2002).

And of course, many of these principles apply to toxic relationships in the workplace!

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