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Taking toll of toxic friends

Toxic friends main

Friends are like life buoys. Good ones are right there when we need them, they keep our head above the surface and help us out of troubled waters. Or you can just hang out with them and sip margheritas while you float about in the sun. Bad ones are either absent or made of concrete and they just weigh you down.

An insincere and evil friend is more to be feared than a wild beast; a wild beast may wound your body, but an evil friend will wound your mind.
– Buddha

 Now that’s a cup of stone-cold, bitter truth from a guy who had found nirvana (although he didn’t dig their early stuff so much – too aggro).
Good friendships permeate our lives. They influence our careers, marriage, family, lifestyle choices and above all, our overall health and wellbeing. The alarming thing is that poor friendships can take their toll on all these things and more, both directly and through the way they affect our self-esteem, plus they come at a cost to other, potentially more fulfilling relationships.

A Brigham Young University study concluded that a strong social network of good ‘real world’ friendships improves your chances of living longer by 50%. It can also double your chance of surviving cancer, ward off colds and it could even reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, claimed the study’s lead author, psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lundstad.

Holt-Lundstad suggested that supportive friendships help you cope with stress, so you are less likely to suffer its physical and emotional effects. A multi-university study took this a step further and suggested that if a friend of yours is happy – or even a friend of a friend – then the chances are higher that you are too (or soon will be). Study co-author Dr Nicholas Christakis, a professor at Harvard Medical School, describes this effect as “human beings are hardwired for emotional contagion.”

The flipside is that unhealthy friendships have the opposite effect – they create stress, anxiety and unhappiness. In fact, in another study series, Holt-Lundstad found that even friends you feel ambivalent about will raise blood pressure even more than enemies, as people we simply don’t like tend to be predictable, so they are easier to cope with. When we care about someone – on some level, or at very least feel some kind of responsibility to them – they have the potential to hurt us so much more.

When friends are unhealthy

Many factors may create or define a ‘toxic’ friendship, but the key is that after spending time in these sorts of friendships you are likely to feel bad about yourself. Florence Isaacs, author of Toxic Friends/True Friends explains that a toxic friendship is unsupportive, draining, unrewarding, stifling, unsatisfying, and often unequal. You may also feel belittled if a friend has been critical, reminded you of past failures or simply been insensitive to you. In other cases, you don’t like the behaviour you mirror in this friend – maybe you speak ill of others, you act in a manipulative way or you generally have an angry attitude to life.

Sometimes it is hard to acknowledge that a friendship is toxic because we feel we must have seen good in the person to befriend them in the first place. The truth is, however, that we cannot place too much blame on our initial judgements as there are several other factors.

Conditioned to friend

Human beings are conditioned to befriend. It comes from a need for approval, the foresight that we will need support at some stage and the desire to be part of a group. This condition is perhaps exacerbated in modern society, with its emphasis on networking for career and social acceptance or gain, and then most of have the issue (to varying degrees) of reconciling our online social networking with our real world networking. Online, we can accept, request and end ‘friendships’ with the click of a mouse and we can even have exact control over the level of access a friend has to us. In the real world, this is not so simple. Making – and breaking off – a friendship comes with a lot more responsibilities and consequences.

In a poll of 18,000 women by US magazine Self, some 84 percent said that they have had at least one toxic friend. It begs the question, why would we possibly keep people close when we know they are bad for us?

Inertia is the prime reason – 83 percent of the women in the survey with one or more toxic friends said that they put up with a trying relationship simply because it felt too tough to end it. According to Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Toxic Friends, another key problem is that for women especially, individual friends tend to be connected to a larger circle of friends and acquaintances they value. Consequently, there is a strong fear that cutting a single thread could unravel their entire social fabric. Another reason we cling to our unhealthy friendships is the fear of losing our sense of identity, which psychologist Andrea Bonior explains in The Friendship Fix. “If you have a lot of shared experiences or have known each other for decades, losing an amiga can feel like losing a part of yourself, too.” Of course, this sense of identity goes beyond shared experiences – the trust we place, the confidences we share and the emotion we invest all form part of our perception of our identity.

How many friends do you need?

Be courteous to all, but intimate with few, and let those few be well tried before you give them your confidence.
George Washington

Social networking sites may have created a false perception as to how many friends we can maintain. At one stage, Facebook capped the number of ‘friends’ each profile could have on the site at 5000 and still people objected that this was too low. The number of real-world friends we can handle, however, is purported to be much, much lower.

In his most recent book, How Many Friends Does One Person Need? Professor Robin Dunbar concluded that there are limits on the number of friendships we can maintain due to how our brain works. Dunbar claimed the maximum size of a social network we can maintain through informal control is 150 people. Of these there are probably about 50 who “really matter”, then there is a sympathy group of around 12-15 and a clique of about five who we see most often and feel closest to. This seems a cold mathematical breakdown, but we simply do not – and cannot – invest the time or emotion to have the same level of intimacy with everyone in a 100+ network.

Dunbar’s studies also claimed that getting involved in a romantic relationship means that you lose two friends in your network – typically one friend and one family member. Other factors come down to personality. People with extroverted personalities have larger social networks while with neurotic personalities have fewer friends.

Assessing your relationship stocks

Go through your phone book, call people and ask them to drive you to the airport. The ones who will drive you are your true friends. The rest aren’t bad people; they’re just acquaintances.
Jay Leno 

Unlike family, we get to choose our friends. It’s true that we can forgive certain behavioural, moral and lifestyle differences in a friend that we would find hard to deal with in a relationship with a partner. These factors should not be the first thing you look at when you examine a friendship anyway. Instead, a good general rule to follow is that you should only choose to surround yourself with people who bring out the best qualities in you. If you don’t like the way you act when you’re around someone, then maybe it’s time to distance yourself.

Don’t let your history rule your present. Too often we can look at someone and say that this isn’t a friend I’d choose today, but because we were together ages ago, I overlook behaviour I shouldn’t accept. Another common excuse we make for these longer-term friends are, “It’s a phase – things used to be totally great between us”. Be honest – for yourself and for the sake of the people close to you who are not getting the most of you because this person drains you. In Toxic Friends: A Practical Guide to Recognizing and Dealing with an Unhealthy Friendship, Loraine Smith-Hines writes, “Realise that you can’t change your toxic friend or her behaviour, but that you can change your own behaviour.”

Step back and identify just how long this “phase” has gone on. Often it finds its roots in issues that have been going on for years, yet the friend is not doing anything about it. You take on their negativity and anger, but they do not take your help and advice – and you cannot help someone who doesn’t want to help themselves. You will just end up drowning with them.

Acknowledge other problem symptoms. Do they undermine you? Are they so needy or emotionally draining that they are a chronic downer? Perhaps they are self-righteous and overly critical, or the only thing you can rely on them for is to be unreliable. Another problem is the friend who is so self-centred that there is really no room in the friendship for your needs and concerns. Be aware that this can manifest itself in a number of ways. For example, a friend of my wife – she even came to our very intimate wedding – was without doubt generous and bent over backwards to do things for us. Except one thing, something very important – she wouldn’t listen to us or consider our feelings. In this way, so many of her actions (as generous as they may have appeared) were really all about her. Add to this that she was a constant downer and we felt we only had one option – we had to let her go.

Bear in mind that a friendship should not keep score, but if you honestly can’t see any likelihood that this friend would be there for you when you need him or her – or that you would be willing to do things for a particular friend that they would or have already done for you – then it’s time to re-evaluate.

Ask yourself whether you relax and enjoy yourself when you spend time with this person or whether catching up feels like an obligation. Do they make time for you? And an obvious one – do they really care about you? This is important – sometimes you may want to be a friend to a person because you admire them or find them fascinating or they can bring you some potential benefit, but that person has no such reasons (or at least not to the same degree) to feel the same way about you. As in relationships, friendships can bear an imbalance of passion or feeling, but only up to a certain point.

Recognise that you can simply outgrow a friend. Not by status or wealth – friendships should be able to withstand such imbalances – but by behavioural and moral choices. For example, perhaps it’s true that you once used to enjoy badmouthing people, but now you just don’t see the point. Perhaps one of you has let go of the central facet to your friendship, leaving it a little one-dimensional. Certainly, we all have people in our outer circle of friends with whom our relationship is based solely on one area of our lives and there is nothing wrong with this. The problem comes when we give such a relationship an elevated status – in time, priority and mental/emotional energy – that it no longer justifies.

 Drawing the boundaries

A friend to all is a friend to none.

To be a true friend to those who really deserve it, accept that you can’t be everyone’s saviour. Google + and Facebook had the right idea when they each developed the option set access limits on different levels of friends. Perhaps this is something we have always done subconsciously in real life – and something that is consciously required for certain unhealthy friendships.

If you would like to give this friendship another go, then your only option is to speak to them about how you are feeling. Stand up for yourself first and the friendship second.

Other times, you may feel you need to take a step back. As small as it is, ‘No’ is still a powerful word. Say no to 20 phone calls a day. Say no to your friend insulting anyone in your family. Say no to inconvenient visits or expecting you to drop everything for them. While you no doubt want to be there for a friend, you need to save your energy for when it is truly needed, otherwise it is a case of the boy crying wolf all over again.

Boundaries are not meant or be rigid or cause tension – they are meant to keep you comfortable and functional. Take celebrities as an extreme example. They have many people trying to befriend them – far more than they could ever reciprocate – and they need to be friendly to preserve their image. Yet they must set boundaries for their own sanity and to protect those who are truly close to them. Like the celebrities (well, many of them), you should use tact and sensitivity – after all, you are trying to loosen the reins on some friendships rather than create new enemies.

Drawing boundaries might be a necessary step when you realise that someone is getting considerably more from your friendship than you are from them. This may not even be a deliberate action on their part – they are probably not plotting away with charts in a secret bunker – but if you can’t see this imbalance changing, then you may need to consider the opportunity cost of what you put into this friendship.

Ending a friendship is never easy. In fact, Susan Shapiro Barash writes that because female friendship has similarities to a heterosexual romance, the break-up can be devastating.

Sometimes it can be as simple as spending time with people with you really value, keeping busy and making new friendships – over time you will naturally drift apart. Friends who have been very close or around for several years deserve a more direct approach, even though you may feel uncomfortable with the idea of confrontation.

Take time to write down why you want to end the friendship so it’s clear in your head. Sit down with the friend and explain how you have been feeling and why the relationship is not healthy. Try to do this without blame or accusing the friend of being a terrible person.

It’s always best to end as nicely as you can, for their wellbeing and yours. It is also essential to forgive them, even if only to yourself, if not face-to-face. This is the key to your own personal healing and feeling at ease with what you have done.

If you feel you have been manipulated or betrayed in the friendship, then this may be an occasion when one-way communication is justified, as you must be true to yourself. Your resolve may not hold in person or even over the phone with someone who has the ability to manipulate you (in action or emotionally) – and the way you feel is not open to negotiation. In the email, speak your mind directly, but avoid saying anything you would not say to the friend’s face. In the end, you are ending the friendship so you can be a better person, for yourself and for others, so you may as well start that process here.

Letting go

Follow these essential steps to letting go of unhealthy friendships. 

See the positives

Remember the friendship for the good times, learning experiences or any other positive effect it had on your life. If you view it as a failure, then you are allowing the negativity of this friendship to pervade your future relationships.

Share the story

Talk to other friends, relatives or partner about what has happened. This makes the experience less alienating and supportive feedback will help dissipate any doubts you have about the action you have taken. Rather than be defensive, talk about the lessons you learned and the differences you found to be negative. Be analytical rather than critical or complaining – your rationality will make it easier for people to empathize with you.

Stay away

Resist responding to the friend’s requests to contact you – these can often be knee-jerk reactions fuelled by negative emotions. Often a friend will be attached to other social circles of yours, including social media. Leave some healing space while still connecting with your common friends individually or in smaller groups. This need only be a temporary arrangement. 

Seek closure

If there hasn’t been a mutual and agreeable understanding met at the first attempt to end or downgrade a friendship, then leave time for both you and the friend to emotionally detach yourself from the relationship before seeking closure. Send a message that shows you bear no hard feelings and only wish the best for them. This way, you’ll avoid the haunting dread of crossing paths with the friend again – as you surely will, eventually!

   – A version of this article first appeared in Wellbeing magazine.


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