There used to be someone I considered a friend. I desperately wanted her to like me. At the start, I really admired her, or at least the person I thought she was. We got on like besties from the start, we could spend hours talking on the phone, and there ended up being nothing I wouldn’t do to please her. I did notice that she preferred to be pleased by someone else than be the pleaser. In that way she was very self-centred. And I could see that, but I was able to look past it …. because that’s what friends do …. don’t they ? I actually like being the “giver” in a friendship… usually.
But then the cracks in our friendship became more noticeable to me. She really wasn’t good for me. She would sometimes use a passive aggressive approach to put me down, twist the truth, or share things about me without consideration at every opportunity. If she saw I was making even small steps toward a goal, making new friends, or working hard and seeing results, she wouldn’t be happy for me. In some ways it even felt like she was trying to sabotage me and my efforts. And all I could do was put more and more effort into patching up those cracks.
Sometimes, I would hear about the things she’d say about me behind my back, or even worse see untrue things online that she had written about me. She planted seeds of doubt to destroy my reputation, and poisoned others’ opinions of me. She told others twisted versions of really personal things I had told her in confidence. Still I kept trying, thinking it was somehow all my fault, and that I should be trying to keep her happy.
I should have realised earlier she wasn’t good for me. But I trust often and often too easily. For a long time too, while I didn’t like or believe her attacks on me, I actually tried harder to make her like and accept me, in the hope that she would realise what she was doing and stop it. I desperately wanted to believe she didn’t know that she was hurting me. I desperately didn’t want to believe that she was not the person I thought she was. I thought I was the problem, and therefore my responsibility to fix the “problem” by doing whatever it took to not get on her wrong side. I tried extremely hard and for years to rationalise her behaviour because I cared about our “friendship”. I also think I was too scared to confront her with what she was doing, because deep down I did realise she would twist that around too, to make out I was the toxic friend, not her.
There I said it. She was the toxic friend … not me.
Ultimately it came down to trust, or rather lack of trust. I did sense and know by then, that I could never trust her. She could pretend to be the victim so convincingly, and she could pretend to others that she was so sweet and kind. Though I did notice that there were others that had once been friends with her, but had moved on themselves. It was then I started really seeing that I wasn’t imagining what was happening to me, but more importantly it wasn’t my fault.
I wondered what she had been through or experienced herself, to be confident to hurt other people to feel better about herself. I wondered if she was simply a lost and hurt soul herself. No matter what the reasons for her actions, I did try to talk to her on many occasions but she would get really angry, and retaliate in some way that just made things so much worse …. for me, for our friendship.
In the end, I realised she was never going to change, and the only way to move forward was to shut her out of my life completely…. And I did.
Months, even years later, I would hear or see her name mentioned (social media brings ALL aspects of the world closer to you), and my heart would jump and I’d experience that sick feeling of anger, hurt and irrational anxious fear. And I would get angry at myself for feeling this way, and I would berate myself for being so judgemental and such a “bad friend”. Again I would start doubting myself.
At times, I was still holding a lot of bitterness, anger and intense hurt about what had happened. I used to fantasise all the time, that something would happen to prompt her to change and we could be friends again, because the girl I first met I had felt such a connection to …. but maybe that connection was simply fake from the start, an act. Sometimes I would imagine what I would say to her face if I bumped into her. I would imagine how great it would feel to assert myself and let her know how much she had hurt me…
But then, I realised something. She too was suffering… in her own way … just like we all are. I realised that she was actually desperately unhappy.
It doesn’t matter how or why she did what she did. It matters that she was unhappy. It makes sense that I move on … on my own … without her. Because it makes sense that I release the hurt from my soul, stop making myself unhappy by reliving the hurt from the past, and that I forgive.
Toxic friendships aren’t uncommon. Most of us have people in our lives who do damage and drain us of energy. (See the blog from March on recognising a toxic friend).
But here’s the dilemma which we encounter every time we are a part of a toxic friendship. What do we do? Do we run ? Do we stay? Do we build our resilience, reinforce our emotional and personal boundaries, or change something else about ourselves ?
What we do may be different every time. There really is no one perfect solution. But there is a definite “DON’T DO”.
DON’T become toxic yourself. Don’t replicate their behaviour. Don’t fight fire with fire ! Two wrongs definitely don’t make a right. You will simply end up hating yourself. Always be your authentic self, you owe that to yourself..
The place to start is with considering how and where you can set boundaries. Boundaries aren’t something physical, rather it’s a recognition of what you will and won’t tolerate in the relationship. Perhaps if my former friend had only hurt me to my face, rather than undermining my reputation with others, I may have been able to tolerate that. Especially once I realised that her actions were coming from an unhappy place, I would perhaps have been able to spin it around in my head to change the way I let her words affect me. We all understand the concept of “you can do what you want to me but don’t you dare hurt my family”. What we are talking about now has nothing to do with family’s involvement, but the concept does illustrate that while we can tolerate some things, other things will push us over the edge. These are boundaries.
Set the boundaries with compassion for yourself AND the other person. Boundaries set out of spite or for manipulation will not hold nor be healthy or helpful. Boundaries don’t have to be about ending a relationship either, boundaries simply help you feel that sense of control of your ultimate destiny and treatment. You don’t have to push boundaries down a toxic person’s throat. Boundaries shouldn’t be used as a threat, more as a simple, calm and assertive statement of your wishes and standards. Boundaries do not need to be policed, they are a boundary, not a border. You get to leave it up to the toxic person whether they respect your boundary or violate it. Understanding our own boundaries and actually setting these boundaries reflects our own strength and courage to let people know what we will tolerate in a friendship as well as what we value in a friend. Toxic friends have choices too, you do not make them cross boundaries, ultimately it is their choice to treat you in whatever way. They can choose to respect or disrespect your wishes, boundaries, standards. When they choose to trample over boundaries, they are choosing not to be beside you as a friend, not to respect what you need.
If you really think about it, it is possible to identify what your toxic friend’s own boundaries and/or expectations for the friendship are. They are likely to expect you will tolerate anything they dish up - ridicule, judgement, criticism, lies, intimidation, manipulation – whatever they do. It may feel like their rules for the friendship is that you must always do what makes them feel good. No relationship is ever worth that. You should know it is always okay to say no to anything that feels wrong for you or makes you feel lesser of a person.
Set boundaries and stay: make sure you have your own support away from this friendship. Build strong connections in another place or friendship group. Positive friendships that are more about “mutual kindness” and those which honour your values around friendship more. Staying also means you have to take some responsibility for looking after yourself, for being kind to yourself, for protecting yourself from the really harsh stuff. Spend time reflecting on what you are gaining from the friendship, whether it be simply the opportunity to learn and grow despite the toxicity. Be realistic about your boundaries and your tolerance. Spend time with yourself and your family. Get to know yourself really well and work on other relationships that will always be important in your life. Focus on appreciating your own unique self and your real value and worth. Renew interests, pursue your own goals, develop strengths, treat yourself, pamper yourself, rest, enjoy some solitude, breathe in and then simply breathe out, keep a journal, start a gratitude journal. Learn ways to shift focus away from the toxicity and its effects, and find some sense of internal peace and comfort. Learn to love yourself despite the toxicity around you.
Set boundaries and leave: Sometimes your toxic friend won’t be as committed to the friendship working or even surviving. Setting boundaries and having them violated or ignored can be a really disheartening thing – but use that energy you have been putting into the friendship and direct it toward yourself, empowering yourself with confidence to walk away and to allow yourself to feel good about yourself again. It’s just as important now to build strong connections in another place or friendship group. Positive friendships that are more about “mutual kindness” and those which honour your values around friendship more. Be kind to yourself and respectful of your decision to leave the friendship. Acknowledge that the decision was always going to be a hard one, and that when it comes down to it, you wouldn’t let someone else be treated like that, so you shouldn’t let yourself be treated like that. Be kind to yourself, and spend time reflecting on the positive changes in you since leaving and learning to like yourself again. Spend time with yourself and your family. Get to know yourself really well and work on relationships that will always be important in your life. Focus on appreciating your own unique self and your real value and worth. Renew interests, pursue your own goals, develop strengths, let yourself feel like you deserve to be content. Emotionally detaching yourself from someone who has been a big part of your life is really hard work. Let yourself feel and process ALL the emotions which will arise in you over time. Treat yourself, pamper yourself, rest, enjoy some solitude, breathe in and then simply breathe out, keep a journal, start a gratitude journal. And remember if you leave, set yourself the boundary that you will not “go back”. This means that you are promising yourself that you won’t let yourself be treated like that again. It doesn’t have to mean that you will never be friends with that person again, rather that you may be open to having a very different (more balanced) friendship sometime in the future. In the meantime, learn to love yourself a little more, and heal the emotional hurt that still lingers inside you.
Remember too, whether you stay or leave, the minimum your (ex)friend deserves is good manners and some compassion. You don’t need to seek revenge, you need to let go of the emotional bitterness and grow and heal. It’s likely your friend also needs to heal in their own way, in their own time, at their own pace.
While it may be the end of something toxic, it may well be the start of one of the best periods of your life …. be curious about what the world has in store for you.
Love and light,