Are you struggling to make sense of a toxic friend? Most of us have been through the toxic friendship dance at some stage in our lives.
It’s amazing how long we can tolerate a toxic friend when it’s someone that we’ve spent a lot of time with during our most formative years. But eventually toxic friendships approach an expiration date, usually when the other person finally pushes you over the edge in terms of what you’re prepared to tolerate. Forcing you to finally take a more objective look at what’s really going on.
This was the case for Kate* (not her real name) who recently came to see me to get some clarity on a long-term friendship that had totally soured.
KATE’S PROBLEM [Case Study]
Kate had known Lisa* (not her real name) for 25 years. They had met in high school and been friends ever since. As teenagers, Lisa had always been more outgoing and talkative than Kate. Having been through lots of experiences together growing up, in Kate’s eyes they would be friends for life.
But once Kate hit her 30s and became more successful and self-confident in her own right, she started to tire of the one-sided nature of their friendship. Lisa only called her when she needed to talk about some type of drama, or needed a favour.
Lisa would turn up and dump her emotional baggage all over Kate, leaving Kate feeling annoyed and exhausted for the next 24-48 hours. It felt as if all of Lisa’s anxiety and negativity had been shoved into her. Lisa said she felt better after their chats, but was oblivious to how this impacted Kate and no doubt other people in her life.
Whenever Kate tried to talk about her own issues, Lisa would immediately switch the focus back onto her and talk about when she had the exact same problem. Leaving Kate feeling ignored and invisible. Lisa would often minimize Kate’s feelings, yet expected Kate to listen patiently and empathically to her.
Kate’s husband had long been pointing out to her how drained and irritated she was whenever she spent time with Lisa. But Kate would just get defensive. Lisa finally pushed their friendship over the edge when she showed no interest in Kate’s recent win at work which had meant a lot to her. Instead of celebrating Kate’s big win, Kate felt on the receiving end of a jealous, negative vibe and just didn’t understand why. Kate finally decided to step back from the relationship.
WHY IT HAPPENS
When you’re attracted to someone who turns out to be toxic for you, it’s usually because you’re used to that treatment. The relationship dynamics resemble a familiar relationship from your past. Usually with one of your parents or a sibling.
It’s these types of people that initially are very magnetic and attractive to you. There’s a match in your unconscious to how you’re used to being treated by someone significant in your past. It’s like putting on an old pair of slippers, without realizing they are actually not a good fit for you.
With toxic friends there’s always an agenda on their part which often you just can’t see. Particularly when you’re younger. After years of tolerating their behaviours you slowly gain awareness, being drained, irritated and diminished after every encounter with them. The friendship becomes complex and messy when it shouldn’t be.
Kate had been avoiding having an honest conversation with Lisa about how she felt, because of the nostalgia of their teen years. It was as if she’d been under a spell, which in a way she had. What was Kate’s attraction to Lisa all those years ago? It turned out that Kate’s mother had always taken up most of the space at home. Her father worked long hours and was often away on business trips; increasingly her mother started dumping her emotional baggage onto Kate instead of seeking another adult to confide in. So Kate had become very adept at sitting patiently and listening to her mother go on about her issues and then offering her mother advice. Kate’s prescribed family role growing up was to be the good listener, care taker and problem solver. Yet she hadn’t seen the similarities in how she’d tolerated Lisa.
Kate was hoping that Lisa would eventually see her for who she really was and show genuine interest in her. This was never going to happen if they continued along the same path.
Inevitably, as with Kate and Lisa, cracks start to appear over time when you’re forced to become more self-aware because another person is emotionally draining and hurting you. But because you’re trying to sort things out in a closed thinking loop inside your head, it usually takes someone else to step in and point out the dysfunction to you. Until this occurs, you can remain blind-sided to the dismissive and disrespectful way they are treating you.
If you’ve grown up in an environment where there was no model of healthy respectful relationships, then it’s something you need to learn in your adult life. Otherwise, it can set you up for low self esteem, poor boundaries, and the inevitable confusion about how other people should be treating you. The sooner you can identify this, you will save years of giving your precious time, focus and energy to people who just don’t deserve it.
When Kate saw the similarities between how her own mother related to her and how she was being treated by Lisa, it broke a life-long hypnotic spell. She was free to step back and reassess how she was prepared to be treated by other people.
HOW TO CHANGE IT
If you’re in a toxic friendship the first thing you need to do is step back and stop engaging with them. Stop everything and give yourself some space. Whether that be physical space, taking a break from phone calls and / or unfriending them on social media.
#1 Set new boundaries.
If you’re unclear about what good personal boundaries even look like and how to go about change find someone who’s qualified to help you do this. Psychotherapy provides a safe space to build confidence and self-awareness and learn new relationship skills that quickly translate in the outside world.
#2 Know when to stay or when to move on.
This is not about being perfect or expecting your friends to be. We’ve all stuffed up in friendships at some stage in our lives. It’s part of being human. What we’re talking about here is being able to assess whether a friendship that’s gone toxic is redeemable or not. Do both of you have the capacity and self-awareness to handle the disruptions and necessary repairs that are part and parcel of human relationships? It’s knowing when to stay the distance, or when to cut the ties and move on.
#3 Let go of your need to be liked.
Whenever you decide to change and become more self-aware, the people closest to you often don’t like it at first. Because you’re no longer playing the role they have prescribed for you. Initially, they may get angry with you and try to pull you back into how they want you to be. That’s when you need to be consistent with setting new boundaries and let go of the old people pleasing version of you. Eventually they’ll get the message that they also need to re-adjust if they want a relationship with you.
The Outcome: Rebuilding The Friendship On New Terms
Photo by Lacie Slezak
When Kate finally stepped back and took a break from their friendship it really got Lisa’s attention. Kate finally told Lisa she just didn’t feel respected in the friendship… that it was always about her. Lisa’s initial reaction was anger and denial and then silence. She’d finally got the message loud and clear that she needed to change if she wanted to keep long-term friends in her life. Lisa also sought counselling and they are both slowly rebuilding their friendship on a more equal basis. Only time will tell whether their friendship can be repaired, but they are both willing to give it a go.
Most self-aware people know when they have stepped over the boundary in friendships. The problem lies with people who aren’t self-aware and don’t want to invest in their own personal growth.
Maybe you’re telling yourself you can’t make new friends after a certain age, so it’s best to keep the ones you already have. Even if they are hurting and draining you. This just isn’t true. Friendships can be made at any age. This faulty belief is stopping you from meeting new, healthier friends. As long as you’re invested in toxic, dissatisfying friendships, nothing new can come in. Because they are just so draining, distracting and time consuming.
Take Aways :
- When you decide you deserve better and get help in making the changes you most need it has a powerful ripple effect. The quality of all of your relationships, personally and professionally start to improve, changing all aspects of your life in positive ways.
- What we most remember about other people is how they make us feel. So pay attention to how those people make you feel. Do they make you feel good about yourself, valued, seen and heard? Or do you feel used? Test if you’re in a healthy or toxic relationship. If you’re finding this too hard to do, find someone who’s qualified to help. Because how you do one thing in life is how you do everything.
It’s always worth the effort sorting out what’s holding you back from having the life and relationships you want. The biggest turning point for anyone on the path to a bigger life and more success is asking for help and not trying to do everything on your own.
If you’re feeling drained and resentful because you’re in a toxic relationship and are ready to set some new ground rules, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to book an appointment and we can start making the changes you most need.
*All identifying features, including names, have been changed in this case study to protect the privacy of my client.
Blog title image by Tamara Bellis
A version of this article appears in The Sydney Standard February edition.
Tags: Competition among women, Courage to be yourself, How self-awareness leads to meaningful change, How to be more confident, How to make sense of toxic relationships, How to set personal boundaries, How to stop absorbing someone's emotional baggage, Lack of empathy, Narcissism, Parentified Child, Prescribed roles in families, Psychological blind spots, Toxic friends