This is part one of a two-part post about coping with toxic friendships. Today I will talk about the formative toxic relationship in my life, how I connected with others to encourage a toxic relationship, the red flags I ignored, and my own role in a toxic relationship.
For the month of August, I am writing about tidying up the home life: from cleaning the house to effectively organizing my time.
I am also working through some internal cleaning: my mental headspace. Living healthy doesn’t exclusively mean eating right or exercising on a regular basis. It means being mindful of my emotional and mental health as well. It’s easy to focus on the external stuff, like what I eat and how much I exercise, but very hard to concentrate on the energy I give to thoughts, interactions, and even friendships.
Friendships are a sticking point in my internal life.
I have a lot of people I consider friends, some I consider close friends, and fewer considered best friends. In my 30+ years, I have a lot of failed friendships and until recently, rarely did I focus on the successful friendships, but much of my mental energy went towards the unhealthy ones.
Many, if not all, of these failed friendships, were toxic in nature. It is important to note I am not talking about friendships that died due to time, distance, and a lack of communication. The toxic friendships generally did not have geographic issues nor was there a lack of time for the friendship, they failed for other reasons.
When the friendships were dying or at a clear end, I would repeatedly reflect on my perceived failures: lack of perception for the warning signs from the beginning, my role in encouraging the negative friendship, and the length of time I allowed myself to endure the unhealthy dynamic.
What follows is my experience with toxic friendships, the self-reflection I needed to complete to move towards healthier friendships, and the fallout from these situations. This process wasn’t easy, and I am nowhere near finished with it, but I wanted to share my current position both as catharsis and hopefully to show that there isn’t anything wrong with you if you realize you’re in a toxic friendship.
My Toxic Origin Story
I am rather lucky that I can point to the origin of my toxic friendships. It was one individual in my life and how everyone surrounding them responded to their toxic behavior.
It was a family member that I dealt with since I was six years old. I have allowed geography to cut them out of my life which helped me heal, but the scars and patterns remain today from the experience.
This person controlled everyone around them with such toxicity, that the only way to reasonably handle them and keep familial harmony was to give in to their desires. We would eat on their terms. Do activities on their terms. Listen to their problems on their terms. There’s video evidence of them completely changing the mood of the room when they walked in for my sixth birthday. This video saved me from believing I imagined their behaviors when they tried to gaslight me as I grew older.
What I saw growing up with this relative was the following:
- It’s important to love a toxic person no matter what. Unconditional love will help them.
- Give that toxic person whatever they desire because that’s part of the expression of love. They are broken and only you can help fix them by giving into them.
- How they treat you is a measure of your worth: if they treat you badly then you are doing something wrong. If they treat you well, then you are doing something right. Always strive to be treated well.
I dealt with this relative for 18 years, which straddled my formative years on how to foster friendships with others. Unfortunately, what guidance I received to navigate my troublesome peer-relationships didn’t match the example I was given regarding this ever-present familial relationship.
So instead of seeking healthy friendships, I sought the relationship I was most familiar with: a toxic one. I don’t know how many friendships I’ve had that were toxic on some level, and that’s the thing, not all these relationships were toxic in the same way.
Think of it as gradations of toxicity. Sometimes I can overlook toxic behavior because the time spent with the person is more important than the slightly toxic behavior they exhibit from time-to-time. With others, they wrapped up so much of my time and energy that it was a drain to think about the next time I would see them. I will be focusing most of my post on the latter.
The Anger Connection
Let me be crystal clear about something: I am not innocent in my lifetime of friendships. I was looking for something in these friendships just as much as the other party. I am not a martyr, nor do I wish to portray myself to be one in this post.
I was just as much of a user in each relationship as they were; you could argue that my role was just as toxic to them as theirs was to me, though I would never admit that as recently as 3 months ago. These relationships were a type of co-dependency where the addiction wasn’t a substance but anger.
Anger addiction is a thing. I always suspected that it was something I struggled with, but when I seriously began my health journey a year ago, I realized I had a problem with anger. This is how I connected with a lot of my toxic friendships, too.
Consciously, the relationships did not start off by connecting over our addictions to anger, but over something else, something about them that I found appealing. Unconsciously, this was the anger, but on the surface, I saw great strength and drive out in these individuals. I was drawn to their confidence and A-type personality. I wanted to be just as driven and so by being friends with them, their secrets to confidence and success would naturally rub off on me.
I would get things done, be confident, and be successful just like them. Or at least how they projected themselves to the world.
I cannot speak towards the origin of their anger, but I was angry about a lot of things in my life. Some of these friendships predate my diagnosis, and while I may have been dealing with my MS unknowingly for the last 10-15 years, my anger stemmed from other things: my relative, the racism I encountered growing up (I’m multi-racial), childhood bullies including teachers, and perceived shortcomings to name a few.
When I encountered what I thought was strength and confidence was just my unconscious recognition of their own issues with anger.
Not every strong and confident person is angry. Every interaction, every conversation had that bite to it; there was always a twist of anger towards a situation or a third-party. This wasn’t the same as a friend needing to vent their frustrations as they dealt with a difficult situation, because in those scenarios a person moves forward from their frustration to find a solution.
Instead, what was happening is countless hours spent listening to this person complain about politics, life, relationships, work, and anything else without wanting to find a solution or move forward. With one person, all I had to do was mention a political scenario for them to be set off in an unproductive spiral of anger. Admittedly, and this is where I was toxic in my own behavior, I would sometimes say something to cycle the person because I wanted to see their reaction and feed off of their expression of anger.
And this is the crux of this issue: I was drawn to their expression of anger because it gave my own anger fuel and validation. This connection would set the tone for our entire friendship.
Ignoring the Red Flags
For a long time, I did not see that I was embarking on a toxic relationship with another person. By the time I recognized what happened, it was too late and I was in the thick of the friendship. Too deep to back out gracefully, but frustrated by the constant barrage of negativity.
As I grew older, I became more aware of the red flags but I can point to the last three toxic friendships where I willfully ignored the warning signs. As I worked through my self-reflection for why I found myself in toxic friendships I identified those red flags as the following:
- All the energy in our interactions were negative in nature. Rarely did I walk away from these interactions feeling good about myself. This isn’t to say they were tearing me down, most of the time I wasn’t the subject of the conversations, but I walked away feeling drained.
- The only way to connect was through this negativity. Whenever I tried to steer conversations towards something positive I was ignored. They only wanted to complain and embrace the negativity.
- All interactions revolved around them and they dominated the conversations. I would try to redirect the conversation about something going on in my life and they would turn the conversation immediately back on themselves.
- Similarly, there was no support for my projects. Sharing my interests with them would be met with criticism, lack of interest, or completely ignoring my requests for support. I was expected to support their projects, no questions. If I was unable to make an event, I would experience several days of the cold shoulder until I apologized enough.
- All parts of my life were up for critique and review, whereas I was not allowed to comment on their life unless it was to compliment them. In one interaction, we were having a hypothetical conversation over an issue and when I expressed my stance on the matter I was flat out told: “that’s stupid.” I pressed their hypothetical stance being equally problematic and the conversation ended immediately with them expressing their stance as the only correct solution.
- An unwillingness to listen to advice that might improve their situation. I would never claim to be an expert on anything, but there were times where I would offer a reasonable solution to the situation and they would reject it wholesale because they wanted to remain in the negativity.
- The importance of the friendship did not match between us: I viewed the friendship on a deeper level (close or best friends) whereas they viewed it more casual (acquaintances or friends). Despite all the time and energy put into the relationship, I was never part of their inner circle, though I thought they were part of mine.
There are plenty of other signs of toxic friendships out there that I haven’t listed, but these were the consistent signs in each of my situations. None of my friendships were abusive in nature, so what follows must be distinctly separated from abusive friendships and toxic friendships (I know there are overlaps between the two).
The Bad and the Ugly: My Role
It should be noted that despite these warning signs I was still an equal party to these relationships. I choose to engage in them, to be a part of them and allowed the treatment. I was never a victim when I was in the middle of these relationships, though at the time I chose to believe I was.
That was part of my own toxic role in these relationships: in allowing a place to nurture my anger I also allowed myself to take on the victim role. My running inner monologue was the following: I was being mistreated in these friendships, I was not being appreciated for the sacrifices I was making, my advice was being ignored, and my favorite mantra – I deserve to be treated this way.
The truth is I was just as much of an aggressor by antagonizing their anger with leading questions or comments to get them to lash out. I would thinly veil remarks under the guise of concern, but knowing full well that I would get a specific response out of them: anger directed towards the situation or me. If their attention turned towards me, it would feed into my own co-dependency/victim complex and helped build my anger and resentment towards them. Any reaction I had towards their behavior would, therefore, be justified.
I was antagonizing and encouraging their bad behavior. I would bait them, encourage them, and while I told myself I was helping them, the only help I was providing is a continuation of their own self-destructive behavior.
The truth is, while I was an equally negative influence, they were responsible for their own lives – not me. I was only responsible for myself and my behaviors, not them like I thought I was at the time.
The dynamic, no matter which side you find yourself on, in a toxic relationship is toxic for both parties.
As the co-dependent/martyr/victim half of the friendship, I allowed myself to become mentally and emotionally stuck in my own thinking and behaviors. By spending inordinate amounts of time physically, mentally, and emotionally in these relationships I prevented any sort of positive self-reflection or self-care that I needed to take for myself.
What these relationships served for me is provide a distraction from issues I’d been avoiding since I was younger. I can’t concentrate on dealing with my emotions over that incident that happened when I was eighteen because I am helping this friend work through their breakup. I can’t deal with my own anger because I have to be angry about how this friend perceives the world treats them.
Yet these relationships fed my own issues with anger.
I lost seven weeks because an individual monopolized my time complaining about a breakup and then scheming to hook-up with someone else. The hook-up scheme caused a lot of drama in the local peer-group and I found myself in the middle. To say I was resentful would be an understatement. But co-dependency/martyr/victim complex stepped in and I was being a good friend for helping them, but damn them for not listening to any advice I had to offer.
When that friendship failed, like many of these friendships do, I had nothing but anger for the person for wasting my time, causing unnecessary drama, and at myself for allowing them to use me in such a way. It’s hard to admit you were used by someone (especially if you don’t see your own role as a user).
On Monday I will discuss the negative impact these toxic friendships had on my healthy ones, what happened when they failed, how these relationships lived on in my mind, what I did to evict them, and the benefits and aftermath of moving forward in a healthy manner.
Have thoughts about your own friendships or what this post discussed? Leave a comment below.
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