Sunday, 13 July 2014

Toxic Shock - What's Really Going On With Toxic Friends?

As well as being a Britney Spears hit, toxic also describes draining or unhealthy relationships which I'd read a lot about but thought I’d been lucky to have avoided, that was until I read an article listing all the things that make a friendship toxic. Oh my God, I thought. It described to a tee what had transpired a few months earlier between myself and an erstwhile ‘friend’.

“Do you feel drained by them?” “I do!” I nodded at the online article. “Do you feel undermined by them?” Does the pope shit in the woods?? I said, nodding enthusiastically. “Does the conversation usually gravitate around them?” Like Ganymede gravitates around Jupiter, I scoffed or would have if I knew more about the solar system.

Until a year or so ago, I’d weathered my wonkier friendships, putting the weirdness I was getting from the other person down to them being a “character”. It’s often the way with the big personalities we have in our lives that they can be great fun but also come with a job lot of drama. The more I heard about these “toxic friends” though, the more I became convinced that that was the root cause of these pear-shaped relationships.

However, as I started writing this post, I couldn’t get any traction on what I wanted to say. I had fine examples of Chernobyl chums and their terrible behaviour. I had my list of made up names I would use to protect the guilty and yet, after writing each paragraph, I’d look back over it and think it wasn't wholly accurate or was somehow disingenuous towards the other party. Because whilst some of the traits listed in that article were true of some of my ex-friends, they weren’t true of all of them. Each situation had its own unique circumstances and each person was different.

Yes, some were chatterboxes who rarely asked after other people’s welfare but that wasn’t a characteristic common to each circumstance. Yes, some did undermine me but not all of them and whilst some were draining, that wasn’t applicable in each case.

The notion of a toxic friendship is an intriguing one to me so whenever I saw articles about it, I often read them but the one thing I noticed consistently, is that the toxee, the one claiming to have been toxed up by their buddy always came across as holier-than-though. However fairly they tried to tell their tale of woe, they always presented themselves as the faultless, injured party. They came across as virtuous while the other person sounded like the reigning champion in the Arsehole of the Year competition. Something didn’t ring true. 

Perhaps this toxic friends thing wasn’t as straight forward as I first thought.

Maybe friendship toxicity is complicated by the fact that every situation is very different and also that you have affection for the person in question. If they were out and out arseholes it would be easy to identify the problem and remove them from our lives but most often they’re not and the dynamic we enter into with them is much more subtle and complex – as the phrase frenemy shows.

Of the people in my life who I consider toxic, all have been fun, lively, entertaining and charming people. The toxicity is subjective and comes down to my expectations of them in our friendship and how they make me feel. It’s easy to make it all the fault of the other person but perhaps closer to the truth is that toxicity is a two-way street.

In situations where I consider a friendship to have gone foul, I can totally justify my decision to let that person go but equally, they may be thinking, thank God, too for their own reasons. Perhaps when it comes to TFFs (new phrase – spread it) toxicity comes from you both poisoning the well.

Recently I decided to let go of someone because I felt shitty whenever I was with them. I always felt exhausted by their company and glad to get away. For some reason, I kept the friendship going because… well I don’t know why. I guess because I thought I should. Kaya said we were friends so I just plodded on assuming that I should put up with her abrasive manner and sharp comments but then, one day, I decided I’d had enough. It felt good, like leaving a room full of teenaged boys’ socks. I laughed at myself for persisting with this friendship when it clearly wasn’t one.

But now my thoughts go to Kaya and what may have been going on with her. It would be easy to dismiss her as an arsehole but clearly she isn’t because she has friends and family who love her and whom she loves. I’ve seen it first-hand so there’s clearly more to this perceived toxicity than just her behaviour. It’s an  element that often goes unacknowledged when people talk about this, and that’s the one declaring the friendship toxic. I was the added ingredient that possibly tipped Kaya into this aggressive mode that meant a friendship between us was impossible.

I can only speculate as to what specifically it could be. My love of Level 42, my need to randomly speak with a northern accent in the middle of conversations, my constant use of the word “like” whilst bemoaning people who do the same thing? I don’t know but one thing’s for sure, it wasn’t all down to her.

I don’t know what about me pushes Kaya’s buttons and I’m sure whatever it is, it probably has and will do the same to someone else too but what I can see with the distance of time is, Kaya wasn’t the problem. We both were. I just made a judgement call about it.

TFF situations aren’t about calling someone else out as being a bad person, they should be about having the maturity to see, this relationship, for some reason, doesn’t work.

I guess the decision we then have to make is, is it so broken it cannot be fixed or at least tolerated?

If it can be tolerated, then all we need do is limit the exposure we have to that person or situations that cause things to flare up. If, for example, your friend mutates into a TFF when alcohol is involved, it may mean you have to swerve them at weddings and birthday parties… and leaving dos and Christmas parties… and Friday nights and all weekdays and the weekends…

OR we may just need to limit how much time we spend with that person in general. I had a friend who went through a difficult break up but in spending more time with them supporting them through it, I saw traits I didn’t enjoy. Once the dust settled and they started rebuilding their life, I backed out of the friendship because I didn’t want to be around them and who they were being. It was sad because I really liked them but hated biting my tongue about their behaviour. I miss them still and who knows, perhaps I should have said something.

But, like an intimate relationship, not every friendship is meant to last. As we all know, some friendships are for a life time, some for a season and some are just fleeting experiences born out of a particular set of circumstances.

Years ago, while working in post-production I found myself in a job I detested. The only pleasure I derived was from sitting next to Carlos who hated the job more than me. We amused ourselves with clandestine impersonations of our bosses and their pointless rules and regulations. It was like living with the Dentons from The League of Gentlemen “You’ll have your own WC into which we don’t pass solids” (that last sentence will seem extremely odd if you are unfamiliar with the rather brilliant BBC Series).

After a few months, both of us quit. We couldn’t have been happier and did nothing to hide it. A year or so later, we met for drinks and to talk through our post-production PTSD. But as we reminisced about our experiences I realised, it was all we had in common. Soon the conversation dried up and I knew it was unlikely we’d see each other again.

To an extent, friendships tend to be self-regulating in that they find their own rhythm. We have friends that are practically soul mates but only see once a year. Equally we can have fleeting acquaintances we see every day, like some work colleagues.

Friendships have a way of pacing themselves so that we see the person just the right amount and in the right contexts and it’s only when we try to override this, forcing the relationship into being something it isn’t, that we come unstuck. Listening to our instincts on how we feel about someone and how we feel when we’re with them is the only tool we need to navigate our relationships.

With Kaya I should have trusted my gut from the beginning and realised that for whatever reason, it doesn’t feel good to be around her so I should let the friendship go.

Releasing these people from our lives is a form of energetic social spring cleaning. It clears out what is draining our resources so that we can focus on the people that benefit our lives, the ones that make us feel good, the ones that raise us up, make us laugh, support us, love us and allow us to be ourselves whenever we are with them and that we want to, uninhibitedly do the same for.

The more I think about it, the more I’m beginning to believe there is no such thing as toxic friends, only toxic friendships and that is not just down to one person. That takes two.


And rather than blaming the other person and trying to present ourselves as angelic, perhaps all it requires is a little maturity to say either to ourselves or if need be, to the other person, this friendship doesn’t work. This will always be the serum to any toxically untenable scenario we find ourselves in.

This post is dedicated to the people who are no longer in my life. I hope life is treating you well... prick. I'm joking! I wish them all well.

Other posts you may enjoy: Clutter Nutter - about decluttering your space, Understanding Haters Makes You Greater - about haters and Let The Cat Sleep On The Bed and The power of the ego

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