023. How to Know if a Friendship is Toxic

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Dear Wanting to be Toxic-Free, 

I hope you’ve spent some time this past week taking a “friendship inventory.” How has that gone? I know it can sometimes be hard to let certain friendships go. I sadly know this well. In the past decade of my life I’ve lived in four different states. That’s a lot of goodbyes. They don’t get easier, but I am getting better at trusting in the seasons of friendships and holding onto the precious ones that have stood the test of time. 

This week, I want to take us a step further into the underbelly of friendships and explore toxic friendships. As much of what we are discussing is rarely talked about, there is going to be room for lots of nuance and lots of differences. 

Keep in mind that the ultimate decider of whether or not a friendship is toxic is going to be you. Additionally, the decision to stay or to leave is yours and yours alone. 

In the same way your Mom telling you at the tender age of 16 that she isn’t crazy about this new boyfriend of yours only made you cling that much tighter to the relationship, it’s not going to be helpful for me to give you hard and fast rules about what constitutes a toxic friendship. 

What I will do is offer you a few points to take into consideration. Some may hit home more than others and some may be points you aren’t ready to engage with yet. The last point is about your own self-worth and that is going to be most important. Remember, it’s a process to both create a friendship and to leave a friendship, so be gentle with your pace here. There are no gold medals of friendship, only a life that is lived in or out of alignment with who you truly are. 

One. Consider the energetic space of your friendships. 

Bring to mind a really good friend of yours. She’s accessible, she loves you, she calls you on your shit, and you adore the heck out of her. How much time do you spend thinking about this friendship outside of your time spent with each other in person, on the phone, and tagging her on all the best meme’s? Probably not too much. Sure there may have been times in the past where you two have had a conflict and you’ve had to think through how you want to bring it up to her. For the most part though, you don’t think about the friendship, you live in the friendship. 

Now, I want you to bring to mind a friendship that has been troubling you lately. Maybe you’ve felt taken advantage of or judged or like you weren’t a priority. How much time do you spend thinking about this relationship? Likely, quite a bit. 

Think of time as energy. In doing so, you can quickly realize that toxic friendships take up a lot of energetic space. A very common experience after hanging out with them is that you feel drained. You’re probably spending a lot of energy on keeping the peace, doing everything they want you to, being hyper vigilant about what you say and what you don’t say to make sure your friend stays happy. Additionally, when you’re not with the person, energy is being spent on on feeling confused, feeling like you’re a bad friend and wanting it to be different but not knowing what that could look like.

The law of thermodynamic states that energy can neither be created or destroyed, it can only be transferred or transformed. Consider what friendships feel like a vacuum is being plugged into your soul and all energy is being transferred from you to your friend. Ask yourself what’s in it for you? Ask what rules you have about friendships. For example, for those of you who value loyalty above all else, consider the limitations of that. How your loyalty might be getting in the way of your freedom? The good thing about rules is that we can update them any time we want! Schedule a meeting with yourself and write out new friendship rules. Now, work hard to live into those and assess in 3 months. 

Two. Consider what unspoken rules are at play. 

Spend time with a family, a business, a religious organization, or a club for a decent amount of time and you will be able to tell me what the rules of that space are. You’ll be able to tell me what’s okay, what’s on the fringe, and what is absolutely not okay. 

Here’s the catch…no one will have sat you down and told you these things point blank. You’ll have figured them all out on your own by simply observing, reading between the lines, and noticing. And if we were to poll different people in that same system, the themes you picked up on will likely be similar to the themes they pick up on. These are known as implicit messages. They are the unspoken rules that allow the system to run smoothly regardless of whether or not they are collectively serving everyone’s highest good. 

Implicit messages in and of themselves do not automatically mean it’s a toxic relationship. For example, say you are your friend have opposing political views. You’ve never sat down and said, “It’s best for the sake of our friendship that we just don't talk about politics at all.” Yet, you two rarely, if ever broach the topic of politics because you care more about the friendship than needing to agree. 

If you were to sit down for a few minutes and found yourself able to jot down a full page of implicit messages that are at play in a certain friendship, that would be cause for concern. 

The implicit messages that are warning signs of a toxic friendship are when power dynamics are present, when certain topics are not allowed to be confronted or challenged (the energy here is going to be very different and more volatile than the example above where the two friends choose not to discuss their opposing political views), and when there is fear and trepidation about what would happen if you left the friendship. If you find yourself in this position, it’s a very disorienting experience. A trusted counselor would be great to bring in to allow you the support you need to be able to walk away as there is likely more at play that you are consciously aware of such as gas lighting and manipulative behaviors. 

Three. Consider your own story and relational patterns.

Our subconscious minds are formed early on in our childhood. From then on your brain is always looking to recreate the patterns and relational dynamics that were modeled for you from the ages of 0 to 7. These neural networks are not concerned with whether or not these patterns are healthiest for you. It’s only concern is to find that sense of “home” where you know how to function, you know the rules, and you go into auto-pilot mode. This pattern explains why you might see a loved one continuously finding their way into relationships where there is addiction, substance use, or domestic abuse present. These patterns were likely modeled by their early caregivers and the cycle is simply repeating itself over and over because it’s the only thing the brain knows. This is why it is so important to be intentional to break generational patterns within your family lines. 

If you are someone that has continuously found themselves dating the same kind of men or in this case, engaged in similar patterns of toxic friendships, it would be worth taking into account your own story and family of origin. When we start to see patterns in our lives that happen more than once, it’s something we need to pay attention to and take responsibility for. Responsibility does not mean that we are meant to continue being a doormat to people who walk all over us or that it is our fault we are being treated this way. It does mean we need to do our due diligence to confront these relational patterns, to examine our own origin stories, and to begin the brave work of healing. 

Often toxic relationships can happen when we struggle with codependency. If we are people that love to be needed and we find our identity and worth in that, we are going to attract people that love being taken care of. The relationship with be mutually beneficial because you get to care take and they get to receive. Again, caring for people well is not a bad thing. It’s a beautiful gift. It becomes problematic when our identity is wrapped up solely in our care-taking abilities which shows up often as codependent relationships.  

Do your work. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself. Ask for help even if it’s scary. (Hint: it probably will be scary.

Four. Consider the outside feedback you’re getting. 

My husband is by far the most intuitive person I know. It seems that women have the market on intuition these days, but let’s not discount the strong and vulnerable men in our lives that possess this gift. While I consider myself intuitive, I’m also a person easily swayed by emotions. Looking back at my own story, I’m very attracted to powerful people who have a large presence. I can remember telling my husband about a new friend and how great they were and blah-blah-blah. Jordan was not all that impressed and actually mentioned that he didn’t love the energy I came back with after spending time with this person. I continued to spend time with this person and over time, I came to see what Jordan had picked up on so early on. I trust Jordan’s sensitivities so much more now because my emotions can oftentimes cloud my sense of clarity and groundedness.

I wonder if you’ve ever noticed that your friends seem to pick up on certain subtleties after you spend time with someone? Maybe a family member has made comments that they don’t like how this person is treating you as well.  I would imagine we have all probably received comments that felt judgmental so we threw out the entirety of what they said. However, what would it be like to look at those comments through the lens of being really cared for and loved. We can all grow in emotional intelligence so it might be worth trusting that our loved ones have our best interest at heart, they just may be lacking in tools to share this with you well. 

Additionally, I would wonder if you keep this toxic friendship hidden and isolated? Are you mindful not to bring this friend around certain friends because they don’t like each other? Do you keep them away from your family? Consider the ways you may be resistant to the truth and why that might be. Ask yourself what it is that you’re protecting or afraid of losing? 

Five. Consider your own self-worth

The simplest way to understand how much you value your self-worth in a friendship is by asking two questions. 

Question One: Do you feel better or worse after spending time with this friend? 

Question Two: If you answered worse, how much do you value this person over your own worth? 

I’m guessing you probably answered something along the lines of “More than I value my own self-worth.” 

I wonder why that is for you? 

Maybe you’ve been taught by example to “look the other way” or to “forgive and forget” or even to “look at the log in your own eye first.” I would offer these bumper sticker lessons on how to be in relationships with other people are more about spiritually bypassing the problem than being in healthy friendships. 

A lot of us were taught to value the other over our own gut feelings, opinions, and desires. There was no class on boundaries or how to do conflict in friendship or what it looks like to be ourselves. More often than not, this whole process, including learning to value our own sense of worthiness looks like a 15 year old learning how to drive for the first time. 

It ain’t pretty. 

But with practice and discipline, we usually get better and can learn to slow down and speed up without need a trip to the chiropractor. The same is true for our self-worth. 

When you consistently put yourself in a one-down position with a friend and allow them to make all the choices, you’re also communicating that you don’t value yourself. Your opinions and wants aren’t that important to you. 

In toxic friendships, this is especially detrimental because it’s much deeper than just deferring to your friend to make the decisions on where you all go to eat. You may even be allowing them to talk down to you, to shame you, and to bully you. This may take the form of name calling, of using your secrets against you, and making you feel guilty for standing up for yourself. When this happens your sense of worthiness is made smaller and smaller until you are a shell of a person and you learn to expect this kind of treatment as normal. 

Word to the wise: it’s not normal and you don’t have to subject yourself to unkind, dehumanizing, manipulative treatment. 

This all may be a lot to take in but I want to let you know that healing from toxic friendships is absolutely possible. I’ve seen women who have histories of really toxic friendships and relationships break those patterns, walk through healing, and go on to be in really healthy, congruent, and long lasting friendships. 

So if you just read this and it’s bringing up a lot of feelings, hold onto the truth that healing is really possible. Next week, I will focus on how to walk away from a toxic friendship along with ways to heal from this type of really painful friendship. 

Self-Care Questions:

Before you go, I want to ask that you give yourself a few minutes to pause and notice a few things. 

Notice what’s happening in your body right now as you just finished reading this. For some of us, our emotional cues are felt strongly as physical sensations. If you’ve never done this before, just pay attention to your heart rate and breathing patterns, to your chest, and your tummy. Those are all great indicators of increased emotional activity. What could they be telling you?

Notice if specific encounters with friends are flashing up in your mind. Jot those memories down to process more in depth afterwards. Those memories are likely coming up for a reason and it would be wise of us to pay attention. 

Notice the feelings that come up. Oftentimes a cue for me that a friendship or relationship isn’t the safest is that I feel a lot of fear. As in my stomach curls up, I can’t think straight, and I feel helpless. All those signs point to feeling really, really afraid. Looking back, those feelings were telling me something that I needed to have paid more attention to. What feelings are coming up for you and what clues might they be offering to you? 

Lastly, notice your limits. I read a book a few weeks ago that was triggering all matter of toxic scenarios that had happened in a certain setting awhile back. I found myself rehashing conversations and having strong emotional reactions. While I knew the information in the book was really valuable, I also valued my own limitations and decided to set that book down to care for myself. If this is happening to you too, give yourself the gift of pause as some of the material might be doing more harm than good. When you’re ready come back to it, you’ll know. No shame in going slow. 

Thanks for trusting me to take you on this journey as we explore the nuances of toxic friendships. If you missed last weeks post about deciphering between necessary endings and toxic friendships, you can revisit that here. I’ll be back next week to share about healing and what caring for yourself and your relationships well can look like. Take a deep breathe and continue being brave. I believe in you. 

With Heart,