We all fall out with our friends now and again, but is a pal regularly making you feel sad rather than supported? The relationship may have turned toxic. Here’s why…
Sometimes there are things you don’t want to talk to your family about, or even share with your partner. Sometimes only a friend will do. As social animals, friendships are an important part of our make up. They are there to debate with, laugh with, cry with – and sometimes be angry with. They let us explore emotions and learn more about ourselves.
Friends are also integral to our health and wellbeing. According to research by the London School of Economics, the key to happiness isn’t found in wealth but by happy friendships and good relationships – and a study by Harvard University suggests great friendships even promote good brain health. “From the moment we’re born we are wired for connection,” says psychotherapeutic counsellor Chanelle Sowden (chanellesowden.com). “Those around us can have a huge influence over our development and our sense of joy. Our friends are often our main support network, providing us with the feeling of being ‘in it together’ and not alone when we experience life’s knocks.”
When meet-ups with your friend leave you feeling stressed and anxious rather than comforted and relaxed, that’s when a soulmate can turn sour.“Sometimes it’s hard to diagnose a ‘toxic friend’, especially, for example, if you’ve been friends for years – sometimes you acclimatise to their rudeness levels!” says happiness expert Shonette Bason-Wood, co-author of Happiness (spreadthehappiness. co.uk). “But after seeing them ask yourself: do I feel uplifted? Do my sides ache from laughing? Or, does my face ache from smiling at the endless news and stories they told me about themselves?”
David Brudö, CEO and co-founder at mental wellbeing and personal development app Remente (remente.com), says it’s important to remember that the definition of a toxic friendship will differ from person to person. “For some, it is a lack of understanding or communication; for others it is a lack of common interests,” he says. “As such, the consequences of toxic relationships on mental health differ. However, the effects we see again and again are increased stress levels, withdrawal from hobbies and irritability, all of which can lead to depression.”
Part of the problem with these kinds of friendships is that they normally require one person to give much more energy, and this can cause an imbalance and eventually burnout. “A good friend makes us feel energised, while a toxic friend does the opposite,” affirms psychotherapist Toby Ingham (tobyingham.com) “After a night out with a toxic friend you may feel wound up and unable to sleep. In these kinds of friendships, we end up giving away too much of our resources and time. This unpredictability can be tiring and create unnecessary fatigue and can develop into symptoms such as headaches, stomach issues, irritable bowel syndrome, or obsessive patterns and behaviours.”
If you’ve been friends with someone for many years, it can be hard to cut ties and it may be best not to rush into anything you’ll later regret. “I personally find it unhelpful to use the word ‘toxic’ to describe a person or personal relationship,” says Chanelle. “There is a saying ‘hurt people, hurt people’, meaning that when someone hurts you or makes you feel bad it is often a sign of their own inner suffering. Keeping this idea in mind can make it easier to understand their behaviour and not take it personally.”
Indeed, it’s helpful to remember that misunderstandings are commonplace among friends and we can learn from them. “This is a point in our lives where we have the opportunity to grow and expand as socially interactive human beings,” says life coach Elisabetta Franzoso (elisabettafranzoso.com). “It is important for our growth to experience both good and bad friendships – this is how we learn to be better at our own relationships.”
Initially, you might need a time of self-reflection to calm your ruminations over the relationship. “Sometimes we don’t even realise we’re letting negative and obsessive thoughts take over,” affirms David, “This is where mindfulness can be very useful – taking as little as three minutes to focus on your breathing and those flashbacks from the toxic relationship, thus bringing you closer to letting go and moving on.
“Once you’ve got your immediate feelings under control, channel your energy into something else. Whenever we feel strongly about a situation outside of our influence, it can be hugely empowering to take charge of something such as a new project at work. Seeing something you do make a difference can go a long way in preventing you from feeling angry and frustrated.”
However, changing your attitudes and behaviour is not enough and you need to confront your friend. This is best done directly but compassionately, without judging or shaming. In this way you will also have peace of mind that you did all you could to save the friendship. “Verbalising how you feel in a clear way helps the friend understand why you may not want to associate yourselves with them, and gives them the opportunity to respond,” says Elisabetta. “However, face-to-face interaction can be daunting and requires a large amount of strength, so simply expressing your point of view in writing or over the phone could be the best way to deal with the situation.” If none of these strategies work, it might be time to shut the door on the friendship. “Gradually withdrawing from social situations with the individual and turning down offers to meet could be the best way to generate some distance,” adds Elisabetta.
If your difficult relationship is with someone you also work with, keeping your distance can be hard.“Office mates can often be more superficial than ‘real’ friends and yet you want to keep them on your side. We often don’t choose who we work with and have no power to dish out P45 for miserable attitudes!” says Shonette, who recommends this rock ritual: “Go to a beach or a river and get some rocks. On the rocks write in permanent pen the name of the toxic friend, then throw the rock into the water singing ‘let it go, let it go, toxic friends won’t bother me anymore!’ This doesn’t get rid of the toxic friend, in fact it doesn’t change them in any way, but when you see them again you can smile and think there is a rock in that water with your name on it.”
Sometimes we’re reluctant to ditch a difficult friendship because we’re worried about being lonely or making new friends. “Making friends in school is hard so making friends as an adult is even harder!” says Shonette “So, join an exercise class, or a rock choir or flash mob – movement and music are great ways to boost happiness – or join a community group. By actively participating in groups with a purpose you will lift your own happiness and be with others who are happier for that purpose. Ultimately, we want to be liked but this neediness can often mean we attract the wrong friends. Instead, think about the friend you want to be with and start to be that kind of friend. Happier friends start right inside yourself.”
How many can you tick?
1. They frequently disappoint you: They stand you up, let you down or leave you out. Their actions don’t not match up to their words, or you find out they have told lies about you or other people and you feel you can’t trust them. They rarely laugh or smile unless it’s at someone else’s expense.
2. They zap your energy: You dread their phone calls and texts and feel physically drained and de-energized when you do see them.
3. You do all the work: You’re always the one who calls and arranges meet-ups, and you find yourself trying to please them or meeting their needs more than they do for you.
4. You feel ‘not good enough’: they are overly critical or competitive. They repeatedly disregard your feelings and prioritise their own needs ahead of yours.
5. They talk about themselves…constantly: Your friend only wants to talk about what’s happening in their lives without showing any interest in yours.
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