I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes for a good friend, lately. A few days ago, I reached out to someone I met over 20 years ago, into the toxic void that was what I USED to think represented a “good” friend – and I’ve been recovering from that conversation all weekend long.
We’ve all probably seen a lot of articles about letting go of toxic people and how toxic relationships are bad, etc. One thing seems to be missing from many of those articles, however – the thing that I had a really hard time figuring out for myself. The answer to a simple question:
How do you know if someone is toxic?
How am I supposed KNOW when a friendship is toxic? How do I know whether I’m just being too picky, or too sensitive, or too judgmental? How do I discern, definitively and factually, whether this person is “good for me”?
Accept That You Might NOT Know
I figured out, over many, many years, that it doesn’t matter if you know. It doesn’t matter if you’re “right”, it doesn’t matter if you are being too sensitive or too judgmental or too picky. What matters is that friends are not supposed to make you feel like shit. If you leave an interaction with a so-called friend, feeling worse than when you arrived…then they are toxic to you, regardless of the “why”.
It really is that simple. A toxic friendship doesn’t mean that one person is “good” and one person is “bad”. It just means that, to the person who feels poisoned, the relationship is unhealthy.
If you feel like shit after interacting with someone, STOP interacting with them!
Keep it simple! Don’t make it mean they are bad. Don’t make it mean YOU are bad. Don’t let it be about self judgment or the voices in your head and for goodness sake, don’t overthink it!
Now, keep in mind, this advice is coming from a crazy person – so…you know…you may want to check in with yourself and see if it resonates.
But I’m right about this. I know that I am, because I have a LOT of experience staying IN toxic relationships, particularly friendships with women.
Yes, yes, you’re right – it IS all about my mother. Whatever – I’m predictable. Sue me.
But, it is. It is all about my mother. She was a caricature of “toxic feminine” (which I just made up but probably exists as a real term that I haven’t looked up and don’t really care about anyway). When I use “toxic feminine”, I mean that weird, controlling, oddly judgmental thing that some women do, often disguised as being “helpful”. My mother was also a sociopath and narcissist, so it’s possible her issues weren’t about being “feminine” and more about being friggin’ evil.
What I did with that, though, was “escape” my mother only to collect a bunch of other women, label them as “friend”, and then create the same fucking dynamic that I had with my damn mother. It is really annoying!
For instance, my mother didn’t really like it when I was good at something. Neither did my brother, but that’s a different story for another time. ANYWAY…with my mom, I would ask for advice I didn’t need, or in some other way make myself “less” so that she could be “more”.
Not YET Using My Power For Good
So then, I went out into the world, and just kept doing that – primarily with women. I would make myself “less than” so that they could be “more than”. I would literally pretend that I had a problem that only they could solve!
I was extremely gifted at knowing what other people needed to feel good about themselves – and I found women who felt good about themselves by being “better than” in a way that let them express their superiority through the guise of “help”. So I MADE myself less – less smart, less able, hell – a worse cook or knitter or artist or mother or wife or PERSON – just so my so-called friends could feel good about themselves, and therefore would want me around.
Then I would ask them for advice, or help, and set up a dynamic that served them very well, and kept them coming back for more.
Yeah – I know – I TOLD you I’m crazy, didn’t I???
I had a history of experiencing real danger if I was better at something than other people – from the weird attention and bullying a fast learner gets in school to the actual, physical danger in my house from either my mother or brother – depending on who I supposedly “bested” at something. With my mother it was all pretty insidious, so in a way, my brother was easier. He would just beat the shit out of me – or at least TRY to.
It helped me develop a useful and effective survival strategy, however…one that made me really good at being “not so good” at things. I really only allowed myself to excel if no one was watching.
But I Want To Be MEEEEEE
Over time, I realized how truly messed up it was to be this watered down version of myself just to make other people feel good about themselves. It was the most egregious in my friendships with women. When I realized it, and started working on it…I started standing up, being ME…and lo and behold, they all melted away.
Well – not ALL. ONE survived. No – wait – TWO. Two survived – but both of them were kind of accidental friendships that were somewhat outside my normal pattern, and both of them loved me enough to weather the storm of me figuring myself out. So – YAY THEM!!! I love them.
Abandon SHIP (as in, relation-ship! HA!)
It felt kind of like a cataclysmic and epic exodus, however, of practically every “close” friend I had made up to that point in time. I was very, very alone for awhile. I didn’t trust myself to create healthy friendships – I was way too good at lying to myself so that I could be what THEY needed or wanted me to be.
So I spent a lot of time alone with just my hubby and child – honestly, not really even interacting with the couple of friends that DID weather the storm. Slowly, though, I started to reach out and touch the world again.
I went out and made, very slowly, one or two NEW female friends, that I was extremely careful about. Slowly, slowly…big toe in the water…was it safe? Was she going to turn out to be another “mother in disguise”? OH – wait – nope, that one seems good! That one is genuinely wise and loving and actually LIKES it when I succeed or do something “on a level” with them. Yay!
I recognize the red flags now, and have learned, for the most part, to trust my gut. I still have to go really slowly though, and I still have to be willing to recognize what is good for me without making it mean that I am judging them as “bad”.
Wait – What Was I Talking About??
AH – that’s right – how to know if a friendship is toxic. I believe my original premise: a friendship is toxic if it poisons you, regardless of the reasons. People need different things, can stand up to different things – have different immune systems, as it were.
Some people are allergic to strawberries, for heaven’s sake! STRAWBERRIES! That’s just tragic! But true – so even though for many, many people strawberries might be nature’s most perfect gift of sweet and tart and beautiful all at the same time…for some people, a strawberry might as well have a skull and crossbones tattooed on it’s perfect little shiny red body.
So when you read those articles about toxic friends, people, family, relationships, etc…just think about that shiny, perfectly red strawberry. Just because someone seems perfect for everyone else, doesn’t mean they aren’t poisonous to you. Trust your gut – YOUR reactions. If your friends don’t nourish you, then don’t eat them.
A true friend sees YOU,
regardless of your circumstances,
and they help you to do the same.