Saturday, 14 April 2018

What the fuck is a toxic friend anyway?

A phrase that seems to have grown popular lately that doesn't really sit well with me is "toxic friend". Whilst my reaction is scratching my head in confusion, it seems to resonate with a lot of people, but I personally think it's a harmful and counterproductive way of dealing with friendships that have turned sour. 

Just for absolute clarity: I'm mostly talking about genuine friendships that didn't work out, not about people who were actually abusing someone else and the victim failed to notice, for whatever reason that may be. 

I spoke briefly about it on Twitter a while ago now and ended up blocking a lot of people who thought they were calling me out for apparently never having experienced a "toxic friendship". They clearly don't know much about my life, and I won't bore you with the details but I've had a couple of very special, close friendships go South, but I wouldn't call the other person "toxic". So before I get into why the phrase "toxic friend" makes my skin crawl, please know that my feelings aren't coming from a place of ignorance. 

Let me back track a little. What is a "toxic friend" supposed to be? I took some of these examples from Huffington Post: being untrustworthy and disclosing your private information, they spread rumours about you, they discredit you and belittle your achievements.  These things on the list struck me as, actually, not being examples of friendships at all - but conversely, bullying. Sorry to be harsh and to the point here, but, honestly: if you can't tell the difference between a bully and a friend then I think you've got to take some responsibility for that. Not that it makes it right for someone to treat you like that, but if you're essentially allowing somebody to bully you, what kind of message does that send? It's all very well persisting that "well they shouldn't bully in the first place" - which obviously I agree with - but being realistic, you're always going to encounter classic bullies. From family members, to colleagues and bosses, to random people you cross paths with. I think to close your eyes, cover your ears and scream "well they shouldn't have done it anyway" is futile and nonsensical. When facing actual real life encounters, you should be more robust. That's just a harsh fact of reality.  Other examples from the Huffington Post article honestly just struck me as things we're all guilty of, that certainly wouldn't amount to some kind of warped friendship-bullying "toxicity": such as being too harsh, being self centred, being unhappy, they're fussy, they're stubborn. Can't everyone be those things sometimes? Haven't we all at one point been in a bad mood and snapped at someone we care about? Haven't we all at one time or another been so self absorbed in our own problems we forget to empathise with others? Can these things culminate in friendships breaking down over time? Absolutely. Does that mean that the offending party is guilty of being "toxic" and apparently being hell bent on lowering your self esteem? I don't think that's fair, if I'm honest. 
From my conversations on Twitter, a key theme of a "toxic friend" seemed to be somebody that was detrimental to your mental health. Maybe you felt they weren't supportive enough or were constantly putting you down. We all talk a lot these days about how much of a stigma there is that surrounds mental health conditions and how little they're talked about. I would argue that it's actually common knowledge that most people don't know how to care for and respond to people who are suffering with mental conditions. And yet I can't help but get the impression that these people who accuse their friends of not acknowledging or appropriately dealing with their mental health problems probably also didn't discuss them openly, or try to see it from their friends point of view. Is a symptom of your anxiety random bursts of rage? That's totally valid. But in the present day, unfortunately I don't think it's fair to expect the average person to fully understand that. Ignorance doesn't equate to maliciousness, in my books. I feel like I need to point out the fact that somebody not knowing how to deal with the negative symptoms of your mental health condition/s does not make them "toxic". They're supposed to be your friend, not a psychiatrist. I've been in situation where a friend has had a panic attack out of nowhere during school, in a room full of people, and I just subtly asked them if they wanted to come and take a walk with me. But I knew to do that because I'd known this person a very long time, and I had first hand experience of anxiety and reacted in a way that I'd want somebody to react if it was me that wasn't well.
What concerns me is that from what I've seen online about 'real life' examples of "toxic friendships", they all seem to all fit a certain mould. From what I've seen at least, it tends to be someone pointing the blame and relieving themselves on any responsibility on really petty things. They didn't listen to your problems? Well...did you listen to theirs? They wouldn't compromise? Okay...but did you? Fact is, friendships and relationships alike are two way streets, and when you're the one feeling victimised it's easy to forget to see things from the other persons point of view. All the whilst you were having an internal tantrum about not getting your way, not being listened to, feeling bruised by more than likely offhand remarks that the other person didn't even pick up on as hurtful, perhaps they were feeling the same. Communication, you know? If you've got a friend - a genuine friend: someone that you know, really, would never intentionally hurt your feelings - who perhaps is a bit too honest for your liking, or perhaps their jokes are a bit too sharp, I think you've got to take some responsibility to communicate that to them. If they're teasing you about something you're sensitive about, but as far as they're concerned, they're just affectionally making light of something, they're not going to know it's actually hurting you unless you say "hey, actually, that joke's gone too far now, and it's not funny anymore". It's important to remember that in your mind, you are a 3D character because you know all of your facets. To other people, no matter how well you know them, you are essentially a 2D character in their personal narrative. It's not always easy for other people to predict how you'll perceive and respond to their actions. Something totally innocent can be misconstrued, and if you're not pointing out that you're not okay with something, you cant relieve yourself of all responsibility. No matter how much you think it's obvious that X or Y is offensive, hurtful, inconsiderate or thoughtless, it may not necessarily be the case from an outside perspective. 
Maybe I'm being cynical, but nobody goes into a friendship to take advantage of someone. Nobody puts effort into a friendship just so that they can ultimately make you feel like shit about yourself. But maybe I lived a very sheltered life? From a mature and logical, albeit cynical, standpoint - does anybody actually do that? Do you actually think someone spent a certain length of time to befriend you with the intention of, 12 months down the line, insulting you relentlessly? What I deduce from this wave of people condemning people as "toxic" is, truthfully, the types of people who are quick to point the finger and cry "toxic friend" are the type of people who seem to think everybody around them is a mind reader. Nobody knows what's going on inside your head but you. You can't expect everyone around you, no matter how close you are - or think you are - to understand how you're feeling all of the time. If you think that somebody else's bad mood is impacting on you, their attitude is a little too sour of late, or their opinions are getting a little too boisterous for your liking, you've got to be pro-active. And I have to point out that if you're pulling away from a friendship because somebody seems to be in a constant bad mood/has become suddenly standoffish etc... I think it's rather hypocritical to point blank call them "toxic" because they're not pandering to your happiness. From their perspective, perhaps you're the "toxic" friend for not listening to them or empathising with them enough? I can't stress enough that friendships are two way streets. If your response to something being less than rosy is to cut all ties, wave the "toxic friend" flag and come out the other side like a victim re-born, then I think you've got to re-think what went 'wrong' in the first place. If you can't communicate how you are feeling, if you can't be the one to make things 'right' (whether you feel that responsibility is yours or not), if you've been complacent in letting things turn sour, are you still the innocent party? 

As soon as you label someone "toxic" you're putting yourself in the perpetual role of victim. You're painting your life before this invasion of the dreaded "toxic friend" as picture perfect and all of the negativity in it directly stems from them. Is that fair to say? Are we not all relatively in control of our own lives? That's not to say of course that those we interact with don't have their own role to play, but realistically, I think there's an abundance of things that impact our life, as well as our friends, and of course ourselves.  I'm sick of there being a growing mindset of thinking its okay to label someone "toxic" if they fall below your expectations of being pleasant company. If you think that somebody being in a bad mood, complaining too much, being pessimistic etc does not make them a good friend, then you're not looking for a friend, you're looking for a barbie doll. 
To me, turning to social media after a falling out to declare that you've rid yourself of a toxic friend seems like an embittered, childish response. Effectively, what you're doing is painting somebody that was a part of your life like a parasite that's deliberately chewed away at your wellbeing and your self esteem, which I truly feel, when thinking about it objectively and logically, is implausible that somebody who has been a friend would actively decide to do (actively being the key ingredient of a "toxic friend", so I understand). I think the term "toxic friend" is a truly lazy way to avoid acknowledging that something, somewhere has gone wrong, whether that being one or more of you having been through a rough patch, having a period of bad communication, and addressing the hows, the whys, and the path to moving forward. That includes perhaps piping up and saying, "actually that joke wasn't that funny" or, "that 'constructive criticism' wasn't what I needed to hear". 

When you declare someone "toxic", you're telling me that you see everyone else around you as potential attackers, as potential happiness leeches and would-be day ruiners. If this is your world view, you need to stay at home wrapped up in cotton wall. I know this is going to be to harsh for some to swallow, but I think if your reaction to a friendship hitting a brick wall - whether it's just chugged to a halt or run at it full speed Marc Bolan style - you need to take a step back and evaluate your actions, your responses, your ability to empathise, and your ability to be selfless. 

On a final note, you know how Taylor Swift is always whining - cough, sorry, singing! - about how awful her ex boyfriends were, and how she's the downtrodden princess in all of these scenarios, and it kind of leaves us all wondering "well maybe she's the problem?" Yeah, that.

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Of course, no offence to anybody is intended. These are my personal thoughts and feelings. 
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5 comments

  1. I loved this post, it's so true! Thank you so much for sharing. Happy Saturday!

    Felicity | http://oliverandmoose.com

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  2. This post was such an interesting read. I haven't ever really thought about this before and I think you have certainly made very valid points. I respect and admire your honesty and I have definitely had my eyes opened now, more so than they were prior to reading what you have to say.

    Jade xo | www.simplyjadey.co.uk

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  3. This was such an interesting post! Definitely makes you think xx

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  4. I LOVE this post and totally agree with you! Any "friend" capable of doing this shouldn't be classed as a friend at all.
    Bully definitely springs to mind.

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  5. I agree, if you are calling those traits in people friendships, then please go experience REAL friendship, where you should feel cared for and have some kindness and trust...Great post !

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