on dealing with toxic behaviour

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“Don’t set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm”; I never quite understood that phrase until I found myself on fire, still trying to add kindle to the fire because I thought that was my duty as a ‘good’ friend. In the end, the joke was on me, because the fire didn’t keep anyone warm, and the only person who got burnt was me.

I’ve wanted to write about this ever since a recent prolonged experience in such a situation, but wasn’t in the right headspace to. Now that I’ve distanced myself from the issue and can be more objective, I’ve decided to write about it, because while it was an unpleasant and jarring life experience, I learnt a lot about life, guilt, forgiveness and self-love.

I wish I had known more about the various insidious ways toxic behaviour can manifest itself and how to manage such situations; having a greater awareness towards such issues would’ve made my experience a lot less painful and drawn-out. Hopefully, this open sharing of my experience will help at least one person (in the vastness of the internet) identify toxic behaviour and be able to navigate their own situations better and more painlessly.

(Disclaimer: All names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. Any examples used in this post are to contextualise my points and are not written with malicious intent.)

Lesson 1: You’re Not A Doormat

There’s a fine line between dedicating your time, emotions and energy on helping a friend, and just becoming a pushover or a doormat that they become excessively reliant on. The problem is that toxic people take, take and take until you’re down to your last one percent, and even then, you and your foolish saviour complex makes you feel guilty if you choose to put your foot down and say “This time, I will put myself first”.

It’s surprisingly easy to prioritise your friend’s wellbeing over your personal wellbeing when they come to you seeking advice on a multitude of problems. And don’t get me wrong, it’s perfectly fine to confide in your friends, but in my situation, I felt like I was trapped in groundhog day, hearing this friend rehash the same trivial problems day in and day out. I persisted and repeated my advice as many time as he/she came to me for help, because I thought that I would eventually be able to reach a breakthrough and magically help resolve the problems. But the problem with playing therapist, is that your willingness to listen is a neon sign saying ‘I’m a pushover’ and they feel entitled to dump endless baggage on you at any hour of the day.

I sometimes wonder how much blame can be attributed to my actions, or rather the lack thereof; but as adults, I foolishly believed that basic respect for privacy and boundaries would have been an unspoken rule (I’m thankful that I’ve never had any similar problems with any other friends). Being nice shouldn’t have to mean that you let yourself become a victim of toxic behaviour; even nice people need to learn to set boundaries, and I had to learn it the hard way.

Lesson 2: Don’t Enable Their Behaviour

Friendships don’t become toxic overnight; it’s a series of mistakes and actions – or inaction – by both parties that leads you down that path; in my case, it was me not standing up for myself and overestimating my capacity to put up with such behaviour. I would get calls outside office hours and bombarded with strings of text messages – the record was 17 texts and 2 missed calls in 5 minutes, and I clearly remember deleting the entire chat log in a fit of frustration, then breaking down and crying for 3 hours that day. On other occasions, despite explicitly stating that I wished to be left alone, he/she would still follow me and I would be too polite to ask him/her to leave, which only gave this friend a chance to overstep boundaries once again – my mistake.

And so it drags on. You continue trying to be a ‘good’ friend to them, being nice and accommodating, until they’ve drained everything from you and you’re emotionally exsanguinated. Even then, they don’t stop, because they’re possibly too narcissistic or lack the empathy to realise that their actions are causing damage to others. They make a joke about you being weak when you sincerely tell them that your mental health is suffering – and rather ironically – they don’t know that they’re the cause of it.

My point is, if you’re clearheaded enough to identify that you’re in a toxic friendship/relationship, you have a duty to the other party to stop enabling their behaviour. It’s a two-way street: if you set boundaries and discourage their toxic behaviour, it will be harder for your friend to continue behaving in such a way. That being said, this method is sadly not fool-proof (tried-and-tested by yours truly), as they sometimes choose to continue disrespecting the boundaries and make the active choice to continue this behaviour…which brings me to my next point.

Lesson 3: You Can’t Fix Everyone

I remember feeling utterly cornered and constantly distressed, and there were so many red flags in the friendship barely 2 months into starting work with him/her, but I still thought that I could try to ‘fix’ this individual and help resolve some of their problems on account of our 2-year friendship.

If you have a saviour complex like me, you’ll spend hours trying to talk to them to desperately figure out the root cause of their behaviour (spoiler: there might be none) or try to attribute it to some deep-seated emotional troubles that you feel obliged to help them with. But after a while, it will feel like you’re running headfirst into a brick wall because while they enjoy listening to your self-improvement talks, they don’t put it into practice.

My biggest take away from that experience was that you can’t ‘fix’ everyone, because they might not be broken in the first place, or maybe they don’t want to be fixed. Humans are complex creatures, and it’s impossible to ever completely understand why another person chooses to behave in a certain way, and it’s not your duty (as a friend) to save someone else at your own expense.

Lesson 4: Toxic Behaviour, Not Toxic People

Although I am guilty of calling people toxic, through the course of writing this blog post, I realised that all of us occasionally display small streaks of toxic behaviour, which is why I’ve chosen to refer to it as toxic behaviour rather than a toxic person, which demeans the person as a whole, which should never be the intention.

The difference between so-called ‘toxic people’ and everyone’s occasional toxic behaviour is 1) choice and 2) consistency. We all make mistakes and occasionally display unhealthy behaviour, but being able to recognise it and making a concerted effort to change make a huge world of difference in the long-term outcome.

Changing the wording (how you refer to the person) seems like a trivial thing, but it helps you – the person on the receiving end of toxic behaviour – to direct your feelings towards the behaviour instead of the person. I confess that I ended up building up a lot of resentment over the prolonged period of the toxic friendship, and I can’t say for sure if changing how I had referred to him/her would’ve left a less bitter taste in my mouth; but in hindsight, it would have been more polite to refer to it as toxic behaviour instead of painting him/her with the paintbrush of being a ‘toxic person’.

Lesson 5: Communication & Early Intervention

I cannot reiterate enough how important communication is, especially in such sticky situations. A toxic friendship is like a festering wound (pardon the medical analogy): if you seek help early on, the doctor can monitor the wound and there’s still a possibility of healing and resolution, but if you seek help once the rot/gangrene has set in, there’s not much to be done except cutting the dead part out.

The story below was my personal experience and I sincerely hope readers will learn from my mistake of not addressing the issue earlier. When the friendship had become unbearable and we finally decided to have a discussion (mediated by a mutual friend), I remember him/her asking for specific examples of all the times that they caused me distress over the 7-month period of working together, and I could only list a few off the top of my head, he/she said “Is that all?”…and it felt like a sucker punch to the gut. It felt as if all the pain and nights spent crying myself to sleep had been reduced to nothing, and I felt frustrated.

If I had confronted this friend earlier, perhaps he/she would’ve been able to make amends and we could have redeemed the friendship. Don’t sweep problems under the rug and don’t let resentment fester, because that’s a recipe for disaster.

Lesson 6: Get Help/Advice From Other People

It’s easy to give advice to your friends, telling them to cut toxic people off, but when you’re the one in that situation, it’s a lot harder to be objective and rational. You don’t see the red flags from up close, and even if you do, you’ll sometimes turn a blind eye to them because “they’re your friend” and you would feel guilty if you were to cut them off.

It was only after I confided in my family and a circle of close friends that I was able to stop feeling guilty and stopped blaming myself for being a ‘bad friend’ for wanting to end the friendship. I wouldn’t have made it through those months without them being there to remind me to put my own mental health first and reassuring me that I was not alone in feeling that away about that mutual friend.

It’s so important to remember that you never walk alone; seek help and talk things through with other friends, because they’re the ones who have your best interests at heart, while also being (fairly) objective sounding boards.

Don’t ironically display toxic behaviour by constantly harping about your own problems and neglecting your friends’ needs, and remember to show them appreciation and gratitude, because true/non fair-weather friends are gems and deserve all the love in the world.

Lesson 7: Self-Care

It’s surprising, the extent to which toxic friendships can drain you mentally, emotionally and physically. After barely 2 months, my mental health had officially hit rock bottom and I was even considering taking a gap year. In retrospect, it seems foolish that I might even have considered that, but in the moment, it honestly felt like the best option – I was that desperate to escape that particular working relationship.

The silver lining of this whole experience was that I developed healthy coping mechanisms and self-care routines that will carry me through the rest of my life. Adult life is stressful and not always sunshine and rainbows, so having your own set of self-care habits really helps keep you sane and happy in the long run.

For me, I set aside a fixed amount of time each day to write or learn languages, because creative pursuits are my oasis from the stressors of daily life. I also attempted to have an exercise routine for a month, but I grew too lay to stick to it, and settle for learning dance choreography (in the comfort of my room) as my daily exercise. Basically, just figure out what works for you and ‘sparks joy’, and life will slowly but surely start looking up. Time honestly heals most wounds.

Lesson 8: Decide How You’re Going To Resolve It

Don’t feel obliged to repair the friendship or be their friend again. I personally agreed to try mending the friendship, but after much effort, I realised that there was nothing worth salvaging. If respect is the foundation of a friendship, it had been damaged beyond repair over the months, through cumulative incidents that showed he/she blatantly didn’t respect me as a person. Once you’ve seen another side of a person, it’s difficult to restart the friendship from square one, knowing they could break your trust again.

This is another element of taking care of yourself – you shouldn’t feel pressured to seem polite or friendly (at this stage in a damaged friendship) to the extent that you put your own wellbeing & mental health at risk yet again. You’re the one who’s been hurt, so it’s important to devote time to yourself for healing.

If you choose to remain friends, remember not to let history repeat itself, and be wary of the red flags rearing their ugly heads once again. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t remain friends; repairing a toxic friendship is akin to gluing the pieces of broken porcelain back together. Whether the friendship can eventually go back to the way it was really depends on how easily both parties can rebuild the trust and mutual respect.

Lesson 9: Forgiveness

An apology is not a magical elixir that will instantly repair the friendship and somehow make things go back to the way they were when it was all sunshine and rainbows. It doesn’t work that way, and sometimes the friendship can and will never be repaired.

The person who caused the harm doesn’t get to decide what restitution is ‘enough’. Harm and emotional damage can’t be quantified, and while a simple ‘sorry’ is certainly appreciated and accepted, these scars take time and space to heal. Accept the apology graciously, and try to find closure.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean condoning or saying that you’re okay with everything that happened throughout the course of that toxic friendship; it just means trying to let any grudges or ill feelings go. If anything, it’ll help you feel better and will help you move on with life.

Lesson 10: Take Time To Process Your Emotions

Toxic friendships will form a challenging chapter in your life in which you cycle through all the emotions, from frustration & anger, to stress & sadness, to guilt and finally/hopefully forgiveness & peace. But you’ll learn a lot about yourself and become more adept at making the best out of difficult situations, so it’s not all for naught. And it’s alright to take time to slowly work through every emotion. It’s all just part of finding closure and having personal growth.

Don’t beat yourself up for having bad judgement; one mistake in choosing a friend is hardly a metric of how good a judge of character you are. You’ll be able to make better decisions in future. Look at all the friends you still have, and treasure every single one of them.

Don’t blame yourself for all the wasted time, tears and emotions. You grew and learnt from this experience, so the time was not wasted at all. Crying and going through all these emotions is only part of being human, and you’ll have emerged stronger after all that.

So…

Thanks for sticking with me through this long (but hopefully relatable) post. Your reward is a basic and very tumblr-esque quote that rather aptly sums up how I feel about my personal experience of being in aa toxic friendship.

not all storms come to disrupt your life, some come to clear your path

If you’d like to read more posts like this, you can check out my Chasing Dreams series or other personal posts here.

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xoxo,
Faith

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