There’s a new witch-hunt transpiring. It’s called Toxic Friend Poaching. Lately, I have noticed countless articles online urging us to identify, and then collectively shun, all those in our lives who are “toxic,” as if it’s some strange twist of Lord of the Flies meets The Hunger Games.
The writers of these articles say we are to target “toxic” or “draining” friends, and then cut them loose. But who are we kidding? We’re all a little toxic, once and a while.
MTV’s Lauren Vino says we’re to really evaluate what friendship is all about. “Work on setting healthier boundaries,” she says, “because friendships are supposed to serve a much lighter purpose: enjoying each other’s company.”
But if you can’t count on your friends to be there when times get tough, are they really your friends? If you classify a friendship as “toxic,” then what? How do you dilute the toxicity to a more manageable level? Is venting allowed? If it is, how much is acceptable? And why are you allowed to make that call?
What about bearing one another’s burdens?
In Travis Bradberry’s Forbes article, “How successful people handle toxic people,” his very title implies that successful people don’t have their toxic moments, that they have somehow risen above this tendency. He writes, “Toxic people defy logic. Some are blissfully unaware of the negative impact that they have on those around them, and others seem to derive satisfaction from creating chaos and pushing other people’s buttons. Either way, they create unnecessary complexity, strife, and worst of all stress.”
Sometimes we all cause stress. Perhaps a better question to ask is this: are we missing the point if we see friendship on a scale of stressful to not stressful?
Dehumanizing our friendships, justifying our disregard for those around us, is the exact opposite of what Jesus describes in the parable of the Good Samaritan. If we ignore those who are hurting, we are like those who step over the person crying out for help on the side of the road. Unlike everyone else in the story, the Good Samaritan didn’t take time to over assess things or put himself first.
A few years ago I myself made a poor decision. All of my friends took a step back. And the more they removed themselves from me, needier I became. So I know firsthand what it’s like to be toxic, needing help, but not knowing how to get it, or where to turn next.
Some of my friends intervened, once they recognized how critical it was for me to have their support. That level of discernment will forever be remembered and treasured.
Certain friendships fall away for various reasons. But to just chalk it up to a “toxic” friend is simply not good enough.
If you do identify a toxic relationship, here are a few points to consider.
1. Pray about it.
Much clarity can result when you ask God what He thinks of the situation.
2. Consider your part in the friendship.
How much time and energy do you have? Realizing what you can and cannot give is important.
3. Consider the other person’s role and responsibility in the friendship.
How much energy does he/she have to put into the relationship?
4. Be honest, open, and kind.
There is a reason why your friend can’t carry his/her own burden.
5. Cool it.
Create a response written on paper. Wait it out. Come back and edit it. Read it to a friend. Sit on it some more. Only when your emotions have settled down will you be able to effectively communicate with your friend.
6. Do more asking than telling.
Often the situation doesn’t seem so toxic when you find out more about what is driving the other person’s stress and why he/she is responding this way.
7. Communicate your decision.
If you determine that a big step back is the best for everyone, communicate this to your friend. Don’t just disappear without explaining yourself to someone who is already emotionally, physically, or spiritually a wreck.
8. Regularly check in.
Whether it’s a text of encouragement, a phone call, or an email, these small gestures go a long way.
Friendship isn’t about the odds being ever in your favour. So let’s dilute the toxicity and re-humanize friendship. Take the time to consider how would it feel to be treated like you’re toxic by your friends, when you’re already feeling bruised around the edges. If you wouldn’t like it, it’s probably not the right response.
If you’ve done all of the above and things persist or worsen, prayerfully consider recommending professional help to the friend in your life. It’s not fair to let your friend keep swimming around an isolated lonely island that keeps him/her in the same toxic place.
Photo (Flickr CC) by Carmen Jost.