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Toxic friendships

Kari Swanson

The state of your mental health has a lot to do with whom you surround yourself.

There are times you cannot control who you around such as at work, however, those people that you call “friends”, those people you choose to spend most of your “fun” moments with or the people you turn to during the not so fun times. These people affect your mental health more than you realize. Are you choosing healthy friendships? Do you know what toxic friendships look like or feel like?

When I was little I always wanted lots of friends because at a young age it seemed that the more friends you had defined you, somehow, as a person. It somehow declared how popular you were or how liked you were. That’s the thinking of a young child. Children want others to like them. They want to name who their best friend is and why and they desperately want to be someone else’s best friend. Adults are not that different. However, as an adult, I have learned that it certainly is not the number of friends I have but the quality of those friendships. I surround myself with people who make me a better person, who want the best for me and who will stand up for me if needed.

Think about this, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” This is a quote from Jim Rohn, a motivational speaker. It is interesting to ponder this. Who do you spend the most time with and what traits do you see in these people? Good or bad. Do you see any similar traits in yourself? Do you leave these 5 people feeling good in general or do you leave feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and bitter?

I like the saying “a friend to everyone, is a friend to no one”. This is referring to loyalty. A trait that really is hard to come by these days. Finding someone that truly “has your back” is hard. Someone that is everyone’s friend is not always that someone that is loyal. Rocking the boat is not a trait that people like to have, but guess what? Sometimes rocking the boat needs to happen. Sometimes standing up for others or doing the not-so-popular thing needs to occur. Sometimes these decisions can cost you people you may have thought were your friends. These are the things that shape character and define the type of person you are to others.

Friendships can be both beneficial and detrimental to a person’s mental health. I believe we certainly “teach others how to treat us”. What we tolerate in friendships/relationships is what we will continue to get. If you are around a friend group that constantly tears other people down or gossips behind others’ back, including those in the friend group, do you believe that you are immune to this type of behavior when you leave the room? Do you worry about what may be said about you because you have witnessed first hand the cruelty that can occur? Do you feel pressure to add to the gossip or to the tearing down of others being talked about? Are you pressured to not like a certain person because someone in the group does not like this person and liking her/him would go against this person? I would classify this type of friendship as toxic. Toxic friendships are those that convey criticism, discredit you, are untrustworthy, gossipy and judgmental. These types of friendships do not have a lot of substance. They don’t revel in the good of each other, but rather in stirring up the bad of others’ misfortunes. If you walk away from situations with toxic people you are most likely feeling drained, unhappy and/or questioning yourself. There is a lot of drama with toxic people. Nothing ever just happens or is without some sort of emotional disturbance for someone. Toxic friendships are not good for your mental health. It is much better to not have any friends than to have friends that are toxic. Giving up friendships that are not helping you is a step towards putting yourself first and changing the way you feel.

How do you end toxic friendships? Distancing yourself is the first step. Sadly, most toxic people are so caught up in their own world and have the expectation that as their friend, you make the effort to call, visit and/or arrange activities, so it may take a while before they realize you haven’t been doing your “job”, mainly because you are not the only person with this expectation in her/his life. When this is discovered the response most likely will be anger towards you for not keeping in touch, but not necessarily with the intent to “fix” the problem or to see if you are okay. Toxic people like to blame and not see themselves as having any accountability in problems. Be strong in your stance and do not feel that you have to defend yourself or the reasons why you have not been coming around as much. The biggest sign that you are doing the right thing is the peace and calm that you feel once you are not around the toxic person/people anymore. Remember, you teach people how to treat you by deciding what you will and won’t accept.

As parents, youth leaders, teachers, etc. we need to help our youth not get sucked into toxic friendships and to not be the toxic person in the friendship. At the elementary, middle and high school age, these toxic youth are described as bullies. Most likely they will grow up to be toxic adult bullies if they do not learn how to have appropriate friendships that do not center around hurting someone physically or emotionally. Many of these youth (and adults) are insecure and have significant difficulties with self-esteem. They thrive on chaos, drama or conflict because they do not know how to be okay with the stillness and silence of themselves. It is important, as adults, to make sure we are modeling good friendships in what our children hear us talk about at home, to others’ on the phone and just in general when they witness us in our friend groups. It is important to address how your child is behaving by exploring how they are feeling and what they are struggling with in forming good friendships. Share your observations with them. These are long-lasting teaching moments that will benefit your child and your child’s friends for the rest of their lives. Help your children to teach others how to treat them.

Kari Swanson is a Master’s level clinician with 25 years of working in the mental health field. She is the founder of CORE–Choosing Openness Regarding Experiences which is a non-profit organization with the mission to provide mental health awareness and suicide prevention education to Warren County.

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