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When to End a Toxic Friendship

Sarah Suydam interviewed Dr. Agnew for the February/March 2019 issue of West Michigan Women Magazine article When to End a Toxic Relationship: You Owe it to Yourself. Read the magazine article HERE.   Here is the full interview: 

Sarah:  What are some warning signs that may indicate that you’re in a toxic friendship?

Dr. Agnew:  In some ways, it can be tricky because one sign by it self may not make a friendship toxic.  But multiple signs are sure way to identify the level of toxicity.
  • Being treated differently based on mood or who is around.  For example, someone is friends with you when they have no one else to be around.  It's being a back burner, last option friend. It is getting the sense you are just being used or not good enough.
  • The opposite side of this is having a friend who seems to have only you and counts on you to be the only support.  This can mean you having little to no time for yourself or other friendships with out feeling guilty or obligated.  You might even feel like the friend has no one else and it is up to you to provide their happiness or emotional support and you are not being a good friend if you don't. It is a higher level of toxicity if the friend threaten you or even their own life if they do not have you supporting them.
  • A one sided relationship in which you feel obligated to give and give, but little if anything is given in return.  At a higher level of toxicity, when the other person gives, it is with strings attached. Or you are guilted for not giving more, be available more, being more understanding.  At a higher level of toxicity, the friendship could be abusive.
  • Feeling and knowing you are being manipulated and not allowed to be yourself is a sure sign of toxic.  Being judged.
  • It is toxic when your friends talks about others and you are pretty sure you are also someone who gets talked about.  And worse yet, they laugh and talk to the person they were just being negative about. Do you find yourself feeling yuck because the things the friend talks about goes against who you are.  This is not just a minor disagreement about something, but consistently walking away feeling slimed because of the conversation. It is walking away feeling worse for having been around the friend and you much rather do something else than hang out with that friend.
  • It is knowing you can't trust your friend further than you can see them.
  • It can be toxic if you are in a friendship in which the person seems to frequently make the conversation turn to something about them.  And then they have to one-up your story.  If you went rock climbing, they have to tell about going to Mt. Everest.  If you saw something pretty, they saw something prettier or more pretty things. They monopolize conversations.  
  • Ever see the movie Mean Girls?  Great example of toxic friendships...a friend who is mean, belittles you, is aggressive (even if it is more passive aggressive), and makes all the decisions.  Perhaps trying to justify to others the way the toxic friend behaves.  Then waking up realizing you have lost yourself and don't know who you are any more.

Sarah:  Once you know the friendship is toxic, what are the first steps you should take?

Dr. Agnew:  End the friendship.  Just flat out end it.  Have a conversation and tell your friend why you need to end the friendship.  But be prepared for the friend to try to convince you to remain friends, or the be hurtful and make it all your fault and make you the bad guy.   You might need to have a supportive person on speed dial to encourage you or to talk to after wards.  Plan when and were to talk.  Obviously there is no perfect time, but there are some awful times and places to choose to have the talk. However, not everyone can just end it.  So the option is to create distance.  Be busy and not so available.  Schedule some things in your life if you need to have an excuse as you step away.  Volunteer somewhere, take a class...the idea is to create a way of stepping away gradually.  Sometimes it is easier to have a few excuses lined up.  However, they need to be real things so that you maintain or have integrity and self-respect.  In the long run it decreases the likelihood of guilt or shame.  Having a support person can make it a lot easier.  That support person can be the one that reminds you why you are creating distance in those times you are tempted to change your mind.  It is about having a plan.  A failure to plan is a plan to fail.  The plan can include things like decreasing number of conversations or hanging out.  Instead of texting every day, text a few times per week.  It is amazing how much clearer you see a friendship when you provide some space to see what's been there all along. Depending on the level of toxicity, it may be wise to block and delete!  Then avoid the temptation to go look and see what they are doing or find out what they are saying about you.  Seldom are any benefits derived from that approach.  

Sarah:  What are some tips for navigating life after cutting that toxic friend out of your life?  

Dr. Agnew:  Engage in things that build you up.  Learn something new. Surround yourself with people who do care and speak words of life to you.  Find some books on the topic to help you stick to your decision.  If you are tempted to isolate and fearful of trusting others, do the opposite of what you are feeling and spend time with others.  

Sarah:  Why is it important to draw the line when you realize a friendship is toxic to you?

Dr. Agnew:  Toxic friendships eat away at your core self.  Gradually you become a shell of the person you used to be or that you want to be.  You can find your self esteem has hit an all time low because you didn't see it was gradually declining.  Self confidence, ability to be decisive, and worth can decline.  It is not uncommon to find people who are in toxic relationships becoming depressed or anxious and questioning their own judgement.  And of course if your mental health is declining, it can impact many other areas of life, health, work, and other relationships.

Sarah:  What’s generally the hardest part of ending a toxic relationship and what are some tips for people to persevere through it? 

Dr. Agnew:  One difficult thing is missing the good parts of the person.  If the friendship had started out horrible, it probably would have ended sooner.  So being in a friendship can provide time for you to have had good moments, experiences, inside jokes, laughs, and tears... the list goes on.  So it can be hard when you miss those things and that person.  It can also be difficult if you experience grief and loss of what you had hoped the friendship would be.  Facing the incongruencies of what truly was, reality, and what you hoped for, can be painful.  Getting through it requires patience and self compassion.  Don't be afraid to seek out professional help as support when needed.  Stay focused and have support.  Don't judge yourself for feeling bad or struggling.  A lot of self nurturing so that you can make emotional deposits in your emotional bank account.  Replenish.   

Sarah:  Is there anything additionally relevant you’d like to add?  

Dr. Agnew:  A good book about ending personal and business relationships is Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud


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