HOW TOXIC ARE YOUR FRIENDS?
So, are you a ‘naysayer’, no? How about a ‘sob sister? Maybe a radiator? Or are you a drain?
What am I talking about?
Why friends of course. There’s a whole dictionary of adjectives out there used to describe the best or the worst friend we can be and can have. Well, not an official one, at least not a handy pocket size book you can slip in your pocket and whip out at as the need arrives but fear not my trusty readers, I’ll be sure to attempt enlightenment in the best way I know how.
How much do you love me?
How many times has somebody asked you this question? And what was your answer? It’s an easy question isn’t it? Especially when asked by somebody close to you, say a family member or a close friend.
Well, you’d be right, there’s no general easy answer to this question since it very much depends on who’s asking as well as a variety of other factors; who you are, how you were raised, if you’re a boy, if you’re a girl, if you’re in touch with your ‘feminine side’, and just how ‘close’ you are to the person asking.
Or does it?
For example girls, even as children, come to learn that it is okay to kiss and cuddle, maybe even hold hands but boys on the other hand, well let’s just say that you won’t catch them holding hands on the football pitch. Young boys, whilst they may enjoy the warmth of their parents (particularly of their mothers) have a completely different kind of conditioning and that is to be strong, don’t cry in front of your mates, to be a man and not a sissy! Girls on the other hand are ‘in touch’ with their feelings, they believe in sharing what’s on their mind, talking things through (sometimes ad nauseum for boys), they often share a common dream, from romanticisms through to fashion, food and (yes) boys, whilst boys generally think about girls, cars, fun and sex (and not necessarily in that order). Okay so it has to be said that there are some swings to these stereotypes, especially with the rising popularity of celebrity male chefs, men are no longer seeing the kitchen as the forbidden sanctum where only females dare to tread.
Yet, there’s still some way to go before men will jettison their programming and disintegrate into an emotional heap in front of anybody’s eyes. Girls on the other hand, well; they’ll happily share their most intimate secrets to their closest friends, happy, sad, unfulfilled, frustrated, in love out of love, anything goes. This in turn fosters deeper and more meaningful friendships. Whilst men, again albeit on the upturn, are still finding it difficult to communicate with their families let alone their friends and even then communication remains somewhat superficial for fear of ‘putting off’ their friends with ‘too much detail’, not unless it’s a comedic recount of an experience and even then, only certain subjects are permitted in a social setting, many others remain taboo. Consequently, men lack the ability to forge the same, prolific, deep, meaningful and long lasting friendships as their female counterparts.
It is clear that much of this behaviour is due to social conditioning. For example, the Balonda (an African tribe) have a somewhat extraordinary custom of cementing male friendship. The men sit opposite each other holding hands, each with a vessel of beer by their side. Then, they make slight cuts on their clasped hands, on the pit of the stomach, on the right cheek, and on the forehead. Then, they press a point of grass-blade against each of these cuts, so as to take up a little of the blood, then each man washes the grass-blade in his own beer vessel. The vessels are then exchanged, the contents drunk, so that each imbibes the blood of the other. The two are thenceforth considered as blood-relations. In Bengal, an old friendship custom would have youths exchange flowers of the same kind, in token of perpetual alliance. After that, one speaks of the other as “my flower,” but never alludes to the other by name again.
Yes, the practices may differ across the globe and time but one thing remains universal; friendship. No matter the language or era, whether you spill blood or grunt “whatsaap”, friendship knows nothing of colour, gender or creed, it simply is, the only thing that differs is how we express it.
So how do you express your affection for your friends? A slap on the back, a long lingering hug, ‘air kisses’, lavish gifts, daily text messages or none of the above?
When I was a teen (yes, quite a few centuries ago – at least it feels like it), I remember coming across a book called the FRIENDSHIP FACTOR – How to get closer to people you care for, by therapist Alan Loy McGinnis. As is often the case with many authors, Alan didn’t think his book was going to get much attention. Yet, 20 years later, it’s been translated into multiple languages and it has sold over 2 million copies worldwide. What Alan didn’t realise at the time of writing his book is that he was tapping into a relatively unexplored gap in the market; that of self-help. Whilst seeing a therapist has been ‘the norm’ for many years, doing it yourself-help wasn’t trusted to be as effective. Now, despite the popularity of self-help, therapists have never been in greater demand with many of them acting as surrogate friends to many busy people who don’t have the time, the skills or the inclination to make new friends. Yet it’s this paradox that has an estimated 10,000+ registered American psychologists offering sessions to patients willing to pay anywhere between $75.00 to $400 (often more) an hour but not to talk about their lovers, their parents or even their pets, but their friends.
And what’s the number one subject up for discussion: ‘Toxic Friends’.
Yes, toxic friends are as good for you as kryptonite is to superman. These leeches are the life energy, soul sucking vampires of today and can leave you feeling spent, underwhelmed and thoroughly depressed.
Mike Albo is an American performance artist who in response to the so called propagation of toxic friends in his industry felt compelled to put fingers to keyboard and published a booked called ‘The Underminer’ which just happens to be a ‘type’ of toxic friend, “In this culture, people are competitive but polite at the same time so they undermine you with a smile on their face,” Albo was quoted as saying. He believes that you no longer need to ‘club’ somebody over the head to hurt them, you just need to say things like “Oh, you look tired. Are you OK? or ‘I just saw your ex-girlfriend, she looks beautiful,’ or ‘Oh, are you drinking again or do you still like your haircut?” Underminers are like parasites, they latch onto your weaknesses. Whilst in a romantic relationship, you’d just end it, with friendships you don’t actually realise it’s happening until the damage has already been done.
Yet it’s the eventual realisation that has led to an exponential increase in the amount of people visiting their therapists. And we’re not just talking the United States here, this is a sentiment that is echoed by British counsellors at organisation RELATE. One therapist was quoted as saying that to maintain emotional health, “Friendships need to be frequently reassessed.” In fact “analysing friendships is increasingly important in all types of relationship counselling. Only with emotional maturity can we see ourselves and our relationships more clearly.” It’s this type of self-analysis that has led many to conclude that ‘the reason your friend kept you late in the pub was not because they were enjoying your company but because they wanted you to deal with their issues.’ And it’s easy to become trapped into those types of ‘friendships’ that often leave us feeling drained and downright miserable, and whilst it’s often difficult and may appear to be somewhat ruthless, the consequences of not jettisoning a toxic friend can be very detrimental to your sense of wellbeing. Not surprisingly, the study in the Annals of Behavioural Medicine found that those presented with an ‘ambivalent friend’ (somebody who upsets you as much as they please you), found their heart rate increase and their blood pressure rise.
Good friendships feature a high level of mutual reciprocity. In my manuscript, COMING UP FOR AIR, I refer to friends as plants; they need regular care and attention otherwise they wither and often die.
So who and what exactly are these toxic friends?
Well, there’s THE UNDERMINER – The friend who uses their knowledge of you to subtly undermine you, often making barbed comments about you and your habits hidden in a shroud of concern, THE CONSTANT TALKER – The friend who hogs every single conversation and insists on always being the centre of attention with you in their shadow. THE DRAMA QUEEN- The friend who elevates every minor setback into a major crisis otherwise known as the drama attention seeker (see things we lose in the fire), THE NAYSAYER – The friend who dismisses your hopes and dreams as unrealistic and empty, “oh no, you don’t want to do that”, THE PEER PRESSURE – the friend who imposes their need for fun and attention over your best interest (a lot of young lads can surely relate to this, anything for a laugh), THE PLAN BREAKER – the unreliable friend who consistently makes plans only to break them at the last minute (yep you know who you are), and THE SOB SISTER – the friend who saps your energy by endlessly whining about the things in his or her life without ever attempting to fix them, dragging you into a culture of victimhood and using you as a free therapist.
So, do you recognise any of these traits in you and or anybody else close to you?
Yep, I think it’s safe to say that each and every one of us is or has been either guilty or the victim of one or more of the above
So take a few seconds. What defines a good friend for you? Is it common interests and values, history together, somebody who is committed to your happiness, somebody who shows an interest in you and what is happening in your life, somebody who brings out the best in you and is a good influence, or all of the above? Or maybe it’s just someone who has a drink with you from time to time?
It would be easy to say all of the above (and some) but the reality is that it depends on what type of person you are, your conditioning and yes whether you’re a boy or a girl, man or woman.
Speaking of man and woman, I’m reminded of one of the friendship falsities that has had me bristling for years. You know, it’s the vomit inducing relationship where one or both of the protagonists proudly proclaim no need for best friends because they have found a ‘best friend’ in each other.
I simply don’t buy into this ridiculous theory. Don’t get me wrong I’m a staunch believer that all relationships start with the basic foundation of a very good friendship but I don’t believe it is ‘the best friendship’. Now I know that some of you avid ‘my partner is my best friend’ believers will be spitting into your cornflakes right now but indulge me if you will whilst I describe the following basic scenario to you. Say you’ve been given the chance of a promotion. It’s the job of your dreams with more pay and more responsibility but it means moving to another county which in turn means moving away from your girlfriend or boyfriend. You obviously need to consider a multitude of things. Firstly, do you really want the job? Secondly, is it worth changing life as you know it to pursue this new role? Etc. Now, you could talk this through with your girlfriend or boyfriend but, try as they may, it would be nigh on impossible for them to remain impartial because your decision will inevitably have an impact on them and consequently their feelings. And that’s the keyword; feelings. Those little suckers have a way of spoiling our ability to be objective no matter how much we tell ourselves that we are. The reality is; when they’re involved, we are too, and not in a constructive way, hence the saying “being too close to something” or “not being able to see the wood for the trees”. It’s all too easy to become distracted by your own agenda rather than contemplate that of the one you love, and it’s not because you’re a bad person, it’s simply a basic human instinct for survival and self-preservation. This is the very reason why doctors shouldn’t and often don’t treat their own; they’re too emotionally involved and thus incapable of true objectivity to really give the matter in hand the attention that it deserves as they become too busy wrestling with their own ‘feelings’.
This is the very reason why companies often pay a consultant handsome sums of money to come into their business and see the things that they can already see but choose to ignore (my business specialises in doing that very thing). Sometimes, a situation, a feeling, a circumstance needs the eye of an impartial who is going to look at it from a different angle and tell you what things really look like from there.
And whilst I’m at it, there’s another irksome and downright friend degrading theory I hear about every time I discuss the friendship factor. It’s the belief that many cling to that their best friends are those they hardly ever see, be that school mates, old work colleagues or random friends formed in random places, people that they haven’t put their arms around in years, maybe even decades, remain their ‘best friends’ and nothing will ever change that.
Now I know many of you who can relate to the above sentiment and are, once again, going to wonder what on earth could he possibly say about this? I have a friend like that, when we meet we have the best time and I can never be like that with anybody else.
And this may well be true. There’s no doubt that many of us have fostered such friendships over the years but are these people really your best friends?
Did your friend that lives in Australia (assuming you live in England) take you out for coffee after that crappy day at work? Or did your Australian friend come round to visit you with food health parcels when you were sick, did they hold your hair back as you preyed to the porcelain god? Where they by your side when you were feeling low and could do with a hug yesterday, last week and the year before? Did they dry your tears and banish loneliness when your lover dumped you? And did they embrace you with heartfelt sorrow when you were bereft at the death of a loved one?
Friends are defined in many different ways. No one size fits all; each and every one enriches our life in their own inimitable way. There are the kindred spirits, the ones that know us, feel, love cry and laugh at the same things we do. Then there’s the conscientious, they encourage us to think before we act, and the wild, they complement our darker side, they tell us to sod work and our troubles, to don our glad rags and take us for a night we would never have dreamed of but for which we’ll be eternally grateful. Together, these friends become our support network but they are not our best friend.
Our best friend embodies all of the above and more. They are the humans, the radiators, who derive pleasure seeing us happy and ache to see us sad. They are the sunshine we turn to when things get gloomy, the jetstream that carries us when we’re flying high. They don’t expect us to be perfect yet they’re always on hand to be our therapist (for free) without ever expecting anything in return, they don’t flinch or shy away from our words and are perpetually looking out for our best interests. They miss us when we’re not near (and let us know about it), they’re selfless and altruistic, but most of all, a best friend is by your side when they’re needed the most, through the good, the bad and the downright ugly, they share our everyday life in its raw unedited reality and not through periodic highlights.
Whilst I can’t truly quantify it, I’m confident that I’m here writing this blog today because of a very special friend who, nearly two decades ago, encouraged me to push myself further. I was quite content writing dialogue for characters in plays for years before she came along with the crazy notion that I should turn my hand to writing novels. I remember actually telling her she was crazy that there was no way I could write a whole novel, what with prose and all! Yet she didn’t relent, and, a few years later, I’d finished the first manuscript for Nimbus, and a few years after that, I realised every writer’s dream, to see my work in print; Nimbus the paperback was published. I went on to write three more manuscripts, several plays and became editor of a magazine which is now this blog.
Without Bella (to whom Nimbus is dedicated), I would not have become the writer I am today.
True friendship is when two friends can walk in opposite directions yet remain side by side.
So, I ask you, if you were (in the words of our eloquent therapists) to ‘reassess’ all of your friends. how many of them do you believe would truly measure up?
Remember, ‘a friend will help you move a couch; a best friend will help you move a body’, or so they say. Personally, I feel blessed by the fact that my phone carries the numbers of the few, those who would leave the security and warmth of their own bed to rescue me in the dead of night. The beauty is not in my asking but in them offering.
How many numbers do you have?
Only best friends tell you when your face is dirty – Italian Proverb.
Have a friendship filled Sunday! 🙂
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