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The friend detox

Updated: Oct 3, 2018

Photo credit: Mychal Prieto

Question: Why do people detox?

Answer: To expel toxins.

We're mostly aware of the toxins that we ingest actively (alcohol, processed food, recreational and prescription drugs, nicotine etc) and passively (factory fumes, second hand smoke, BPA, mercury, pesticides etc). The reason why we're aware of these types of toxins is because millions of dollars have been spent on increasing our awareness of them. But what about toxic relationships? I'm not talking about the obvious ones like an abusive partner, I'm talking about the ones that are in your innermost circle, the people you call your friends but catching up with them is not enjoyable. They are never happy for you, they compete with you, they talk down or dismiss your achievements, they constantly cut you off and divert the conversation towards themselves, they thrive on negativity to the point where they'll say something negative about a positive experience you had or are about to have.

These are the most damaging types of toxins because their innocuous subtlety renders most of them naked to the untrained eye. Or, even when it is noticeable - think of that friend who sucks the life out of you - social convention dictates that we must remain by their side and that any form of distance (ie: self care) is an act of cruelty or jealously or dissonance.

How do most people cope with toxins? By eliminating or increasing their immunity to the toxin. When the toxin is a friend, your immunity pills are packaged as non-reactivity. Non-reactivity does not mean callous indifference. It means being hyper aware of what's actually happening and consciously choosing to not react. If you're struggling with toxic people, I've listed a few coping mechanisms that have served me well in the past.

Set boundaries

This is one for the Moaning Myrtles in your friend group. Moaning Myrtles are the chronic downers. Every interaction with them instantly morphs into an ultra extended mix of how shit their life is because of "X" [where X = perceived cause of misery]. You try to be a good friend and offer suggestions to change the situation but you might as well talk to a bike stand because Myrtle ain't listening. Myrtle loves misery. Myrtle loves to moan. It's her comfort zone and she's getting lots of attention and sympathy so long as she stays there. If she changes her situation she may have nothing else to talk about. And she's not interested in hearing how great your life is going. Myrtle has the conch shell, goddammit. Woe is Myrtle.

Have some genuine compassion for Myrtle - to her, the struggle is real. Here's what you say to Myrtle, politely but firmly:

  • "Myrtle, I will only listen to this for another 5 minutes, ok?"; or

  • "I am really sorry to have to say this, Myrtle, I will help you if that's what you want but I refuse to listen to any more complaining about 'X'"; or

  • "Myrtle, I've heard you talk about 'X' for a long time now. When you next mention 'X', I want you to tell me what you have done to change your situation. Otherwise, you need to accept that your situation will not change and I am sorry that it affects you in a negative way."

In my case, Myrtle was a family member and I listened to 'X' for a good five years. I set a boundary and it stopped. Myrtle accepted her situation and moved on. Then she eventually saw all the benefits in the exact same situation that she had been moaning about for half an effing decade.

Don't comment

Your job as a friend is to listen, not to solve your friend's problem. I always thought that certain people sucked all the good energy out of you but recently someone told me it's actually you lowering your mood to match theirs. It's the calling card of an empath. We try to relate to and mirror those we are with at any given time. When people are miserable, they seek out other miserable types and if you aren't miserable, you subconsciously get miserable when you're around them.

You can't solve people's problems for them. That just makes their ability to solve their own problems even poorer. Don't be mistaken, your friend will want, or perhaps expect you to solve their problems but only if you bear all the risk and effort. Anything that requires effort on their part will be shot down. Trying to solve the problems of a friend like this only results in prolonging the conversation about their problems. Remember, misery is this person's happy place. If you try to take them out of it, they will find 1000 excuses why they can't be moved - none of which will be their fault. Any commentary will just fuel that conversation further. Saying nothing will extinguish the conversation. You can give them a sympathetic smile and then say: "I have to go now."

Surround yourself with people who make you feel good

Do you have, or have you ever had a friend or family member whose friendship can be scaled proportionately to your personal suffering? This is the type of person who is around when everything is sucking in your life but is really spiteful towards you when everything is going your way. They like to think they're somewhat superior to you and need tangible evidence to back it up. This evidence is usually materialistic like their salary, net wealth, car type, size or location of their home, attractiveness and existence of romantic partner etc. When the scores begin to even between you both or, shock horror, if you overtake them in any one of their self made metrics, they turn on you like a rabid dog. They get nasty.

On the flip side, when you're down, they're right there observing your suffering like it's half time entertainment at the footy. They want to be around you while you feel like death. Words of encouragement from these types of people come from a dark place inside them that thrives on the misery of others. These people are not your friends.

Real friendship and real love is unconditional. You know when you have it because it makes you feel good. You feel safe. You can tell that person anything, good or bad, and they won't judge or be threatened or jealous. When you hug them it's for reals. They make you laugh even when you're crying. These people are your friends. Give them a call and shout them a coffee and thank them for being so awesome.

Detox your friend list

This is the checkmate move of a friend detox. It takes a long time to get there but you gotta let go of some people. Stop answering their calls, don't respond to their texts, don't acknowledge their social media activity. Yep, it's hardcore, but if you had cancer would you tell the doctor "Oh, just leave the cancer in there, I think it will get better on its own."

I have never had a problem making this move. I even tell my friends I regularly cull people (not literally, they just become conceptually dead to me). People are shocked when I say this so I ask them, "are you still besties with your ex-boyfriend / ex-girlfriend / ex-wife / ex-husband?" and 9 out of 10 of them reply "Hell no!" yet this was a relationship that they invested so much of themselves in and now it's the Voldemort of their relationship history. Strangely, all your mutual friends support that decision without objection.

But when you dump a toxic friend it's like you are suffering from some kind of illness that your mutual friends want to help you cure. They'll say things like: "But you guys were such good friends," or "Why don't you just talk to each other and work it out," or "Why would you want to throw that friendship away?" Can you see the double standard here?

The reason your mutual friends want you to accept the toxicity is because it's much more convenient for them to have their mutual friends get along. That toxic friend may have only been toxic towards you. Your mutual friend has never been exposed to the toxins that you have so it's no wonder they can't relate. This doesn't mean you boycott every event the toxic friend attends. Why should you miss out? If you are in a group setting, be nice, be polite. Even in that small interaction you may still get a hit of their toxicity with a snide remark but who cares, you're immune, you've taken your non-reactivity pills. Respond with a smile, have compassion for them and understand that people who say those things are not happy. Be the better person.

If your mutual friend can't accept your detox, tell them this: "[toxic friend name] and I had a wonderful friendship for which I am very grateful but that friendship is over now and there are other people in my life with whom I would prefer to spend my time."

I think the reason why I've never had a problem with ending friendships is because I never discount the time we spent together. I acknowledge that the friendship was awesome when it was awesome but I don't believe that just because it was once awesome that it will always be awesome. And I also don't believe that because it used to be awesome you should subject yourself to insult forever because of those few years of awesomeness. It takes a lot of repeated toxic behaviour for me to let go of someone but every time I do it, it makes space for a new connection. Great people have always entered my life almost the minute I let go of the others who were not good for me.

There is nothing selfish about self care. There is nothing indulgent about investing in people who bring you joy. There is nothing wrong with looking after your soul. It takes courage, I get it, and when it's a family member it's really difficult. Life is full of difficult choices. But here's the brilliant part: you own those choices. You are 100 per cent in control of your choices so don't waste that by giving that power to someone who does not care about you. Sometimes it hurts, sometimes it's the best feeling ever.

Everything changes, everything passes. Everything.

Stay well, sleep well.

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