“Clutter is not just physical stuff. It’s old ideas, toxic relationships and bad habits. Clutter is anything that does not support your better self” Eleanor Brownn
It took working through some painful experiences before I really understood how to recognise and navigate toxic friendships in such a way that they wouldn’t leave any long term scars on my sense of self worth. I’ve spoken before about how I needed to learn the value of setting better boundaries in my earlier life, to ensure my relationships were in fact healthy and happy.
I once had a friend called Megan who quite frankly really wasn’t good for me. We had known one another from our earlier twenties, initially meeting through our perspective partners at the time. I guess I didn’t really notice the subtle changes in her behaviour over the years, her need to control, her unkind words, her constant judgements about how I lived my life. At that time I was a people pleaser. Although Megan’s behaviour towards me often proved challenging I would often ignore how she made me feel in order to please others. It wasn’t so much about behaving in a certain way to gain her respect, but more about protecting the friendship that our boyfriends had. They had been really close friends since school, and I certainly didn’t want to be the cause of any friction between the two of them. I was mindful, (although it proved to be to the detriment of my own happiness) if myself and Megan fell out, it would put pressure on the relationship our boyfriends had and that just didn’t sit well with me.
Looking back now, I can honestly say Megan clearly didn’t care about that. In fact, I think in hindsight she was probably jealous of their friendship too.
Every time I met Megan for drinks or lunch the conversation would always somehow end up focusing on her critical take on my life. She had no qualms announcing to me how she thought I should be running my business, interacting with my friends or what I should be doing with my spare time. I remember one dinner date included a lecture from her about what I should on shouldn’t be sharing on my own personal social media pages. Another time she said some really unkind things to me surrounding the deeply personal issue of adoption. Her need to control or judge everything about me had slowly become her key focus of every encounter we had and I would often drive home fighting back the tears. It was stressful to say the least and utterly exhausting.
The last straw came when we went on holiday as a group of six, us and our partners and another couple. I guess at the time I was actually quite apprehensive about going. I knew I would be walking on egg shells around her, desperately trying to make sure I didn’t do anything that would warrant her critical opinion of me. But I didn’t want to let my boyfriend down, so I hid my anxieties and put on a brave face.
Jess, the other girl in the group was really lovely and we hit it off immediately. She had a job similar to mine at the time, and we found common ground in that. I was mindful that Megan may have felt threatened by this, so I was trying to balance being friendly with Jess without making Megan feel left out. I thought everything was going quite well, that was until the flight home. On the plane I was sitting in the middle seat between Megan and Jess. Jess and I spent the entire flight talking, laughing and getting to know each-other better. That was until we were abruptly interrupted by Megan, who was clearly irritated by the fact that we were getting on so well.
After we came home it wasn’t long before I discovered the extent of Megan’s bitter behaviour. She told her boyfriend that I had ignored Jess throughout the holiday, stating I was rude, unkind and aloof. I was completely astounded, because the exact opposite was in fact true. Jess and I had even swapped telephone numbers shortly after the holiday and had been exchanging messages, unbeknown to Megan.
Unkindness steams from unhappiness
At the time I was devastated and was deeply hurt. I had spent the entire holiday trying to navigates Megan’s unpredictable and critical behaviour towards me. In truth, I just couldn’t be myself. When I was able to reflect on the relationship years later I realised it wasn’t really that surprising that the whole event had occurred. I understood her constant need to put me down and criticise how I chose to live my life, all stemmed from her own deep rooted unhappiness and lack of self-worth. When I actually looked more deeply at the situation, I realised Megan had in fact fallen out with a large number of her female friends over the years and I had just become another victim to the patterns of her behaviour. Unless you were someone she could control and dictate to, you eventually became someone she no longer wanted in her life. At the time I just couldn’t see it and I would often go as far as to make excuses for her.
Have the courage to reflect on how certain friendships make you feel.
Do you feel alive and happy in certain company? Are you able to be your true authentic self without fear of judgement or criticism? Are you fearful of sharing good news in case it isn’t received well?
When we take the time to really look deeply at the affect relationships have on our emotions, happiness and well-being, we may find that we are in fact choosing to ignore red flags that are warning us that certain relationship may not be as healthy as we think. In the case of myself and Megan, I most definitely had seen the red flags, but I hadn’t had the courage at the time to confront them.
Try not to dwell on others opinion of you, because those opinions do not define who you are.
Megan’s unkind behaviour toward me, was honestly one of the most upsetting periods in my life. But it was also the wake up call I needed. I had entertained and made excuses for her nit picking and unacceptable behaviour for too long, which had only empowered her to continue to behave in such a way. I knew I needed to let go of a friendship that had once been good, but over the years had turned into something toxic.
After the event I spent a lot of time working on myself, I didn’t want to become consumed with feelings of self-doubt or unworthiness. I didn’t want to become bitter and resentful like Megan. So I surrounded myself with people who valued me and loved me, and spent time doing all the things that nurtured my soul. I realised that despite Megan’s opinion of me, (as entitled to it as she was), I knew deep down that I wasn’t the person she was making me out to be. I consciously made the effort to not allow her view of me to cloud the opinion I had of myself.
Give yourself permission to move away from toxic friendships with calmness and grace
When I finally decided to take more control of the situation, there wasn’t any big fall out with myself and Megan. I didn’t feel the need to call her and tell her how cruel or unkind I felt she had behaved. I knew I wasn’t responsible for her unhappiness and I also wasn’t responsible for fixing whatever she lacked in her life that she felt justified her behaviour. I was however responsible for letting go of a relationship that had been stressful and upsetting for a fairly long time, one that had ultimately proved detrimental to my own emotional health.
We can choose to let go of toxic friendships calmly and gracefully, not allowing ourselves to be dragged into the continued drama of someone else’s life. Give yourself permission to move on without the closure you may or may not need, reminding yourself you have no obligation to explain your reasoning or continue to stay in touch with someone who doesn’t value the truest version of who you are.
Don’t allow the bitterness to become you
Despite the hurt that arose from that friendship, years on I do hope Megan has found some sort of peace. I hope she has managed to move beyond her unhappiness and begun her healing journey. It bodes us well to strive to live our lives as open-hearted, loving and forgiving people. Holding on to hurt of course only hurts ourselves in the long run. Instead of dwelling in bitterness we can instead choose to reflect on what a relationship taught us. It’s often said that the people who challenge us the most tend to be our most powerful teachers. They are often the same people who can help us set better boundaries for ourselves, and lead us to ultimately enjoy stronger, healthier and more loving friendships going forward.