Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Not That You Asked: Toxic Friends

Unless you've been hiding under a rock (as I tend to do on rainy days), you've missed some recent media buzz about toxic friends. Check out this video blog by Therese Borchard, who writes the Beyond Blue blog for Belief.net. Or take a look at this article by life coach Cheryl Richardson in the current Oprah Magazine. Or do a quick Google search on "toxic friends" and then choose from the 6.35 MILLION HITS that come up.
What's up with that?
It might just be our cultural propensity to label everything: If you're distractable, you have ADD. If your kids misbehave in public, you're an ineffective parent. And if a person persistently rubs you the wrong way, or if you feel exhausted after spending time with them, or you find yourself avoiding their emails and phone calls, you may be tempted to label them a toxic friend.
Fine. Do it. Slap the label on them.
But then step back and look at yourself from their point of view.
Hmm. Not so pretty, huh? There must be one or two things you've done that would legitimately piss someone off, right? There must be a pattern of annoying behavior that you've engaged in with at least one friend, right? Do you need to label yourself?
Well, do you? 
Does labeling a pattern of interaction change the basics of what happened, or does it just make it easier to get a handle on what happened and then make a decision about how to proceed? Are we more comfortable when we can gather up a basket of sharp-edged incidents and say, "She did this, she did this, OH MY GOD I CAN'T BELIEVE SHE SAID THAT, SHE KNOWS WE DON'T HAVE ANY MONEY RIGHT NOW, THAT WAS SO FUCKING INSENSITIVE, she did this, she said this..." and then take those incidents and label them "toxic"? Is that what we need to do before we can disengage ourselves from a relationship that we just don't want to be in? Do we need to justify leaving a friendship by giving it (and by extension, the other person) a poisonous label?
Why can't we just disengage? No drama, no fussing. No throwing shoes, as the funny and terrific Havi Brooks says. Just...stop.
While I don't disagree with the basic info in either the video blog (Borchard is an unusually honest and talented writer) or the Richardson article, I'm concerned that we're going to see a huge run on people labeling other people TOXIC.
And just what will that accomplish?
I've had friendships (short ones, thank the heavens) that I found emotionally exhausting for a variety of reasons, and I was grateful when those friendships ended. 
On the flip side, I know I was the emotionally exhausting person in other short-lived friendships.
That's human nature. That's just how we are. Sometimes we fit together, sometimes we don't. In the cases I'm thinking of, if I'd paid attention to my inner self screaming "Red light! Red light! Not a good friendship fit!" I would have saved myself time, frustration and hurt feelings. 
But out of those hurt feelings comes growth, and I'm grateful for that.
I just don't see the need to label it.
Questions? Comments? Leave them below, or email me at mrsditter@gmail.com. 
And as always, thanks for reading.


  1. I like the notion of just stopping, probably because that's what I've been doing with a friend who went way off track with his own life and wanted me to fix it for him. So I probably wouldn't want to label him, but I did want to stop talking to him.

  2. Labels just don't tell the whole story. I think much of the political polarization that we are witnessing in our country is the result of such labeling. When we label someone in the camp that is not ours, meaningful dialogue grinds to a halt.

  3. @Hope: It takes clarity of mind and maturity to back out of a friendship without making it the other person's fault. Good for you!
    @Crippen Creek: You're spot on. We've drawn our little red and blue borders and seem to be reveling in hooting and hollering insults at the other side. Sigh.

  4. Love this posting, Mrs. Ditter! Hooray for you for striking a blow for civility, self-examination, and general decent manners.

  5. Totally with you, Mrs. D. @Crippen Creek is right on target as well. Labels can be helpful in small doses, but we're waaaay overdue for a correction in the label market. Just step away quietly, graciously, and unobtrusively. Then, if/ when the other person gets his/her act together again, you can re-engage without any hurt feelings, and if necessary, be politely frank about why you withdrew for a while.