A few weeks ago, a Beyond Blue reader asked me what to do regarding a toxic friendship. She wrote:
I’m in the process of dealing with a toxic friend. She is broken, in a different sort of way. We no longer have anything in common except for the past. Her relationship is highly destructive for me…I do not know how to handle it. She’s narcissistic and very much a user. Help!
I brought up the question on a discussion thread on Group Beyond Blue. And here’s what folks had to say:
Sometimes doing nothing is the best thing….move on…sometimes people need to be alone to figure out what is wrong in their life. I know sitting with myself taught me how to fix me…I gave my friend books and told her about meetings and it only made her mad.. so I just don’t call. And when she calls I listen…I don’t give advice…so she can listen to herself…..sometimes that’s all they need….My friend is still lost….I’ve done all I can…–Hpower1
In my experience, once I have an idea of what another person is dealing (or not dealing) with, I can separate the “real person” from the “sick person”. It gives me a way to stay sane in working with that person, knowing that the behavior that is bothersome or offensive isn’t truly coming from that person, but from their illness.
In the words of a Gospel song, the other person may need us to “look beyond their fault and see their need”. Not necessarily the expressed need, but the true need. It can be hard to look past what they’re *saying* is their need to the deeper stuff that’s going on. –Weeble75
A few months back I let go of an important friendship in my life because I realized that our bond was rooted in my woundedness. That is, my intense connection with her wasn’t about intimacy or respect or fellowship as much as it was an opportunity for me to enact the role of the wounded child.
After much grief and suffering … and after six cycles of an unmistakable dysfunctional pattern, I finally distinguished the destructive dance of pursuit and withdrawal that was going on in our relationship.
I would reach out to her with (what I regarded as) an act of kindness … like sending a meaningful gift with a heartfelt card of encouragement. I wouldn’t hear anything in response, which hurt my feelings, So, feeling rejected, I would start to withdraw, at which point she would start to pursue me again.
I finally put the childhood piece of the puzzle together – duh! – when my sister an I were talking about the details of my parents’ dysfunctional marriage and bitter divorce.
“Did you know that for two years before Dad officially left Mom, he would leave for two weeks at a time, and she’d have no idea where he was?” my sister explained to me recently over the phone. I sort of half-consciously knew this. I remember my mom, in tears, waiting by the door for my dad to come back. And when he did? She would wrap her arms around him, embracing him with an intensity born in her insecurity of his love.
So what did that teach me?
That when someone leaves you or rejects you or abandons you, you go after them with full force … pleading for them to come back.
In this unhealthy friendship of mine, I began to recognize myself as my mom, wanting so badly my friend’s attention … because I couldn’t be whole or complete without it. By pursuing her and making her take notice of me, I was trying to heal the wounded child in me that feels so rejected. My “acts of kindness” weren’t, in fact, so generous. They were done in manipulation, to provoke a response. And when I didn’t receive the right response, I walked away angry, hurt, and bitter.
That’s not an unconditional friendship.
That’s a girl very much wanting to heal the wounds of her childhood.
Maybe one day I will be able to be friends with this person. If our friendship can be life-giving, not life-draining. But lots of healing needs to happen before that is possible, before I know myself as fully loved, as spiritual author Henri Nouwen explains:
When you know yourself as fully loved, you will be able to give according to the other’s capacity to receive, and you will be able to receive according to the other’s capacity to give. You will be grateful for what is given to you without clinging to it, and joyful for what you can give without bragging about it. You will be a free person, free to love.