Although the majority of my content is around overcoming trauma, how to cultivate boundaries, and how to heal after dating someone that was psychologically manipulative, these were all foreign concepts to me when I was a young adult.
Long-story-short, I didn’t know how to identify when someone was toxic and a negative influence on my life.
Due to my naive nature, I had my fair share of run-ins with “friends” that would take advantage of my kindness and generosity.
For example, I let a girl live with me that had gone through a horrible break-up. A few weeks later she got drunk and made a pass at my boyfriend. When he and I broke up shortly after, they immediately started dating… literally on the same day that we broke up. She ended up sending me a message saying that she was sorry. Instead of calling her out on her behavior and wondering why I hadn’t had more discretion, I tried to move on.
I didn’t realize that by not cultivating boundaries I had let her waltz in without a second thought. Our friendship/relationship certainly wasn’t the first one that ended going down in flames, but it still didn’t click in my head that it did have something to do with my behavior as well.
It wasn’t until many years later that it became clear. I had been allowing everyone in. There was no vetting on my part, no discernment to ensure that I was only letting the good apples in. I was letting everything in, from the good, to the rotting, to the absolutely rotten.
Let’s take a step back to reevaluate exactly what it means to be toxic.
According to Nancy Irwin, PsyD, “a person with toxic qualities is anyone who is abusive, unsupportive, or unhealthy emotionally — someone who basically brings you down more than up.”
The most recent example of someone that I had to identify as a toxic influence in my life, was a friend from college, Karla.
Karla had been a fun party friend, but her wild habits continued as we got older and it got to a point where I didn’t want to spend much time with her. It was mainly because she would get incredibly drunk and emotionally unstable every single time I saw her.
One evening, a few years ago Karla sent me a message that she was in town (we lived in different cities at that point) and asked me to come party with her at the bars. It was a Tuesday and I politely declined because I had work early the next morning. Later that evening my roommate asked if I wanted to grab some take-out for dinner and I agreed. We walked a few minutes from our downtown apartment to pick up the food, and lo and behold, there stood Karla.
“You bitch.” She screamed at me, visibly drunk, and in a moment that felt like slow motion, she ran up and physically pushed me in the middle of the street.
Due to being very non-confrontational and due to the fact I had never had a friend lay their hands on me, I was shocked and didn’t react or respond. Karla seemed to realize what she had done because she backed up and quickly walked away without another word.
When I reflect on that moment I assume that Karla must have decided that I had lied about not being able to go out even though I was in loungewear and very obviously not heading to the bars. However, instead of saying a word or even asking before jumping to her conclusions, she completely spun out of control.
The morning after our run-in, Karla sent me a message. It contained somewhat of an apology, but it also contained her demand to know why I had been out when I said I had to work the next day.
I didn’t try to justify my actions. Instead, I made a decision that was extremely difficult for me.
It was time to call Karla out on her behavior, even if it meant severing the friendship.
In the kindest way possible I explained to Karla that I was extremely worried about her excessive drinking and partying. I told her that pushing me was absolutely unacceptable no matter how upset she was that I was out. I also told her that her willingness to jump to conclusions without as much as a single word was extremely alarming. The message concluded with me saying that I loved her, but that I couldn’t continue to be her friend if this behavior continued.
To be honest, I didn’t expect a reply that was positive, I expected a similar message to the night before, “you bitch.”
Yet, that wasn’t the response that I received. Instead, Karla owned up to her behavior. She said that I was right and I wasn’t the first friend of hers to call out that she wasn’t in a good place and it was affecting how she treated the people in her life.
To my absolute joy, Karla decided to immediately start seeing a therapist and she got the help that she needed.
From my experience, I consider someone to be a toxic individual when they refuse to take any accountability for their actions, leave you feeling drained and emotionally exhausted, and refuse to face or change any of their behavior.
I believe that we should always pay attention to when yellow or red flags come up in a relationship whether that is with a romantic partner or a friend. However, I don’t believe that we should use immediately those as a reason to instantly disregard someone.
Instead, take note as to whether the yellow/red flags keep popping up. If it gets to a point where something needs to be said and you want to save the relationship, call out the behavior, and hold your friend or partner accountable.
If they refuse to listen and refuse to face the behavior it may be time to reevaluate whether or not the suspected toxic person should be allowed to remain part of your life.