I’m trying to remember where it was I read it. Likely, it popped up on a Facebook feed ages ago, but, I’m not sure. However, the gist of the quote was something along the lines of if you want to be successful- you have to ditch your “loser friends”. As I recall, the person who said it was seriously successful- and I want to say it was Richard Branson, but I might be mistaken.
Anyway- I remember at the time, just sort of being aghast. I thought that it was a horrible thing to say. I thought of my friends who struggle- or, shit, the times I have struggled. Then, I realized: it wasn’t the concept I had a problem with, but the delivery. I’m not easily offended by any stretch, but, as with most things: whenever the delivery of something sparks a reaction, I dig a bit deeper. Why did this idea bother me? What was my emotional reaction telling me?
I process things like this. I think often, those who like to be belligerent jackasses assume I’m offended and want to shut them up: that’s hardly the case. I tend to believe the natural result of being a belligerent jackass- is, well, people will think you are a belligerent jackass. I’ve been there: sometimes inadvertently, I’m an asshole. It happens. Sometimes, it’s deliberate. Other times, upon introspection- I recognize I’m projecting like crazy: so, I’ll look at that.
However, when it comes to people who say things that get a rise out of me- my first step is: “Does this person’s opinion mean shit to me?” and my second is, “Whether that is true or not: why is this provoking a reaction?” Sometimes, it’s because someone’s just a dick. It happens and, I refer to question one and am able to effectively move along. Nothin’ to see. Other times, however- I recognize there’s a thought process that’s being provoked by that emotional reaction and I want to examine it. That said: I tend to veer more towards being mindful of others as a default when and where I can. Not so much out of a fear of offending- but, honestly, I just typically don’t feel a need to be a dick and I dislike doing so. For me, this is more about my own sense of self control and communication than anything else, plus…I mean, I don’t have any particular need to be an asshole, usually. It simply serves no purpose for me.
That’s not really my point- just a random aside: anyway, so, I got to thinking about this point and actually, whether I thought the delivery was a bit rough: it’s a very valid concept. It does not, however, mean that you have to be some compassionless ambition machine.
Before I get into the psychology, the citations and everything else- let me outline something I noticed, over and over- with a bit of a caveat, here. Often, when we talk about this sort of thing: mental illness comes up. That’s because mental illness is in fact, a major, major player.
There is a common misconception among the less understanding crowd that, understanding an underlying mental illness may be at play in cases of abuse means this is being used to somehow excuse those behaviors. It absolutely isn’t. Not by anyone with any real understanding of psychology: in terms of the study of, this is working more towards better understandings of preventing such things. I am a huge proponent of anti-shame- as a matter of act, I believe we need to see mental illness in the same light we do other medical concerns. However, I have noticed that there seem to be a small handful of people who are blurring some lines a bit, and this is detrimental.
Boundaries are incredibly important, regardless of mental health status. Depending on what it is you’re dealing with- respecting the boundaries of others, or enforcing your own healthy boundaries might actually be an incredibly important part of your treatment and ongoing therapy. Which means, if you love someone who’s engaging in unhealthy or toxic behaviors which are hurting you, citing their mental illness and ignoring your boundaries- you might be an enabler. If you happen to be citing your mental illness in order to skirt the boundaries of others: you’re engaging in unhealthy behaviors which are quite likely, not helping you- and this is something you should be aware of, as well as actively working on: preferably with a qualified mental health professional.
Now- what I am referring to may in fact, involve underlying mental health concerns, but at the same time: supporting someone with mental illness doesn’t and shouldn’t mean, enabling them to persist in harmful behavior. Of course, people who engage in the toxic behaviors I’m about to talk about might not have any underlying mental health concerns- but in those cases where they do: I reiterate that allowing them to hurt you isn’t helping them and it definitely isn’t helping you.
What Do You Notice About Friends Who Encourage Shitty Behavior?
There are a couple of common threads that I’ve noticed among the so-called “bad influences”. Of course, people like to write this off as being more or less fun: but, when you’re trying to get your shit together- this is not very much fun anymore.
Can you guess what those common threads are?
From the buddy who whines that his friends don’t go out partying every weekend anymore to the gal pal who constantly asserts that “men ain’t shit!” there are a couple:
- They complain. A lot. I’m not talking about venting or healthy expression of frustration- take a look: do you happen to note that they complain about the same things, over and over? Upon further reflection are these things which could be changed?
- They attempt to get others to engage in the same unhealthy behaviors that they do.
So, one of these things feeds the other one- can you guess how? Well, the constant complaining tends to be pretty indicative that they just do not have their shit together. As a result, they tend to not want others to get their shit together- why? Because that promotes a sense of “Oh crap. I don’t have my shit together.” Or, it may well just be plain old jealousy. None of the motivators for this are good and when you see these two things together in one person consistently: odds are you got yourself a dud. Might be time to ghost or otherwise get yourself out of that situation.
Let’s unpack point 2 for just a minute, here. There is in fact, a big difference between a friend who respects that you have your own things going on but notices you’ve been isolating yourself- and the buddy who’s braying about how you’re no longer a regular at the bar each weekend. Healthy social relationships and having your own interests- particularly for those of us in long term relationships: that’s pretty important stuff.
That is really not what I’m talking about here- I’ve had a few friends check in with me, because I’m not an overly social person. They’re just making sure I’m okay, making sure I’m not isolating myself out of depression or otherwise- and that’s great. As a matter of fact, healthy social connections provide a wide array of benefits, not only in mental health but overall health and longevity. (Martire & Franks, 2014.) I almost went into a little side tear about how our family relationships provide the basis for how we select those friends and why- but, that’s probably better served for its own entry entirely.
The thing is, the quality of these friendships matters, not the quantity and definitely not the longevity. In other words, don’t let a popularity contest or a loyalty bias make you think you’ve got to hang onto somebody who’s just dragging you down or hurting you. You may just find upon some reflection and introspection that an unconscious loyalty bias may be impacting your entire life: hanging onto jobs that you hate, not going for things you want, and not asserting yourself are just a few examples of this.
The Toxic Friend And Why They’ve Gotta Go
Often, you’ll find that those who are trying to pull you into unhealthy situations or behaviors in the name of a good time are really just trying to validate what they’re doing for themselves. Doesn’t work, but they’ll get pretty desperate with it- and that’s a huge problem for you.
The other common thread beyond those two is: they usually are more or less adrift or otherwise unhappy with their lives. Not everyone’s goal oriented: but, for those who genuinely are not- they’re usually okay with it and don’t feel a need to validate it from outside sources.
Some people like to contextualize all of this with relationship status, kids, and otherwise- but, I don’t. Not everyone wants a long term relationship and not everyone wants kids. Even for those who do want those things: your ideal relationship may not be the same as someone else’s- and that’s okay. But, even if we’re just contextualizing this in terms of being happy: toxic friends are not conducive to this.
The Big Two
Since these are the two areas I most commonly see, we’ll address success and long term relationships- and the friends you should let go of if you want either of those things.
The Friend With Ulterior Motives-
Before I get into that, though: if you are in a relationship, having friends you can talk to about your problems is a wonderful thing: until it isn’t. One thing I have seen over and over is: people actively seeking out a “rescue” from a bad relationship by way of that one person who just seems to understand so well. If you find yourself in this position: run. Whether you’re the would be rescuer or the one seeking rescue: run.
There are people who complain about this so called “friends zone” thing- and that’s stupid, too. However: it gets even more destructive when you’re not just a friend. I’m not even going to cite my sources on this one because the list would be several pages: but, constantly complaining about your partner to someone else won’t fix the issues. Thinking that you can do better than the one being complained about or that the one you’re complaining to will be better? It doesn’t matter if you’re the person doing the complaining or the person listening, this is not Happily Ever After- matter of fact:
First, if you want to work on your relationship- constantly complaining to others about it is toxic and it’s not conducive to…anything. Venting to someone you can trust is absolutely important- as long as it leads to you being able to either get out of an unhealthy relationship or working on the problem.
Beyond that, oddly enough, though it has been established over and over again, rebound relationships do in fact, help some people get over a bad relationship- it’s usually because it helps them feel better about possible romantic prospects. Plural. (Spielmann, S. S., MacDonald, G., & Wilson, A. E. , 2009) The other problems here lie in the fact that rebounds don’t actually help people to cope with issues of anger or hurt that were resultant of the relationship and its break up and those who use sex to overcome a bad breakup typically take much longer to get over it. (Barber, L. L., & Cooper, M. L. ,2014)
Additionally, quite a few of the articles out there misinterpret the data as rebounds being good for you- when in fact, if you have underlying issues with co-dependency or trauma: no, they’re really not.
Again, the core issue, and the core issue beneath most of these things:
A lack of healthy boundaries in any relationship, whether it’s your friend, your partner, your parents or otherwise- is a red flag. It just is. Each and every article you find on this particular subject can easily be distilled into this one key point.
The Demanding, Entitled, and the Derailers-
I can put them all in one group because frankly, they are usually all in the same person- and they all stem from the same place: the insecurity of that person.
No matter how much people fixate on “The Haters”- the truth is, it’s rarely ever the haters standing in your way when it comes to success, in love or in life in general. It’s those toxic you keep close to you. Demanding and entitled people usually have absolutely no qualms with actually derailing the things you set out to do when whatever that is takes the focus off of them: and of course, they’re there for you when the pieces fall apart. Usually, making a huge deal about it. One of the more subtle ways I constantly see them pull this shit? They use nostalgia and the good ol’ days to draw on memories and foster resentment.
While a healthy friend will be supportive and encouraging, allowing you to vent about your frustrations, a toxic person will encourage you to continue to complain, usually, adding their own disrespectful input. Whether it’s your career, your coursework, or your relationship: beware the friend that seems to enjoy bashing and encourages it in you. Not only is this a sign they don’t particularly respect those things- but, it also encourages a near constant cycle of negativity surrounding something or someone. A healthy outlet for frustration is important, the revolving door of negative bullshit- not so much.
How do you spot a toxic friendship?
First, in understanding it isn’t just friendships- our relationships with others in general, regardless of who they are or how long they’ve been going on: can be toxic or healthy and in that, impact our lives a great deal.
Toxic people and relationships will manifest as individually as the people involved- yet, there are some very common signs. These are people who expect you to fix their problems or they behave in a way that makes you want to fix their problems. They tend to make you feel sorry for them, and will often, hold you responsible for their feelings. The thing is, though, you’ll notice: it seems like their problems are never solved. You put out one fire, and up pops another. The issue there is that it isn’t resolution or progress or healing they seek- its ongoing support, attention, and sympathy. They also have absolutely no problems just creating issues, problems, and drama in order to get it.
What ends up happening- even if they’re not actively trying to undermine you: you feel drained or emotionally just wiped out after you’ve been around them. Though you might sympathize or feel bad for them- the problem is, almost every time you interact: there’s some sort of negativity, complaining, gossip or drama. This can become much more problematic when there are narcissistic elements at play: because then, you’ll note, everything they do, somehow circles right back around to them.
It’s really important that you not take that shit personally or blame yourself- or accept responsibility for it: that’s usually their goal. Avoiding responsibility or making situations all about them- well, it’s kinda what they do.
The Codependency Triangle
Since I started seeing my time as incredibly valuable and respecting it on that basis- I have been very selective about who I choose to engage with. That isn’t to say that I want to drop people from my life who are struggling- I do not, and never have. I do, however, have to limit my engagement: not so much due to them being toxic but because of my own tendencies towards unhealthy patterns of being a Rescuer.
Finding the balance between my compassion- and making this my identity is important. One of my favorite quotes has always been from T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral:
The last temptation is the greatest treason- to do the right thing, but for the wrong reason.
And frankly, this is an issue I want long confronted, addressed and buried before I step foot before a licensing board. Because I have seen this way, way too much in not only counselors- but, spiritual leaders and otherwise. What does this mean, in this context?
When your motivation isn’t so much the benefit of others and making some sort of healthy contribution to the greater good- or even just their situation: but rather, stemming from a much deeper emotional need within yourself- well, you may just be a Rescuer persona. This isn’t a bad thing- but it is one of those areas where in order to continue: you gotta own your shit.
That need to help becomes less altruistic and more self serving in this context. It starts to blur the line between my needs and the needs of those I serve- and I can’t do that. You shouldn’t do that.
Even if you’re not getting into anything like I am: the issue here is we have this habit of forging these really unhealthy and inappropriate relationships that stem from mutual dependency. It plays out differently for everyone: but in my case, I have some control issues. The result, then, is an almost addictive quality to relationships or with those I help: something, which I have mentioned, I have a tremendous amount of disdain for as a business model commonly seen in the New Age community at large.
Those of us engaging in the codependent cycle of Being the Rescuer tend to be both victim and perpetrator: we’re just the shinier, most positive part of the Codependency Triangle- of course we are much better than the perpetrator. Except, we are still engaging in behaviors to an end that isn’t healthy and fosters dependency. (The Codependency Triangle: Rescuer, Persecutor, and Victim. See also: The Karpman Drama Triangle.)
This then leads to feeling overwhelmed with the problems and baggage of others, which can be incredibly draining at best- at worst, it starts to erode your sense of purpose and vision. That’s when you start co-opting those you originally set out to help, in a way of trying to fulfill a need within yourself. Sometimes, in this position- the Rescuer steps into being the Persecutor. I didn’t. I just got horribly burned out, and noticed that my own sense of failure was washing over into the way I engaged with others.
Unfortunately, many common dysfunctions have become normalized or even celebrated in our society- and that just fucking sucks. The result is our “normal” meter gets thrown off- and we have a hard time recognizing the signs. We then rationalize them as just things everyone does, or just how that person is.
I am going to conclude this with a singular piece of advice on that front- which will not only save you time, effort, heartbreak, and a whole mess of trouble:
But understand: that’s the first step. Understanding and recognizing there is in fact, a problem is where you begin- and you begin when you stop making excuses for shitty people, and yes, as Branson says: losers.
Your time and energy are important and you deserve to be around people who empower you to be what you want to be- and in return, you can do the same.
Martire, L. M., & Franks, M. M. (2014). The Role of Social Networks in Adult Health: Introduction to the Special Issue. Health Psychology,33(6), 501-504.
Spielmann, S. S., MacDonald, G., & Wilson, A. E. (2009). On the rebound: Focusing on someone new helps anxiously attached individuals let go of ex-partners. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35,1382-1394.
Barber, L. L., & Cooper, M. L. (2014). Rebound Sex: Sexual Motives and Behaviors Following a Relationship Breakup. Archives of Sexual Behavior,43(2), 251-265.
Fulkerson, M. (2003). Integrating The Karpman Drama Triangle With Choice Theory and Reality Therapy. International Journal of Reality Therapy, 23(1).