Your phone rings, you look at the screen and cringe. Crap, not them again. You hit the silent button, hoping that maybe they won’t leave a message…
Then it hits you: guilt. Masses of it. Maybe this person has been your buddy since primary school. Maybe it’s a work colleague or, worse, a family member or your partner. Maybe they have managed to make themselves indispensable somehow, or perhaps you ‘owe’ them because they were right there for you in 1995 when you had your heart broken for the first time. But whatever the reason they’re in your life right now, you feel it’s not a choice.
Everyone’s got the old ‘obligation’ relationship in their orbit, but sometimes it’s more than an awkward inconvenience – when a relationship turns toxic, it can wreak emotional and social havoc.
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Is it testy or toxic?
Even the most amazing friend drives us a little nuts at times and craving hours or days away from your partner can simply be a sign you need healthy alone time. Frustration isn’t always an indicator that the relationship has become toxic. However, here are five alarm bells to listen for:
1. You are always the one doing the giving. Ok, so you are helping them through a tough time. But are they always going through tough times? Being constantly drawn into another person’s endless dramas can be draining and unhelpful, especially if you always feel like you are never doing enough or getting much back.
2. They never remember what’s going on in your life. Forgetting the odd job interview or medical appointment is one thing, but do they forget the big stuff? This is a sign that they don’t consider your emotional needs.
3. Do you feel like you are being constantly judged? Good friends help keep it real. However there’s a big difference between supportive honesty and constant criticism. Negative judgement (hurtful even made in jest) is a sign of deep insecurity, a major toxin in a relationship’ dynamic.
4. Do you struggle to enjoy their company? If even the most exciting occasions always end up with you feeling resentful, angry or even anxious, perhaps you need to consider taking them off your plus-one list.
5. Can you be honest with them about your feelings….ever? We all hold back sometimes, but if you feel like every attempt to address an issue, or clear up a misunderstanding, is futile, this is unhealthy. You’ll find yourself constantly putting their wants/needs ahead of your own for the sake of “peace”.
Etiquette of social detox
Once you’ve identified a toxic friend, you need to decide what you are going to do next. Do you change your phone number, unfriend and unfollow on Instagram? Not necessarily. How do you exit or alter the relationship elegantly without firing up anger or feeling like a crap human?
Set your personal boundaries. Asserting and maintaining healthy boundaries is your number one weapon for taking the toxic fallout out of a relationship of any kind.
1. Regulating your relationship with yourself first. This means connecting with your values and all the things that make you who you are. Learning to understand your feelings, thoughts and impulses allows you to know where your personal boundaries should be.
2. Recognise that your needs are important. We all like to please others, but pleasing other people should not always be at the expense of your needs. You have every right to assert your own needs in a relationship and to expect that these be generally met.
3. Don’t assume responsibility for other people’s problems and feelings. This doesn’t mean that you can’t empathise with them; just don’t take it on as your problem.
4. Be accountable for your own feelings and behaviour. Don’t blame other people for how you feel. How you feel is your choice, just as how someone else feels is <their> choice. If you think someone is consistently making you feel frustrated, chances are it’s because you are not asserting your personal boundaries.
5. Learn to say no! Practice on the small stuff, and challenge the inevitable guilt that nearly always follows. Saying no is your right, and if other people get upset, then remember it’s their choice to be upset. If you feel really bad (because you are a nice person), soften the no by offering to do something else for them instead. That, my friends, is called a win win!
When you’re asserting healthy boundaries, your relationships start to fall into a predictable pattern. It’s not about aggressively cutting people out of your life, but more about working out where (and with who) you invest your time and energy.
As for that next cringy phone call? Pick it up. This time be clear about the lines you won’t cross and say no. How they react (and whether they ever call you back)is their choice.
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