A 30-something-year-old dating coach says that her most read blog post wasn’t about how to catch or keep a hot mate—it was about toxic friendships. Her second most popular post? A follow-up article about toxic family members. So what qualifies a relationship as toxic? You have a friend who complains to you so often that it’s an energy drain to hang out with him or her. Or a friend isn’t supportive of your dreams. A poisoned friendship is one in which your pal is always criticizing you and it hurts your feelings. You start to feel like you get back very little in return for the investment of your time, ideas, compassion and affection. At least, that’s how much of pop culture defines a toxic friendship.
I don’t buy it. Do you?
By labeling a relationship “toxic,” we avoid responsibility for our failure to develop the skills required to deal with an interpersonal problem. Difficult relationships demand that we grow in our capacity to handle confrontation, to speak the truth, to listen deeply, to set boundaries, and to agree to disagree. Most of all, when a friendship becomes painful, it often means we are being called to forgive, empathize, trust and love beyond our usual limits. That can be challenging and scary, especially to our egos. A world in which everything is right or wrong is much easier to manage, control and move around in. But it’s also devoid of creativity, individuality, love, miracles, and free will. So it’s a fantasy, not a reality.
Curiously, the concept of toxic friendships doesn’t exist in the field of psychology, or in spirituality. Maybe calling a friendship toxic is just a way to stunt our intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth. A toxic friendship is simply the failure of two people to evolve.
“We do not become the people who this world needs simply by turning our backs on anyone we don’t like, trust, or deem healthy enough to be in our presence,” says friendship expert Shasta Nelson, author of Friendships Don’t Just Happen!: The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends.
She’s right. We have to learn to be around difficult people and people who hurt us because it’s unrealistic to think we can avoid them. It’s better to learn how to stand up for ourselves while supporting someone who is lashing out because of their own unresolved issues. We have to learn how to love one another and when we can’t, we must learn how to tolerate each other and teach children and teens the same competency and resilience.
Of course, there are caveats. We cannot remain in friendships with people who have dangerous, unmedicated psychological disorders or criminals or drug abusers or people who willfully try to hurt us. Those people require the supervision of medical and law enforcement professionals. But our relationships with people in pain who need guidance to evolve into better selves often fit the criteria our culture deems toxic. In other words, it’s an opportunity, not a crisis.
If you find yourself in a difficult friendship, name what makes you uncomfortable. Ask yourself what you are most afraid of. Then take charge of providing a healthy balance between your needs or necessary boundaries and your friend’s healing. By accepting the challenge of spiritual, emotional or intellectual growth, you become like an alchemist transmuting base emotions into the one thing the world needs now: sweet love.