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Shasta Nelson, M.Div.

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Toxic Friendship? Or Can You Work Toward Frientimacy?

Posted: 11/07/11 11:17 AM ET

More than 8 out of 10 of us can point to a friend we've had who we've considered to be toxic. A third of us say the culprit has been our best friend, according to a joint survey conducted by TODAY.com and SELF magazine.

By Definition of the Word Friend... Why Would We Want to Avoid Them?
In my last post about the consequences of labeling someone toxic, I shared how sickening it feels to actually see 409,000,000 results in response to a Google search of two words that I regret ever end up in the same search: avoid and friend. Something about that combination just doesn't sit right with me.

Now, if there were half a billion search results on how to avoid irritating people, that I could comprehend. I understand that there are people out there who drain us, annoy us and repeatedly exhaust us, and we may often make the choice to avoid people that make us feel that way if we can. What I have a harder time understanding is how those people ended up getting labeled as our friends to begin with, when the very definition of "friend" implies affection and positive feelings!

Obvious Options: Put Up With It or Get Out Of It
In a reaction to the belief that most of us are simply putting up with this toxic behavior -- identified as being narcissistic (65 percent), too needy (59 percent), too critical (55 percent), giving backhanded compliments (45 percent) and proving to be flaky or unreliable (37 percent) -- most authors and personal growth experts are giving us permission to simply get out, break up, move on, and avoid these people. This wisdom leaves the impression that there are two options: "Put up with it" or "Get out of it."

I am not suggesting that there aren't people we may need to end relationships with or those with whom we need to draw clear boundaries. But when more than 80 percent of us have an impulse to avoid someone we once liked, I think there is something else going on.

Alternative Option: Grow Through It
The fact that we have called these people our friends leaves me thinking that there might be something worth restoring.

Restoring, or growing, a relationship is not putting up with it. It's not just grinning and bearing it. Rather, it's growing it, recognizing that every healthy relationship model has within it a stage that is described with words such as disillusionment, conflict, questioning, tension, storming, chaos and struggle.

With words like that, it makes sense why we'd be inclined to stay in the previous phases (referred to as pseudo-community, honeymoon stage or forming) where it felt fun, good, and energizing to be friends, where we didn't yet consider the relationship "toxic."

At this point, should we "get out of it" or walk away when someone annoys us? If we walk away, we will never experience the depth on the other side. Psychologists put words such as intimacy, performing, true community, growth, commitment and co-creation past this stage of conflict, the point at which you find out that you can't stand something about them. To get out of our relationships when we're disappointed at this point may make us feel strong, but it could also mean we're preventing real intimacy, something that appears to be in short supply these days.

On the other hand, to simply "put up with it," pushing away the disappointment of "toxic behaviors" (i.e. displaying narcissism, acting needy, sounding critical) means we are always trying to hide our true feelings, walk on eggshells, pretend it's all okay, and just silently fume. These avoidance behaviors keep us in the early stages of a relationship, in the pseudo-community phase where you may look like friends, but the friendship is not safe and meaningful.

The third option, "growing through it," means repairing the relationship will definitely feel awkward at times, take energy, risk disappointment, require forgiveness and possibly reveal your own shortcomings. It's clear why so few of us step into it.

Frientimacy Includes "Toxic" Behavior
Before you will be willing to move toward intimacy, or what I call Frientimacy to clarify non-romantic intimacy, it will require you to really examine a friendship before you judge it "toxic."

When we label a person, we are buying in to a fear-based belief system that people are inherently one thing: unhealthy or healthy, bad or good, toxic or non-toxic. If people are only one way or the other, your highest priority then is to vet them, judge them, and weed them out of your life. If you don't, you will be brought down by them. (Assuming, of course, that you're not one of them.)

But if we can resist the temptation of believing someone is toxic (which is far different from acknowledging that we can be hurt by their behavior, see previous post) then we can acknowledge that all of us have the capacity at times to express unhealthy behaviors, just as we can also all show compassion and thoughtfulness.

In real life applications, just because a new mom is needy and insatiable (a characteristic that 59 percent of us would say makes her toxic) doesn't mean she'll be that way forever, or that she can't also be filled with love and joy at the same time. Just because a friend is starting to sound too critical, a reaction from her own insecurities (a characteristic that 55 percent of us would say makes her toxic) doesn't mean she won't grow into her self-worth, and that in the meantime she can't also be someone who would drop everything in her life to support you.

We are all meant to be a blessing on this planet, even if we do adopt behaviors that can damage one another. This worldview invites us to see our relationships as our self-growth laboratory, a context in which we learn the genuine dynamics of who we are and who our friends are.

When we show up, really show up with someone, seeing them past the healthy, non-toxic facade we thought they were initially, it allows us to ask: "What does this relationship tell me about myself, about what I value, about what edges I need to smooth? Have I clearly communicated to her what I want and need from her and how her behavior impacts me? Have I sought to understand why she's acting out her insecurities with me in this way? And what does this relationship tell me about her and how I can give to her in ways that mean something meaningful to her?"

I'm not saying you need to get closer to everyone whom you consider toxic. But I am saying you'll have to do it with a few of them if you want Frientimacy -- friends with whom we experience familiarity, safety, comfortableness and acceptance of both our good sides and our bad.

 

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