A Bristol student shares her experience of dealing with toxic friendships.
I want to talk about friendship. Friendships are indispensable; they are, in some respects, what makes life worth living. A life without my friends feels bleak and grey. Between girls especially, friendships can be a source of such important support and empowerment, and everyday I am so grateful for the love and generosity my friends show me.
But friendships can go bad. They can turn toxic and that support you’re supposed to find in friendship turns into competition, jealousy, and bitterness. There can be a nasty side to girls’ friendships in a way that surpasses the stereotype of female “bitchiness” shown in TV and film; friendships can become manipulative, complex, and like any other form of relationship, can mutate into abuse if an imbalance between the two parties occurs. This is something I have struggled with for some time, but have only realised that I have been very recently. I passed it off as myself being weak, over-sensitive, and constantly anxious about a lot of things: this was not out of the ordinary, and probably down to me. But when I broke down in tears in public and explained to a family member what my friend had just said to me, she told me I was being subject to “emotional abuse”. I had never thought about it in that way, and still feel reluctant to. How can my best friend be emotionally abusing me, especially when so many other aspects of our friendship are as happy and healthy as any other?
Following my realisation that my relationship with one of my closest friends might be doing me more harm than good, I did what I always do in times of query: google it. Is it normal? Am I worrying over nothing, because girls do this all the time to each other? Can friends actually emotionally abuse each other? My google searches told me this was fairly common, but that I wasn’t worrying over nothing, and that I should probably reevaluate my unhealthy friendship. Yahoo answers, and forums like it, are flooded with girls and young women like me whose friends have made them feel weak, inferior, and, honestly, exhausted, and while this provided some comfort and brief advice, nothing could change the fact that the person doing this to me was, and is, a best friend. I couldn’t, can’t and won’t cut her off.
During the early stages of our friendship, I found she questioned everything I did. “Why would you do it like that?”, “How often do you do that?”, “Can’t you do it? Why can’t you do it?”; these pressing, judging questions would send me into some kind of rushed frenzy to justify myself, resulting in my sounding even sillier, even weaker. Leading to more questions often enough. After a while I understood this process, recognised how frantic it was making me, and could calm myself down. Before spending time with her, I would anticipate her new judgements, and go through in my head, step by step, a kind of mantra to reassure myself that I was a) a rational being, b) my actions thus made sense, c) I didn’t need to justify myself, and if she she wanted further explanation, I could explain logically and rationally why I did what I did, and such forth. Now I’m older, I understand that this isn’t normal. A young woman having to remind herself of her rationality to avoid the desperate anxiety that came with her friend’s judgements is almost the antithesis of a healthy friendship.
Sometimes her comments become harsh. She might tell me I’m not good enough, a bad friend, a bad person, that I would do well to appreciate her more. When I hear these things I am at first shocked, then panicked, and then deeply upset. I question my other friendships and become paranoid, does everyone see me like this? But after this having happened all too often now, I see a pattern that these attacks come when she is upset, is going through something and is feeling particularly negative in her own life. I suppose it’s the same old story we’re told about bullies in primary school: they’ve got their own problems. It’s never an excuse for someone, especially a friend, to take their personal problems out on someone else, but at least it helps me to rationalise these attacks, and understand why a friend might get a kick out of projecting their own insecurities onto someone else that they supposedly care about.
And this is why I couldn’t, can’t and won’t cut her off. Friendships are indispensable. For me, my friendships have proved absolutely essential to my happiness, especially whilst at university, where you can find yourself pretty bogged down with life. Part of me, and I’m sure anyone who has experienced this same kind of toxicity, or episodes of a power complex within a friendship, has considered, and felt relieved by the prospect of cutting that friend out of their life, of not being belittled on the whim of someone else. I have wanted to do the same thing back many a time, bring the other person down the way I have been brought down. And I suppose that’s the advice I’ve received from other friends, even from Yahoo answers, and maybe the advice I would give, rashly, to someone else. Ironically, however, friendship is the only way I have been able to deal with this, and the only way I could advise others to really and genuinely deal with this kind of situation. My other friendships have provided a solid rock for me, a refuge for when I feel emotionally exhausted. Although friendships can turn toxic, they are so integral to staying emotionally healthy. I will always love my friend, and despite urges from others to let her go, I don’t think I can do that. I hope she becomes more positive in her life, I hope soon I will have the courage to tell her how she makes me feel, and then through our friendship, we can support and empower each other to be better, as girls do and should be able to do. Right now, I don’t have that kind of courage, but what makes that okay is, without a doubt, my friendships.
Collage by Jess Baxter