October 18, 2011
A good friend can stand by us through thick and thin. But what if our closest friend brings us more problems than perks? According to a study conducted by the Today Show and Self magazine's websites (www.today.com and www.self.com) in May of 2011, eight out of 10 people have had a toxic friend in their lives—yet 83 percent say they've hung onto them because it's too hard to sever ties. So why is it so difficult to get rid of these people who make our lives miserable?
"We surveyed more than 18,000 readers from the ages of 18 to 80 on their unhealthy friendships," said Julia Sommerfeld, senior editor of Today.com. "Seventy-three percent of our survey takers say that being dumped by a friend hurts as bad or is worse than being dumped by a romantic partner."
While the guilt of hurting others may prevent us from moving forward, clinical psychologist Robin Haight said we need to stand strong and set boundaries.
"You have to ask yourself, 'How can I keep this person in my life in a way that feels OK to me?' " Haight said. "And sometimes that means thinking about what you want rather than thinking about what the other person wants."
Typical traits of an abusive friend include narcissism, being competitive, leaving you feeling drained or worse about yourself after a conversation, and having a negative outlook.
"Fifty-nine percent of our readers say they've got a friend in their life that's sucking their time and happiness," Sommerfeld said. "These are the friends who can throw an emotional wet blanket on your good news and find something to complain about in any situation—the waiter is inept, people are mean. Attitudes are really contagious, so you need to be aware of these negative influences in your life."
Haight said a lot of times a friendship can start off positive, and then shift over time. This can be common with friends we've had since childhood. But if the relationship is no longer reciprocal, Haight said, there is a way to communicate gently and honestly that could really make a difference.
"Say to that person, 'It's too bad that I didn't get to tell you about this important thing in my life. I'm noticing that you never ask me about me. You used to be interested in my life. Do you see it that way?' All you can do is ask and simply say what you need," Haight said. "The person is going to respond in whatever way they respond but you have to say how you feel. And you can do this kindly, and not aggressively."
Sometimes the abuse is short-lived because the person is under stress or dealing with a tragic event. If that's the case, Sommerfeld said you should weather the storm until it passes. But if the abusive friends keep lining up at your door, it might be time to look at yourself as the problem.
"The type of friends you bring into your life could also be a reflection of the role you play in your own family," Haight said. "There's the peacemaker or the overachiever or the one who is over-accommodating. If you tend to be an over-accommodating peacemaker, you may keep ending up with high maintenance friends not even intending to because that's the kind of dynamic that is familiar to you."
But admitting our faults is never easy, Sommerfeld said.
"The irony of course is that while eight in 10 of us have had a toxic friend, nobody cops to being one," she said. "Most people just aren't aware of their own bad habits. They think they're being a good supportive friend and don't realizing they are being critical or flaky or self-absorbed.
"Our [survey] results are a good reminder to surround yourself with friends who support you and make you happy—and also to look at your own behavior and make sure you are truly a friend worth keeping."
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