You’ve Got A (Toxic) Friend

Recently, a client of mine who wants to the change the world was taken aback when I told him that he would do well to walk away from his “loser” friends.

“How do you know my friends are losers?” he asked. I told him that with all of his community service, non-profit ventures and summer trips helping others that he had been telling me about, he’d also said that he’d been doing all of this on his own. To me, this was a sign that he needs different friends. “Out of your massive buddy group,” I said, it’s obvious that most of your friends have zero interest in what you’re doing, and they don’t want to help you for an afternoon or a weekend of work. If you were to be honest with me, you’d confess that some of your “loser” friends are disrespectful of your good deeds.” I continued, “So if you were sitting on my side of the table, what would you say to that description of friends who should be on your side?”

“Hmmm,” he mumbled, “maybe you’re right. I need a new network of friends.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see through the heart of a good person whose desire is to do well by helping others.

But it does take guts to know when to walk away from those who are not going in the same direction no matter how long you’ve known them, from scouts to swim team to high school and college.

At the beginning of each year, I do a New Year’s Resolutions segment on my local TV station with one of my favorite anchors, and this year I had a simple theme. It was to Stop, Go and Grow. And one of my ideas for the Grow part is that we need to grow our network and not just for business, albeit that it is always beneficial. We also need to grow our friendwork, (Yes, I am making up a word) because as Jim Rohn is famous for saying, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”

Stop and think about that for a minute.

Out of your group of friends, think of at least five of them (if you have that many) and then list out their amazing attributes that you admire. Can you do it? Is it hard? Now that you think about them, are you a little disappointed? Are they really going in a good direction–your direction–or are they pulling you down to their gutter level of a toxic loser?

Hang on, and I’ll give you some guidelines to help you reclaim your life and remove yourself from those who are not being fair, kind, encouraging or helpful to you and your future.

Like many of you, I have a group of friends who have been with me for years. And in that group are some very different personalities, but we all have a few things in common: for the most part, our faith, our moral compass and our encouragement of each other’s dreams.

Now, by no means are we perfect, but goodness knows, we try. And we don’t try to be perfect for others but for ourselves, in our understanding that if we want to change the world, it should start with us. Do we get it right? I can honestly say we certainly try.

And the reason is that we have come to learn, through life’s trials, that there are a few things that real, true, encouraging friends do for each other, and the key to success is this: we have to be non-jealous, positive and have an uplifting influence on each other every day of our lives.

For my network that is easy since we are different in ages, incomes and experiences, and we keep each other challenged (and laughing) as we help each other climb to the destinations of our dreams.

How about you? Do you keep challenging your network to dig deep and plant seeds for success for your future? You should. And if that is not a part of the plan, you might want to consider finding a new network that cares about your future as much as they care about their own

In my peer group, one of my friends taught me how to invest in a certain type of stock that has paid off. Another friend willingly opens her Rolodex and offers help in any way she can, going so far as to actually make the calls, and yet another encourages us to eat more healthy (and promises it won’t kill us). We laugh, we cry, we go to weddings, funerals, campaign events, breakfast, lunch and dinner and coffee. We overlook our faults and one another’s to see the greater purpose of friendship, not because we need to, but because we want to. That is what a friendwork looks like and what it takes to be successful and to be good friends for life.

I read a wonderful but sad book this past week. It’s about a local pastor and her work with the less fortunate, the mentally ill, the afflicted and addicted. Story after story, I was hopeful for the drug addicted user to break free until the very last line, which was, “and they went back to using,” or “through it all, they could not shake their addiction,” or some such line of sadness. The unconditional love that was poured into these broken people literally seeped out about as fast as it was poured in. In most of the stories of these broken lives is the presence of another toxic person, someone who was a user along with them, a pusher, a partner or another petty thief who kept them broke, stoned and drunk. Occasionally there were a few success stories of lives changed, hope restored and families reunited, but they were few and far between. Addiction is a terrible thing. The best advice is never to start. (The book is Weight of Mercy by Deb Richardson-Moore)

The book got me thinking about the friends–some toxic, some just losers–that we’ve all had in life and had to leave behind. They made choices that we, in our heart of hearts (due to our upbringing or simply because of our sense of right and wrong or justice) could not agree with. No matter how much talking or time or convincing that we tried, they decided a different route was their future, and so they went their way, and for most of us, we went ours, rarely to interact or pass on the street.

For some of us, a few of our “lost friends” are still in our community but not in our lives, and we’re better for that. Don’t feel bad if for all the right reasons you had to step away. “Toxic friends” are better to be held at a distance than within your space. And there are many reasons why they need to be on the outside. Probably the greatest reason is that they are really good at twisting the truth to make you feel bad. Oh, and they like to lecture that you are judgmental, or harsh or you’re acting like you’re better than them and all the other accusations they like to level at you to shift the blame and responsibility to make you think that you are at fault.

Don’t fall for it. The problem is not you. It is them, no matter how much they cry, get angry, accuse, go silent or leave.

Toxic people ignore boundaries, and that is perhaps the most damaging trait that could affect you. If you are not careful, their toxic sludge will spill onto you and leak into your system until you find yourself acting out in ways you never did before. It only takes a drop of poison to compromise your system. So that is why you must break away from those who are not going in the same direction in which you have been called.

So how do you break free? You have choices, so you do what is best for who you are and what you believe as long as you commit to actually doing the hard work of walking away.

In an article by A.J. Harbinger called, How to Cut Toxic People Out Of Your Life, he suggests a number of good options, a few of which I will list here that I have seen work.

  • Consider creating distance instead of separation. You don’t have to cut these people out of your life completely. You just need to create distance by occupying your time with other friends and activities.
  • Don’t feel like you owe them a huge explanation. Any explaining you do is more for you than for them. Again, tell them how you feel, which is a subject not open for debate. How much or how little you tell them is really up to you. Every relationship requires a different approach.
  • Don’t argue. Just restate your boundaries. It’s tempting to fall into the dynamic of toxicity by arguing or fighting–that is precisely what toxic people do. In the event they do return, make a promise with yourself to avoid an argument. Firmly restate your boundaries, and then end communication. You’re not trying to “debate” the person into leaving you alone. This isn’t a negotiation. (At the end, I have posted his site so you can read the full text.)

Simply put, it is not easy to let go of someone, but it’s not right to allow yourself to be broken so much that you cannot help others. I love the quote, “You don’t have to set yourself on fire to keep others warm.” And I’ll add another one of my favorites, “Sometimes you get the best light from a burning bridge.”

Walking away from damaged people is never easy, (especially if you had a fun friendship) but to maintain your commitment to your future (whatever your calling may be) you need to do the work of breaking free and walking away. No more negotiation, no more compromise, no more arguments and accusations, no looking back.

“You’ve got a friend,” may be the sweetest words you will ever hear, but trust me when I tell you that it is worth the wait to find the ones who will honor the friendwork that will last a lifetime. And I’ll add that the joy of the right group of friends is priceless. Cicero said, “Friendship improves happiness, and abates misery, by doubling our joys, and dividing our grief.”

Once again, thank you for reading this week’s post. If one of your friends needs weekly dose of encouragement please forward this email and suggest they sign up! I am reading this week’s podcast in the link below – it is a 13-minute listen. You can listen now or download for later. Download all my podcasts from iTunes, Stitcher, Podkicker or Soundcloud.