We all know toxic people and we all know that they are dangerous to our emotional well being. They are the naysayers or dream killers in our lives who always seem to make us feel like we are not good enough or smart enough. The bottom line is that toxic people bring us down and make us feel bad about ourselves and our lives and choices more often than not. While we continue to stay in relationships with these people for various reasons, maybe your sister-in-law is toxic or the girl you were best friends with growing up makes you feel consistently awful, the good thing about them is that we know they are bad for us and we are able to protect ourselves from their barbs. We can almost guess that they will make sure to note the weight we have gained or the run in our stockings, and while that is painful, we are prepared for it. I had a friend years ago who worked with a very unpleasant woman. I would note the co-worker’s unpleasantness whenever I met my friend for lunch. She’d just smile and tell me that while the coworker was indeed very unpleasant, but she was consistently unpleasant and so it never bothered my friend. It made so much sense that I’ve never forgotten it. If you know what to expect, you know how to deflect. A toxic relationship is tolerable because you know what’s coming and therefore you know to protect your enthusiasm and dreams from them. You know better than to share secrets with them or invite them to your engagement party. You just know.
Toxic relationships are easy to spot. Classic behaviors range from competitiveness and frequent criticism (or back-handed compliments) to an imbalance in which you are always calling and going out of your way to listen to and comfort the friend while they seldom reciprocate. Some toxic friend will constantly compare you to other friends or brutally critique your opinions while you are feeling most vulnerable. They may cancel plans with you if something better comes along or spend a whole dinner with you on their phone texting with someone else. They make you feel insignificant and unsupported.
The Danger of Frenemies
You might think that straight-up toxic relationships are the most dangerous type but there is another type of relationship that is far more detrimental to your well being. Enter the ambivalent friend or the frenemy. Ambivalent relationships are the worst kind you can have. This is a relationship in which the behaviors of your friend can't be trusted be consistently supportive or antagonistic. One day your they are complimenting you and praising your intelligence and the next they challenge your ideas, use secrets you have shared against you, or generally behaving the way a toxic friend would. This is not just confusing, it is truly dangerous as it can lead to other health issues. Frenemies may express jealousy, undermine your plans or ideas, or say cruel things, and this is much more difficult to deal with because it is unexpected and your defenses are down.
Why is an ambivalent friendship worse than a toxic one? One reason: you never know where you stand. That emotional uncertainty is exhausting. Behavioral investigator, Vanessa Van Edwards says there is an easy way to spot an ambivalent relationship. She suggests that you ask yourself a single question about the person, "do I believe this person is genuinely happy for me?." The answer to this inquiry, she says, will enable you to determine whether or not the friend in question fits this category.
Why it Matters
Good friendships can have significant positive effects on your life and conversely toxic and ambivalent relationships can lead to a number of negative mental and physical health effects. Feeling undermined by a friendship can increase your vulnerability to stress, lead to anxiety and depression. In addition, being in an unsupportive or hostile relationship can lead to a whole lot of confusion and wasted energy. You see, it isn't easy to stay constantly on guard in a relationship.
Breaking Up with a Toxic or Ambivalent Person
There is not one single solution when it comes to these types of relationships. With a toxic friendship, whenever possible, you should eliminate or limit contact to essential communication. Sometimes, to avoid drama you can do this gradually so that they don't recognize that you are phasing them out of your life. The last thing you want with a toxic person is a confrontation. These are seldom reasonable or fair and the confrontation will likely leave you feeling terrible and they are likely to use things you shared with them to hurt you.
Whatever you do, once you have identified the toxic people and frenemies in your life, immediately stop all activities that make you feel vulnerable. Don't share any secrets or information that they could use to hurt you in the future. Stop letting them absorb your time and energy. If you are not engaging in a reciprocal relationship, you should limit the time you are donating to them. It may seem cold to describe a friendship in such transnational terms, but in reality, being more rational about it may help you to detach from the unhealthy situation. Don't disclose anything private or personal. Keep these people at arm's length. Start putting yourself first. You are worth protecting from the negativity that toxic and ambivalent people bring into your life.
Sometimes you are not able to stop interacting with the toxic or ambivalent person. If that is the case, for example, if the person is a relative or co-worker, you can limit interactions and keep your conversations at surface level. Don't say anything to these folks in confidence. Don't talk about personal opinions, let them do the talking and get away as soon as you are able.
Toxic and ambivalent relationships are the opposite of true friendships. They are damaging because they make you cautious about trusting others and fearful that the things you have shared will be used to hurt you later. As you eliminate these unhealthy relationships, you will find that you have opened up space for new healthier ones.
Are you struggling to find balance and navigate relationship challenges? I am available to help! Formerly on staff at the Tulane Student Health Center Department of Psychiatry, helping emerging adults uncover the best path to success is my passion, I am a professional psychotherapist and I specialize in academic, success, and life coaching. I work primarily with college students and young professionals. I would love to put my expertise as a certified success coach to work for you.
Dr. Eileen Wynne