I recently phased a few old friends out of my life.

There was no big confrontation, no fight or disagreement that marked the definitive breaking point. Rather, my decision was the culmination of a very long build up.

I wanted to cut them off for a long time. For around a year or so, I was actively aware that I no longer enjoyed hanging out with these people. In fact, near the end, spending time with them was often stressful at best and totally demoralizing at worst. But I stuck around because I didn’t really have any other social circle in my hometown. I suppose there was a sense of obligation, too. These guys had been my buddies since early high school. We had a lot in common back then, but as we entered our 20s, not so much.

How to Navigate Toxic Friendship

As time passed and new opportunities arose, I realized that I was ready to move on from these people. Not because I hated them, not because I thought I was better than them, but because it was what I needed going forward. But it wouldn’t be easy, not at all. There were a few things I had to realize to justify the decision once and for all in my mind.

I Deserve Better

I didn’t deserve to be the butt of every joke. I didn’t deserve to be the perpetual “little brother” of the group. I didn’t deserve to be lulled into complacency by occasional friendliness — a gift here, a compliment there — only to be made into a whipping boy the next time we hung out.

I never thought I was “above” any of them, but I never thought I was “below” them, either. They almost always treated me like I was the latter. They made me feel inferior.

And it took a lot of reflection to realize that I don’t deserve to feel inferior to anyone, especially those that I called my friends. Friends shouldn’t be there to make you feel bad. Friends are there to support you when you’re down and cheer you on when you do well. They’re there to make life, which is already difficult as it is, just a little bit easier.

Hanging with these guys never made life much easier or much more enjoyable for me. Sometimes, it actually did the opposite.

The Fear of Becoming Someone I Dislike

If I stuck with them, I feared I might become someone I disliked.

Male friend groups thrive on jabs and playful insults. I’m not sure why we love pushing our friends’ buttons, but it’s just something we do. It’s normal.

The thing is, though, these insults are playful. They’re meant to poke fun at a person with whom you’ve developed a close and solid bond. Friendship gives you the privilege to joke about some things: a bad haircut, an ugly shirt, a Freudian slip that becomes an inside joke. But notice a trend — these things are not particularly serious or personal.

Jokes made at a friend’s expense are meant to be funny, not hurtful. And if those jokes happen to venture into the realm of “too far,” then a good friend should apologize for the slight and realize that certain things are off limits from now on.

I don’t know why I was the chosen target. Perhaps it was because, in the beginning, I refused to fight back.

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In my former group of friends, harmless jabs weren’t the norm. The main mode of humor was personal attacks and borderline bullying behavior, usually directed toward me. I don’t know why I was the chosen target. Perhaps it was because, in the beginning, I refused to fight back.

After a few years of turning the other cheek, I wanted to retaliate. I wanted to get even. So I started to make the same jokes about them, jokes that were not lighthearted, but just plain mean. They weren’t fueled by anything other than spite and dislike. Their sole purpose was to dig into the skin of my peers and cause pain.

This behavior was bad news for someone who’s trying to grow as a person.

It’s a goal of mine to be as understanding, sympathetic, and helpful as possible. This mean streak I went on, this willingness to be hurtful — to get revenge, no less — wasn’t going to help me make any progress toward my goal. It was a sign of regression, and I didn’t like it.

Good People Behave Badly Too

Good people can be complicit in bad behavior.

I recognize that everyone in my former friend group was, fundamentally, a decent person. By that, I mean no one lacked empathy or the ability to reflect on their actions. Two guys in particular, however, may have lacked the maturity and/or desire to empathize and reflect. When we all got together in a group, the influence of one or both of those guys took effect.

They made me feel like an unwelcome guest at any gathering. They regularly belittled my interests and accomplishments. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe to boost their own self-esteem, or maybe so they could entertain themselves. Regardless, any attempt by me to retaliate or enter into a rational argument was met with flat-out insults and immature teasing.

The others in the group laughed along with them, and I understand why.

They were essentially in the same situation I was in. If they weren’t friends with these two guys — the de facto “leaders” of the group — then their social life would either be greatly diminished or non-existent. If they went against the group dynamic, then that meant being ostracized from the group as a whole. I can’t judge them, though, because I know that If I were in their position, I would’ve behaved the same way.

What’s it like now?

Well, I have a lot more free time. With this abundance of free time, I’ve done some humbling self-reflection.

I do not see myself as a victim of bullying or narcissism. I was never trapped or helpless in any of these situations. If anything, I was a victim of my own mental weakness and my own lack of self-esteem.

I think that’s important to consider, the way we stand in the way of what’s best for us. We sometimes tolerate negative things because the effort required to change, and the pain we must endure during the process, seem too great. Change takes a bit of courage, and it also takes a personal assurance that things will be better in the long term despite short-term hardships.

I’m still in the short-term hardship phase, but I have faith that my decision will pay dividends sometime soon.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash

 

No one is immune to and no one deserves toxic friendship. What do you when you discover that a relationship is not good for you?

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