Toxic Relationships Exist. Believe Me, I Have Firsthand Experience.
Changing personal boundaries is hard. Enforcing those perimeters with people who met you when you were without borders is harder. Hardest still is cutting toxic friends out of your life. I speak from experience.
You see I used to be one of those people who had no boundaries. None. I confused love and friendship with total access to my innermost feelings. I shared everything with people who shared nothing. I opened the floodgates and invited everyone in. It’s no wonder intimacy felt invasive and I shied away from it.
Even my best friends could wound me deeply. Cut to the quick. To the core. I had no shields, no armor and was therefore startlingly raw. Unnerved. Touch almost always shocked me, even if it was meant to be reassuring. Internally, alarm bells would sound. Externally, I would jump away from the point of contact.
The result was that I was compact, scared and tightly bound. I played small. I felt alone and longed for touch. I attacked and played catty games and felt solace and comfort in those who were equally damaged. Sensing strength in numbers, I aligned myself with the cynics. The downtrodden.
One day I sat in therapy and finally admitted, “I’m miserable.” I’m negative and toxic. Shit, I’ve become toxic. I wanted to be positive. Light. Airy. But I felt leaden, bolted to the floor and further compromised by the enormous weight permanently lodged on my shoulders. So we devised a simple plan for finding my way back to light: exert boundaries.
Making my boundaries clear and standing by them was monumental. I made certain topics off-limits. I disengaged from activities that made me feel weak or sad. I felt enlivened. Strengthened. Which of course meant that the power dynamics in my relationships were shifting.
And some people couldn’t handle that. They couldn’t handle a Leigh who exerted herself. Who stood her ground. Who said no. Who didn’t put herself in positions where she could be cut down carelessly.
And that’s when I learned that some relationships are toxic. In the end, they weren’t worth having. I mourned the end. I mourned the loss of people who had been in my life for years. People who had been among my closest friends. My support system.
Milton Glaser said:
“…in all relationships people could be either toxic or nourishing towards one another. It is not necessarily true that the same person will be toxic or nourishing in every relationship, but the combination of any two people in a relationship produces toxic or nourishing consequences.”
At that point, I hadn’t yet been introduced to Glaser but I knew I was in a place where dysfunction was intertwined with tenderness, love with savagery. I had to throw the whole thing away to salvage the good in me. To build relationships anew where sustenance was paramount and toxicity became extrinsic.
It took a lot for me to realize that people aren’t toxic but relationships can be. Me + You can be deadly while You + Other can be completely nourishing and fulfilling. And, that can be hard to know. I want to question what it is about Me + You that is lethal. But that’s a downward spiral of thought I won’t enter. I refuse to get bogged down in that.
Now, I am vigilant about maintaining energizing relationships and shedding the poisonous ones. Because I know first-hand how harmful and hurtful some friendships can be. And, I never want to revisit that place. That unending cycle of feeling shit, being shitty to others and allowing myself to be treated like shit. Those distressed and destitute days.
And, you? Have you taken stock of your relationships recently? Do you have enough audacity, courage, or strength to say goodbye to toxicity? What are you self-preservation instincts telling you?