Don’t Ditch Your Toxic Friends…They Might Change

toxic friends

About a dozen years ago, my friend Kathy (name changed) told me that she had dumped all of her “toxic” friends and felt much better. I was dubious. Was a friend exorcism the way to go when friendship is so hard to come by?

There’s a growing body of research recognizing the importance of socializing as essential to successful aging. Conversely, social isolation shortens our life span and decreases our well-being. Death is more than twice as likely among those who are isolated versus people who have good social relationships. Isolation is as much a health risk as smoking and lack of activity. This is a special concern during the COVID-19 lockdown when elders are sequestered.

The Devastating “Post-It” Training

Staff trainers, especially in the hospitality industry, have training days to build compassion among young workers for older guests. Nothing worked as well as what I call Post-It Training.

Staffers are asked to take a sticky note and write down the name of many people they love, including pets. Most have at least 15 Post-Its stuck to their desks. As the other training goes on, the trainer casually removes a Post-It and throws it away…devastating. That’s aging. As our real life Post-Its get fewer and fewer, we may want to keep our friends—even the less attractive ones.

Still, not all relationships are sustainable.

According to Dr. Beverly Fehr, of University of Winnipeg, in her book Friendship Processes, psychologists have not yet fully measured the ill effects of a bad friendship. “So far, they have only, through surveys and interviews, figured out that it is a significant problem. The early research is showing that betrayal by a friend can be more devastating than experts had thought”.

Scientific studies seem to confirm the anecdotes and surveys. A UCLA study found that stressful friendships lead to significantly high levels of the protein cytokine, which causes inflammation in the body. Over time, inflammation can result in health issues, including cancer, diabetes and heart disease. When commenting on the UCLA study, Dr. Daniel Yadeger explained, “This study is suggesting that there’s more to it than just a psychological impact, that it may be related to health outcomes and diseases that are very common and very severe.”

We know that abused women and children can have shorter life spans. To learn more about this extreme toxicity, hear my interview with Dr. David Belsky of Columbia University on Generation Bold: The Fountain of Truth About Aging Podcast show #83. He has done extensive research on longevity and abuse in children and adults, and his conclusion is that mental health is all part of longevity.

But, which friends of your friends are toxic enough to dump? Interestingly, that depends not only on your friends but on you as well. In a roundup of research on the subject, Anna Medaris Miller of U.S. News identified five categories (among others) of friends whose actions are toxic to most people. You will probably recognize every one of these…

The Taker: Takers purport to need you…but are never there when you need them. Usually, they generate resentment and anger in you.

The Drama Queen (or King): These friends believe themselves to be misunderstood and victimized by everyone. They tell stories, usually about your mutual friends. They can be exciting, even entertaining, but can also engage in stress-inducing manipulation.

The Bad Influence: Think “peer pressure.” When you are surrounded by overweight friends, your chances of being overweight increase. Even worse, in my opinion…there’s the friend who brings over a layer cake and candy just when you are starting a new diet…“just a taste won’t hurt you.”

The Friend Who Needs Saving: Spending time with friends because they make you feel needed is a toxic draw for many.

The Nit-Picker: This friend continually points out or asks about the negative parts of your life. These topics produce a high level of conflict and are associated with increased depression and decreased self-esteem.

Some of you can see your friends, and even perhaps yourself, in these descriptions, yet you can laugh it off. That’s because different flaws in other folks affect us each differently. Toxicity is more about how you react than the stimulus. Dr. Susan Heitler, in Psychology Today, identifies some telltale signs of toxicity based upon your reactions to your friends.

  1. You feel that you need to outdo their other “best friends.” That is, you think that you must compete for your friend’s attention.
  2. You think that you are only doing the listening…not the talking.
  3. You feel that you cannot live up to your friend’s standards.
  4. You feel criticized when you are offered suggestions.
  5. You feel like you are walking on eggshells—you start being overly careful, watching every word to avoid saying the wrong thing.
  6. You feel like you are riding an out-of-control, emotional roller coaster.

Psychologist Harriet Lerner, in her book The Dance of Connection, points out—”Friendship is often very painful. In a close, enduring friendship, jealousy, envy, anger and the entire range of difficult emotions will rear their heads. One has to decide whether the best thing is to consider it a phase in a long friendship or say this is bad for my health, and I’m disbanding it.”

And in When Friendship Hurts by Dr. Jan Yager, a sociologist at University of Connecticut at Stamford, advises ”There’s this myth that friendships should last a lifetime,” Dr. Yager said. ”But sometimes it’s better that they end.”

But what if your friends are annoying but just “toxic light”?

Frankly, in this sociopolitical environment, everyone has such diverging opinions that we all seem toxic to each other. People disagree on the environment…the food that is “right” to eat…politics…the “right” health-care system…the police…and more. Check out my coronavirus-sequestration blog, “When Family Gets on Your Nerves.”

So if you are not ready to cut and run, here are three avenues to pursue before trashing a friendship…

1. Compartmentalize. When the source of the strain on your bonds is topic-specific, such as politics, try to compartmentalize. Stay away from the subjects that cause friction. Families are becoming adept at this with boomers and their children just “not talking about it.” Here is an example of one daughter’s attempt to compartmentalize. This is not ideal, but it does keep the relationship going.

2. Communicate first. When toxicity comes from negativity and you are fed up with the “the world is coming to an end” attitude, don’t try to change your friend. Instead, inquire. Every time a negative statement is made, ask, “What do you mean by that?” And don’t just mouth the words…really be curious. Keep digging until you discover the source of the negativity. When you know someone better, you tend to like them more. And when you shine a light on them, they tend to like you more.

3. Flowers among the weeds. When the toxicity comes from hurtfulness or constant criticism, call the person out each time. Remind yourself of the good…and perhaps the bad will dissipate.

We can and do evolve in our relationships—even older people can change.

Dr. Nir Barzilai, director of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine Institute for Aging Research, says in his book Age Later that people can change personalities late in life. Dr. Barzilai relates the story of a 100+-year-old man who was a ray of sunshine. Dr. Nir praised him to his 80-year-old son and told him how happy and inspiring his father was. The son answered that up to age 80, the man was disliked by all and only began to have a sunny personality in the last 20 years.

Old friends change—sometimes for the better…sometimes for the worse. Personality is not stagnant. Remember the adage—new friends are silver, old friends are gold…maybe yes and maybe no.