Everyone’s had a toxic friend at some point in their lives. The wise may do their best to avoid getting tangled up in complicated, energy-draining friendships, but as the adage goes, “you can’t pick your friends.” That being said, you can cut off the toxic people in your life. For many relationships, this is the best option.
But toxicity isn’t a binary when it comes to any relationship. A romantic partner or friend can have toxic behaviors without being fully “toxic.” There are ways to manage such behavior.
How do I know? Because I’ve been that needy, over-involved, manipulative friend.
I’m not saying I’m perfect now — far from it. But I’ve been working hard on myself. I firmly believe that having a mental illness does not give you a license to be toxic. However, I also acknowledge that a lot of problematic behavior stems from mental illness. I’ve been diagnosed with a variety of issues myself — from major depressive disorder to generalized anxiety and OCD. But my most recent assessment includes “characteristics” of Borderline Personality Disorder.
I’ve found that a lot of people I’ve talked to over the years can identify certain toxic behaviors as being “borderline.” This is largely because those who know someone who has BPD has experienced secondhand the effects of the disorder — self-destructive habits, manipulative behavior, unstable relationships, extreme mood swings, and suicidal thoughts and/or attempts.
(Note: While you can recognize certain behaviors as being toxic or borderline, NEVER diagnose yourself or others with any form of mental illness. Like any disease, personality disorders require a diagnosis from a medical professional. If your friend experiences borderline symptoms, do not label them as having BPD unless they have been diagnosed as such and have shared that diagnosis with you)
Now, I’ve only been diagnosed with borderline characteristics myself. Why? One psychiatrist told me that at age 24, my personality wasn’t fully developed. Other professionals have said that the stigma surrounding BPD makes mental health professionals hesitant to make a full diagnosis unless the symptoms are especially severe. But I’ve been treated recently using techniques designed for people with personality disorders, with a combination of medication and DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy).
It’s helped me a lot. Since dedicating myself to treatment, I’ve been sober, and I’ve put a lot of work into maintaining clear boundaries with my friends and family. Those close to me have asked how they can best help me maintain my progress and how they should treat my problematic behaviors in the future. I tell them a few key things:
1. Establish boundaries.
Overstepping boundaries, again and again, is a classic toxic behavior, whether it’s demanding an excess of someone’s money, attention or even just their time. Attention has always been a big issue for me. Like many people with BPD, I have a fear of abandonment, and my needy behavior has actively driven people away, feeding into the cycle of problematic behavior.
It’s ultimately on the person violating boundaries to stop doing so. However, you can help by being clear about what your boundaries are and calling out your friend when they overstep. May that hurt their feelings? It might. But in the long term, they’ll prefer having a healthy relationship with you rather than driving you away.
2. Be clear; don’t hint.
This goes hand in hand with establishing boundaries. You may be tempted to hint at your friend’s problematic behavior rather than straight-up calling them out. I get it; it’s easier to be indirect. I hate confrontation myself, as I believe most people do. But not everyone can take a hint — someone who frequently exhibits toxic behavior may be oblivious to any suggestions about their behavior.
Again, it’s always on the person causing any interpersonal issues to correct their behavior. But if you want them to change, you’re better off being direct. And, yes, you may hurt their feelings. You may drive them away altogether. But if your friend isn’t willing to change their behavior, then they may not deserve to be your friend at all.
3. Don’t blame yourself.
Being friends with someone who exhibits self-destructive behaviors can be emotionally exhausting. Sometimes, certain things may trigger them to self-destruct. You may worry that what you said or did triggered them into acting out horribly, maybe even with a suicide threat or attempt.
Keep in mind that whatever your friend does to themselves, it is NEVER your fault. Even if they’re reacting to an interaction with you, it’s solely their responsibility when they participate in destructive behaviors.
4. Don’t be afraid to walk away.
No one wants to be part of something as extreme as a near-death experience, be it due to drug use or an active suicide attempt. You may be scared to inadvertently hurt your friend by walking away. DON’T BE. In the end, your mental health is just as important as anyone else’s.
It doesn’t even need to be something extreme. If you find yourself continually contending with a friend’s manipulative behavior, no matter how minor or significant it seems, you can always walk away.
You’re also not responsible for your friend’s mental health. If you are worried about them, you can alert a close friend or family member of theirs or direct them to a mental health professional. You can’t guarantee that they’ll take the help, but if it makes you feel better about walking away, it’s something to consider. Your friend should get professional help, anyway, rather than only relying on friends.
While you can be compassionate to your toxic friends and help steer them onto the right path, their behavior is their responsibility. I have told several friends that I want them to feel like they can step away if they need to because, in the end, that’s good for me as well as them.
If I’m trapped in a codependent cycle with a friend and can’t stop, it is far better for both of us in the long run for them to set limits or end the friendship. Does it hurt when someone ends a friendship? Heck yes, it does. It hurts a lot. But often, doing things that are good for you can be extremely difficult. Ultimately, though, doing what’s needed to have healthy relationships is good for everyone’s mental health.
— Emma Lasky
This story originally appeared on Ravishly.