How I Realized I Was The Toxic Friend

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
A slew of essays and listicles have popped up in the last few years encouraging us to dump “toxic” people from our lives. It’s self-preservation, after all. You're told to surround yourself with people who make you happy — not to waste energy or time on those who drain you. But in the midst of all this, it can be easy to forget that your friends might be making the same calculations about you that sometimes, you're the toxic friend.

The first time someone told me I was a bad friend, she was sitting next to me on the couch in the cinder-block-walled living room of our college dorm. The confrontation came after weeks of passive-aggressive notes and one regrettable incident in which the other two suitemates and I ran out for dinner while she was in the shower. I don't remember, specifically, how the conversation began, but I remember how it ended. She turned toward me, recited a list of my transgressions (I had been avoiding her, she felt I thought I was better than her, she thought I bragged too much about my boyfriend), and declared that I didn't know how to be a friend. I exploded, unloading on her all of my pent-up frustrations from the past several months. But she was right: I didn't know how to be her friend, and she didn’t know how to be mine.

Six years and a few apologies later, I recognize that we both had some immature (and even downright mean) tendencies. But I think we were also a little lost. I, for one, had internalized so many messages from parents, teachers, TV, and movies about the importance of friendship that I was prone to overthinking it. I had some good friends, but I was still struggling to form those few magical bonds that were supposed to last a lifetime. While we’re often well-prepared for the heartbreak that accompanies trouble with a romantic partner, we don’t always get the same direction about what to do when we can’t make it work with a friend.

A few years after college, I was again struggling with a friendship that was imploding — this one after more than a decade. Mike* and I had our ups and downs before, but over the course of about a year, little things piled up and left me feeling like I barely knew him. We had frustrating conversational battles about everything from which phone to buy to how much to tip a server, and his humor — which hadn’t seemed to change much since we were younger — was starting to feel immature and offensive.

By the spring of 2013, I had put so much time and energy into worrying about what was happening, and why, and whose fault it was, that I felt liberated by the idea that I had the power to just cut someone like this out of my life. All those “dump your toxic friend” essays I read validated my feelings about this friend, and about others who had shut me out in the past. You don't owe them anything, I tried to convince myself. But while I liked the thought of freeing myself from a friendship that didn’t feel mutual, blaming it on some fatal flaw in the other person felt lazy and untrue.
In the end, I didn't have to make a decision. While I was agonizing over whether our friendship was worth the energy, Mike was making moves, and they did not include me. Soon, the texts and accepted invitations slowed, and then they stopped altogether. As it turned out (and as he told me when I broke down and asked), he saw me as the "toxic friend."

I couldn’t dictate how he felt about me any more than he could do the reverse.

While I had been stewing over his slights against me, Mike was tallying up my own faults. What I believed to be harmless inside jokes from the early days of our friendship, he saw as inappropriate dwelling on the past, especially when I brought these topics up while we were hanging out with our significant others. My brashness, my loudness, my inability to know when a comment or joke was appropriate — these things no longer endeared me to him (if they ever had); they left him feeling disrespected.

Though I had been caught off-guard when my college roommate had confronted me, I knew I had indeed been a not-so-great friend to her. I had made plans behind her back and gossiped about her. I had been a mean girl, and I had since learned from that experience. This time, with Mike, it was harder. I felt misunderstood and attacked. I recognized that intentions only go so far, but his assessment of me and my actions felt disingenuous, and I wanted to push back.

But as I crafted one indignant response after another in my head, I realized how ridiculous I sounded. I couldn’t dictate how he felt about me any more than he could do the reverse. I couldn’t force someone to be my friend, and why would I want to? I realized that respecting his experience of and perspective on our friendship didn’t have to mean internalizing the things he’d said about me. I found that I could be sorry for how I’d made him feel without believing myself to be permanently “toxic.” So instead of arguing, I apologized — and I tried to move on, with a few new insights into how others might perceive my actions.

I had felt so empowered and tempted by those anti-toxic-friend manifestos that I forgot, for a while, that I wasn’t fully in control. I still like the idea of being selective about whom we choose to spend our time and energy on. I still believe we are entitled to remove someone from our lives who constantly brings us down. But I’m prepared now to accept that, for someone else, that person might be me.

*Name has been changed.

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