Toxic Family and Toxic Friendships
There are so many ideas and terms thrown around these days when it comes to describing people who have a negative influence on our lives. Some of them those terms are narcissist, abuse and toxic. I think that by overusing these terms, we wash out their original meaning and we try to define and describe even normal behaviour that we dislike as something that is on the same level as actual emotional abuse, domestic violence, manipulation or gaslighting. I am not saying that those terrible behaviours don’t exist, they sure do. Instead I rather want to point out that we shouldn’t define everything that hurts us as something that is toxic.
What is Toxic Behaviour?
For the sake of this post, I am going with the general understanding of a toxic person. Someone is defined as toxic to another person if they have a negative influence on the other person’s life, feelings and behaviour. Toxic is not about just one feeling, or one situation. It is about a certain influence and behaviour that sinks into your being, that stays in your mind and poisons it. The other person’s presence and actions make you feel bad, make you question your own truths, makes you feel bad about yourself, makes you anxious.
Examples of toxic behaviour would be putting another person down, trying to brainwash them with your own opinions, manipulating them into doing things they despise. It can be abuse, gaslighting. It can be bullying. And It can be lying to them, it can be talking behind their back. It can be about anger, it can be about addiction, it can be co-dependency. It can be about control without consent. And it can be about constant criticism and ridicule. it can be about disrespecting boundaries. A toxic person is someone who hurts another person, consciously or without realizing that they are doing that.
I think a lot of times, people try to use the term toxic to describe bad people. But I don’t think that there are generally good or bad people. I think we are all capable of hurtful behaviour, as much as caring behaviour. No one is always bad, no one is always hurtful. It is about the specific connection between two people, their past together and how their personalities work together. It is about power imbalances, about dependencies and needs. We can be toxic to another person without wanting to hurt them.
Let’s imagine that you put boundaries up with someone because they have been turning to you for support too much and it is emotionally draining you. It is your right to prioritize yourself, and to take care of yourself. The person who is seeking support from you has become slightly toxic to you. So you try to gently guide them towards other sources of support. But they don’t stop reaching out to you. It might feel emotionally draining to you, and their attempts to get your attention make you feel generally bad.
That is one side of the story. The other side is someone who needs support and who needs you. They are in need of someone who they know cares about them. To them it feels like you are suddenly showing them the cold shoulder, but because they need you, they become desperate and feel rejected over and over again. They are hurt. You are drained. The whole connection has become toxic.
What I am trying to show with this example is that that toxicity in friendships, relationships or any kind of human connections (well, okay, I think your cat could become toxic to you too, but let’s focus on humans for now!), is not always black and white. There are instances where it becomes way more obvious that one side of the connection is the toxic part (like when it comes to abuse), but a lot of times, it is about a clash of personalities, of needs, or the circumstances push us into behaviour that is hurtful, without us wanting to hurt anyone.
My Toxic Father
I have experiences of all kinds of toxic connections and toxic behaviour. There were two relationships which could definitely be described as toxic in my life. One was with my father, the other with a friend.
I have talked about my father before and I really don’t want to go into details again. He is my main abuser and has ruined my life. During my childhood, he emotionally, physically and sexually abused me, and allowed others to do so as well. For a long time I had been able to push those memories away and tried to hold up the facade that he had created all my life: of a functioning family. Well, some years ago, I started being unable to do so anymore. I thought that by moving countries, by rarely seeing him, almost never talking to him, I would be able to forget. It turns out that that is impossible. Due to my childhood experiences (and other traumatic experiences later in life), I have Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Dissociative Identity Disorder.
So there I was. Knowing that what he had done to me is always going to affect me. We rarely talked. But whenever I had a message from him, whenever he called, whenever he liked a post of mine on social media, I went into panic mode. I felt watched when he liked a picture. I imagined how he would judge my weight, my style, the way I looked.
Whenever he called, he made me feel guilty for not being in touch more. He was whining about being an old man and his own child doesn’t even care about him. As always, he tried to offer me money, tried to make me dependent on him again. He complained about my mother (who I have seen him beat up over and over and who eventually left him for another situation involving domestic violence) and what a slut she was for marrying another guy and how it was her job to keep the family together. I couldn’t do it anymore. His presence in my life gave me flashbacks, it gave me panic and anxiety, it gave me nightmares. It made me hide on social media and not post anything anymore.
So about a year ago I decided to cut him out of my life. He was toxic for me. He has been toxic for me from the moment I was born. It was not an easy step to take. People assume that you are supposed to work it out with family. You are supposed to respect your parents. And I fully understand why some people can not cut abusive or toxic family members out of their lives. I understand the societal pressure and the consequences. And I would never judge anyone for having trouble with it.
I blocked him on my Facebook. I removed whatsapp from my phone. And I had to block all of my Persian family, after I realized that they were spying on me for him. I love a lot of those people, my uncle, my cousins. He contacted and found me on other social media (like my private Instagram) and I had to block him there too. He had his friends contact me. Blocked.
I am still in touch with my siblings and they both talk to him. I need to be very careful with what I tell them about my life, about me. My sister understands as she has been through similar abuse, my brother not so much. It is very sad that I can not really talk to my siblings. I am not really part of their lives, and they are not of mine. I hope that when my father is dead, things will be different again.
Does it feel better to have cut out such a toxic person out of my life? Fuck yes. Has it been easy? Fuck no. I miss my Persian family and being able to talk to my siblings more often. And I am still scared of him. I am scared that he will come and hurt me. That he will punish me for not being a respectful daughter, for hurting his pride. There are continents between us. He is almost 80 years old. And I am still scared to death of him. But not having his constant presence in my life, has helped me immensely with focusing on being myself. Without his observing eyes, I feel like I have blossomed more.
A Toxic Friendship
In my relationship with my father it is pretty easy to see who the toxic person is. Although, he might feel that me putting up boundaries and cutting him out, might be disrespectful and toxic behaviour. Maybe not as black and white as I would want it to be. It becomes more complicated in friendships though, where the power imbalance is not the same as in a parent-child connection. My friendship with T became toxic for so many reasons, and I blame myself for that just as much as I blame her.
We had an odd connection to begin with. I was her main support for a long time. And although we both basically struggle with almost the same mental illnesses, the focus was mostly on her and the validation of her feelings. I was fine with that though, at that point, when we were both on a volunteer site for mental health, I very much identified with the caretaker role and was able to hold back on my own issues when supporting others.
We became closer, and eventually formed a friendship. But she was dependent on me in many ways and it was draining me. So I had to put boundaries up. She of course experienced that as a hurtful move and tried to push my limits frequently. But for a while, we had a really good connection that was fun, supportive and non-judgmental.
Unfortunately some bad decisions were made on both sides. We ended up in a poly relationship with the same man. And while I am poly, she definitely is not, and her feelings got constantly hurt. I didn’t know how to sort the situation so I stepped back a bit. It all eventually blew up and we were out of touch for quite some time. She then contacted me on Fetlife after a few months and we reconnected for a shorter while.
It just became really intense really fast again. We triggered each other, and not even on purpose. Past dynamics, past pain, everything just returned. We hadn’t processed what we had done to each other. And while we both felt a need for our connection, because the good moments were really good, we hurt each other too much. She became very aggressive and manipulative, and I got triggered easily and then started bringing up old hurt again. We were toxic for each other. So I decided to once again put up boundaries and stop all contact with her.
I miss T. I miss our good moments. And I often wonder how she is doing. But I know that we can’t be in touch anymore. Our friendship is toxic, we are toxic for each other. Maybe in the future, when we both have processed some stuff, we will be able to reconnect in a healthier way. For now, not having her in my life is better for me.
Do I think she is a bad person because she is toxic for me? No, I don’t. She is a good mother, she works a lot in volunteer work, she has helped many people. She has been through unspeakable things. But just like anyone else, in the wrong circumstances, she can display toxic behaviour.
Be self-aware and Prioritize Yourself
Someone who displays toxic behaviour isn’t necessarily a bad person. Everyone can, without being aware, become toxic to someone in their life. I believe that most people don’t want to hurt others. But it happens. Instead of becoming defensive about our role in our relationships with others, I believe that through self-awareness and willingness, we can change that sort of behaviour.
Sometimes dynamics and relationships can become toxic, and it is okay to end those connections or to put them on hold. Not everything can be solved through communication. If there is too much hurt and a mismatch in personalities, things can be so entangled that solving the dynamics might just not be worth it. And then there are some people who are plain abusive, and it is important that we know when to step back from those people, and remove them from our lives. I know it can be hard when it is about supposedly loved ones. But everyone should always prioritize their own well-being.