We hear different things: “be loyal, don’t abandon people.”
We also hear: “protect yourself from toxic people and negative behaviors.” Sometimes it can be hard to know which one to listen to. How can we stand behind two truths that feel mutually exclusive? Is it possible to abide by both, or does subscribing to one require rejecting the other?
It’s not an easy decision to come to. Many of us carry baggage from past relationships. Many relationships require patience, kindness, and empathy. In my opinion, those willing to practice these are likelier to experience the deeper rewards that come from maintaining a connection.
As Cheryl Strayed put it, “Our most meaningful relationships are so often those that continued beyond the very juncture at which they came the closest to ending.”
At the same time, we often stay in relationships for longer than is healthy, sacrificing our own needs and well-being in the process. As benevolent as sticking around might seem or feel, sometimes a friend’s behavior is so harmful that cut-off and severing are necessary for self-preservation. I don’t discourage people who have chosen this route from doing what they feel they need to in order to protect themselves and heal.
Like with many things in life, there is no one correct route. Here are some questions to ask yourself though if you find yourself at a crossroads.
Try looking at the bigger picture
These days when assessing my friendships, I find it helpful to look at larger trends. I coach myself to zoom out, detach from my temporary emotions, and see the larger pattern.
I’m not saying disregard your feelings, but rather to factor them into the bigger picture. Look beyond just your feelings from your latest interaction. What about your feelings the time before that, and the time before that?
Ask yourself— is this current behavior circumstantial, balanced out by many other moments wherein you were laughing, bonding, or lightening each other’s loads—or have the majority of your interactions felt like this? Sometimes the answer is no— maybe that same friend, when they were in a healthier place, helped you up when you were feeling down. Or maybe at various points they added humor, insight, or optimism to your life.
Other times it’s yes— you realize that the unsatisfying dynamic has been playing out for months, or years even—and that while you feel you’ve modified your behavior, expectations, and attitude countless times over, you’ve noticed little to no change on your friend’s behalf.
Sometimes you’ve done all you could. You’ve spoken your truth. You’ve let your friend know how their behavior makes you feel. In the words of a Lyft passenger I once drove, “I don’t want to be spending lots of time with people feeling like I either want to change them, challenge them or avoid certain subjects. That’s just too tiring.” In this case, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to let the friendship go. We all deserve friends who can reciprocate our emotional labor and investment.
If the hurtful behavior is an isolated incident, try talking about it with your friend and give them the chance to restore your trust in them
An author I admire once made an insensitive joke about gluten-free eaters, comparing them to “pussies.”
The joke hurt my feelings, given that I am a person with Celiac disease. Yet, because the author’s words have helped me and I connect with a lot of her work, it didn’t feel right to just write her off because of one tasteless comment.
I think it’s likely that the author, like most people in our country, doesn’t know much about the seriousness of Celiac disease. Maybe she’s had plenty of experience overhearing people in public making seemingly “high-maintenance” (gluten-free) requests at restaurants. Maybe she’s had less with people who have actually been diagnosed with the condition.
If she were my friend, I’d have had a conversation with her about this—but she does not know who I am, and likely never will. So the work I do is just in my mind. I offer grace. I don’t shut the door on her. I continue reading her work. I acknowledge and accept her as a full person who sometimes makes mistakes, like many of us do.
I feel like it’s become common practice in our culture to cast someone aside the minute they say something we don’t like, or that we disagree with. Often this is done without even a conversation. We haven’t tried to understand where the person was coming from. We haven’t attempted to explain to them why their comment was hurtful, nor have we given them a chance to make amends for it.
I think that overall, being connected to different types of people and a diversity of experiences can benefit us. If we were to obey to our knee-jerk reactions to shut someone out each time they said something potentially offensive, we’d severe many ties and drastically trim our networks. I’m all for doing this with people who are truly toxic; I just don’t think those who occasionally misspeak or say something clumsy or insensitive fall into that category (yet many people treat them as if they do).
To live with conflicting emotions is a universal human struggle. We grapple with navigating the uncomfortable, at times unsettling grey area. We muscle our way through cognitive dissonance to accept people in their imperfect form. We strive to, if not embrace the imperfection, at least recognize the following as an inevitable fact of life: that people have their blind spots and will sometimes, or often, refuse to look at what is so glaring to the rest of us.
Consider your level of closeness
How long have you known the person? What value have they added to your life? Your level of closeness with a person will also play a role in how much effort you choose to put forth. If it’s a close friend, consider bringing it up with them in a gentle way. It’s possible (likely, even) that they’re not aware of their pattern. Maybe your behavior is contributing to their own, as well. Be open to hearing that and making changes yourself.
If it’s an acquaintance or someone you don’t know very well, perhaps it feels more appropriate to simply invest less in that relationship from there on.
Ask yourself these additional questions
Have you tried dealing with conflict with them in more constructive ways, only to experience them repeatedly reacting in their go-to manner? Do they seem interested in putting effort into making small changes?
Finally, consider what life paths you both seem to be on. Is a shared past the only thing you seem to have in common anymore?
People will provoke an array of internal reactions within us, not all of them positive. This does not mean that any time someone makes us feel these ways, the obvious solution is to uproot them from our lives. We can squint and try to see the bigger picture. We can look for patterns. We can examine our own interpretations and how they might be filtered through our individualized and inherently biased lens. We can try to reject the behavior before rejecting the person.
And then perhaps after all this, we can come to a decision that feels most true to our souls.
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Photo: Jarritos Mexican Soda via Unsplash