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January 5, 2022

The Most Important Toxic Relationship to Deal With is the One we have with Ourselves.


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Something that has been clear to me for many years is that, with a few notable exceptions, very few of the myriad of friendships I’ve had throughout my life have lasted.

Friends come and go, that is life. But often, even when it has been my decision, my friendships ended in sudden, upsetting, and traumatic ways that have had an impact on me long after they’ve disappeared into the rearview mirror of life.

There was the group of friends with whom I grew up—a group that expanded as we became socially active teenagers. Firstly going out pubbing, seeing bands, and then getting into raves as electronic dance music rolled over the United Kingdom like a comforting yet exciting blanket in the early 90s. But as much as I loved the rave scene, after 18 months of living life “large” (as we say in the UK), I couldn’t hack it. In the summer of 1993, I had my first breakdown. At the time, I wouldn’t have called it a breakdown because I was trying to pretend it wasn’t happening.

Most of my friends, rather than show concern for me, became increasingly hostile because I was getting in the way of their good times. Or maybe they just didn’t like my weakness? I don’t know, but I tried harder and harder to remain friends with them by going out when I should have stayed in for my mental health. In the end, I was ejected from the group. I found myself on the outside looking in, and I felt rejected and abandoned. I felt alone.

Although, for different reasons, this has happened to me a couple of times since. A big group of friends becomes completely entwined in my life—something that lasts for years—and then it all falls apart and I am on the outside again, looking in, wondering what the f*ck happened.

Way before I found out about mindfulness, which I’ve been practicing for nearly six years now, I asked myself why this kept happening to me. What was it about me that was so terrible? It was a way of me beating myself up and of blaming and judging myself because that is what you do when you’re depressed and anxious.

But was the failure of friendships my fault?

There is a tendency to work out who the toxic people are in our lives—the ones who make us feel sh*t about ourselves, drain us of our energy, and encourage us to act in ways that are counterproductive to us.

Once we identify who those negative people are, we draw boundaries or do whatever we need to do to make the friendship work for us. And if we can’t make that friendship healthy for us, then we wish them a happy rest of their life and let them go. In many ways, this is a good trend.

I would wholeheartedly agree that this is a healthy thing to do, but part of the problem of this trend is that, for some people, the finger of blame is being pointed at the other party. “These people are toxic; they are the cause of my suffering; it’s all their fault!”

Once they’re no longer in our lives, we will be good, right? In this scenario, the fix is external to us, but can our lives really be fixed only with external changes?

So the question still stands, why has this kept happening to me? Rather than using it to beat myself up, I mindfully reframed the question, without judgement, to look at my behaviours. How have I helped this happen? And do I understand why was I doing those things?

The thing with mindfulness, and meditation especially, is that without even trying to, we slowly learn about ourselves. Gradually, we’re filled with unexpected insights that were hovering just below the surface, undiscovered for decades, if not our whole lives.

What I have learnt over the last five or six years, and I say this without judgement, is that I used people. I don’t mean I used them for money or to get to meet other people that would help me in my career or anything like that. What I unconsciously used them for was validation because I felt like crap about myself. Ultimately, I believed I wasn’t good enough at anything or for anyone, and so, much like Facebook likes can make people feel validated today, having friends that acted like they thought I was awesome helped me mask the fact that I hated myself.

The problem is when we use friendships to convince ourselves we’re not awful human beings when we really think we are, rather than being with people just because we really enjoy their company, we end up with the wrong friends. Friends—and I also say this without judgement—who have their own issues. They often unconsciously spot our inner neediness and then use that in a variety of different ways that aren’t great for us, purely to make themselves feel better. Sometimes, if we’re really unlucky, those people will be outright narcissists (and then we’re in for a real treat).

So, I understand what my drivers had been in these failed friendships, but non-judgementally recognising patterns is only half the solution.

As I said earlier, the trend to review our associations with people and sort out the ones that do not serve us in a healthy way is a good one. Yet so many times the most important relationship of all is ignored: the one with ourselves! If we don’t first work on our relationship with ourselves, then we’re likely to make exactly the same mistakes with future companions.

And another great thing about regular meditation is that, as well as learning about our behaviours and their causes, we can learn to accept ourselves as we find ourselves right now.

All the weird things we’ve done in our lives, the reasons why we did them, and the harm we may have caused ourselves and others, can be forgiven and we can let go of the belief that we aren’t good enough. It’s all okay. We’re not bad people. Maybe we’ve made poor choices at times, but our hearts are good.

Slowly, through mindful living, it is possible for us to accept all that we are without judgement, learn to like ourselves, and even begin to love who we are. Once we’ve sorted out the relationship with ourselves, then we can start to make new and better decisions that bring positive people into our lives. This is where the gold is and how we can truly change ourselves from the inside.

If we examine ourselves and begin to like who we are, then we naturally stop wanting to fill that dark void in our lives because that murky vacuum no longer exists. Friendships that don’t serve us don’t need to end in some traumatic and explosive way, they can just fall away without any drama or judgement of the other party (at least from us).

More importantly is that some friendships, rather than fail, begin to change and thrive because our new loving connection with ourselves means that our open self is now in that friendship. There are several people from my school days—who I never lost touch with but who I had a really weak connection with—who I now value as dear friends all because I understand myself to be a dear friend to me, which makes me a better friend to them.

It’s not an easy journey. One thousand-odd words do not do the difficulty justice, but I urge you, before you clear out your life of those negative people, to look at your relationship with yourself first. It can really be remarkable what happens to your life and the people who walk into it when you finally have peace with yourself.

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