I’m so lucky to have Renée Schuls-Jacobson as my March “Hobbies and Habits” guest blogger. In case you’re new to the series, the objective is to try adding something positive to your life in 2012 or to let go of something that’s bringing you down. Today, Renée reflects on how she distanced herself from a toxic friend.
Hopefully you discovered Renée’s fantastic blog, Lessons From Teachers and Twits, last week when I was her guest. But if you didn’t, then you’re in for a treat. Renée, a teacher for 20 years, tells it like it is. A writer who tackles many topics, she always makes me think, and she often makes me laugh. Today’s post is on the serious side, so make sure to check out her blog for the full Renée experience.
Here she is!
Once, at a get-together, I tried to be mindful that she’d had a newborn baby. I’d made pretty nametags and
purposefully positioned Teri so that she would have easy access to the bassinette. I figured if her littlun needed attention, she could get up without having to squeeze past eleventeen-bajillion people.
“Nice to seat us so far away,” she complained. “I see where we rank.”
I felt undone by her sarcasm and after she had departed without saying goodbye for the umpteenth time, I burst into tears. “Why does she hate me?” My husband shrugged and told me to let it roll off my back.
For decades, Teri had sneered at gifts I’d carefully selected. While a guest in my home, she’d criticized my food: my soup was alternately “too salty” and then it was “tasteless.” Once, I actually called her out on the way she treated me and she began to cry big, gloppy tears.
Astoundingly, everyone got mad at me for making Teri sad.
Let it roll off my back? I’d been trying that for years and it wasn’t working.
Eventually, things got so uncomfortable that I found myself sitting with a therapist, trying to deconstruct the weird dysfunctional dance that I was doing with Teri.
“What would happen if you didn’t attend functions if you knew she would be there?” Doc asked.
I contemplated that.
“You mean, like, avoid her?”
“I mean minimize contact; otherwise, you are setting yourself up to feel awful. Why would you do that?”
I thought about that one. Why would I do that? Why had I been doing that? I wondered, feeling limp like the blue sweater that hung on the back of Doc’s door.
Doc talked about how sometimes it is necessary to minimize unpleasant situations. “I know I don’t like cold weather, so I try to get to Florida as often as I can in the winter,” he said. “If someone were to invite me to Siberia, I wouldn’t go because I know I’d be setting myself for a bad time.”
Doc asked me to make a list of things that I really didn’t enjoy doing, but felt obligated to do. Like a good girl, I did my homework, and together, we looked at the list at our next session. Doc explained how everyone has to do some unpleasant things. For example, if I like to have clean underwear, I need to do laundry.
But Doc talked about minimizing things that he considered optional.
I had never heard of this concept before; I honestly thought that a person had to do everything he or she had been asked to do and do it without complaint. Doc said I could be more selective. He taught me about toxic people: folks who, through their actions or words, either intentionally or unintentionally, make others feel miserable. That was a new concept to me, too. Doc suggested it was time to set better boundaries to protect myself. And he taught me to stop looking for friends and family members to protect me from Teri.
“She’s been acting like this for decades,” he said. “No one is going to take your side, so you’ve got to stop trying to fix her.”
So I tried the minimizing thing.
At first, it felt weird. Like I was a bad for not going to every get-together. But gradually I could see how much better I felt by not having to regularly interact with Teri.
Do I always avoid functions when I know Teri will be in attendance? No. But I have learned that if I am feeling fragile it is better to tell my husband I think it would be best if he goes it alone. Does my husband like this arrangement? I doubt it. I’m sure he wishes we could all just get along. But I can’t worry about that. That’s his wish. And I can’t control what he wants. I only know that I have to have some serious invisible bubble-suit armor on in order to prepare myself for what really amounts to abusive behavior that no one else wants to address or correct.
Daryl Hall & John Oats once sang: “I can’t go for that.” (No can do.) These days I’d rather make myself scarce than deal with emotional vampires like Teri who seek to sap me of my energy and suck me dry.
What strategies have you found to be effective when dealing with toxic people?