As a Child
In my life, I wish I could say that I have never experienced toxic people or situations. However, that certainly would not be true.
When I was eight years old, I remember encountering my first unhealthy relationship. I was playing on the playground with my friends, when my supposed “best friend’s friend,” came and broke up our friendship for me.
“She doesn’t want to be your friend anymore,” the blonde snapped, flipping her hair as she laughed sinisterly.
“Then why doesn’t she tell me that herself?” I questioned, too young to understand what was really going on.
Peering through the oasis of mingled children, I looked for my best friend. We locked eyes.
She couldn’t really mean this, right? I asked myself.
She could see my hurt.
She saw what was happening.
And she turned away.
Deep down, I knew the girl only wanted to be my friend because she said I was smart. I helped her with homework, and the number of kids who pretended to have a genuine interest in me in exchange for help with homework only continued to grow.
I lost dozens of “friends” over those years… if that is what you would even call them. But the reality was, those relationships were toxic. They were full of people who merely wanted to use me rather than care about me. They were one-sided, selfish, and cruel.
As a Young Adult
At fourteen, I began to see the same toxic relationships in my own home.
I would see the screaming matches and hear the slamming doors of my parents’ marriage breaking.
I would grow numb to my half sibling’s countless affairs in drugs, alcohol, abuse, and theft.
I would feel the sting of the children-turned-young-adults who still wanted to use me for my intelligence.
And I got to a point where I didn’t care if I was used, or it wasn’t right, because I so desperately wanted someone, anyone, to be my friend and stay, even if they were toxic.
By the time I reached college, I had learned the hard way that I would no longer fight for people to be in my life. If they wanted to stay, they could, and if they did not, then, of course, they were free to leave.
Over five years, I met hundreds of students. Sometimes I had small friend groups, and sometimes I had large ones. I still struggled to not go out of my way for people who never deserved that commitment in the first place. I often felt alone.
But then one day, I visited my Grandma Memo who always gave advice like salt and sugar. She was sweet, but her words always packed a powerful punch. I learned to know the difference between salt and sugar not only in my baking but in my friendships.
She taught me how to be myself.
She taught me how to rely on Jesus for my worth.
She taught me three ways to set healthy boundaries between myself and others that I am blessed to share today:
Three Ways to Set Healthy Boundaries
So what should you do if you have a toxic person in your life? Do you cut them out immediately, or just suck it up, buttercup?
When faced with toxic relationships of any kind, it can be difficult to discern what we should and should not do. According to my grandma, however, the best thing we can do is determine the circumstances (or D-T-C).
1. Distance Yourself (as needed)
For me, it was important to remove myself from friends who were using me for homework. If you feel that anyone is violating your boundaries, physically, mentally, socially, emotionally, relationally, spiritually, you name it, it is often best to physically distance or remove yourself.
In my adult life, I have continued to experience messy and toxic relationships with people who do not deserve the time and energy it takes to interact with them. As 1 Corinthians 15:33 notes, “Do not be deceived: Bad company ruins good morals” (ESV). While it is still important to pray for these people, it is also crucial that we protect ourselves and our mental health.
Creating physical space between you and another person, whether that be virtually, emotionally, or relationally, can be difficult. It is not always easy to walk away from those who hurt you. But as Paul writes in Romans 16:17-18, “I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive” (ESV). Sometimes, it is best to walk away rather than engage in conversations that will only breed death, pain, and sorrow. “Make no friendship with a man given to anger, nor go with a wrathful man, lest you learn his ways and entangle yourself in a snare” (Proverbs 22:24-25, ESV). “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20, ESV).
2. Talk to Someone You Trust (Preferably a Counselor or Christian Leader)
While airing our dirty laundry is not preferred, and a gentle and humble spirit is one that Christ asks of us, it is crucial that when you deal with toxic people, you share your concerns with someone you trust. As Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 of the New International Version notes, “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-10, NIV).
For myself, I never liked telling other people about my issues because I felt like it was gossip. Over the years, however, I have learned that it is not gossip when your heart is genuinely seeking advice and not attention to what you are sharing. Galatians 6:2 pens it this way: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (NIV). Talking to those you trust, like a spiritual mentor, close friend, or older relative is always wise. These people not only have experiences that can help them to relate to your situation but wisdom and grace.
In addition, I have found that Christian counseling is extremely beneficial when dealing with both toxic people and toxic relationships. CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, has radically transformed my life and how I see it. I am able to re-frame thoughts, understand situations, and seek spirit-filled tools that help to manage my symptoms. When it comes to toxic issues, counseling has taught me what to be aware of how to deal with all types of people and situations and prepared me for any brassy circumstance.
3. Communicate Clearly
Finally, if you have made space, and talked to someone your trust, it is time to make sure that you are communicating clearly with those who have hurt you. Sometimes, this takes wise discernment, knowledge, and understanding. Many people will know that they have hurt you, for example, and will not care at all. On the flip side, however, many people will not know that you are hurting unless you tell them.
If you are in a toxic relationship of any kind and feel that telling the person they have hurt you will help heal the situation, then, by all means, do so. Hurt feelings and miscommunication breed toxic feelings and relationships all the time. We don’t know what we don’t know. However, if it is clear that speaking this way will only make matters worse, then it may be time to get a third-party involved.
Many times in my life, I have used all three of these techniques, but not without the grace, wisdom, and guidance of the Lord. I have walked away from toxic friendships, but I have also gotten third-party people involved and witnessed God heal issues I never thought could be restored. No matter what type of issue you are dealing with today, remember to surrender it to the Lord’s discretion and leading. As 1 Peter 5:6-7 writes, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (ESV).
Seek Help, Today
Allowing God the freedom, openness, and opportunity to move in your relationships can be scary. But He knows better than anyone the relationships you do and do not deserve in your life. And all He asks of you is to trust Him along that path to discernment.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/KatarzynaBialasiewicz