Jane* and I met in college and became fast friends, bonding over our shared love of Joni Mitchell. We’d spend hours listening to Ladies of the Canyon until half of the tracks skipped from repeated play. Over the years there were alarming instances of public meltdowns and vicious smears against people who fell out of her favor. She insulted my family members and systematically alienated mutual friends with her cruel and bizarre behavior. Once, she called up my oldest childhood friend and screamed at her over a joke she had made the night before.
Through it all I stuck with her, parroting back the same excuses I'd heard her make a million times: She had a bad childhood; my memory was flawed; she didn't mean it. And then, a year ago, she sent me a scathing accusatory email and that was it. I had been unceremoniously dumped after 15 years of friendship. My initial response was shock and sorrow, but within an hour I wasn't even angry. I felt light. I felt like I'd shed some outlandish and heavy piece of clothing, like a mud-soaked fur coat, and left it behind on the ground.
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I began to take inventory of my life, identifying and cutting out other toxic people. I raised the bar. I set up boundaries and enforced them. I learned what I valued in friends—integrity, compassion and open-mindedness—and what I wouldn't tolerate—cruelty, selfishness, and manipulative tendencies. And I started to feel a lot better.
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Toxic people are bad for your health
Parting ways with toxic “friends” is actually important for your emotional and physical well being, says Rebecca Aquilina Bala, a psychologist for the Western New York Developmental Disabilities State Operations and Offices (DDSO). It all comes down to stress, since bridging the toxic person's behavior with your beliefs about them requires some serious mental gymnastics. And that stress takes a real toll on your mental and physical health: You might feel irritable or lethargic, or end up with chronic headaches or even chest pain.
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Happily, distancing yourself from a toxic person has exactly the opposite effect. “Making the decision to remove yourself from a toxic relationship at first may bring feelings of loss and guilt, but over time it brings feelings of confidence as you begin to realize you're happier, and eventually you feel a sense of freedom,” Bala says.
How to know if someone is toxic? Bala’s litmus test is to simply see how they make you feel. “When even thinking about the toxic individual is exhausting, it is time to take a giant step back,” she says. (Here are the 6 signs it's time to break up with a friend.)
Stacy Brookman, a resilience and life storytelling expert who was married to a sociopath, is also very attuned to the hallmarks of toxic relationships. "If you start drifting away from other friends, doubting yourself, have a hard time making decisions, and often make excuses for that person's behavior, you may be in a toxic relationship," she says.
How to end a toxic relationship
Bala and Brookman agree that once you've identified a toxic relationship you should break contact, but toxic people will often attempt to hold you emotionally hostage with grandiose proclamations, especially when they feel you pulling away.
Although my old friend Jane did me the favor of cutting ties, with others I've had to do more of the heavy lifting. Breaking up—even with a friend—is never easy, and it can be especially tricky when dealing with a toxic person. Bala suggests meeting a “neutral, public place,” and advises taking a firm and empathetic approach. “Even if it is difficult, honesty is the best policy,” she says. “Try to be friendly and compassionate, but keep it brief and to the point.”
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Brookman also advises that you make a clean, cordial break. She highlights the importance of establishing and enforcing boundaries throughout the encounter, noting that toxic people often get irritated when they encounter resistance. "Once you stop playing their game, they will usually take their toys and move on," she says.
After you've ended a toxic relationship, self-care is critical. "Traumatic memories, like the ones formed during stressful times with a toxic person, are actually stored in a different part of your brain than regular memories. These traumatic memories stay with you and continue to hurt you even after the relationship is gone," Brookman says.
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"The loss of a close relationship, toxic or not, is still an enormous loss," says Bala. To help work through the trauma, she emphasizes the importance of relying on other friends and families during this difficult time. “Lean on your support system and surround yourself with positive individuals who make you feel great about yourself. It will serve as a reminder of what qualities and resulting feelings you should be seeking in healthy relationships.”
Bala also suggests forging some new beginnings by experimenting with a new hobby or activity, perhaps a therapeutic one like yoga or guided meditation. Whatever you choose, "it should not be something that was previously shared or experienced with the toxic individual," she says.
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If you're having a lot of trouble moving on, consider processing the situation with a professional. “Talk therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy can be very helpful in processing loss and guiding the healing process,” Bala says. Most importantly, be kind to yourself. (Here, the 7 types of friends every woman needs in her life.)
This year, take stock of your social circle. If you see signs of toxic behavior, don't be afraid to set strict boundaries or end relationships. Your mental and physical health will thank you, and you'll have time to devote to people who deserve your time and attention.
The article The Importance Of Eliminating Toxic People—And How To Do It originally appeared on Prevention.