Periodically, I read posts by friends and strangers about cutting “toxic” friends out of our lives or how to deal with “difficult” people. I envision people all over the world making lists—perhaps with the aid of smartphone apps—of the toxic friends and difficult people they need to avoid for their own mental wellbeing.
I’m pretty sure I’m on some of those lists.
I know I have to be on at least a few “toxic friends and difficult people” lists because many days, I make my own list of people I’d be best to avoid.
Because let’s face it: I can be really difficult.
Like, I don’t like talking on the phone so I do everything I can via e-mail, but my e-mails are always excessively long and include way more details, asides, and parentheticals than is conducive to conveying my meaning. That’s annoying. And sometimes passive-aggressive.
I’m also constantly optimistic that things will blow over without me needing to feel the discomfort of actual confrontation. I avoid conflict for so long that when I finally do say something, it’s like I’ve sprung the whole shebang on the unsuspecting person.
Another difficult thing about me is that I like having just one or two close friends, but I’m so socially inept that I end up clinging limpet-like to poor people who are just trying to be friendly. And because who knows when I’m going to move out of state again, I feel a need to make friends fast. This sense of urgency just exacerbates this barnacling tendency.
But, contrarily, I’m suspicious of anyone who likes me too much. In high school, it was really bad. If someone expressed an interest in me—especially a romantic interest, but sometimes even just a close-friendship interest—I cut and run. I did my best to be invisible to that person hoping they would forget I existed. I’ve gotten better in the last twenty years, but that may be in part because it’s easier to be invisible as a stay-at-home mom so I don’t have to work as hard to disappear as I did when I was as a high school student .
And if someone does succeed in becoming my close friend, they get the reward of dealing with my fierce and inexplicable bad moods. I’ve tried to find a physical, emotional, or climatic cause for my days-long bad moods hoping to find a cure for them, but to no avail. I just sometimes, without warning, become a total jerk. I can see it happening, but I feel powerless to stop it.
And then there’s my flippant attitude about gifts. I know at least a couple of my friends have been hurt when they’ve given me a gift and then found it just a few months later at the thrift store. (Man, I really am a jerk…)
But I think that everyone’s toxic sometimes. (Maybe not the Dalai Lama. But everyone else.) Seeing the ways in which I’m toxic gives me a fair amount of empathy for other people who might be considered toxic. There are still people I avoid—people who are particularly creepy or consistently belligerent or holding firearms—but there are very few people I consider it necessary to avoid all the time.
Being around another person is not like being exposed to nuclear waste. Unlike with radioisotopes, with other people I can—to a point—control how much I’m affected by whatever vibes they’re radiating.
I think, maybe they’re just having a bad day. Maybe they’re feeling as awkward as I am and are overcompensating. Maybe there’s something really big going on for them that they aren’t talking about but that is coming through anyway. If all else fails, I think of them as the baby they once were; that’s almost sure to inspire gentle feelings in me and it helps remind me just how little power I need to let them have over me.
I’ve not met anyone who’s difficult all the time. They might always be difficult for me, but there’s always someone who loves them and whom they love.
Or maybe I just feel this way because it’s pragmatic. Most social interactions carry a much higher price than they do a pay-out for me, and although I need to find some way to not be a hermit, being on people’s toxic lists does help decrease the number of people with whom I need to interact. It saves me from making my own toxic list.
and especially for my spouse and children: