Dear toxic (former) friend,
There were moments when we say to ourselves...
You're so stupid.
What an epic fail.
The occasional self-disparagement helps to temper the ego, arrogance and over-confidence. When the inner voice is filled with self-doubt and criticism, it increases anxiety, promotes indecision and prevents one from taking action. This inner voice becomes a limiting belief and is a possible sign of low self-esteem.
Recently, my career coach pointed out on my Strength Profile that I had a low score on my self-esteem. On a separate occasion, my counsellor mentioned that my low self-esteem attracts toxic people and difficulties into my life.
This news was shocking. I've done many things in life and am confident in taking on new challenges. My having low self-esteem sounded impossible.
How could I have low self-esteem?
Soon after, I learned that self-esteem is more than confidence. Self-esteem and confidence are not the same things. Confidence is the belief in oneself (Garant, et al., 1995), which is the belief that one can meet life's challenges and take necessary action to overcome them and succeed.
While one can have confidence, self-esteem requires more. Self-esteem is the evaluation of one's worth or value (Rosenberg, 2015). In other words, the opinion we have of ourselves. A person with high self-esteem tend to
- hold a positive attitude of themselves,
- view themselves as worthy and respectful,
- believe they possess good qualities,
- and are generally satisfied with themselves.
Low self-esteem, however, often develops in childhood. While growing up, we receive messages from our family, community and the media. Negative statements such as "You're not good enough" often stays with us into our adulthood. These negative messages may come from difficulties in living up to others' expectations. It can also come from the failure to live up to your own expectations.
One of the many difficulties with low self-esteem is attracting toxic and emotionally manipulative people. According to my counsellor, when these people see weaknesses and low self-esteem, they will dominate, control and overpower others. This is to make themselves feel good, boost their ego and increase their sense of power.
Unfortunately, I was in a toxic friendship and found it difficult to leave. Like the housewives who abuse their maids or violent partners abusing their spouses, I was constantly attacked and accused of being "evil", and was labelled as the source of all the negativity.
Even though I spoke to reason, offered alternative perspectives and solutions, any say from me was ignored, disparaged and dismissed. My voice was silenced.
Because I had low self-esteem, I believed all the accusations against me. Receiving a negative "message" from the toxic friend had led me down a spiral of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. It felt like I couldn't escape.
Growing up, I've encountered many similar friendships. This recent incident reminded me that I had not learned my lesson. Through this, I finally understood why maids couldn't escape their abusive employers or why abused spouses ran back to their violent partners.
Know your boundaries
Fortunately, my counsellor and a few good friends helped me out from this emotionally manipulative situation. My counsellor advised two things. One is to be assertive by stating clearly what I want. Two, to draw boundaries by knowing what is not acceptable behaviour.
While breaking off the toxic friendship took time and courage, I immediately wrote a list of unacceptable behaviour. This list is based on personal experiences and partially inspired by Matthew Hussey's video on Toxic People.
- People who dominate conversations.
- People who do not listen and are only interested in their own opinions.
- People who dismiss my opinions through criticism or by ignoring me.
- People who force their opinion onto others.
- People who treat that everything I say or do is an attack on them.
- People jump to conclusions without hearing multiple perspectives or the whole story.
- People who (humble) brag about themselves and expect adoration.
- People who make social comparisons with the purpose of "one-upping" the other in their material or social status.
- People who are uncomfortable and even attack my success.
- People who make me the root of all evil in any situation.
- People who do not respect my life choices. They may disagree with my choice, but at least respect and wish me well.
- People who expect reciprocation of unsolicited generosity. This might sound odd, but I encountered people who unexpectedly give things for free and demand something more in return afterwards. An emotionally manipulative tactic.
- People who inflict physical harm and emotional or psychological pain on myself and my loved ones.
As I continue to meet different people and encounter different situations in life, this list will continue to grow and evolve.
Listen and observe your internal voice.
Wise friends have imparted helpful advice in raising my self-esteem and managing my anxieties. Here is an excerpt of two of the most valuable pieces of advice received.
The main thing is to begin by really listening to your internal voice, which you use to talk to yourself inside your head. Listen to it as if you are standing back from it a little like you have taken one step back. And you hear what you are saying to yourself without automatically believing it or taking it as valid or real. So you take on the role of 'observer' of your own mind, which gives you some space in there.
When you take on the role of 'observer', it gives you the space to challenge the thoughts that come up instead of automatically going with them and taking them as true. It also slows down the whole internal voice, which also helps you make some space and challenge the thoughts.
Write down your thoughts.
Writing the thoughts down helps too because it gets them outside your head, so it releases them. It is also harder to take them seriously when you see them written down.
As you do these things, day by day, you will begin to notice that perhaps the most dramatic voice in your head is something that you don't need to listen to. So you just stop taking that voice seriously.
Life is but a series of lessons.
Following the advice, I can clearly see who can potentially be toxic, prevent further interaction and protect myself from future harm and drama. Also, I've become more assertive in demanding the kinds of behaviour I expect from others, which is helpful to set boundaries with others.
What if people don't like me if I assert my boundaries?
Then it's ok. You know they don't respect you, and it's better not to be friends. Besides, if someone you care for tells you what they need and what works for them, you'll respect it and still stay friends with them, right? Why expect any less from your friends? My counsellor.
Life is but a series of lessons. There is more to learn and much to grow, especially when we least expect it.