Kristina Cary & Bea D'Amico | The Broadview
Elements of the popular film “Mean Girls” might not be so made-up after all as the exclusion and torment acted by the characters in the movie can be far too real for some teens experiencing similar struggles in reality.
“I thought that they were just going through something kind of tough, so I was trying to help them out. But then I started to realize that they were getting satisfaction out of making me feel bad about myself,” a student who attends a private school in San Francisco said. “It’s such a small grade, if one person doesn’t like you then it starts trickling through. You start getting excluded and you start getting shunned, and that really, really messed with me.”
The student said she was in a toxic friendship, characterized by negligence and exclusion, unreliability, defiance of trust and poor emotional support and leaving the victim feeling belittled by their friend.
Exclusion either in school or outside of school is a common indication of a toxic friendship, in which the perpetrator seeks out the victim’s company in one setting, but ignores them in another without a proper reason.
“Often it is neglect, and that might look like ‘We sit together everyday at lunch, and on the weekends I’m never invited to hang out with her’ or ‘We were together all weekend and I walked into school and she just pretends that I don’t exist,’” school counselor Annie Egan said. “That kind of eggshell feeling is often a symptom of something that’s not healthy, or it’s someone who is really just bringing you down versus bringing you up.”
Unhealthy friendships can also cause a depletion of energy that may affect a person’s academic standing, emotional state and other relationships.
“If you are walking on eggshells, you’re using a lot of energy so that they don’t break,” Egan said. “You really are kind of just on edge, and then you are not being your real, authentic self. Anytime that you can’t operate as your authentic self is very stressful, and it’s the stress piece that falls into lack of sleep, lack of motivation, a feeling of helplessness, lack of control, and irritability.”
Toxic friendship mistreatment can vary from exclusion, ignoring and subtle yet hurtful remarks, to even verbal abuse depending on how high the victim’s tolerance for maltreatment is.
“I stopped coming to school for a long time because she was affecting me so much, and overall it was just an exhausting experience,” the student said. “But I didn’t really notice a pattern until like five months later. It took me a little while to admit it to myself that they were being hurtful.”
Individuals with a fragile self esteem are especially susceptible to immersing themselves in and maintaining a toxic friendship as opposed to individuals with high self respect, even if the friend is exclusive and avoids interaction, according to psychologist Erin Graham.
“With people that feel insecure about themselves–or their self esteem has somehow been either damaged or not developed enough–it’s harder to know where our boundaries are or what we should accept,” Graham said. “People that have more self confidence in moments will know when someone has crossed a line and be able to speak up for themselves.”
While humans are psychologically wired to desire companionship, exclusion from one friend or multiple people can be particularly painful for the individual being excluded. Even if a friend is exclusive, cruel and selfish, the victim may prefer to remain in the friendship to maintain their social atmosphere, according to Graham.
“It took me a little while to admit it to myself that they were being hurtful.” – Anonymous
Although young children experience more toxic relationships during elementary and middle school, teens are often pressured to stay in them, as maintaining social status gains more importance in later years than in childhood. Since young children are not as reliant on friendships, they are affected less if the relationship turns toxic than teens are, according to Egan.
“It just switches really fast for them,” Egan said “They’re often not looking for their identity so much, the relationships are not quite as important. When you are in high school, the importance of your friendships becomes much more life or death. So when it feels life or death, when you’re being mistreated it has a much higher impact.”
In many cases, the person being mistreated does not realize the toxicity of the friendship due to a past pattern of unhealthy relationships that continues on in a cycle, making the individual used to their constant maltreatment and unable to break off the friendship, according to Graham.
“Our norms of how to feel like someone’s respecting you form from a very young age, and you start the pattern of what’s expected in your environment or how someone’s going to respond or react to you,” Graham said. “Often if people have early experiences from childhood, you’re more likely to expect that from people and not see the warning signs when people start having those negative behaviors.”
The tormentor in a toxic friendship often has experienced similar trauma or circumstances, such as their own exclusion or bullying, that they then exude to the friend they are mistreating, and may also lack a fully developed sense of empathy that would prevent them from hurting someone close to them.
“I’ve done a lot of research about the cycle of abuse, and often people who are toxic have been treated that way themselves,” Graham said. “So often people that are toxic have had hurtful circumstances that they haven’t learned to cope with, and try to get it out of them by hurting other people.”
But just like the concluding scene in “Mean Girls,” all toxic friendships can be defeated to achieve a better ending for the individual. Overcoming an unhealthy friendship is aided by taking steps to understand one’s self worth while removing any toxic friends and replacing them with healthy, positive companions to heal the wounds brought on by the relationship.
“It took a long time, but I started realizing that just sitting by myself wasn’t going to help the situation,” the student said. “I started reaching out to my old friends and surrounding myself with positive people. It doesn’t really matter their social status or whatever. I just wanted to be surrounded by positive people that made me feel good about myself.”