Toxic Friendships: What It Feels Like to Finally Be Free

I think the majority of people have experienced at least one toxic friendship by the time they’re 18, or at least a friendship that ended on a bad note. I’ve had more than my fair share of friendships which I would deem toxic, all before I even got to college. I used to think that I was the problem, somehow causing disagreements, fights, and inevitably the end of what started as a great relationship. Eventually, I figured out that bad friendships are a part of life and not because of something I was doing.

The first friend I made in middle school ended up being my biggest bully, someone I still harbor anxiety toward to this day. This was someone I thought I could trust. For the purpose of this article, we will call her Bailey. The friendship started off the same way most do. I liked Bailey’s shoes, she liked my earrings. We liked similar music, knew some of the same people, and generally liked each other. I quickly became attached to her, and she became my best friend. I think the friendship stayed relatively intact until halfway through the year when she started showing her true colors. She knew I was introverted, shy, and had difficulty standing up for myself. Bailey had observed my reactions to people putting me down and realized she could do the same to me without any repercussions. She started small, almost as if she was testing my limits. She made little comments about boys I liked, saying they wouldn’t go for me, but they might go for her. She would ask the boys on the bus to rate the girls in order of prettiness and would rub my shoulder after they said my name prior to naming her the prettiest. In her eyes, I would never be as good as she was. I knew I didn’t like her comments, but I put up with them because I genuinely thought she was a good friend. The comments grew until she was calling me fat and manly, pushing me to try to change my appearance and personality. It wasn’t until my birthday party in March that I realized how toxic she was. I was telling my friends about the girls I was inviting from my elementary school and she asked if they were pretty. I didn’t understand why that mattered. I later realized it mattered because Bailey wanted to be the prettiest of the group. It was common for her to phase out girls based on appearance, whether they were “too ugly” or prettier than her. She transferred after the first year and I thought I was free but as it turned out, I wasn’t.

I ended up going to a week long summer camp with Bailey the year after she left. I had put a lot of work into becoming more assertive during seventh grade. That all went down the drain when I saw her again. She started out by being nice to me, like she had before. In a much more condensed period of time, she went through all of the motions of our previous friendship. The week ended with me feeling mentally crippled by her disgusting comments. Since then, I have briefly seen her at joint school events, the mall, and various other spots. I’m still working on putting myself back together after she broke me down, but I’ve learned from her that no one else is responsible for standing up for me. If I need something, I need to be assertive. That’s something I attempted to practice throughout high school.

I chose to go to a high school with only a few people from my middle school. I wanted to expand my horizons to include new people, and that’s what I got. Again, my friendships started strong, but gradually they became more and more exhausting. I was ridiculed for never having tried specific candy bars, not enjoying genres of movies,and listening to music they didn’t know. Although I tried to stand up for myself, I fell back into old habits. I allowed them to make degrading comments about my academics without standing up for myself. Again, I was beaten down mentally by people who I considered to be friends. Two years into the friendships, I sent a message to our group chat explaining that I needed a break from everyone. As it turns out, this was an excellent decision. Only two out of the ten people in the group chat messaged me asking if there was anything they could do, if they were the problem, or if I was okay. The two who messaged me had no part in my decision to distance myself. Over my junior year, with lots of effort, I rebuilt those other friendships into more positive ones, but also made new friends along the way. One of these new friends had had similar experiences to me. We’ll call her Stephanie. 

Stephanie’s friends had talked about her behind her back, and she had gone through friendships like a drag queen goes through highlighter. Our friendship moved fast, considering it really grew in senior year and we hadn’t particularly liked each other the previous three years. She gave me confidence because of her general attitude of not caring what others thought. However, the way she treated others wasn’t kind and she began to treat me poorly as well. During our brief friendship, I was called stupid, annoying, and racist, repeatedly ignored and denied, and altogether treated like I wasn’t a human being. The backhanded comments hurt, but not as much as when Bailey had said them. This time, I knew early on what was happening. This girl wasn’t as confident as she portrayed herself to be. She lacked the ability to build herself up without putting others down. I slowly began to phase her out after it became clear at senior prom that she wasn’t going to change. The whole night was filled with complaints and insults pointed towards the venue, the food, the people, the music, and anything else she felt wasn’t up to par. Eventually, I left her sitting at the table and had an amazing time. Walking away was the most freeing thing I had experienced. That night I decided I was done being friends with people who brought me down.

After I graduated, I unfollowed or blocked everyone who I didn’t feel the need to talk to anymore. Anyone who had hurt me and shamed me was blocked. Anyone who only pretended to be my friend when their real friends weren’t around was unfollowed. Through this process of elimination, I realized how much effort I had been putting into so many of my friendships. None of them ever messaged me first and they continued to not message me after I stopped. 

I’m not grateful for the pain these people put me through, but I’m grateful for what I was able to learn about myself through it all. The most important thing I’ve learned is that I deserve better. No one deserves to be treated the way these “friends” treated me. I deserve better, and I owe it to myself to find friends who respect me and my opinions. Also important, I’ve learned when to stand up for myself. I’m not an expert yet, as it’s a work in progress, but with some time to work myself up to it, I’m finally able to advocate for my needs. The detrimental effects I allowed these people to have on my mental health are not something I want to experience again or something I will allow. When I left for college, I left behind the girl who was too scared to fight for what she needed. In order to be truly independent I needed to be my own spokesperson, and so far, that’s been a promise I have been able to keep for myself.

 

​*For the purposes of this article, any names mentioned are fictitious, though the people are real.