Sometimes our closest relationships can be the most toxic. Are yours?
She’s great with your kids but a terrible listener. She’s hilarious, but you wouldn’t trust her with your secrets. She’s the first one to call on your birthday but the last person you’d call in a crisis. We’re stuck with our families, warts and all. But we can choose our friends. Why choose someone who makes life harder?
Here are seven of the classic prototypes of toxicity ” the hidden good, the bad, and the ugly” and how to handle each one.
1. THE DRAINER
She is rarely in a good mood and always has a problem. Drainers always need help, seldom offer any, and never really want to feel better. If you greet her with “Hey, something really exciting happened to me last week!” she answers, “Must be nice. My week was absolutely awful.”
How to Detox: Some Drainers aren’t looking for sympathy; they believe the world is a hard place. If you tell her, “Yes, life sucks, but wallowing doesn’t help anyone,” she might realize you’re more than just a sponge for her woes.
2. THE ZAPPER
They love to bring you down with a single zinger. For example, you’re trying on jeans and say, “Wow! I never thought I’d fit into a size 6!” Your friend responds, “Everyone knows that the sizes here run big.” You’ve been zapped. Zappers are masters of the deflating yet seemingly inarguable statement. Call them on it and they’ll just say, “I didn’t mean it. Don’t be so sensitive.”
How to Detox: Every time a Zapper hurls something your way, say, “Well, now I don’t have to feel good about that anymore, do I?” She might stop zapping sooner than you’d expect. If that doesn’t work, avoid spending time alone with her or talking about anything private or personal. Or just break up. Some Zappers will never change, and they’re too hurtful to keep around if they don’t.
3. THE ALARMIST
If a Drainer is a slow bleed, an Alarmist gives you whiplash. “I have a problem,” she’s always saying. “What are you going to do about it?” Now, she may know that you’re panicked because your unemployment’s running out or that a large family of mice has made its home under your kitchen sink. But hers is a real emergency. She needs to borrow money or your best suit. And she’ll be by in five minutes.
How to Detox: Lynn, 27, an account manager for a national food company, gave her friend Michele a test: She told Michele she was overloaded with work and asked her not to call at the office, during dinner, after 9 P.M., or on weekends. Lynn soon found out that Michele had found someone else to be her 911 operator. To an Alarmist, a friend is a rescue unit, and when you cease to play this role, there is no further purpose in knowing you.
4. THE NARCISSIST
A Narcissist means no harm. She simply thinks the world revolves around her. “When I’m around my sister-in-law, I can’t get a word in edgewise,” says Karen, 35, a graphic designer. A Narcissist uses chatter to prove she’s likable; it doesn’t occur to her to accomplish that by listening. Unending talk is a sign of discomfort, a way to control a situation and create a wall so others can’t see you.
How to Detox: Try giving a Narcissist what she needs and maybe she’ll feel sufficiently safe to slow down. Tell her how great she looks and that everyone at work thinks she gave a brilliant presentation last week. This might distract her long enough so that she can discover the joys of listening.
5. THE GOSSIP HOUND
Most of us feel one of two things around chronic gossipers: guilt or suspicion. A Gossip Hound can make you laugh and feel as if you’re sharing something intimate. But then you start to notice that in the middle of this intimacy you’re encouraged to share some private information about yourself.
How to Detox: Be uninterested in the secondhand stories of others. The innocent gossip will get the message and may start opting for discretion. The dirt-disher be completely dismayed and will start gossiping about what a rigid, humorless goody-goody you turned out to be. Consider it a badge of honor.
6. THE TEASER
This friend is a performer, and often a witty and entertaining one. The only problem is that her primary focus is to make fun of and undermine others, usually in front of an audience. “I was trying to lose weight,” says Caroline, a 31-year-old assistant at an ad agency, “so at a dinner with a bunch of friends, I passed on dessert. But Melissa secretly ordered a huge sundae for me and spent the rest of the meal trying to get me to eat it. When I got annoyed, Melissa said she was only joking and that I was being a bad sport.”
How to Detox: A Teaser tries to undermine your efforts to do something for yourself by trying to make you self-conscious. Not a little of this behavior comes from envy. Melissa might have wanted to shed a few pounds herself and hated watching Caroline display the willpower she lacked. Don’t bother being sarcastic; you can’t tease a Teaser. Instead, you might say, “You’re lucky, you don’t have to watch your weight.” The Teaser will have no reason to retaliate and will have to defend herself from blushing instead.
7. THE MAN-KILLER
You’re having dinner with a friend. She’s charming, she’s a great listener, and she compliments your hair. Enter a man: your boss, your brother, your husband, the waiter and her eyelashes grow an inch, her giggle fills the room, and you disappear. And after the man has left (and you reappear), she pretends it never happened. The problem isn’t only the awkward feeling you get; it’s also that her behavior renders you insignificant.
How to Detox: “I had a lot of issues with my friend Emily and the men in my life,” says Jolene, a writer. I advised Jolene to call Emily in advance of an upcoming party and say, “Emily, I’m bringing a new guy, and I can always tell how worthy a man is by how he reacts to your flirting. So don’t forget to do it tonight, OK?” Emily never did it again.