Your Radar’s Not Broken, You Know When Someone’s Bad for You

We feel so broken sometimes.  So put upon.  So tired.  Must we always have to re-do, do-over, re-jigger, and work so, so hard to have a normal, right, life?

Depends on how you look at it.

The un-chosen, poorly-tuned, oblivious life isn’t very rewarding, so in that sense the oh-so-hard work is worth it.  And, that’s life.  If you want things (happiness, to be the big boss, a bigger salary, to live in a sun-drenched state), you will need to align yourself with the universe in such a way that you’re sending/receiving “I’m ready and willing and open” signals in order for the good fortune to come (‘good fortune’ as you define it, not necessarily ‘fortune,’ but a good harvest, so to speak).  And in order to align yourself and your wishes with the universe, you have to take risks, change, and say No, thanks. ”Thanks for the gown, ring, and ride in your G6, but this isn’t feeling right for me.”

If you don’t say good-bye to an ill-match, how can you be available to say Hello to a glove-like fitting friend, business partner, romantic partner, manager, livelihood, neighborhood, etc.?

(We’re all pretending that I’ve posted recently, right?)

A friend shared this SF Gate columnist’s article, “Hello I Find You Perfectly Toxic” with me, and I thought of all of us.

Of beginnings, Morford writes:

You take that person to dinner, loan him or her a copy of “Jitterbug Perfume,” you hang out after work, you talk about the thrum and pulse of time, sex, dim sum, the universe. It doesn’t really matter.

What matters is what comes next. You exit said person’s company and you go home, sit down, take a breath, gaze inward and check the gauges. You ask yourself: How do I feel?

I thought of how far down the line we get in situations (being people who characteristically commit to a course of action, never mind its obvious consequences) and how we commit to situations that we actually find toxic.  Our commitment defies reason, but we do it.  What I like about Mark Morford’s piece is that he neatly parses the inner information we have from the way in which we react to the inner data. It’s a two-part deal:  there’s the data, then our actions.  For example, we may very well be able to sense in ourselves that we don’t feel terribly good after spending time with someone, but we don’t necessarily act on that information.

Why don’t we?  It’s not that our toxicity radar is broken.  (You’re not broken, by the way.  You got a rough start, had emotional disadvantages, yes, but you’re not broken.)  Our toxicity radars are in great working order.  No batteries required.  (Practice, yes. This radar is a muscle.)  It’s our reaction to the radar’s information that’s problematic for us.  (And, clearly, if you read the guy’s article (do — it’s short) you’ll see you’re not alone, very much not alone, and even Normal people have issues listening to their gut.) One reason for this is because people who grow up in chaos (whether due to alcoholic, narcissistic or otherwise non-present, inconsistent emotional children of parents) tend to be very Loyal.  Our loyalty defies reason, but–and here’s the key:  reason is irrelevant to perceived emotional safety.  And when you grow up being and feeling what Mommy or Daddy or Auntie need you to be in order to manage their emotional handicaps, you exercise the loyalty muscle till it is Country Strong. When our loyalty muscle is stronger than our radar reader, we’re pretty immobile.  This is why we’re “loyal where loyalty is undeserved” as I’ve written about in past posts.

There’s also the irony of civilized humans loathing change.  We draw away from it (but obsess about it in others–watch how much you discuss the change around you).  While humans are defined by change, we choose perceived safety over natural change.  We rationalize.  (Another word for that is denial.)  We go, “Hmm. I don’t think I like this person, but she doesn’t really have any friends…”  Or, “I dread time with my mother, but it’s the only way I get time with my sister.”

You know the drill.

Of our radar-reading Morford writes:

So we avoid. We complicate, make things messier, hang out in comfy numbness, let the mind get in the way and start asking all manner of unnecessary and stupid questions. What sort of energy are you speaking of? What do you mean depleted? Do you mean use this test with everyone? All the time?

If it’ll help you muster the courage to cut loose, tell yourself:

You don’t owe people your time
Life is short
It’s not your job to save someone
They’ll find other friends
Change appears scary, but actually feels very good
People won’t actually yell at you
You won’t be alone
New friends and new family-like people will come into your life
A chosen life is what you’re meant for, deserve, and must seize
Your courage will build upon itself

Your inner sense of what feels good and what feels bad is intact.  Listen to it.  Trust it.  Hearing it isn’t what your parents wanted you to know how to do–but, who’s in charge now?

It’s your turn now.

-Be kind to yourself.




  1. Jane Eichner says:

    Recently got out of a toxic friendship, and, guess what? I didn’t implode! I’m actually ok…and feeling kinda proud of myself for having had the courage to do it. I like what you said above about not being “broken.” We’re hurt, but hurts can heal. Gives us all hope.:)

  2. amy eden says:

    Hey Jane, that’s awesome. How did you know the friendship was toxic, what were the cues? Yeay for you!

  3. Jane Eichner says:

    I was always walking on egg shells around her. Never knew when she might get angry over some perceived slight. I guess, on some level, I was re-creating elements of my chaotic childhood by being friends with her; my mom was an unpredictable, critical person too. But now I’m trying to choose healthy folks for friends. Learning to be kind to myself! :)

  4. amy eden says:

    That must have been no fun, but great that you realized it. When I look at most of my friendships, I can see that the friend and I were drawn together in ways that were completely subconscious at the time, and while a lot of them have turned out to be mutually nurturing and supportive and fun, there was one that I ended when I realized that the level of negativity and criticism was too great. I felt horrible about ending it, because it was right after the friend had done me an incredible favor. And we’d been friends a few years. But, still, the favor was undercut by passive-aggressive vibes. And those vibes…made something click, or snap! It was that final instance that somehow pinged all the previous instances and I suddenly saw the historical pattern between us, or…in me.

  5. Jane Eichner says:

    Good for you! It was a similar sitch with me. That one, final instance when something went ‘click.’ If I might ask, how did you end it? Also, how did she take it?

  6. amy eden says:

    I’m not sure if she ended it, or if I did, actually!
    Despite my frustration toward her impatience, criticism, controlling, and moodiness, I valued the friendship (as a Loyal adult child!) I called a couple times and left voice mails. She returned my calls, but not quickly and her voice messages were very…nice…very formal. And I thought, “What’s going on here?”
    I had a decision to make – call her and find out why she was being distant (mad?) and resolve it, invest in us, or… not. And I realized that I didn’t want to call and find out — I just wanted out.
    So I just never called again. And the feeling must have been mutual, because she didn’t call again either.

  7. Ali says:

    This post really resonatedwith me, Amy. I recently ended a friendship with someone because I realized that she needed to control every aspect of our friendship – how often we met up (no more than once a month) where we met (she always insisted on coming into San Francisco even though I would have been happy to take the ferry to Larkspur for a change) what time we met, how long our meeting was for, and how we engaged during our meetingd (she insisted on taking the first half of the meeting to talk about my stuff and the second half to talk about hers. She never wanted to share a meal (always eating first) and even controlled how we communicated between meetings (no phone calls or texting – which on more than one occasion created problems for me if I arrived early or was running late because she wouldn’t scheck her phone for messages.

    And though she’s been a very supportive friend when we have met up, I found she seemed to want to keep the conversation always around my problems so she could ‘help’ me – she’s an ACoA and I come from a disfunctional family. I feel a bit guilty about wanting to end the relationship because she’s the closest thing to a really nurturing friend that I’ve ever had but at the same time the friendship feels too superficial now because she really won’t allow herself to be at all spontaneous and it feels like she can’t really trust me, even after more than a year. And frankly, I’m now feeling controlled by her – even though she delivers her manipulativeness with smiles and hugs.

    As someone from a disfunctional family I’ve done a lot of work on myself and really would love some women friends who can meet me half way in friendship. How do you deal with someone who is “all boundaries”?

    • Amy Eden says:

      Sounds like she lives in her own personal box, my goodness. Wow. Some people are so uncomfortable with themselves that they’re too guarded to let go and be spontaneous – she must have had a lot of painful, frightening events happen as a child. But that’s not your fault, of course. And not hers, either.
      This is a really great description of a friendship. I can relate to it. (Sometimes I think that intimate/sexual/committed relationships are the final frontier–the final mountain peak to climb for us as ACoAs–but then I think, no, no, it’s friendships; they’re surprisingly tricky for ACoAs!) In friendships we can get away much more easily with being at a remove, arm’s length, than we can in an sexual/committed/intimate relationship — and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
      You’re aware of her boundaries, what she wants and doesn’t want — now the question is, what do you want? Do you want to meet up with her in Marin every other meeting? Do you want to share a meal together? Do you want to hear more about her life than discuss yours…? What do you need from this friendship? Once you figure out what you’d like to do, you can formulate how to ask for that. And it’ll help you decide whether not getting that thing you need is a deal-breaker (you sound clear on not liking how it is, what you don’t want – so what you do want is the next step).
      She’s controlling, yes, but she’s not controlling you, rather she’s controlling her environment — but, it feels like she’s attempting to control you. I’m saying this because, for me, I have to work at translating “being” controlled into “they’re a person who needs to control” in order to help myself get a foothold on dis-engaging from the feeling of being controlled (so that I can act rather than just be stuck in reaction mode). I have a friend that has a need to control things in a similar way to your friend–all the “where” we meet, making the decisions about the mechanics and architecture of what we do. However, while that’s the case, she knows it and a great many times we do things that are “my” plan/logistics for us. And she goes deep and personal in terms of our closeness. She doesn’t attempt to make suggestions that reassemble the plans I suggested (but I once lived with that very difficult brand of controlling person).
      So, do you suggest alternate activities, and greater frequency? If you do, does she manipulate your suggestions?
      Do you want this friendship? It sounds like it’s a friendship that isn’t meeting your needs. And it sounds like your instincts are telling you that even if you campaigned to entice her out of her box and onto your playing field a bit, to become closer, that you’d just get resistance and b.s.
      So, maybe this is a take it or leave it crossroads in your friendship? If you can’t accept the one-leggedness of the friendship and accept that this is ‘that friend who’s more cardboard than flesh and whom I probably can’t count on to be there for me in my time of need,’ then….you might not be getting your needs met — and that’s OK. It is what it is. And the next move…is yours to take.
      Thanks for this really great note! :-)

  8. Ali says:

    All good points Amy. At the beginning of our friendship I did make suggestions as to getting together and what we might do – sometimes it’s just nice to spend an afternoon hanging out without time constraints – but every time I did the day wasn’t good for her and the p,ace wasn’t good for her so she made alternate suggestions. She shot down every single suggestion I’ve made. And being flexible I thought, no big deal, but I have to say it’s gotten really tiresome and frankly I’ve left the coordination to her for the last few months because I got tired of always being told “no”.

    I truly feel she isn’t really there for me. Which is confusing considering the depth of the emotional issues we’ve talked about. But when a friend flat out tells me she doesn’t do phone calls I just can’t feel she’s a true friend who would be there for me in the same way I want to be for my friends.

    And I get what you say about controlling her environment, not necessarily controlling me, but I’ve also had my trust issues based on the extremely controlling and both physically and emotionally abusive environment I grew up in and it just feels like that same old rejection and abandonment over and over again. And I’ve healed past the point of wanting that in my life on any level. So unfortunately I feel the best thing for me is to move on.

    I feel badly about it, particularly since she

    • Amy Eden says:

      Yeah it sounds like it might be one of those important passages or crossroads for you and your own healing–how you go from this point of frustration and realization, to either transform the friendship or let it go. Sounds like what you want is/was at least a couple of things — to know that you can call your friends for support on the phone when you need to, and to make plans some time that involve spontaneity and timelessness. And a third thing to, that you need to have friends whose behavior doesn’t resemble the negative family dynamics from you childhood (when you weren’t in control of the who, what, and where of your life).

      Have you considerd telling her that when she said she doesn’t do phone calls that, for you, it feels that she’s unavailable as a friend? And that you need to have available friends. Or that you’ve given up trying to negotiate plans because you feel she isn’t open to what you’d like to do and that you need friends for whom balance is important and who want to be sure to prioritize balancing preferences….as it seems so weighted to her needs? I wonder if your resentment began to build when you pulled back and stopped suggesting plans and speaking up..when it became impossible to ignore how blatant the one-sidedness was?

      The last time I talked to an old high school friend was when we were about 29 and I had called her to tell her that my mother had died. This was a friend who called me every mother’s day for years because my mother had abandoned me when I was three years old, and she know it was a difficult, painful day for me. So, when I called her that day, what she said was, “Can I call you back? I’m on the other line.” And I repeated myself, “My mother just died,” and she repeated herself. She called but that was that – it was, actually, a final straw really and not an isolated incident. I didn’t miss the friendship – can you believe that? Like, not at all. It was very clear to me who I could lean on at that time, and those friends were there through all my sobbing.

      There’s a book called “When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal with Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You,” by Jan Yager that’s darn good.

  9. Ali says:

    Has told me about other friends who became really angry with her for not being a responsive friend but maybe it’s time for her to see that there’s a pattern and that her rigidness is getting in the way of real intimacy.

  10. Ali says:

    It’s great to get your insight, Amy. And thank you for the resources – I’ll check them out. Have you ever read Secrets of Dysfunctional Families by John and Linda Friel? Excellent book!

  11. Rebecca Coar says:

    seriously enjoyed this page, keep them coming

  12. Alicia Tobiassen says:

    Wow! I am so glad I found this page. I am in a toxic relationship with this guy. He’s a very bad alcoholic and I love to drink myself. Since he loves to drink and smoke cigarettes, I do too (A LOT). But I feel hungover all the time and just feel like crap every morning I wake up with him. I definitely didn’t drink all the time before I met him. He’s at my house every night and so I just drink with him. But I love having company and he always asks if he can come over. I have such a hard time saying “NO”. I don’t think we’ve ever hung out together without drinking. It almost seems like we don’t even have a relationship besides drinking. I feel worn out and my gut is telling me to get out of this but I am loyal and it’s so hard to say NO. I call this a “Graveyard Relationship”. Your site helped me out a lot. You’re right, life is way too short to not get out of a situation that’s toxic.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Hey Alicia! “Graveyard Relationship” – great term. I like how you capture the course of events. Seems like you’ve seen the ‘point of no return’ really well. And, yeah, with that much drinking there can’t really be a relationship and certainly not intimacy. (Generally, men can eat more than women…and the same goes for ingesting other substances, so to drink with someone who can, biologically, consume more…can get out of proportion or out of control.) Sounds like you have a pretty clear sense of things here.
      The feeling of “worn out” is SUCH a true, honest and trustworthy indicator of…Time’s Up! Glad you found what you needed to find.

  13. Diane says:

    These articles can help people find strength to do what needs to be done.

    Recently, I had “Enforce Boundaries Day for Diane”. It felt so good to deal with three things, including two that I’d been tolerating in order to avoid the fallout of the confrontation. Articles like this one are now ingrained in me, and help to give me the internal resources to deal with such things.

    Two of these things really didn’t matter much in the scheme of life, so it had been easy to let them go. Except, inside, I wasn’t really letting them go. So, I spoke up and asked these three people to stop what they were doing, for the second time and much more firmly. Boy did that feel good!

    One overreacted negatively, one responded very positively, and the third took the action I needed without much discussion. New Diane is having more compassion for myself than for these three people’s ongoing problematic behavior. I don’t feel the tiniest sliver of guilt. Only the freeing effects of doing some emotional housecleaning.

    • Amy Eden says:

      Ahhhh, freedom! I can hear it in your words.

      Sounds like your firm voice resounds quite nicely! That is powerful. I love that you spoke that way, and even more that you experienced the power and self-esteem that comes with Speaking Your Voice. The compassion for Self, as well. Just wonderful!

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