Are your friends keeping you down?
Last month I wrote about the psychological, physical, and spiritual benefits of having friends. Good friends encourage and support us, help us grow in virtue, and even improve our overall well being!
But not all friendships are created equal. Some friends are the opposite of helpful and supportive. You may have heard about the study showing that our friends can even make us fat! But there are more insidious ways that certain friends can hurt us.
Pia met Janet as a college freshman and they soon became study partners and best friends. Pia was charmed at first by her new friend's lively tall tales and bold adventures, unlike her own more cautious approach to life. Janet introduced Pia to extracurricular activities such as clubbing and drinking games, and Pia rescued Janet when she lost her keys, ran out of gas or money, or forgot to write a paper. Yet the more Pia hung out with Janet, the less assertive and confident she became. Janet was a master of the subtle put-down, so subtle Pia wasn't even sure it happened and felt guilty even suspecting her friend of being unsupportive. Pia found herself increasingly monopolized by Janet, dreading her influence, yet unable to say 'no–even when it became clear that she was on a destructive path. Janet was a toxic friend.
Toxic friends can drain your energy, sap your self-confidence, erode your morals, and even cause you to question your own sanity. They range from needy dependent types to narcissists (See my Catholic Match article 'It's All About ME') and even bona fide sociopaths. Not the serial killer kind, mind you, but the average, garden-variety sociopath. Clinical psychologist Martha Stout, former Harvard Medical School professor and author of The Sociopath Next Door, tells us that one in twenty-five Americans are sociopaths who simply do not feel shame, guilt or remorse. Not all sociopaths are violent criminals–they may be your boss, your ex-boyfriend, even your best friend.
According to Stout, sociopaths are often charismatic, using flattery, seductive yet false (or sham) emotion, lies or deception luring us into their intrigues, sucking us into pitying them or otherwise giving into their demands, causing us to question our own good reason, and using our good nature and generosity for their own selfish purposes.
Such wiles would not have fooled Saint Francis de Sales. More than 400 years ago, he cautioned us about false or worldly friendships. In his Introduction to the Devout Life, he extols the importance of good, holy and true friendships. And he warns us of poisonous friendships that can turn us away from God and virtue.
Saint Francis de Sales offers some ways to identify false friendships: like poisonous honey, a false friendship is sweeter (at first) but leaves a bitter taste behind. False friends appeal to our vanity through flattery and passionate endearments, confusing our good judgment and ultimately leading to deceit, confusion, jealousy, and sorrow.
If you have a 'friend' who drains you of energy, causes you to question your own reason, puts you down, belittles you, is deceitful or
immoral, you may (or may not) be dealing with a bona fide sociopath. In any case, it is wise to heed Saint Francis de Sales's advice, and drop that toxic friend like a hot potato. A vicious friend can never be a true friend.
He acknowledges it can be difficult to wean yourself away from one of these false friends, especially when we have become seduced by vanity and sensuality. First, we need to stop seeing the toxic friend. Then, we should engage in reflection and prayer, spiritual reading, and more frequent reception of the sacraments. And, we can turn to our true friends, those who are virtuous and encourage us to be the same. Ultimately, we must turn to our truest and best friend, Jesus Christ.