From The Straits Times    |

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As the years go by, we pick up friends from all corners of our lives. There are the school friends we still keep in touch with, the ex-workmates we still have a bond with, the colleagues we socialise with, the men and women who share our hobbies and perhaps even family friends we grew up with. If you’ve been in various relationships over the years, you might also still be friends with your ex’s friends. 

The more people we allow into our lives, the more emotional space we need to make for them. And, frankly, this can get tiring at times. In the same vein as cleaning out our closet or doing a juice detox, having a friends cleanse can be useful too. Minimalism is in and it could be time to cut down on your friend circle too. 

When Ling* realised she was wasting energy on two friends who didn’t return her enthusiasm, she knew it was time to cut them off. “We went to school together and met every few months for more than five years,” says the 26-year-old who works in healthcare. “A couple of years ago, I realised it was always me planning these catch-ups and our conversations tended to focus on the past. It was like groundhog day every time we met. So I stopped organising outings and, interestingly, I haven’t seen them since.”

We should first note how having friends is extremely beneficial for our mental health. Zina de Mercey, counsellor and psychotherapist at Counseling Perspective, says that good quality friendships serve various important functions such as offering companionship and emotional support, as well as fostering our self-esteem. 

“Friendships alleviate feelings of loneliness, therefore exerting a significant impact on our lives,” she explains. “As such, they have a profound influence on our mental well-being and our emotional regulation, resulting in a significant source of happiness.”

However, Zina adds that the social myth of ‘Best Friend Forever’ (BFF) occasionally requires scrutiny. She says filtering or re-evaluating friendships from time to time can be healthy for several reasons:

  1. We evolve in our values, norms, interests and priorities. Reassessing our connections enables us to align with the ever-evolving reality of our identity, fostering our personal growth.
  2. Happiness primarily emanates from our close and intimate social network. Ensuring we are surrounded by positive friendship influences can help grow healthy mindsets and improve mental health. Conversely, toxic behaviours and encounters inducing stress or negativity can adversely impact our mental and physical well-being.
  3. The buffering effect of friendship supposes genuine social support where both know how to help each other effectively in a respectful manner. Most importantly, healthy quality friendships foster better coping mechanisms when facing challenges.
  4. From a cyber-psychology standpoint, new technologies and networking sites have profoundly transformed the dynamics of friendships, particularly among young adults. Even though several characteristics are present in all types of friendships, establishing boundaries within the multidimensional network between ‘deep’ and ‘superficial’ friendships is essential. This delineation is crucial as higher friendship quality is associated with better psychosocial functioning and better mental health. 

The mental impact of ‘bad’ friends 

Choosing who is in our circle of friends is extremely important as there is such as thing as being in a ‘bad friendship’. Zina describes this as when an individual is not inherently toxic but may exhibit toxic behaviour consciously or unconsciously. They might not overtly seem like they’re toxic but they’re not good for you if they’re doing things like draining your energy or if they aren’t interested in your personal growth.

“A toxic behaviour encounter in a friendship is characterised by an imbalance in emotions, trust and power,” she reveals. “It can be a friend exerting psychological pressure with the ultimate aim of manipulating, controlling or taking advantage of the relationship resulting from a power imbalance. It can also be the result of an emotional dependency (or co-dependency) of one from the other, often present in toxic relationships. In both cases, the result is an unhealthy relationship dynamic.”

Being in a toxic friendship can have various negative emotional and mental impacts. For example, toxic behaviour often involves criticism and constant devaluation which impacts self-esteem (one of the first after-effects of a toxic relationship observed, says Zina), followed by a profound sense of insecurity. Moral exhaustion is a trait frequently observed in people who are victims of manipulation and is linked to the efforts one has deployed into the relationship and the impression they are one-sided. 

“In most cases, it is associated with an increase in stress, a decrease in emotional well-being and a higher risk of anxiety,” Zina adds. “Paradoxically, it also increases the feeling of loneliness. The accumulation of negative emotions and the drop in self-esteem can also lead to dysfunctional behaviour; psychological tension can be severe and can eventually trigger depression in some cases.”

Devi* went through a health scare last year and decided to drop a friend who she had been thinking of distancing herself from for a while. The 32-year-old marketing manager explains: “I was there for her when she had a baby and was feeling lonely and overwhelmed postpartum. When she felt better a few months later, I felt she didn’t show me any appreciation for what I did for her. So when I had some health issues, I shared with her, as she’s still a friend, but she didn’t do much apart from saying, ‘take care, thinking of you’. I decided to focus on friends who I know truly care for me.” 

Who makes the cut?

One way to determine if you should be saying goodbye to someone is by asking yourself a series of questions about this person. Examples include:

  • Have they made adequate effort to stay in touch?
  • Have they been open about what’s happening in their lives or do they deflect or lie whenever I ask questions about them? 
  • Have they ignored or judged me when I was going through tough times?
  • Have I ever wondered if they were talking behind my back?
  • Do they really know me? Or is our friendship superficial?

Once you’ve decided which friends to cull from your social circle, you can begin your ‘friend detox’ process. Zina notes that there are three pivotal steps in this process – respond, restore and reflect.

To respond: Set boundaries. Learn to identify your limits to make sure you establish them. If you have any doubts about the quality of your friendship, ask yourself, ‘What is in it for me?’.  “Friendship is a foundation on which we should lean in times of need, a circle of trust where we can find support, understanding, respect and happiness; reciprocity is central to this dynamic,” says Zina. “You are entitled to say ‘no’ when necessary, to reject abusive and unfair requests. Remaining firm in enforcing your boundaries is essential to send a clear and indisputable message.”

To restore: Seek support. Get other friends, family members or a therapist to help you go through this process. Strengthening your self-esteem and developing your self-awareness and assertiveness is essential to regain control of your life and your autonomy. 

To reflect: Practice self-care. Gradual disengagement is key to making sure you avoid and no longer endure the pressures of a friend. Reducing contact can minimise the mental distress during the friendship dissolution. 

“We tend to forget that friendly breakups are as painful as romantic breakups,” says Zina. “Prioritise self-care activities to nurture your mind with positive thoughts and enhance emotional well-being. Allow yourself to rest and practice self-compassion. Create a friendship tree to map and identify people you can count on, reminding yourself you are loved and have social support.”

*not her real name