Designing a Social Life Based on Growth: Part 1

It’s likely that as you sit reading this, you’ve been alive for several decades, two centuries, and two millennia.

You’ve now added another decade to your resume. Pretty impressive. Take a moment and pat yourself on the back.

It’s also likely you’ve experienced tragedy, loss, growing pains, transitional periods, and heart capacity expansion. A lot of social ideals have changed in the last few decades, centuries, and millennia.

One significant change that we’ve experienced as a society has been looking closely at the friendships in our lives, and what they bring us measured against what they ask of us.

It’s an important consideration — as human beings, needing healthy friendships is a common requirement for our personal fulfillment.

In fact, studies have shown that healthy friendships can actually prolong life more than exercise can, and help to curb the development of chronic diseases, like diabetes and depression.

Not to mention the obvious benefits — healthy friendships keep loneliness at bay, heighten our engagement with the world, broaden our pool of interests and hobbies, and provide support during times of despair.

Or at least they should…

But when friendships aren’t healthy… not only do they not brighten and extend your life, they are directly linked to disturbances in health and wellbeing.

What is a “Toxic Friendship”?

“Toxic” is a pretty common millennial buzzword. But it tends to signal a different type of unrest in different usages.

In terms of toxic friendships, there are some pretty common signs.

You may be involved in a toxic friendship if:

  • Jealousy makes a regular appearance in your interactions.
  • You feel dread before seeing them, or insecure after seeing them.
  • You can’t express yourself freely and respectfully with them.
  • You feel afraid and expectant of their criticism.
  • Venting and updating are one-sided.
  • Their presence requires more energy from you than it gives you.

Of course, every friendship is unique, and none are perfect. But those signs should tip you off that something isn’t right.

Often, toxic friendships can develop from childhood or young adult friendships — proximity friendships.

One study found that friends made closer to our thirties met “emotional closeness” goals better than friendships formed in college or earlier because our emotional needs at thirty are more solidified and specific than they were at twenty.

Think about it like this — these may be people who knew you before your adult growth or people who formerly had access to a type of attention you’re not capable of providing for them now.

This isn’t always the case, of course. But no matter what kind of toxic friendship you’re involved in, it’s vital to know the kind of toll it can take on your health.

Toxic Friendships as Poison

One study from UCLA researchers actually found that negative, competitive, or stressful friendships can increase the body’s production of a proinflammatory protein called cytokine, leading to the worsening of physical health problems.

Experts have even noted that dissolving a toxic friendship can be more difficult than breaking up with a romantic partner.

Since you don’t “date” your friends, and since friendships are not monogamous in nature (meaning you can have lots of friends at any given moment, but the majority of the population doesn’t have multiple romantic partners)…

There’s less pressure for an individual friendship to perform well.

You see, the concept of ending a romantic relationship is much more familiar to us.

We’re prepared for that idea. We also tend to hold our romantic partners to higher standards of behavior and check in with how they’re making us feel more often than our friendships.

But just like unsatisfactory romantic partnerships can leave emotional scars, so can toxic friendships.

Unhealthy friendships — where factors like broken promises, peer pressure to behave in ways that counter your goals, passive aggression, codependency, and more are present — can affect your neural patterns and stunt your personal growth.

Perhaps more so because we’re likelier to hang onto a friendship that isn’t working than a romantic relationship with the same negative qualities.

So if we know that friendships require examination through the same critical lens through which we analyze our romantic relationships…

And that the quality of friendships has a long-term impact on not only our psychological health but our physical health as well…

We’ll look at how to cull your social life and design it as carefully as you do your love life in the next post.

If you enjoyed these thoughts and think we’ve got something in common, I have a feeling you’re going to love the streaming service I launched last year — by wellness purveyors for wellness seekers. Here’s two weeks free — on me.

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Dr. Pedram Shojai

NY Times Best Selling author and film maker. Taoist Abbot and Qigong master. Husband and dad. I’m here to help you find your way and be healthy and happy. I don’t want to be your guru…just someone who’ll help point the way. If you’re looking for a real person who’s done the work, I’m your guy. I can light the path and walk along it with you but can’t walk for you.