January is detox month, cleanse month, “fresh start” month, and social media is filled with suggestions for new diets, cleanses, and ways to detoxify the body. Maybe you have started a new diet or are trying a juice cleanse or experimenting with intermittent fasting. You may know I’m not a big advocate of detoxes–the body already has a complex and effective detoxification system. Support it with a healthy lifestyle and your body will do the rest. However, when it comes to mental health, I think a detox is a great idea. Just as you might swear off sugar, fast food, or a sedentary lifestyle, you can decide to cleanse your life of toxic people.
Social relationships are complicated. Nobody gets along with everybody all of the time, but it’s true that people need people. There is good research to support the benefits of support! Having supportive relationships is proven to be beneficial for both physical and mental health, and a strong support system is linked to lower inflammation, lower body weight, lower blood pressure, and longer life, as well as to less depression and anxiety. One 2016 study reviewed four major studies on social support and health and found that from adolescence to late adulthood, those with strong social networks were at lower risk of health problems, in a dose-dependent manner. I often say that the benefits of exercise are dose-dependent but it turns out that is also true with good friends!
However, many people find themselves stuck in relationships filled with conflict or that make them feel bad about themselves. This isn’t just unpleasant. Negative relationships actually hurt your physical and mental health. They can influence health habits, risk taking, and self-concept–people tend to do what their friends do, even if they don’t necessarily want to, and that includes overeating, drinking too much, and other bad habits—researchers call this “social contagion.”
Research has examined the health risks of social strain, and strained relationships are associated with elevated disease risk in much the same way social isolation is. Negative relationships are particularly dangerous for heart health, and put people at a higher risk of developing heart problems than people in strong, supportive relationships. Women in particular seem to be at risk when it comes to conflicted relationships, suffering from higher blood sugar, blood pressure, and rates of obesity.
Stress is the most likely cause for the negative health effect of toxic relationships. The link between stress and health, both physical and mental, is well established and I talk about it often. I probably don’t have to convince you that stress hurts, so I suggest using stress as a way to assess your relationships. Think about who your friends are, and ask yourself: Does this person make me feel more stressed, or less stressed? If the answer is more, then you could probably benefit from a break—temporary or permanent.
If you still aren’t sure, here are some signs that someone is toxic to you:
- You have a feeling of oppression or dread when around that person, or when you think about being around that person. The feeling lightens when the person is gone.
- The relationship is one-sided—you do all the giving and listening, and that person does all the taking and talking. Your conversations are always about the other person’s feelings or problems.
- You don’t feel heard. When you talk to that person, you can see that vacant look, like they are waiting for you to finish just so they can talk, rather than really listening to what you are saying.
- You feel exhausted after being with this person.
- You feel judged or inadequate around this person.
- You do things you don’t really want to do around this person, like eat or drink too much, gossip, or put yourself at risk.
So how do you detox from those people who make you act against your best intentions or feel bad about yourself? This is a time to stand up for yourself. That doesn’t mean you need to engage in a confrontation, but it does mean being strong enough to politely decline time with the people who don’t support you in the ways you need. You can slowly back away from the friendship, or go cold turkey, depending on the nature of the relationship, but whichever way you decide to detox, remind yourself (repeatedly if necessary!)”
- You deserve to be healthy.
- You deserve to be safe.
- You deserve to be heard.
- You deserve friends who support you and your goals.
- You are not responsible for someone else’s bad behavior.
- You are not responsible for someone else’s problems.
- It is not your job to fix anybody else.
- You have the right to say no to any interaction that makes you sad, tired, or uncomfortable.
The new year is a time for new beginnings, so I hope you will think about how to start over socially in the areas of your life and with the people who are weighing you down. The truth is that a toxic person can be just as inflammatory as any other bad health habit, if not more so. Why not give them up right now? Every toxic friend you remove from your life opens up a door for a new friend who loves you for who you are and supports who you want to become.