How To Help A Friend Living In A Toxic Situation

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Many of us have known somebody living in a toxic situation at some point in time. By “toxic” I don’t mean “couples who bicker a lot”; I’m talking about deeper, more punishing dynamics, often involving several people and differing levels of power, where normal emotions and relationships are corrupted and twisted out of shape. A family with an alcoholic parent? A share house with a seriously mentally ill roommate, or one who’s wildly passive-aggressive, or where everybody feels tense even walking downstairs? They’re toxic environments. And if you’re on the outside, with a friend in the middle of it all, you can feel both highly powerless and deeply horrified.

There are, however, ways to help. One friend who was in an astonishingly toxic household for many years in college, when I called him for advice for this article, said, “Tell them to leave. Immediately.” But there will be situations where that isn’t a viable option for your friends, and if they’re stuck there, they’ll need all the help they can get.

While carting them away to live in a villa in Provence with you and all your other friends may not be an option (I wish), here are nine suggestions to make it a bit better for them, without completely tiring yourself out or causing undue havoc to your own domestic arrangement.

1. Offer Them A Safe Space

Whether it’s your own house, a cafe where you guys can meet up, a pub, whatever, a space outside of the toxic dynamic of the house is always going to be a welcome thing. That way, when they have to leave to feel emotionally healthy or because a boundary has been crossed (I’ll get those later), they remember there's always somewhere to go.

2. Help Them Remember “Normal”

Normal is often a very foreign concept to people who live in toxic situations day in, day out. It can seem as if this is the only way in which people relate to one another, and like a completely average day includes fishing somebody out of a bath drunk/having a door beaten down/putting up with savage put-downs over the dinner table/seeing somebody slam their head repeatedly against the fridge door.

If they visit you in your environment, don’t make everything happy-clappy because they come from a dark place; just relax and be normal. Normal can include bickering, fights over ketchup, people needing to be alone and so on: the point is that it doesn’t involve traumatic wearing away of psychological substance.

If you visit them in their environment, observe carefully and reiterate the perspective of normality if they ask for your opinion. If you observe something out of line, make a tactful judgement about telling them your thoughts. And always make it clear you don’t judge them for what’s being said or done.

3. Understand That Leaving Is Likely Complicated

Staying in a toxic household is never an uncomplicated decision. They may be staying because it’s their family, or because they feel strong ties to members of the household, because they're in a controlling relationship, or because of money or accommodation issues that mean this is their only realistic choice. They’re not weak or being deliberately dramatic.

4. Allow Them To Feel Frustrated And Sad

Being part of a toxic household stirs up a lot of feelings, from hopelessness to guilt to anger to disappointment to pure frustration at the state of things. They often may not feel comfortable airing those feelings in the environment of their house, so let them open up around you, even if it’s just going for silent walks or having a bit of a cry for five minutes.

5. Maintain Boundaries And Explain Them

Being the friend of somebody in a toxic household means you have to figure out what your own boundaries and needs are. Are you willing to go pick them up when they’re in a volatile situation? To be on the end of the phone at certain times of day? To welcome them into your house if they get kicked out or fed up?

Figure out what these boundaries are and explain them to your friend; don’t let them run up against one accidentally if you can help it. One of the things that’s severely lacking in toxic households is secure, well-defined boundaries. If you feel one of your previous boundaries isn’t working and you’re going to change it, discuss it with them.

6. Distract Them

One of the best things to do for people when they’re out of their toxic messes is give them fun things to think about. Don’t feel the need to sit around talking about it seriously all the time; go play video games or roller skate or feed hot chocolate to squirrels (I’m serious, they like it) and let everybody blow off some steam. A nasty home situation doesn’t mean a complete absence of lightness.

7. Encourage Them To Get Professional Help

Toxicity blows. It is awful. And it is not something that anybody can navigate easily without some good professional help. It may be a counsellor, a helpline, a therapist, or just a retired psychologist who’s willing to sit your friend at their kitchen table and have tea with them, but don’t be afraid to give them the push to get professional support.

8. Don’t Be Afraid To Call For Help If Things Cross A Line

Toxicity that turns into severe physical and/or mental abuse is not in any way OK. If at any point you observe your friend being abused in a way that really concerns you, or see serious evidence of it, find a way to talk to them about it. Tread carefully and get good advice, but if there’s any suggestion that your friend is in danger, take serious steps: call in the law, their parents, anybody else who’ll get them out and keep them safe.

9. Take Care Of Yourself

Being a friend to somebody in a toxic environment can be stressful as hell. Whether they’re just coping with a firestorm or actively being dragged through nonsense, it’s hard on them and it’s hard on you. You need to take care of yourself if you’re going to step up; practice a lot of self-care, get support, talk to professionals if you need to, and be sensitive to your own reactions and emotions. You’re no use to anybody if you’re too exhausted to function.

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