I couldn’t have been more ecstatic to start my freshman year of college. I was coming from small town Florida and felt desperately in need of a new social circle. The idea of being surrounded by 600 other incoming freshman and 3,000 total students felt so liberating. A fresh start meant that I could be anyone that I wanted to be, and I couldn’t wait to find new footing as a college student.
During my first several months in college, I met a lot of people from all different walks of life. While I found a few friends that “got” me, I ended up spending a lot of time with students that seemed to need a friend. As a Christian, it was my responsibility to reach out to those in need, right? Come rain or shine, I had this group of people around me. We’d do everything together. And, as time progressed, some of these friends ended up needing more than just a friend. They were simply in need. I spent hours on end, countless weekends and weeknights, doing anything and everything for these toxic friendships. And, these “needy” friends had other “needy” friends. They’d invite them to our gatherings and functions. I was always all for it, because it would be good for them to be exposed to a positive group of Christian friends, right?
I was emotionally exhausted from putting others needs before my own.
Then, one day, I looked around and suddenly, most all of those friends who “got” me were gone. All I had left was unhealthy, needy friendships. Where were my peers? Where were the kids with the same interests as me? What happened to the friends that I lost track of time talking with? I took a long, hard look at my life and realized that I had continually sacrificed all of my healthy relationships with my healthy friends to be there for this second group of unhealthy friends. And, I found myself lonely and burnt out. I was emotionally exhausted from putting others needs before my own.
I had picked the wrong friends. You see, often in life, we say that people pick the wrong friends when they pick poor influences. However, I don’t think we always pick the wrong friends because we want to do the wrong things. I think sometimes we pick the wrong friends for the right reasons, and we might not even realize we’re doing it. We pick people that we’re trying to help. We pick people that we think need people. If we’re strong, we pick those who are weak, thinking we have the power to teach them to be strong. We put our lives on hold in order to support others, because we think that’s what we’re supposed to do. We try to be Jesus instead of bringing people to Jesus. And, suddenly, we find ourselves broken down. We find ourselves without any true peers and equals. We find ourselves in a perpetual state of ministry without anything left to minister.
You’ve been there. Tell me you’ve been there. We all have, haven’t we? We’ve sacrificed for the sake of others. You’ve put time with your kids ahead of your personal needs. You can’t remember the last time you took a break from caretaking for your elderly father. You’ve stayed up for hours at night on the phone with your alcoholic sister. You’ve gone out to meet a friend in need instead of enjoying Sunday dinner with your husband. We’re propelled forward by this sense of Christian duty. And, there’s nothing wrong with it once or twice. The problem arises when we continually sacrifice for the sake of others to the point of doing real damage to ourselves.
And this, my friends is dangerous ground. This is where marriages fail. This is where relationships fall apart. This is where all of the true friends seem to suddenly disappear. Even worse off, this is where you lose hold of the person you know yourself to be, because you’ve given him or her away to the point where you just don’t have anything left.
Want to know the scariest part of all? It’s not just his or her life that the unhealthy person damages. It’s not even just your life or the people around you that a toxic relationship touches. Others toxicity can affect you. It can bring you to a point of not even recognizing yourself. Think of it this way. Unhealthy people are like zombies! For real. Once someone is infected, they’ll follow you, and it’s nigh impossible to escape them (even if you think you have the absolute best zombie plan). They’re hardwired to infect you with their unhealthiness. Many don’t even necessarily mean to. They might not even realize they’re doing it. But, it’s a fact that healthiness and unhealthiness cannot coexist. If you surround yourself with unhealthy people, you will become unhealthy. Even if you think you’re just ministering to those people, it can get you. And, before you know it, their brand of craziness will very likely become yours.
So, with so much craziness, what’s a person to do?
Here are some tips for setting boundaries with your friends:
- For the sake of argument, let’s imagine you have ten friends. For every ten friends, you should have one friend that gives completely to you. This is the type of person that is always there for you no matter what. Then, you should have eight give-and-take relationships. These are the people that give to you sometimes and you give to them other times. This should be your typical friend. Then, you’re allowed one person that takes completely from you. This is one crazy friend. Try and keep that balance!
- It might sound cliché but set time aside for you. Know your own needs. Some people are more prone to give of their time than others. If you are one of them, recognize that you might be unrealistic about your own limitations. Rest is a constant teaching throughout the Bible. From the institution/affirmation of the Sabbath (Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:8) to Jesus resting (Luke 5:16) and encouraging the disciples to rest (Mark 6:30-32) in the New Testament, there is a clear model. We need time to rest. Don’t feel guilty. It’s not selfish. It is right. You can’t help others unless you have it to give. In order to have it, you need to stop every now and again. At the end of the day, God wants to use you for countless people. Don’t sacrifice all that He’s given you on one. It’s not worth it.
- You might be giving up more than you are bargaining for. Just like unhealthiness spreads, the same can be said of healthiness. Healthiness also attracts healthiness. Normal people don’t want to be hanging out with the craziness. While you think you might be sacrificing an hour here or an evening there, you may be giving up lifelong, healthy relationships. All those hours add up to a lot of time, and in the end, you’re likely missing out on the close relationships healthier people are forming with each other. So, find healthy people and surround yourself with them!
- Check your own reasons for doing this. While we may start out helping someone for their sake, we can easily shift into helping them for our sake. These unhealthy people may be giving you a lot of attention. You may like the accolades from being a leader or someone who has it all together. While sometimes a person is unhealthy, often the dynamics in a relationship can be what’s unhealthy. If you shift into those feelings, it’s all the more reason that you need to let the friendship end. It’s clearly a trigger for you own unhealthiness.
- Family can be the biggest source of unhealthy people in your life. They are often the hardest to set boundaries with. Just because they are family members does not give you the right to sacrifice your whole life over them. While I’m not saying to cut your family off, I am saying that you need to keep especially toxic family members at bay. Yes, you can do this in love. Also, if you do have toxic family members, you may want to spend time educating yourself. “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend and “Irregular People” by Joyce Landorf Heatherley are great places to start.
- Remember that when you think you’re helping, you might actually be hurting. At the end of my first semester of my freshmen year, I spent some time talking to a pastor friend of mine about these relationships. She recommended that I cut ties, and I did just that. Guess what I found out? I was a crutch for a lot of these unhealthy people. In many ways, by constantly “helping” them, I was keeping them from growing on their own two feet. They were able to thrive just fine (maybe even better) without me. While it may be difficult for you to let go after you have so much invested, it might be just what doctor ordered. Be clear and patient about why you are separating from them. The last thing a person with unhealthiness needs is more pain. Make the decision to break up with your unhealthy friends, for your good and theirs.
- Don’t fall for excuses and misinterpretations. Very few people in the world have a proper understanding of boundaries. Often, toxic people will use misinterpretations of Scripture to rope you back into a relationship with them. They will tell you that you are supposed to forgive them for their mistakes. They will tell you that you aren’t being Christ-like. If you do need to forgive, forgive. Just remember that forgiveness does not necessitate a relationship. Recognize that if you’ve already tried to help someone for a significant amount of time and it’s not working, then you are likely not the person to be able to help him or her out. If someone does seek change, enough time has past, and depending on how toxic the relationship/person was (some doors should never be reopened), be willing to crack the door toward some form of new relationship. Just keep those boundaries clear!
- Do find people that you can help! Everyone needs a friend. We are meant to help those in need. Just don’t try to help the same people over and over to the point where you end up hurting them or yourself. Don’t substitute unhealthy relationship for healthy friendships. Trust your instincts on this once.. Stay connected to God, and He will help you know when to get involved. There aren’t many hard-and-fast rules here, so use Scripture to help you make decisions on when to step into a situation and when to step out of it.