How To Break Up With Toxic Friends

Note from the editor: The following is a guest post from Kristen Ulmer (FB: ulmer.kristen, kristenulmer.com). Kristen is a master facilitator who challenges existing norms around the subject of fear. She was a mogul specialist on the US Ski team and then became recognized as the best female big mountain extreme skier in the world, a status she held for 12 years. Known for enormous cliff jumps and you-fall-you-die descents, she was sponsored by Red Bull, Ralph Lauren, and Nikon. Her work on fear has been featured in such media as NPR, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Outside Magazine, and others. Kristen is the author of The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work and What to Do Instead.

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I’m going to give you waaaay too much info here, because this is a huge topic. I trust you’ll find your favorite nuggets.

Every break up with a friend (or group of friends) will have a different dynamic, so there is no one-size-fits-all on what to say or do. But here are 3 steps to follow, so at least you don’t screw it up (too badly).

Step 1: Core guidelines

Do Not:

-Do not blame it on them:  When I retired as a professional athlete I broke up with almost all my skier friends and contacts. I could have easily blamed them and the entire industry for being wrong, when the deeper truth was I was messed up in the head about my sport. Don’t ever forget then—even if a person or group is toxic—you’re a part of the problem. Likely you’re not some fresh bowl of Cheerios, either.

-Do not blame it on yourself: ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ makes us squirt milk out our nose because we know ridiculous when we hear it. It’s both of you. They suck. You suck. The bigger problem is that we suck even more together. That’s what this is about.

-Do not intend to write them off forever. My rule is: if you haven’t seen someone for 24 hours, don’t assume you know who they are anymore. Even my X who was physically abusive, then became a heroin addict, 20 years later is today a lovely human being. People do change. Think about how much you’ve changed over the years, for perspective.

Do:

-Bring your A game. How you treat people during breakups is always going to be one of the greatest tests of your character. So, get your shit together and handle this with integrity. You will run into this person again, and you want both of you to feel OK when that happens.

-Gather information. When my GF came down with cancer, then started verbally abusing me, I felt blind about what to do. I called another friend with cancer to get the scoop on what I was dealing with. The friend opened my eyes, advising me to get away not only for my sake but for hers, because she was projecting her anger and fear on me and thus not dealing with it on her own.

-Decide if just a pause, is in order. My definition of a friend is someone who knows how screwed up you are but wants to hang out with you anyway. Don’t end friendships because someone is screwed up. Maybe just take a break, instead, and learn something about yourself. Your judgment of them (i.e., they’re self-absorbed) is a great a mirror for you (OK, but how am I also self-absorbed?). End it only if this person is toxic to your wellbeing, not trustworthy, or trying to harm you in any way. These are reasons to end a friendship.

Step 2: Pick your method:

-The blow off. Fine if they’re also blowing you off, or if it’s a group of 10 or more and it feels appropriate to just fade away. But If they’re trying to get together or pushing a connection, never, ever do this. This person or group meant something to you, so show them respect by not being a chicken shit and learn some better communication skills.

-Text: Only appropriate with acquaintances. Nothing important should ever be discussed over text, especially if it has the potential to become a bigger conversation.

-Email: Writing a letter and putting a stamp on it is a classier approach. But email is also fine if you’re a conflict avoider, or are better with written words versus spoken words (I know I am). But please, no more than one paragraph or you’ll trigger some long combative discussion. If the friend writes back multiple 10-page rants anyway (this happened to me), don’t read them or certainly engage. Write back a simple; “I can see you’re upset and understand why. This is very awkward and painful.” Then be done with it.

-In person: The best option and scary as hell. But remember, all things worth doing involve fear. Especially if this scares the crap out of you, then you should do it. See it as an opportunity to improve your people skills. Use the fear to help yourself be focused during the conversation.

Step 3: The actual breakup

The “do’s”: 

-Do make it short.

-Do make it private.

-Do treat it like a ceremony. Imagine a world where marriage, which starts with a ceremony, also ends with a ceremony. That would be incredible.

-Do be very firm, descriptive and unwavering. Saying sweet or vague things like “I love you, but I just feel like we should go our separate ways” may feel honorable, but the high road is not the high road here. You’ll only leave them feeling confused, causing them to fabricate some horror story about why you “hate” them that is worse than the real reason, which will likely plague them for decades. A pig is a pig. Having integrity means not putting lipstick on it.

-Do find a neutral place, preferably in the calm of nature, to have this conversation. I ended a best friendship of 25 years during a ski day. I told her, then committed to skiing with her on her terms for as long as it took, until it was time to go. Consider a hike, a park bench, walking the dogs (bonus—if either of you feels uncomfortable with eye contact, this negates that). I don’t recommend lunch because then you’re in a public place, looking at each other, and stuck there for the duration of a meal.

-Do have an exact plan on what to say, and practice it like you would practice any important speech.

-Do make it no more than one small paragraph, and have what you say be in this order:

  1. Establish the context, “I want to talk with you about our friendship.”
  2. Next, own your shit first, whatever it is, then add in their shit. What this looks like is:

“I know I’ve been a bad friend over the years, encouraging you to drink a lot and all, which makes me feel like an ass to even tell you this, but I think the alcohol has turned you turn into a scary person.”

“As you know, I’ve been super dismissive towards my friends since my business took off, but I wanted to let you know there’s another reason why I’ve backed off toward you in particular, which is I feel you’re abusive toward your wife, and have even become abusive toward me.”

Notice the word choices; this is not about blame, like “you’re an abusive person” which is arguable because no person is any one thing, to everyone, all the time. This is all about your experience, like “I feel like you’re abusive toward me,” which is not arguable.

  1. Finish with a conclusive statement:

“And I’m at the point now, where I don’t feel comfortable being around you anymore and want to end our friendship.”

“All this has made me lose my respect for, and trust in, you, and for these reasons I want to end our friendship.”

  1. Say it slowly, purposefully, then shut up and shift your perspective immediately to make it all about them. Let them do all the talking from here. The decision to end this friendship to this point was all about you. To balance things out you must now give them the respect and consideration they deserve, to have it be all about their process next.

The “do nots”:

-Do not expect things to go smoothly. If you’re dealing with a truly toxic person, they will likely lose it. They’ll project their fear and anger on you so they don’t have to deal with it themselves and try to trigger you to lose it, as well. Anticipate it, know this is a test, and under no circumstances (do I need to even say it?) should you scream, belittle, or accuse back. Be prepared with a commitment that you will stay in a place of integrity and compassion, and just continue to remain all about them.

-Do not try to humiliate them more than they already are. In response to anything they say, a simple “I can understand why you are upset. I would feel the same way” or “This is a big deal, isn’t it” in return will go far to validate their feelings.

-Do not say things like “It’s not just me” or “Everyone feels this way.” That’s probably not true, and even if it is, this is not an intervention. This is between YOU and them, only.

-Do not get defensive. My girlfriend started screaming, “Are you judging me?,” and I simply replied, “Yes, I am,” which calmed things right down. If they say you’re an asshole, full of yourself, an alcoholic, as well, even things that aren’t true, just say, “Yes, I am.” Because likely you are all these things at least one time in your life. May as well calm the situation down by owning them.

-Do not add in BS, unless you truly mean it. People can see right through “I wish you all the best” or “I hope someday we can be friends again,” which, in the moment, will only come across as condescending.

-Do not give parting advice. EVER.

-Do not say anything bad about them to others or talk at length about the nature of your split, after it’s over. You’ll only make yourself look like a jerk.

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5 Replies to “How To Break Up With Toxic Friends”

  1. Owning your stuff resonates with me Tim, as I vibe with Kristen there.

    Gotta own your stuff to be free of it and to be free of blaming others.

    I’d say just be brief, clear and then let the individual go for good. If they were meant to flow back into life, they will. Not by force. But by the idea that you are on the same wavelength at some later point. Owning your stuff is where everything starts though because if you don’t blame folks, or yourself, you realize that it’s nothing personal, just a non-match between 2 human beings.

    Ryan

  2. Dear Tim! I’ve a got a question that you might consider answering in your podcast or social media. What would be your advice on dealing with toxic people. Sometimes I ignore them but it’s not a good strategy because they find a way to bite harder. Sometimes I respond with aggression, which I don’t like because I don’t feel control over my anger. I feel confused – engage in conflict with toxic people/bullies or not, and if yes, how to do this properly.

  3. Hey Tim, hey everybody!

    I know this might sound crazy, but I wanted to ask if anyone ever approached lists or tables with friends or peer groups. I startet a google table with all the years of my life in the top and listet all the names of people I got to know in that year and played at least a minor role. To avoid having 30-40 columns I sometimes grouped together years like the first 10-15 years or “middle school” or “university” etc. …the table is still big but manageable.

    Another approach I wanted to share is that I had friends for a VERY long time (>20y) and I still liked them and wanted them to be SOME part in my life but certainly not a big one, since they never reply or say hello etc. yada yada. So I just added them to my Apple Calendar (iCal) and set a date on their birthday and added the latest phone number and e-mail I got from them. I set the reminder and plan(ed) to only contact them around/at their birthday to chit-chat.

    My contacts in iOS/MacOS are completely empty except the 5 most important people + 10-15 contacts that are important in terms of business etc. that’s it.

    All other contacts are in simple .txt-Files in the folder they are related to. So for example >10 people I know from every hard times during my study and we went through these awful exams – but other than that we never became more close. They MIGHT be the right contact in the future if they’ll work for the business X I want to have a deal with or s.th. around these lines. So if they would actually become important I look up in the .txt-File in my “University”-folder. But they would not show up if I scroll through my contacts, since there should be only names that uplift me or help me as mentor, coaches etc. to reach my goals.

    All of this is just and approach and I am not sure if I’ll keep it like this. But I’m wondering if Tim has a solution with direct applications (Apps? Folders?…) or if anyone else got ideas towards this.

    Thank you to anyone who replies or gives any input!

    All the best!