I Had To Learn That Self-Care Means Letting Go Of Toxic Friendships

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Image Source RF/Zero Creatives/Getty

I’m a determined woman. I don’t give up easily, on tasks or on people. But that all changed after I faced a crisis.

The day I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my world turned upside down and inside out. I was only 35 years old and a busy mom of four children. Breast cancer didn’t fit into my life plan. But there it was.

Six weeks after diagnosis, I had a bi-lateral mastectomy. It was absolutely terrifying, yet it was my path to healing. Only a handful of friends and family knew I had cancer and knew about my surgery.

Two weeks after my surgery, I received the pathology results. I was deemed cancer-free by my doctors. Obviously, I was thrilled. I then took to social media and shared the news with my extended friends and family.

The result floored me. We had people bring us so many meals we didn’t have to cook for ourselves for over six weeks post-op. I had friends offer to watch the kids. We also had visitors who came bearing gift cards, flowers, and pans of brownies. The endless stream of well-wishes was beautifully overwhelming.

But during the two months I spent living in my bedroom, my breasts heavy with swelling from the surgery and implants, I felt a weight on my chest that had nothing to do with cancer.

I realized who wasn’t there–the friends who never showed up. As the days and weeks passed, their absence became more and more apparent.

No text. No meal drop-off. No card. Just silence.

I’m not one to have hundreds of social media friends. My circle of friends is fairly small. So to have women whom I’d known five or ten years meet my cancer news with silence was heartbreaking.

These were women I’d send a condolence card to when they had a parent pass away, women I’d text the minute I saw on Facebook that their child had broken a bone, women I’d call to congratulate when I learned they got a job promotion.

There I was, in one of the most vulnerable, frightening times of my life, and I was ghosted by some of the women I thought were my friends.

At first, I took it upon myself to justify their lack of responsiveness. My cancer diagnosis was too scary for them. They were so busy with their own families. One was in the midst of her father’s health rapidly declining.

But, deep down, I knew the truth. It wasn’t me. It was them. I wasn’t too much. My silent friends weren’t enough.

As I gained strength and energy, I also tackled my new lease on life. I took on a new attitude after realizing that it’s true: life really is short and precious. Why was I wasting my time pining for the attention of those who demonstrated they really didn’t care about me?

I was forced into a season of self-care in order to heal from surgery. I realized that I needed to not only coddle my physical needs in the midst of a fragile life season, but I needed to “clean house.” I had spent too much time and energy investing in friendships that weren’t reciprocated.

I truly believe self-care is essential for the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health of all women. Friends of mine get massages and pedicures. Some retreat to Target for a solo shopping spree. Others go on weekend getaways or attend workshops. Others engage in hobbies ranging from knitting to boxing. Some, like me, might put on a mud mask and a teeth whitening strip while the baby naps. Perhaps a Netflix binging session is in order. To each their own.

But what if we’re missing something when it comes to self-care? What about deleting some people from our lives who don’t contribute? What about the women who are always complaining, who only call you up when they need something (like a babysitter), who thrive on the worst gossip?

I’m talking about the drama queens, the know-it-alls, the takers. These people aren’t our real friends. Continuing to engage with them isn’t healthy. In fact, it’s not just unhealthy, but it can be toxic.

Some of these friends are, at minimum, self-absorbed. Others are downright soul-sucking, leaving you exhausted after every conversation. Some are quick to call you up with another complaint about their boss or partner, but when you need them, they’re too busy.

I began to notice that as I quietly broke up with the absent women, I felt more at peace. I wasn’t carrying the weight of their struggles while being fully engulfed by my own health crisis. I wasn’t yearning for them to realize I was worthy of a check-in text or coffee invitation.

Instead of mulling over these friendships, I was living my life and not in the shadow of their half-ass (if that) attempts at friendship. And because I deleted them from my life, I had more time and energy for the people who really mattered: the friends who did show up when I needed them most. Plus, I had time to make new friends.

It’s easy to feel guilty about letting people go. What about the friend who was in your wedding 15 years ago? What about the college roommate? What about the co-worker who sat one cubicle over with whom you gossiped with over lunch every day for two years?

How and where you met, plus how long you’ve been friends, certainly makes breaking up difficult. Some of the memories are good. But if the present friendship is lackluster at best, if you’re always fighting to keep the relationships above the surface, then is it really worth it?

Cancer was the catalyst for a shift in my self-care perspective. I’m regretful that it took so long for me decide that I am worthy of authentic, loyal, balanced friendships, all of the time.

The goodbye doesn’t have to be dramatic. It’s OK to let someone slip out of your life. But if she asks, when she temporarily comes out of her self-absorbed bubble, tell her the truth. The friendship wasn’t balanced, and you know you’re worthy of better.

Next time you add a mani or massage to the calendar, think about who needs to go. Don’t waste your precious self-care time and energy on those who aren’t willing to invest in you.

You deserve it.