Skip to main content

When Friends Turn Toxic 當好友變毒友

I have known Thomas since we sat next to each other in third grade. Last month during dinner, I shared a piece of good news with my friend of 30 years.

“Guess what? I finally put a downpayment on this flat I told you about!”

Rather than hearty congratulations, I got a look of displeasure, or a “black face” as the Cantonese people would put it.

“They say the property market is about to crash, you know,” Thomas hissed, suddenly a macroeconomist. “I, for one, am not in a rush to buy.”

For the rest of that evening, a single thought kept playing over and over in my head: Thomas has gone toxic.

*                     *                      *

Toxic friendships are a new urban epidemic


Toxic friends are friends who have grown bitter, unsupportive and downright unbearable over the years. They undermine our achievements but secretly compete with us. They may sneer at our career advancements, make cynical remarks about our love lives or call us names behind our back. It is their passive-aggressive way of reminding us that we are no better than them. They bring so much negativity to the relationship that spending time with them often leaves us mentally drained and physically exhausted. We call them “frenemy” because the line between friend and foe has become so blurred we have a hard time telling them apart.

Among the many manifestations of a toxic friendship, none is more common than the cardinal sin of envy. To our toxic friends, success is a zero-sum game and every achievement we make in life is a personal affront. As envy turns into jealousy and jealousy into resentment, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to share anything without first worrying about how they would react. Jealous people have a knack for making everything about themselves, as did Thomas when he took my home ownership as a jab at his renter’s status. While some people see that as narcissism, I think it is insecurity in poor disguise. Sadly, what happened with my friend that night was not an isolated incident but part of a pattern of growing bitterness I have observed over the years.

Sounds familiar?

They say a friend in need is a friend indeed. Though having seen friends like Thomas gone toxic over the years, I am starting to think if the contrary is true. I believe that it is far easier to find friends who would stick around when we are in trouble, than friends who would cheer us on when we succeed. The former is what I call “foul weather friends”  people who are there for us only when we are down on our luck  perhaps it makes them feel superior  but turn bitter the moment we start to do well. Foul weather friends lack the most basic ingredient in any human relationship: the capacity to be happy for one other. Thomas is a case in point.

But I can’t pin it all on him. In the age of oversharing and instant posting, peer comparison is intense and endless. Keeping up with the Joneses no longer means having a greener lawn or a bigger garage, but who gets more “likes” on a vacation selfie or restaurant check-in. If life is but a collection of happy moments, then our Facebook walls, where only the good is flaunted and the bad is conveniently left out, would be public chronicles of our fabulous existence. Even though Facebook has only been around for ten years, it has inflicted enough damage on our self-esteem that psychiatrists are advising us to stay off it from time to time for fear of social media depression. The pressure to outdo each other in the virtual world is beginning to poison friendships in the real life.

Objects on Facebook are less perfect than they appear

Hong Kong is a hotbed for toxic friendships, not least because the lack of personal space is constantly pitting us against each other in a cage match of one-upmanship. That’s why wearable wealth like Rolex watches and Chanel handbags is being rubbed in our faces on a daily basis. But in our concrete jungle, a falling tree doesn’t actually make a sound if there is no one around to hear it. That means neither a new BMW nor a two-karat engagement ring is real unless there is an audience to show off to. That, contrary to what Dionne Warwick has led us to believe, is what friends are for.

What’s more, the city’s rampant materialism is compounded by a peculiar cultural phenomenon: our insistence to hang out with our high school buddies well into our adulthood. Despite all the people who have come in and out of our lives, they are the ones we choose to be our BFFs. Over the years, however, the sharp edges of our childhood images are worn down and sweet memories of time past give way to meaningless competition. Even if we don’t have much in common with our school friends any more, we continue to keep tabs on each other’s successes and failures. Every time we get a news update from an old schoolmate, whether it is the class clown making partner at a law firm or the homecoming queen filing for divorce, we make a mental note to work harder to stay ahead of the curve.

We love hanging out with high school friends

A toxic social environment breeds toxic friends. While not everyone will turn out like Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie, bad friendships are a reality with which many urbanites must wrestle. So what do we do when a friend turns toxic? The most common response is to suck it up and write it off as c’est la vie. Calling a toxic friend out will invariably get ugly, for someone who begrudges us for our achievements will unlikely take a constructive criticism well, much less do something about it. He will invariably turn the tables around and accuse us of doing the same to him. And we will most certainly be caught off guard and start wondering if he has a point, for who among us is without sin  or an occasional black face?

Another reason why we tend not to confront a toxic friend is that doing so will likely put an end to the friendship. It is an outcome most of us try to avoid, not only because we believe it is better to have a frenemy than an outright enemy, but also because we develop a certain level of emotional attachment to our friends no matter how draining the relationship has become. Criminal psychologists call it the “Stockholm syndrome.” It is another term to describe the fear of loneliness. After all, no one enjoys scrambling for company to go to the movies when the weekend rolls around. And so we choose to stay in a hurtful friendship even if it makes us unhappy.

Some friends are mutually toxic

But not me. After careful deliberation, I came to the conclusion that my friendship with Thomas was beyond repair. I decided to stop reaching out to him and, as if acting on cue, he too stopped reaching out to me. We haven’t seen each other for nearly a year now. Last November, I missed his birthday for the first time in 30 years. Breaking up with anyone  especially a friend I have known and cared about since I was nine years old – is hard, but sometimes it has to be done.

We make friends in different ways, but almost always by serendipity. Friends tend to fall into our laps, like the kid who happens to live next door or the co-worker we run into at the pantry by chance. Just like that, we become friends and start hanging out, bound only by thin threads of common interests and shared experiences. While a few of them will blossom into something rewarding and enduring, others will fail the test of time, not for the lack of a good heart, but because we advance in life at a different pace. In some instances, letting go is the only way to prevent a soured relationship from festering, as it is the case for Thomas and me. Even though the two of us are no longer friends, I will always consider him a good teacher.

You've got to do what you've got to do
__________________________

This article was published in the March 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As printed in MANIFESTO

Popular Posts

Book Review: "Generation HK" 書評:《香港世代》

Unpacking the young generation in Hong Kong is a tall order, not least because a singular, archetypical “Hong Kong youth” does not exist. The cohort is as diverse and divergent as it comes, from socioeconomic background and upbringing to education and exposure to the wider world, to values, ideals and aspirations. It defies stereotypes and generalisations.

Ben Bland, a British correspondent for The Financial Times, is in a unique position to take on that ambitious project. Whereas Bland’s extensive experience reporting in Asia—including stints in Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Myanmar—has given him a broad field of view, his relatively short tenure in Hong Kong—just over two years—allows him to look at its people through a long-range lens.
It is that unadulterated objectivity and his unquenched curiosity that make Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow a discerning and refreshing read. Released last summer under Penguin Book’s inaugural “Hong Kong series” to mark the 20…

From Street to Chic, Hong Kong’s many-colored food scene 由大排檔到高檔: 香港的多元飲食文化

Known around the world as a foodie’s paradise, Hong Kong has a bounty of restaurants to satisfy every craving. Whether you are hungry for a lobster roll, Tandoori chicken or Spanish tapas, the Fragrant Harbour is certain to spoil you for choice.
The numbers are staggering. Openrice, the city’s leading food directory, has more than 25,000 listings—that’s one eatery for every 300 people and one of the highest restaurants-per-capita in the world. The number of Michelin-starred restaurants reached a high of 64 in 2015, a remarkable feat for a city that’s only a little over half the size of London. Amber and Otto e Mezzo occupied two of the five top spots in Asia according to The World’s Best Restaurants, serving up exquisite French and Italian fares that tantalise even the pickiest of taste buds.

While world class international cuisine is there for the taking, it is the local food scene in Hong Kong that steals the hearts of residents and visitors alike. Whatever your budget and palate…

Join the Club 入會須知

You have reached a midlife plateau. You have everything you thought you wanted: a happy family, a well-located apartment and a cushy management job. The only thing missing from that bourgeois utopia is a bit of oomph, a bit of recognition that you have played by the rules and done all right. A Porsche 911? Too clichéd. A rose gold Rolex? Got that last Christmas. An extramarital affair that ends in a costly divorce or a boiled bunny? No thanks. How about a membership at one of the city’s country clubs where accomplished individuals like yourself hang out in plaid pants and flat caps? Sounds great, but you’d better get in line.

Clubs are an age-old concept that traces back to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The introduction of coffee beans to England in the mid-17th Century spurred the proliferation of coffeehouses for like-minded gentlemen to trade gossip about the monarchy over a hot beverage. In the centuries since, these semi-secret hideouts evolved into main street establishments t…

Who is Agnes Chow? 誰是周庭?

It was roughly six months ago when Nathan Law, chairman of Demosisto, lost his job. He and five other pro-democracy lawmakers had strayed from the prescribed oath during the swearing-in ceremony, and were ousted from the Legislative Council (LegCo) after Beijing issued a reinterpretation of the oath-taking provisions in the Basic Law. Many saw the unseating of six democratically-elected lawmakers, dubbed “Oathgate” in the local press, as a calculated political move to purge the legislature of the opposition.

The time to fill some of these vacated seats is finally upon us. Four by-elections will be held simultaneously on March 11, in Hong Kong Island, Kowloon West, New Territories East and for the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape sector.
Barely old enough to run, 21-year-old Agnes Chow (周庭) of pro-democracy party Demosisto has thrown her hat into the ring hoping to win back Law’s Hong Kong Island seat. Her decision to run has not come without a price: she has deferred …

As You LIKE It 人人讚好

Social media are the greatest invention of the 21st Century, not least because they provide ready fillers for life’s many dull moments. The virtual world is the perfect antidote to our real life drudgery. Bring on the mile-long taxi line, the interminable Monday morning meeting and even the deadly silent treatment from an upset spouse. All we need to do is whip out our phones, drop our heads and, with a flick of the thumb, wade through stream after mind-numbing stream of news feeds and tweets. In the parallel universe of restaurant check-ins, vacation selfies and baby videos, we are the celebrities and we are the groupies. No one wants to admit it, but many of us have started to reorganize our lives based on how the status update would look on our carefully manicured timeline.

It is therefore all the more important to observe proper online decorum and protect our virtual image. The idea that anything goes in Cyberspace, or that a random post is as consequence-free as tossing a bottl…

The Moonscape of Sexual Equality - Part 1 走在崎嶇的路上-上卷

There are things about America that boggle the mind: gun violence, healthcare costs and Donald Trump. But once in a while – not often, just once in a while – the country gets something so right and displays such courage that it reminds the rest of the world what an amazing place it truly is. What happened three days ago at the nation’s capital is shaping up to be one of those instances.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down a 5-to-4 decision on same-sex marriage, the most important gay rights ruling in the country’s history. In Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Kennedy wrote, “It would misunderstand [gay and lesbian couples] to say that they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find fulfillment for themselves… They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” 
With those simple words, Justice Kennedy made marriage equality a constitutionally prote…