Should I confront my toxic friend about her bad behaviour? It’ll cause discomfort within the group | Leading questions

Confrontation comes at a social cost, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. You need to figure out if paying that cost will be a fair deal

I’ve been “friends” with a person since secondary school (nearly 30 years). We have had short phases where we’ve been pretty close but also times where we really just don’t see eye to eye or have anything in common. The past couple of years I believe her behaviour has become particularly toxic and I’ve been trying to keep my distance from her. Unfortunately though our paths do cross from time to time due to a particular social circle and also a couple of shared WhatsApp groups.

I believe she’s a narcissist and feel like I’m walking on eggshells whenever I’m in her company. She also tries to belittle me often both in real and virtual company. I therefore find her company difficult and uncomfortable. We share some old friends and they seem to tolerate and accept her behaviour as just “her”.

I’ve been trying to avoid any social settings where I’ll be in close proximity to her, which is fairly easily done as I have other friends to spend time with, but occasionally I’m forced to be in her company.

I suppose my big question is: should I confront her about her bad behaviour or continue to try and avoid her as she’ll never change and it’ll just cause discomfort within the group?

Eleanor says: I’ve long thought the modus operandi of bad behaviour is that everyone will be too polite to point it out. It’s just so socially expensive to tell someone you condemn what they did. Sometimes we need to take a galvanising deep breath just to tell mutual friends that’s what we think. I don’t know why this is. We’re supposed to have internal moral alarms, but it’s so easy to feel moralistic instead of moral when we start saying “I didn’t like that”.

The reality is people rarely have epiphanies out of nowhere, so if you’re finding this person’s behaviour objectionable now, there’s some reason to think you’ll keep feeling that way. And you’re well within your rights to decide that disqualifies her from your social life. Fridge-magnet aphorisms get it right when they say life’s too short for jerks.

But you asked whether you should confront her. This is a little tricky to answer without specifics, but here’s a test I’ve sometimes found useful when weighing up social costs of speaking out.

The first question to ask yourself is about the stakes – how important is it to attempt to change what she is doing? Next: how likely is it that a confrontation will actually secure that change?

Are other people being hurt or deceived in big ways? Is she contributing to discrimination or social problems that you can’t abide with a clean conscience? Or is she just being a shmucky friend, making barbs, being selfish?

The more important the change you’re hoping to trigger, the less you need to ensure the interaction stays friendly. If she’s embezzling from her family, or something equally drastic, even the tiniest chance of changing that situation seems worth the social cost of confrontation. But if the best-case scenario is that she stops making every situation about her (let’s say), then it’s much more of a line call – it depends on how confident you are in the conversation achieving its aims.

If you’re in that latter situation, it might be worth reflecting on the language of “toxicity” and “narcissism”.

Instead of labels, it might be more useful to think in terms of how she makes you feel. Branding someone’s behaviour as bad is an accusation, for which you’ll be asked to show a whole lot of working.

But if you’re just saying what you feel, it’s hard for anyone (especially her) to say you’ve got that wrong. Variations on “when you X it makes me feel Y” might be useful here, and they don’t saddle you with the burdens of proof that come with ruling someone capital-b Bad.

If she is a bonafide and diagnosable narcissist, telling her so is unlikely to make her agree. But if she isn’t, attributing her behaviour to a personality disorder might prevent you both from genuinely understanding why she acts the way she does, which will make it harder to change.


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