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Book Review: Toxic Friends by Susan Shapiro Barash

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The premise is simple: you can’t change your friends, but you can change the way you deal with them. A toxic friendship can be dealt with once you understand what is going on and your contribution to it. Once you figure out your part in starting and sustaining it, you will be able to take the steps to improve it or, if it’s hopeless, get out of the relationship knowing that you did what was possible.

You would expect women, the mothers and caregivers of our society, to be especially caring and nurturing towards each other. After all, who better can understand what a woman is going through than another woman? But as most women (and men) can tell you, female friendships are so complicated that many (if any!) can’t understand what exactly is going on.

Oh, the number of times a female friend of mine said something to which I had absolutely nothing to say. This is highly unusual for someone as verbose as I am.

Which is why I have always been baffled by the way women act towards each other, and how, in an era where woman have so many more rights, we seem to be held down more by each other than by men. How many times do we worry about what a man thinks about what we are wearing versus what a woman thinks?

On top of that, we live in a society that thrives on off the roof drama. And so, women’s fights are often encouraged and even enabled. This makes books such as Toxic Friends all the more important, as they help us identify the real issues at hand, understand them, and rise above such pettiness.

The tone of the book is that of a curious and systematic investigation of what types of women exist. It is based on various essays on the topic as well as a study the author did. A strong point is that the book is explorative in nature and in tone; rather than preaching a truth to readers, it invites them to join in the journey of figuring out what toxic friendships are about, who plays which role and how it can be dealt with.

The majority of the chapters cover not only the aspect of each identified personality type, but also the way the women interviewed for the study who are of that personality type perceive themselves, how women who are not of that personality type perceive it and the personality type’s contribution to a group dynamic. Each chapter ends with what I believe to be the book’s biggest strength: a series of questions that make the reader think in depth about the personality type, its presence in her life and what she can do about its potential toxic effects.

As I read through the book, faces flashed by as I remembered past or current relationships. All my friends, my female coworkers, my female neighbours, my female family members were one by one identified as one or a combination of the ten described personality types. I also identified my own personality type, and was intrigued by the way the author describes how others react to it.

There are two other books I would recommend reading at the same time as Toxic Friends, before or after.

The first one is The Lolita Effect, by M. Gigi Durham. Many of the relationship issues as well as the personality profiles described in Toxic Friends were reflected in The Lolita Effect, which talks about the media sexualization of young girls, its effect on the way they act, the consequences it has on their identity and their relationships and five keys to fix it. After all, a lack of self-confidence, as exploited and enhanced by today’s corporations and the media, underlines many of the issues at the heart of Toxic Friends, so why not try to understand how we women were ourselves affected, as kids, teenagers, young adults and adults, to be able to build a form of immunity against it and not fall into the trap of a toxic relationship again?

The other companion read for Toxic Friends is Rafe Esquith’s Lighting their Fires. I know, I know – how can a book about children’s education help adult women with their toxic friends? Well, Rafe Esquith offers a wealth of information that, while they are meant for parents to use when raising their children, they should probably have incorporated into their own personality beforehand. It isn’t difficult, with a little mental aerobics, to see how these two books could work together. For example, Rafe Esquith talks over and over about the importance of communication, and how things like learning to play an instrument and putting on plays help develop the skills to communicate, including eloquence, emotional conversations and timing. In Toxic Friends, many of the problems are related to the fact that women cannot seem to be able to communicate honestly and effectively together.

Now imagine if a mother is reading both books at the same time. She identifies the need for her child to learn to communicate more effectively while reading Lighting their fire, and later on identifies how her toxic friendships have a lot to do with the fact that she herself doesn’t know how to communicate with her friends. Wouldn’t it be powerful for such a mother to work on a form of project with her child so that both learn to communicate more effectively with each other and with others?

And now imagine if this mother’s child is a pre-teen or a teenage daughter who is going through the intensely difficult period of time covered by The Lolita effect, and the mother can use this newfound quality communication to talk to her daughter about it.

This is what I call being efficient. Because, let’s be honest, however fantastic they are, mothers are also limited by the fact that there are only 24 hours in one day, and that they need some sleep.

Toxic Friends is a must read for any woman.

A word of caution: the author refers to many essays that are available online. If you are anything like me, plan to spend a LONG time reading this book, since you are going to spend double, if not triple, the time reading the essays she refers to. But they are all so interesting that it’ll be worth it.

Enjoy, and I hope your friendships with fellow females will benefit from reading this book.

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