Could a friend cull be good for your health?

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I don’t have enough spare time. And I’m betting you don’t either.

I’m 31, have lived in the same city for 11 years and am now at a point in life where work, socialising, maintaining some semblance of a healthy routine and finding time to spend with my partner feels like a juggling act.

This is not a complaint. I love living in the capital, have a job I jump out of bed to do and have miraculously acquired a group of – what I believe to be –truly brilliant friends.

The last part, at least, is no accident.

Around four years ago as my job got more demanding, health became a greater priority and I realised my body could no longer deal with four nights out on the trot, I realised something had to give.

And, frankly, there comes a time in every woman’s life when she has to admit that a night at home on the sofa with Poldark and a glass of wine is just as satisfying, dare I say it…moreso, than a night in a clammy Camden bar peeling your handbag off the floor and spending 20 minutes queuing for the ladies.

But somewhere along the way, I had acquired a group of friends whose demands outnumbered the amount of time I had available meaning I was constantly out or perpetually feeling guilty for letting people down at the last minute.

So – at 28 – I decided to cull my burgeoning friendship group.

Before you write me off for thinking this excess of friends was because I was an especially brilliant or lovely person, rest assured that was not the case.  I was as useless as the next overstretched woman when it came to last minute cancellations, delayed text responses, occasional no-shows and plenty of bemoaning how busy I was when I did arrive.

Yet a straw poll of the Stylist office finds this is a very common problem among my age group.

A combination of university friends, first job friends, work friends, home friends and random friends - not to mention virtual friends - can combine to a feeling of total overwhelm.

And I must also explain excess of friends didn’t mean I wasn’t lonely.

While I may have appeared busy and popular on the outside, it was only during a tough time in my personal life that I realised that the majority of these friendships were empty. There were only a small handful of people who I wanted to pick up the phone to, who I wanted to cry into the arms of, who I could truly call my friend. My huge circle had left me feeling overwhelmingly, horribly, desperately lonely.

Unsurprisingly – though I would say wrongly - it is not ‘the done thing’ to break off contact with friends in the way we would, say, a boyfriend or a bad boss.

And so it is that we go through life picking up lots of great new people along the way, but at no point skimming leftovers or bad apples off the pile.

Because there will be bad apples. Whether it’s the occasional undermining comment, constant negativity or full-scale bitchiness; unless you are incredibly lucky, there will be people in your friendship circle who make you feel bad.

Toxic friendships can be the most draining, exhausting relationship you have and can take time and energy away from the ones that make you feel light and clever and funny and special.

So I asked myself one simple question ‘Does this person make me feel happy?’

You could argue that is an incredibly selfish approach.

But, while I knew I had work to do to be the best friend possible, asking myself this simple question meant I could quickly establish whether the friendship was worth investing in.

And before you write me off as a cold hearted cow, I should mention that I judged the relationship in its entirety not on a moment in time. Of course there were friends – those going through tough times – absolved from the cull. We all have times when making other people ‘feel good’ is the last priority we have.

But, on the whole, this one question made the decision of who to cull incredibly easy.

Gone was the school mean girl who I’d been desperate to befriend at 14 and had been making snide comments on the way I looked ever since. Gone were the work friends who I’d spent too many nights to count in the pub with speed drinking cheap white wine but who never asked a single question about my new job. Gone was the former boyfriend's close friend who brought a constant reminder of the life I was no longer a part of. 

Yes I was ruthless. These women had played an important part in my life, and vice versa. But I wanted to truly commit to a small but special friendship group, and somehow these people left me feeling empty and sad after we met. They had to go.

The practicalities of the cull were fairly straightforward. To begin with, I just started saying ‘no’ to more things. It’s a horrible thing to tell someone that you don’t have time in your life for them and, even writing it now, I feel callous. So I decided not to – I just kept making excuses until, finally, people got the message.

I did get called out. Two friends challenged me on my decision to distance myself from them and it led to difficult conversations. I tried to explain my actions without the emotion. Nobody likes to feel they aren’t worth your time but the reality was that our lives had grown in different directions or we’d outgrown each other. When I put it like this, these people were in agreement and we agreed to go our own way.

The others? They barely even noticed.

The cull left me with a group of 10 brilliant people who did everything in their power to make me feel loved and special and successful and happy. And I promised myself I would now do all in my power to do the same.  

I would meet them, last minute, after a bad day. I would spend hours on the phone dissecting what text messages meant or lamenting difficult bosses. I would send thoughtful emails when they were going through tough times. I would have time to housesit and dogsit.  

And, four years later, I look back on it as the best decision I ever made. I still make new friends, and I love having time in my life to be able to spend proper time with marvellous people when I come across them.

Plus my core group of friends have become second family to me - being the first port of call whenever I am in crisis or just need someone to sit on the sofa and watch Poldark with. 

Some people might call it ruthless but culling toxic friendships was one of the healthiest things I ever did. Tell me, would you do it too? 


Words: Maggie Hitchins

Pictures: Thinkstock and writer's own 

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