Much like I used to think I was above having a “midlife crisis” until I had one, I also thought I was above being in “toxic relationships” until I realized I’d been in some. And I wasn’t in them for a little while; I had been in them for a long time.
This painting is called “The Gift of a New Circle”. It sold in less than ten minutes of sharing the image to my social media pages.
I believe it sold so quickly due to the fact that it flowed from a place of vulnerability so deep inside of me that one year ago it would have been too fresh to talk about, but now it’s time. The art, this concept of our friendships “in the middle”, this subject of a “new circle”, is a conversation we must have.
One of the most common private emails and messages I receive are about the pain and questions about friendships “in the middle”.
Every few months it seems social media gets a new buzzword. In the last year or two, one of the buzz-phrases was “toxic relationships”. Suddenly, everyone became “triggered” over this or that, and people were labeled “toxic” left and right. The artist in me really rebels against incorporating buzzwords. And the little catch-phrase “toxic relationships” in particular bothered me, because in my mind relationships are a gift to be treasured, meant to last a lifetime, and the differences must be worked through. There simply was, in my mind, no such thing as a “toxic relationship”, except in the most extreme cases of abuse or neglect.
And the fish in the water doesn’t know it’s in the water, because the water “just is”. I was in some toxic relationships, and had been for awhile.
This is one of the quotes that used to bother the living daylights out of me. One year ago, I knew for sure I would never up and “get a new circle”.
So in a year’s time, the Lord has given me a completely different circle - made up of some old friends and many new friends, but the configuration has fundamentally changed. The circumstances surrounding these events could not have been more confusing and strange. Suffice it to say, being a pastor’s wife puts untold layers of difficulty into this story. But here’s the gist: if you were to ask me one year ago who my closest friends were, the first three people who used to come to my mind, were the first three to go…all in less than three months.
The Lord finally had my full attention. Would that get yours?
I’ve learned the difference between forgiveness and permission. I’ve learned that relationships can indeed be “toxic”. I’ve learned where my behavior was toxic, and I am taking steps to do and behave differently. Most important of all, though, is for me to be able to say this:
The way I was treated was not okay. It might be important for you to repeat those same words. Believe it or not, I had a hard time saying them to even myself, much less writing them in a blog post! Because saying them felt like self pity.
But it wasn’t self pity at all.
In ministry, I tend hearts. I don’t do it perfectly, and it isn’t my full time job, but when I engage the process, I tend hearts with my whole heart. Read those last four words again: “with my whole heart. “ I gotta pay attention to the health of my own heart, and that means I have to pay attention to how others treat it.
My heart is as valuable as anyone else’s, and needs tending. Sometimes, part of tending my one wild and precious heart, means letting go of people who don’t value it, or want to co-opt it for their own agenda.
I want to tell you this: You don’t have to be a passenger on anyone’s emotional roller coaster. In fact, I would tell you that if you find yourself a passenger, get off, and quick! Some examples of “roller coaster” behavior: up/down, hot/cold, everything is fine but a month later it isn’t fine at all, sudden stiff smiles, “we can still be friends/but I get to criticize your husband”, the words “I love you” are withheld for reasons unknown, or there are “notice me/yet I hide” behaviors.
When that sort of erratic behavior is aimed at you, things are toxic. I hate to say it, believe me.
When “everything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law”….it really is time to just quietly exit the cart.
Give forgiveness, full and complete…but don’t give permission.
You can always rejoin the person when she exits her roller coaster. In fact, you will love her better from the ground, not from inside her cart. Because you have other people you need to be available to, you have your own grief and sorrows inherent to midlife to bear, and you have your own faithfulness to tend. Quite frankly - you need to be sane while doing it.
This is where being “in the middle” changes things up - a lot. Life reaches a place where you do not have the bandwidth to deal with “toxic” behavior (for lack of a better term) and deal with your own father’s declining health and your prodigal son and full time ministry and getting your fledgling art business off the ground. If I’m sounding autobiographic by now, please forgive me.
I will ride any roller coaster with anyone who is coping with the transitions inherent to midlife. In fact, let’s ride that one together!
But when the roller coaster involves the friendship itself, when suddenly I can do nothing right, cannot be who I am, something is wrong. It’s time for me to get off the roller coaster ride. When you are made to feel responsible for someone else’s volatile emotions, or when you are blamed as though you are the source of what is actually someone’s problems within their own life transitions…it is time for you to exit the cart, too.
It’s hard. I know. It was hard for me, precisely because I never have been that good at being a good girlfriend to anyone. I have made many mistakes, and will make many more.
But my mistakes (and yours) are never best evaluated on a roller coaster ride. They are best evaluated from the ground.
It’s okay to stop the ride and get off. It is okay to let go. God is safe to trust, and He will place a new circle around you. He did it for me supernaturally quickly, because I lost my circle for reasons most women never have to deal with. For you, it may take more time. But He is faithful. Never forget that Jesus is a friend who sticks closer than any sister.
The health of your heart matters. Well meaning people can make your heart sick. And sometimes, time reveals that some people don’t actually mean well.
I want to pour you a hot beverage, and I want to put a box of Kleenex between us, and I want to ask you to repeat after me:
“Jesus loves me TOO, this I know. For the Bible tells me so. Middle ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong.”
This year, how about you and I decide to BE the kind of friend we want to have? I have made some significant adjustments in 2018, and man has it been deepening and widening my circle. MAN, has it been good. I have more adjustments to make in 2019 - I’m a work in progress. More coffee, more talking, more caring, more joy. Whimsical joy! I want to be more intentional about both the way I treat others…and the way I allow myself to be treated. I sure hope you join me. You may or may not be in my circle, but you are in someone’s circle - and your circle is the best! Love what is yours! The beautiful souls in your circle deserve the best of you, and you deserve to be treasured!
(Prints of “The Gift of a New Circle” are available here, in my shop…)