Through biology, we are constantly renewing. Cheek cells are replenished every day, skin cells every 27 days, liver cells every 6 weeks, and on through our different cell types until a person is almost entirely refreshed every 7 years. One cell type that doesn’t refresh, though, are neurons, the cells that make up the brain. That means that your brain stays the same.

This is a good thing—it prevents us from losing our memories, from losing what we see as fundamentally ourselves. That said, it maintains the bad parts, too. Physically, we can slough off the parts of ourselves that are no longer useful, and we can start fresh. Mentally, however, we tend to get caught in the same grooves—like skates on a crowded ice rink—and repeat the same old problems and habits over and over again.

Around the beginning of the new year, I can’t help but reflect on my issues, on my harmful relationships, and on my shortcomings. Many of them are the same year after year. Many of them will remain the same in coming years, too, if I don’t put in the incredibly difficult work of internal reflection and honest evaluation of why I am still doing, being, and surrounding myself by toxic things, habits, and people.

My latest revelation is that, for the past five years, I’ve had a close friend who isn’t good for me. Of course, we have all encountered people who are harmful to us, and, with any luck, experience teaches us how to avoid them. To some extent, this is true of me too; I’ve gotten much better at recognizing this type of unhealthy relationship when it comes to higher-investment, single-person connections like romantic relationships or business partners or even roommates. I have to admit, though, that relationships that have no limit (a person can have one friend or one million friends), it’s much easier to just keep the harmful person around. Why take on the work and stress of confronting the person when you could just as easily try to distance yourself, hang out with other friends, or ignore this person until you’ve calmed down?

“For the past five years, I’ve had a close friend who isn’t good for me.”

But the reality is that, if someone is your friend, if someone is connected to you in any way, then they affect your life. They get into your head, and they get under your skin. And in an abusive relationship, they make mind-grooves for you to get stuck in.

I was stuck in a consistent cycle:

  1. Tension, when the negative behavior towards me would start and build over time.
  2. Explosion, when I eventually hit a breaking point and thought that it would be worth the confrontation to break out of this relationship that kept hurting me.
  3. Re-bonding, when the toxic friend would see that she might finally lose me and suddenly give me everything that had been lacking, but only long enough to keep me around before the negative behavior would start again, pushing me back into the tension phase.

“Turns out that I’m not alone in this. My own cycle pretty closely matched the classic abuse cycle.”

This year, I felt myself being hurt by her again. The tension phase had hit a breaking point, and I had to speak up. But this time, that was it. There was no re-bonding phase. There will be no more tension phases, no more explosion phases, and no more of the pain that came with those times. There will be no more time wasted trying to figure out how to fix what is fundamentally broken, and no more time asking why I felt so bad with her but not with other friends, family members, partners, or colleagues.

Honestly, it was hard to end things. It’s hard to admit that, for some people, there just isn’t anything that you’re going to be able to do to help them. I had tried to make our friendship work for years, but I just got hurt more with time, and her behavior never really changed. For one reason or another, she kept hurting me, and I could not help her. She was caught in her own mind-grooves, and I couldn’t pull her out of them. I could, however, move out of the way this time, before her grooves brought her crashing right into me.

“Honestly, it was hard to end things.”

In five years, I shed a lot of cells, many times. My stomach lining refreshed 1,826 times. My white blood cells were replaced 5 times, and my red blood cells were replaced 15 times. My skin cells were renewed 150 times.

My brain, though, stayed the same. My feelings stayed the same. My desire to look out for and stick by someone who wanted to be my friend remained the same. The illusion that it would be good or healthy or productive for me to keep trying in what was ultimately an emotionally and intellectually abusive relationship, however, had changed.

Luckily, those same unchanging brains are pretty powerful when we listen to them, particularly when they team up with our hearts and our guts. We can find these patterns, recognize how they hurt us and others, and try to find a way to shed them, even if biology doesn’t do it for us. Once we see the grooves—once they catch a ray of sun and become visible—we can lift our skates out and change track.