‘The Graceful Gardener’ When does a friendship become toxic?

The Graceful Gardener

Back in Dubai, in the blazing heat with limited nature around, I had become fond of my little bird friends, who were recently becoming more confident and picky in the food I gave them.  On one morning, when I added some more food to their feeder, the one that was there flew away.  Usually it would come back but this time it didn’t. I was disappointed that I had prepared yet another food option for him and yet he hadn’t come back. I sat and waited a while, willing him to come. Then realised that I couldn’t will him to come anymore than I could will him to stay. He was free; free to visit and free to leave.

Instead, perhaps I could offer my treat of my love and support and be pleased when he graced me with his presence rather than sit by the window and wait for him to come back. I realised he may never come back today at all and what did I do with my time? While he was flying around and preparing for bed time? I waited.

Potentially I could have become stubborn and reacted. But I didn’t want to bring my food back in, for he might never come back and he might be upset and confused when he returned. Why would I do that, other than bitterness or resentment? I thought about our connection; I too got something out of his visit.  I got his company in return. It was still a choice that I participated in the two way relation.


And so it made me think about people as birds.  They too are free to do as they wish so long as there is mutual benefit. We are each free to fly or stay; we cannot try to catch another and cage it, nor can we try and get too close if they are not willing or not trusting.   We can, however bask in each other’s presence and smile when they drop by.

Only we know when the bird is simply coming only for food.  Only we know if we are those birds accepting of this, not accepting of this, or if we are even the bird doing this.

While I was living alone in Dubai, it dawned on me one day, an epiphany maybe? Who knows, but certainly a shift of perspective inside.  To me it was huge inside, but on the surface it may sound something small.

I guess this is why we can only find our own meanings and teaching because our experiences in our journey are everything.  How can one explain to another about love who has never been in love? Or grief, if no the other has not experienced?  And how about the moment one realises that it’s all about choice?

This happened to me and it was the greatest realisation I uncovered in the last few years.  So nevertheless I will share my experience using friendship as the focus point.  Maybe it will somehow ring true and come to mind in the future, when faced with internal and external choices, in any situation.

I had been in Dubai 7 years and 5 of those were in the single zone. This came with many benefits living in a busy and extremely lively city where friends were made easily and going out alone was the norm in a safe and convenient environment. Life revolved around work, and this was reflected in all industries; it was work so hard, and play harder.

Before my life balanced out, this was me and I loved it.  But I had gone through the ‘play hard’ scene, which was predominantly driven by the change and lack of close social support that I was accustomed to in the UK.  However, I had begun detaching from the nightlife and eventually even the ‘work hard’ parts, feeling that something was changing, something urging me to stop burning the candle at both ends. I was finding joy in peace, calmness and oneness.   It dawned on me that this was why I was selective of who I spent time with. Not only in relation to a type of person or friend but to ensure I had enough down time on my own, not filled with events and people.  With friends, this was not so much in a conscious way but in a more subtle way; I think I was somehow checking if we were on a similar energy level; did we connect? Could we be ourselves and did we want to see each other as often (or as little) as the other? I had been hurt by friends in the past who had either misunderstood me or just didn’t have the same vibrations as me and as a result it left me feeling inadequate.  I had unknowingly developed a subconscious system of extremely close people in my life (both in the UK and Dubai) which consisted of being able to count these individuals on one hand. I then had a wider circle of close friends,  people that I loved to be around and enjoyed their company when I saw them, followed by peripherals and then those way outside the zone.

I had moved beyond the times where I enjoyed large groups of social parties and the casual and tedious talk of daily antics. Of course that small talk can be a bonding too but more so when developing new friendships.  With flowering friendships I had hoped this would advance further.  This was confusing at times and I even judged myself but I was beginning to become more interested in unique individuals from all kinds of backgrounds and ages; younger and older, so long as I found that connection with them.  It took some time to morph into my new self and at the time it felt as though I was moving against the grain of society expectations.  

I didn’t know it at the time but I had already begun to filter those whom I preferred not to have in my company. Initially with guilt, but later with acceptance and finally, peace.  However, the more aware I became of myself gently excluding people (without yet the knowledge of why)  I decided to try to mindfully be aware not to exclude those individuals merely because of differences but more try to add them into the mix, if it occurred in a natural energetic pull.  What I mean by this is that sometimes opposites or friction can create a beautiful learning opportunity and these friends can become life-long friends or simply be with us for a moment in time as they touch our lives showing us something.  And then we let go with love.  Inevitably we are drawn to those similar but also those opposite types can compliment a friendship, so long as there is value in the friendship.  This weighing up can be tough, as I was later to find out when I started to truly understand myself and what the right choices were for me, when it came to the crunch.


The change in how I approached relationships with friends came after a painful experience, much like any significant learning or realisation.  It was a night that had built up from three weeks of torment.  It was a period of time after being promoted where I had been abandoned (as I saw it) by my mentor and left to fend for myself  leading a pack that were wary of my leadership, a leadership that I also didn’t believe I had.  Partly because of my own insecurities and partly due to extreme dictatorship by my then manager.  I had been promoted to a fully male middle-aged Korean management team and I was 30, western and female. I could feel their negative and judgemental thoughts as I walked through the office corridors, and those suspicions had been confirmed by a trusted fellow Korean colleague who was looking out for me.

I had learned to pick up on tone, certain Korean words, mixed in with one or two English words and names of people; the body language and tone was another give away, and invariably I was able to understand what was going on. To my saviour, the very colleague who was preferred by the management team to be the next leader over me, was very supportive and helped me to understand the situation.  He also helped me to translate my messages to the other Koreans in the team who could not speak English well yet and thereby build the team camaraderie and consequential high performance.  For this I will always be thankful.  

In addition to the pressure from above, I had received no training on how to manage a team and no mentorship.  I had no preparation build up, yet was in charge of a corporate Learning and Development team for Middle East and Africa covering 89 countries.  I was however, looking back, eternally grateful to my previous strict manager for both promoting me and trusting in me and the way he managed because ultimately he made me extremely strong and taught me valuable life long skills.  There was some side-effects health wise which took years to overcome but I still believe this was all training for my next chapter in helping others to overcome stress, anxiety, burnout and/ or depression. I am also thankful to the senior management team who finally came to trust me and embrace me as one team.  

I had never wanted to be a manager and did not believe in myself after experiencing years of ridicule and put down on my capability.  I was to come to learn that this was apparently a tool to encourage and push me to my limit. Certainly not one I would adopt, but it had worked. I had developed more in 3 years than I think I would ever in triple that amount of time, which was why I became a director level at 34 years old when I moved company.   On the surface it looked successful but my self esteem was incredibly low. I was in panic and depressed at the same time. I had recently sent my dog (and literally my best friend) back to the UK after trying to look after him by myself for another 2 years working 12-14 hour days with dog sitters and walkers left right and centre.  I was finally unable to look after him after a turbulent relationship ended with my ex fiancé moving back to the UK. 

Bruce (the dog) was over there with me for 4-5 years and 2 of those years were without the support of my ex.  2 years of trying to make it work in every way.  My life revolved around the dog and the guilt I felt that I was not able to be with him as much as I could.  He had lots of company, but it wasn’t me and it wasn’t consistent and it led slowly towards a more nervous dog.  It was after my first trip to a Sri Lanka that really set my inner world journey in motion for me and my Bruce; one for it being my first yoga retreat which opened my eyes up in a whole other way (and whole other story) but also it triggered the selfless act of rehoming Bruce and cementing my 2 year decision; seeing the freedom and peace in the face of those dogs had finally made my decision. It was heart breaking and took more than 3 years to overcome it. I still dream about him know 4 or 5 years later but that was because our bond was so strong.  But when I think of the photos that his new mum sent of hi running through the woods, rivers, going on camping trips with their two older kids, I know he is living the life he deserves.

Meanwhile, back to the end of those 3 weeks of distress, I had experienced three weeks of drinking 2-3 glasses of wine every night at home and collapsing on the bed before falling asleep and dragging myself out of bed for work in the morning.  The only thing keeping me motivated was knowing that people were relying on me.  It wasn’t extensive drinking (compared to what I had been drinking on weekends), nor over a long period I guess but it was out of character and something I was dependant upon and so something that was raising a red flag for me despite the fog.

It wasn’t a major incident in comparison to other experiences people may have had, and new ones I’ve had since then, but an experience nevertheless and loneliness was there in whatever form; away from family, no family of my own and not the stoniest of friendships. At the office I remember once or twice crying in the bathroom before running a meeting, scared if I was doing it right while not even wanting to do the role in the place. So many times I nearly walked out of the company and it felt so good to think of doing that. But various incidents seemed to be synchronised to prevent that.  I was confined to stay, and it hurt.  

I would walk up the stairs to that office, with a feeling so low, like a stone the size of a rugby ball was in my stomach and weighing me down. I tried all my tricks to try keep positive and move forward but all I wanted to do was walk.  I would greet the team a chirpy hello and good morning, with internal resentment and slob on my desk, recovering from the vile feeling of faking it, while also not knowing how to move from an operational role to management one, and not caring.

It was this experience that changed how I approached everything,

So what amazing thing happened? Pain. That was what, and a motivation to not feel anymore pain.

I had felt unbelievably down and so decided, finally, to be proactive. I led a very solitude life by choice and even didn’t keep in touch with family that often. Partly because two of my nuclear family my sister and dad were not the keeping in touch kind, whereas my mum had always kept a hand in but I had created a distance and even my friends had toned down their communication in line with what I wanted.

I decided that I needed them and I thought they could make me feel better and the thought alone had encouraged me somewhat to make the move and call one of my friends or family.  Out of every single person not one person was home. It was unbelievably heart breaking.  With each dead end another sob came with an increased desperation. I was already at breaking point and had used all my last bit of positive energy to reach out and when there was no one there I felt more alone than I had ever felt in my life.

Full victim mode commenced.  I was alone. I went through the list in my mind of all my connections I had in Dubai. Not one person was without a family member, best friend or partner.  They all had someone. The realisation was astounding as I sat there on the sofa in utter dismay, shock and jealousy. How dare they complain at some small thing when they have someone to hug them?  It brought another realisation that my last embrace with anyone on an intimate friend or family level was more than six months ago, an embrace! Surely no human should go without this. My current friends in Dubai at the time were not the hugging type and I always respected this and even when I mentioned the positive effects of hugging I didn’t get a hug but I got a book about hugging. I appreciated the sentiment just as much yet the physical reaction of hugging is a yearning from the human soul. The power of touch.  

The shock broke me down into a hole of pain and suffering and full loneliness. ‘No one is here and no one cares’. I was blind to see that I also had been the one who had set the distance from loved ones back home. It was a choice I had made.

In my blinkered view I was angry with them all and I cried and cried.  I cried until I couldn’t cry anymore and then I cried again as I drank my wine. It was then that it dawned on me.  Maybe it was knowing that I had made the distance myself and they just happened to be out enjoying life, as life goes on. We all make choices. Who am I to demand anything from them when I kept the distance on purpose because I too didn’t want to be demanded on? Friendship takes special mutual energy, and who am I to expect their time and demand?  Friendship is a gift; words, texts, calls, time.  It’s given with love and with mutual love, respect and dedicated time.  It’s also about a unspoken contract which can differ between each pair of friends, each person you meet.  It might be different from one friend to another and it’s achieved through subtleties, cues and indirect messages until we get to know someone more and can be confident to be more direct or open.

And it doesn’t just apply to friends it can apply family and even work colleagues.  To some extent although it’s a slightly different dynamic, it can also apply to relationships.  Although we make a pact as such in a relationship, we are still individuals.  No one owes anyone anything; we are all here in our own free will, with our own choices and this is given voluntarily.  Just like our ownership on our work, it’s not a demand, it’s something given by employee if the conditions are right between employer and employee on mutual psychological contract.

I realised I am free and they are free.  It gave me a whole new perspective on giving and receiving and gratefulness and control and freedom.  With work, I met my challenges with my strength; my values.  I got my head down, did my job and proved myself through my work and my strong values.  Eventually everything paid off and I achieved recognition and even lifelong friendship with those colleagues.  My thoughts changed overnight, like a switch. Now I understand; no one owes anyone anything.  Even a smile from a stranger is a gift. They don’t have to.  Once we see ourselves in someone else’s shoes we can see we are all making our way through our own journey and kindness is a true gift in this world, no matter how small.  This change in consciousness helped me to find my own way, my own mentorship; personally and professionally – my self-leadership – I sought out life coaching and management training outside of work and grew to adore the team of which we became successful together, leading the way for L & D within the group.

One thing that must be considered is that when the balance is not appropriate for you, it’s also time to let go and this is something else that I experienced a couple of years after this event and so here are my tips with friendships. Friendship is not a test but if there are too many miscommunications that never seem to be resolved, if there are too many uncomfortable moments or you cannot truly be yourself then something might be amiss, and that’s ok to dissolve the partnership if it doesn’t feel right.  

My best friend passed on a wonderful phrase that her friend told her; ‘there are drains and radiators’, some people take all your energy and some people exude energy.  However, in various times of our lives we might be more of a drain than a radiator, but when are we always the radiator, and when are we we being too much of a drain on some people?

So how do we know when to let go?

  1. Never expect anything from another person other than a mutual agreement
  2. Understand that friends have whole other lives like you do; perhaps with partners and/or families and other friends and issues and challenges and tribulations
  3. When they are suffering sometimes knowing you are there is all they need, and sometimes they need actual practical support. Try to understand which they need and consider how you are communicating the same vice versa. Remember you don’t need to know what to say or do.
  4. Be grateful of the time you have with your friend, cherish the moments and try not to make the other feel guilty in their own choices and time
  5. If you feel things are unbalanced optimise times to share and let out issues, but focus on the learning and moving forward
  6. Keep things level-equal in how you give and take but avoid keeping tabs because throughout life sometimes things can be unbalanced, but we have our whole lives to make that right, don’t run the risk of thinking like a bank with the investment you have given or taking out your money all the time without paying in
  7. In new flowering friendships, be confident and positive in choices and try not to rely or take anything personally, make the effort but keep the balance.  Give them and you space, forgiveness and trust….and don’t rush it
  8. Only you know what is right for you.  If a friendship ends either negatively or naturally dissolves (from either side) double check how you feel; is this something you want to resolve or something that’s ready to go.  This is the decision between letting go and learning together but neither option is a failure, they are both about learning and growing as you continue to grow in yourself

Remember these principles can be applied to anything and anyone, not just friendship.  It’s all about you and your choices and what’s right in this time in your life.  Forgive your younger self and let that part of you go too.  

Friendship is a flower; nurture it, feed and water it and sometimes let it grow in the sun, don’t pick it to keep the beauty that it is.  Be the graceful gardener.


‘The Road, the Cars, and Us’ – A network of thoughts and choices




As I drove from one office to another I felt sudden realisation; we are the cars, the road is our life.

It was a normal scenario – dealing with the comparatively crazy driving in Dubai compared to UK.  Albeit quite organised compared to many other middle eastern countries, or so I had been told by my friends from around the region… cont.

I drove realising how hard it was to concentrate with cars pulling in from the left and the right. I remember that in Dubai the rules don’t always apply and many have 4×4’s for this reason. You might need to ‘off-road’ your way out of a carpark due to the fact the organisations that build facilities are different from those that support carparks and so often there is a mis-match and lack of planning.

For example, it would not be unusual for a car to reverse on a major highway exit due to poor signage, or road planning. Half the time you can’t blame the illegal manoeuvre because you took that route before and you know that if you went that way it would take you about 10k in the wrong direction. Alternatively the driver thinks this is an acceptable act and normal procedure from their country.

You have to have eyes in the back of the head and eventually you get so used to the style of driving that you feel you have a sixth sense in predicting the action of other drivers, even adopting the same style, as creatures do in adapting to fit into their environment.  It somewhat becomes annoying because you can sense when others are going to cut you up and you plan ahead to ensure you prevent the accident that they are about to cause, in advance. It feels as though you are responsible for other people’s’ actions.

This was always the case for the seven years I had been in the region but it started to make me think how this is mirrored in our daily lives and how we interact with others.

This can feel somewhat annoying in that why should we always have to dodge the potential mistakes of others for the ones whom are road aware from the ones who have simply no awareness of the danger they could be causing for others or themselves, and even awareness of how others try to manage their misjudgement.

Why was it like this? Had they never been provided a proper learning opportunity? Or was it years of a kind of lifestyle that has become a habit, or was it just plane ignorance? Was it from the collective nationalities merging into one, creating a certain Dubai style driving? Because it certainly didn’t fall onto one nationality. This driving was not specific to male, female, Eastern, Western or Middle Eastern; we were all guilty.

As I drove, I sensed cars creeping up here and there around me in their tenacious pursuit of destination, speeding off in aggression when they didn’t get their own way, or trying to intimidate others off the road, or the opposite of that – driving dangerously slow, face to the windscreen and wheel, face poised with fearful concentrations, unaware of the many cars having to-overtake left and right and potentially causing more danger.

So many times even I had learned patience from Dubai. I had regular daily face-offs with the road design where most intersections crossed over; where one stream of traffic was coming onto a busy highway and one was coming off… there was no space considered for the transition.  At this very tight cross over we are forced to be fast, selfish and determined while the cautious ones try to carefully navigate through the stream as they made their way to their destination, being beeped at for their effort.

It made me wonder about humans and culture and the culture we have created that is Dubai.  Were issue born from the system itself or the people in manifesting the system?  

Interestingly, our system familiarity also changes, over time I noted as I took my rental car through the UK roads on my recent visit.  Wasn’t the UK easier to drive in, with the respect and complete road signs with enough notice and clear direction? After 7 years in Dubai, it seemed I could not easily estimate the middle of the road, I found the narrow winding roads difficult to drive in auto-mode and needed full concentration, and yet still managed to knock three different wing mirrors. In addition, the signs were informative and appropriately placed but there were too many and too much to read when driving. I noticed this was especially due to being unfamiliar with the common signs as images at first glance. I had to actually read the sign and they changed rapidly, especially the speed which would go from 30 to 40 back to 30 to 50 in such a short distance and with the multitude of speed cameras, one was a little overwhelmed.

Which is right or wrong? Maybe there isn’t a right or wrong, just a different perspective and style, a pattern, a habit.  Isn’t it the same with how we perceive life, our goals, our governments, our culture, our faith?

I came back to the idea about how I let the actions of others impact my journey so much; why should I be the one to prevent the mistakes of others? But if I go to the extreme of simply not caring at all, then I’m just as bad as those that are making these accidents, but maybe worse? Why worse? Because I understand something,  and once you know, you can never go back to what you didn’t know. Everyone is doing the best they can with the awareness that they have at the time Louise Hays.  

How do we make the balance?

One time I was in another typical construction stricken traffic jam on my way home. I was on the bridge of the marina. Water to my left and right, as you might imagine on a bridge. Cars in front and cars behind as we waited at a set of traffic lights, which I had come to ascertain would take about 3 sets to get through. Each set took about 5 minutes. So all in all I knew each day this particular stop point would always take me approx. 15-20 minutes. With this in mind, and trying to use my own tools to manage and calm my mind in these situations, I chose to bring a book, turn on my inner car light and move when the traffic moved – at those 3 points. Mostly my eyes were on the book but with peripheral vision I was able to move immediately when the lights changed. I was even able to move fast enough to prevent the instantaneous beep that Dubaians have come to love, from the driver behind that would be given should anyone miss a millisecond of the light changing. Actually it’s quite impressive at the speed at which these drivers manage to toot the horn as the light goes green.

As I sat waiting and enjoying my book, about 5 minutes into the wait, I was surprised to hear a concession of toots from the driver directly behind me. Luckily my own current state of mind was quite calm to start with. I looked up from my book and in my mirror as I saw the main making aggressive gestures at me. Hmm, I gently spoke out loud to myself.  I checked again the situation, right – water, left- water, in front many many cars, stationary, behind the whaling angry man.

I double checked myself first, did I do something wrong? No. He continued to haul abuse either my way or at the situation as a whole. In any case it was inappropriate and the hoots were encouraging other hooters and the whole thing was beyond pointless.

But maybe he didn’t know what I knew.  So suddenly I was compelled to speak to the man. I opened my car door and walked slowly and calmly with a gentle smile on my face (to ensure no hostility while approaching).  I wasn’t looking for a conflict. The man voluntarily turned down his window before I arrived at this side.  He looked sunken down, and timid compared to his initial impression and/or facade he held behind the confines of his vehicle. He smiled a little nervously at me and I tried to seem even more approachable as my intention was not to scare or intimidate, but simply stop him.

I explained, ‘hello, hi, I see you are beeping at me, and as you can see there’s nowhere to go. We are on a bridge and there is a queue of traffic ahead. I live in this area so I know it can be frustrating. What I have found is that the duration takes around 20 minutes. What i do is I bring a book and stick my light on and chill out for a little while. Perhaps you could do something like this?’

The man apologised calmly with a little air of embarrassment and I said it was ok with a genuine smile so other drivers could also see there was no drama and hopefully would assume we were friends, and walked back to my car. I got back in my car; my heart was beating a little as it does when I feel compelled to share.  Knowing the feeling of courage that this has to be said would always overwrite any nerves. My heart began to calm down and I checked again in the mirror. He seemed calm, reflective from my perspective.

It all seemed to have gone well.  However, inside something didn’t feel too peaceful, why? Were my intentions with genuine care? i wanted to share and help, I didn’t want my inner peace violated. I want to be aware of people on the road and yet not be completely lead by others actions and reactions. So how does one try to keep the balance? How does one not feel pressure, but also not become stubborn for example, refusing to move when a crazy speeder comes up flashing his or her lights to move you out of the lane?

How about let’s be aware but not responsible for someone else’s actions, only our own?  Let’s carry on our journey without intimidation and choose with awareness which battles need to be fought and in what manner, with positive intention and from an inner place of calm. To manage our inner feelings despite what occurs all around us in various situations and where we feel we need to we can predict, support and send love, with the right intention. To make our moves with caution, consideration, but confidence without blaming ourselves for any unplanned or negative outcome from the domino effect of others.

We should also be reminded about being compassionate about where we are on our journey in life’s ups and downs. Sometimes we are the one hooting and sometimes, we are the one reading with the light on. So we must stay humble when we are feeling happy; be realistic and genuine, and not patronising when we are feeling positive and calm place. If I were to do the bridge scenario again, I would take a less egotistical approach and a more genuine reach for that man in that car, or even sometimes not even interfere at all in his journey and simply manage my own internal space at this situation.  Again, we have choices.

As time moves on we perceive things in a different ways based on our experiences. When someone is not acting the way you expect them to, remember it’s not all about you.  Roads are like strategy in life, predicting where to move, based on your own goal, deadline. If you are calm and aware, you can easily navigate the system. Your road will be different every day; sometimes busy and aggressive and sometimes smooth with music blaring. The goal is to listen and sing to that music, even in the traffic. Empathise with the man’s aggression, try not to internalise it or taking it personal because it’s not about you, and on another day it might be you feeling stressed or moody.  Be happy when you are up and enjoy this moment, live in it and share it with those that need it.  And acknowledge and be aware when you are down, but know that it too shall pass; do not be seduced into feeling even more down or beating yourself up when that happens..

A road is a road; the circumstances will be different minute by minute, and you cannot predict.  So no matter how much your boat is rocked.  You are firm and balanced always, and confident you are safe and will not fall out.  Maintain your inner self, the same, regardless.

© Inspire and Rewire 2020