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Toxic Friends: 6 Signs of a Toxic Friendship, and When To Call It Quits
toxic friends
Mental Health

Toxic Friends: 6 Signs of a Toxic Friendship, and When To Call It Quits

Friendships are a significant factor in a fulfilling life, and in many ways, a good friend is worth their weight in gold. All of us wish for intimate, loyal, supportive friends to share life’s highs and lows. However, good friends and fulfilling connections don’t exactly grow on trees. A true friend can be hard to find, and just like all relationships, it takes time and effort to build a lasting bond.

Unfortunately, it’s also common to develop friendships that aren’t healthy, or those that are imbalanced or unsupportive. So-called toxic friendships are those that have a chronic, negative impact on your happiness and wellbeing. Ending such relationships isn't easy, even when it’s exactly what you need - especially with friends you’ve known for long periods of time. But in the long run, it’s essential to listen to your heart, and take action when necessary to protect the only person that truly matters - yourself.

If your intuition is pointing you to red flags in some of your friendships, look no further. This article will help you build clarity around what a toxic person is so you know which behaviors are non-negotiable, and which ones can be adjusted or changed without ending the relationship. 

By the end of this article, you’ll have a clearer understanding of what steps to take, and how to identify a genuinely unhealthy friendship. Let’s begin.

What is a toxic friendship?

A toxic friendship goes far beyond everyday ups and downs. Even the healthiest friendships have periods of time where things are imbalanced, or not functioning as well as they could. We live in the age of instant gratification, where friendships can be viewed as transactional or a commodity, and a rough patch can be viewed as a reason to give up on someone.

That’s an unfulfilling way to live, and without a doubt, the concept of toxic friendships has been hoovered up into this outlook. If you’re looking for relationships with no challenges and “good vibes only,” you’re more than likely sacrificing genuine connection and intimacy. Part of being human is to sometimes be down, or struggling, or need support. Part of any relationship is a risk of disagreement or conflict.

"Treating friends like investments or commodities is anathema to the whole idea of friendship," Ronald Sharp, a professor of English at Vassar College, told The New York Times. "It's not about what someone can do for you, it's who and what the two of you become in each other's presence."

The “toxicity” comes from repeated, unhealthy behaviors or dynamics in a relationship that have an impact on your mental health. It might be a relationship that is unequal, one-sided, or even including abusive behaviors, such as passive aggression, disrespect, or verbal insults. The key is that this is part of the foundation of the friendship, not just periods or spells of difficulty.

On the flip side, it helps to have a clear idea about what a healthy relationship or friendship is, to know what you’re looking for. As Sharp notes, it’s about who you become in each other’s presence. Can you be yourself? Do you feel accepted and supported in a way you can’t with other friends? Can you be playful or silly? Can you share your dreams and find your friend smiling at your enthusiasm? Generally speaking, in a toxic friendship it’s unlikely you’ll be able to feel fully comfortable to be yourself.

The toxic relationship: Finding a balance between two extremes

In a culture that is quick to assign labels to people, reducing them to nothing more than that, there’s always a risk of going to one extreme. For example, making a snap judgment about a toxic friendship, completely writing the relationship off, and having a low tolerance for the full spectrum of human behavior.

Just like all relationships, friendships are messy at times. Even with the best of intentions, some other person might disappoint you, let you down, say something hurtful, unload their emotions, take you for granted. And, it’s more than likely there will be times where you’re the one doing all of the above.

Our world needs more tolerance, not less. Our world needs more forgiveness, less condemnation. Keep this in mind as you explore the realm of toxic friendships. And remember, any “toxicity” is down to a dynamic, not an individual. As difficult as it can be to accept, that means in any unhealthy relationship, you have a role to play, whether that’s due to a lack of boundaries, ignoring intuition, or overextending yourself emotionally, energetically, or financially.

Signs of a toxic friend

toxic friend
(Westend61 / Getty)

That being said, there are some big red flags that indicate a toxic friend. These behaviors cross the line from acceptable mishaps or occasional flaws. Even the occasional display is enough to place a question mark on the health of your relationship. If these form part of habitual behaviors, you could be looking at a toxic friendship:

  1. Passive aggression: from making “jokes” at your expense, using a certain tone of voice or ridiculing you, or “silent treatment” passive aggression is a big warning sign the relationship isn’t healthy. Passive aggression is an indirect form of hostility that speaks to resentment or expectations.
  2. Extreme jealousy: it’s natural, when close to someone, to get occasional pangs of jealousy. But overall, a healthy friendship should be supportive. If a particular friend always displays a sense of being extremely jealous — from your other relationships to career success — then this is a sign something has to change.
  3. Make you feel bad for things: from judging, shaming, or minimizing your aspirations, a toxic friend can make you feel bad in numerous different ways. This includes emotional manipulation, guilt-tripping, or other sorts of messy dynamics.
  4. They pressure you into doing things you don’t want to do: from binge drinking to poor health decisions, a big red flag in any relationship is someone who shames you into doing things you don’t want to do. The key here is something you don’t want to do — each of us has a responsibility to say no, or express, when faced with situations or decisions we don’t want.
  5. You don’t feel comfortable around them: if you’re not consciously aware of certain behaviors or obvious reasons why a relationship is toxic, your intuition will likely be sending subtle signs. This could be as simple as feeling unsettled when you spend time with someone, seeing how they enjoy spreading secrets of others, to feeling uncomfortable, anxious, or even afraid when you’re with them. 
  6. You feel drained after spending time together: perhaps the biggest indication when a person is the only friend that leaves you feeling drained of energy. That’s not to say friendships are about always being upbeat or happy, but when supporting someone in a trusting relationship, it’s unlikely to leave you deflated, but instead empathizing. When your energy is depleted, it indicates your boundaries are being crossed, you’re hiding who you truly are, or suppressing emotion.

Of course, compared to the fullness of individual relationships, no checklist will give you a clear yes or no answer to whether your friendship is toxic. Using these as a guide, you might wish to write down the list of behaviors you find difficult or troublesome, along with the red flags you’ve noticed. By putting pen to paper, it may show you something you didn’t see before.

The role of friendships on mental health

It’s often said we’re living in a loneliness epidemic, which was amplified by the coronavirus pandemic. With growing numbers of people living alone, public health experts have been concerned about the impact of loneliness on mental health. Social connections are vital to thriving, for a multitude of reasons. A 2005 study discovered that those with large networks of friends lived for an average of 22 percent more than those with fewer friends.

However, friendships are still about quality of quantity, something easily forgotten in an age of social media connections and followers. Humans have evolved to manage around a maximum of 150 social connections (known as Dunbar’s number), with the capacity to nourish around five high-quality relationships, according to studies by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar.

Common wisdom says that the friendships you keep largely affect who you are. Multiple studies have found that friends are more likely to share similar lifestyle traits. This includes everything from self-discipline, resisting temptations, to spending habits. A study by the University of Rochester in 2015 discovered that, as people approach 30, quality of friendship becomes increasingly valuable, with emotional closeness being the most important factor.

Toxic relationships score low on positive traits, and can have the reverse mental health effect of healthy relationships. Toxic friends can encourage bad habits, creating stressful environments that are superficial or untrusting. Not only that, but a study from 2014 found negative social interactions can raise blood pressure and lead to other health issues.

People pleasing and toxic friendships

As mentioned earlier, toxic friendships are a dynamic. One of the most common reasons people continue to engage in unhealthy relationships is due to a people-pleasing tendency. If you’re afraid of upsetting people, feel guilty whenever you’re not available, or struggle to express yourself, you’re setting the context for unhealthy dynamics to form.

Yes, there are people who use others or look to get what they want from relationships, rather than cultivate a healthy, even dynamic. There are people who want friends who go along with whatever they say, or friends who are there for emotional support whenever they need it. There are people who want to boost their self-esteem by putting others down.

Any of these behaviors can be unconscious and, more than likely, come from low self-esteem. However, people who look for toxic relationship dynamics can only attract others who fuel and enable such behaviors. People pleasers are prime targets. A people pleaser is less likely to say no and more likely to be compliant. Consider: what things are you tolerating, due to fear of upsetting others?

7 action steps to deal with toxic relationships 

We’ve explored the signs of toxic friendships and some of the common instigators of why those relationships form. Now, what if you’re looking to take action, and you feel you have to take some steps to address potentially toxic friends? Below are action steps that guide you through the process.

1. Set boundaries

is my friend toxic
(Westend61 / Getty)

I sometimes feel like a broken record for how often I include boundary setting, but it shows how important it is! Many issues in relationships are solved by being clear about what you expect, what behaviors you don’t tolerate, what you’re able to offer in terms of availability or support. The best time to set boundaries is at the beginning of a relationship, the second best is now.

It could be that in setting boundaries, the relationship dissolves. That’s okay. It might demonstrate that the foundation of the relationship was rotten, and that once boundaries are set, the relationship won’t be able to adapt. However, it could also be that setting boundaries alone nullify the toxic behaviors or dynamics, and the relationship can be reborn.

2. See the bigger picture

It’s easy to develop tunnel vision when someone behaves in a way you find upsetting, especially in romantic relationships. Before you know it, you might find yourself recollecting all the times a friend has demonstrated toxic behavior. You might be hyper-aware of these flaws, and overlook other qualities. It’s not an easy task, but if you’re assessing a relationship, it pays to look from as wide a perspective as possible.

What behaviors are present? Are they non-negotiable? For example, if a friend is aggressive or insulting, you might decide to have zero-tolerance. However, if a friend shows jealousy, or makes occasional remarks that feel insensitive, you may decide to have a conversation, and have some tolerance towards these behaviors.

Because it pays to see as much of the relationship as you can, the good, the bad, and the ugly, it takes time before making a final decision to end the relationship. Look to unearth the positive qualities of the relationship, without minimizing the negative or toxic behaviors.

3. Assess your expectations

It’s amazing how little time people spend considering what they want to cultivate in their relationships, considering how integral they are to overall wellbeing. Now it’s important to note that, occasionally, the way we perceive friendships is largely through our expectations of what friendships are. There’s a balance to be found between healthy expectations and standards.

If you expect a friend to be available 24/7, never in a low mood, and always perfect… then you’ll likely be disappointed. That means bringing your expectations to light, and having a realistic view of what to expect, is a vital step. Equally, standards are different; they’re non-negotiables, the core essentials you expect in all of your relationships.

In assessing expectations, you might also consider how you frame the relationship. It could be that the truth of some relationships don’t match your concept of the relationship. Even re-framing the story around the relationship can reduce expectations and better inform the way to act and how much to invest in this particular relationship. 

A friendship where you meet for coffee every two weeks and talk about what you’ve watched on Netflix is all well and good, when you know and accept that’s the dynamic you’re both happy with. However, if you frame this person as a “close friend” and expect emotional support, the same routine or dynamic might feel unfulfilling.

4. Be aware of the concept of loyalty

All values have their qualities, but have a shadow, too. This shadow is typically a conceptual belief based on a particular value. When it comes to toxic friendships, one of the big traps to be aware of is the concept of loyalty. When heartfelt and genuine, loyalty is a beautiful trait. It’s something almost everyone would look for in a friendship. A loyal friend is by your side through ups and downs, accepts you for your flaws, and has your back. 

However, if you internalize the belief, I am a loyal friend, you can find yourself in a situation where you hold onto relationships that are no longer authentically aligned. The notion of friends for life is well-intentioned, but sometimes, friendships drift. Sometimes, blind loyalty to a relationship causes more harm than good.

If you have a friendship that feels mostly like an obligation, it’s a big sign you may be holding on when the best decision would be to let go and allow space for new relationships to form.

5. Get clear on the issue

If the toxic behavior in your friendship isn’t obvious, it might take some digging to understand what your intuition is trying to convey. This is especially important if you feel uncomfortable around someone, but you’re not entirely sure why. One way to do this is to take the time to reflect, free from making any quick conclusions. It’s not always the case that a feeling of discomfort means there’s something toxic or “wrong” with a friend. It could also point to inner-work.

For example, let’s say you have a particular friend that you don’t feel you can fully settle around. As you investigate, you start to think about how often this friend moans, complains or judges other people to you. Digging a little deeper, you then realize that your anxiety is around a fear: if they talk about others like this, do they do the same with me? A friend who always complains or judges others is difficult to fully trust for this very reason.

Maybe the reason is related to a single incident. Your friend might have made a hurtful comment that has gone unacknowledged, and now you feel tense around them because it hasn’t been expressed. Communication is often the solution; an apology, or an honest conversation, can re-open the heart and create deeper intimacy.

6. Explore patterns in relationships

Patterns are helpful guides towards insights and truth. When it comes to relationships, you can build clarity by looking at patterns across a number of relationships. Is it that you only have this issue with one particular friend? If so, what are their other relationships like? Or are you noticing this pattern repeat across multiple friendships?

It’s common, when assessing relationships, to self-blame or doubt. Talking to others in confidence is one way of building clarity. For example, if you have another friend you trust, you might ask them if they’ve experienced similar behaviors, or even noticed your toxic friend displaying those behaviors towards you.

Equally, it can be tempting to immediately blame others for their toxicity, without an honest reflection on the ways you’re contributing to unhealthy dynamics. For example, if you have a number of relationships where people come to you to share their problems, but have little time or space when you need them, this indicates a lack of boundaries, and cultivating relationships that are uneven, possible due to people-pleasing and guilt.

7. The three routes to resolution

Once you’re at the point where you’re clear on the issue, and you know action has to be taken, it’s time to consider what I call the three routes to resolution: I change, the behavior changes, or the relationship changes. In other words, if there’s a repeated issue, the choice is to explore why it’s troublesome and to consider changing your relationship to the behavior. 

If you feel the behavior itself crosses a boundary, then you need a conversation to explain why this behavior isn’t okay. The hope is that, through communication, your friend will acknowledge why the behavior isn’t okay, and set the intention to change. In these situations, someone taking responsibility is a big green flag that the relationship can work through such issues.

what is a toxic friend

Lastly, if you feel that changing your relationship to the behavior isn’t the right approach, and if your friend is unwilling to acknowledge or change their behavior, then you have to consider changing the relationship. That includes changing the structure, such as seeing that person less, hanging out only in certain contexts, or ending the relationship completely.

A final note

You never have to justify ending any relationship. It’s best to do so openly, honestly, and with compassion. But ultimately, as an adult, you don’t have to explain yourself, especially if the dynamic is toxic or damaging to your mental health. And, remember, the time you save investing in unhealthy friendships is time you can spend nourishing others. Your hours are valuable and you deserve to spend them however you see fit!

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