Five Signs of a Toxic Friendship

Platonic friendships are some of the most important relationships we have in our lives. They often last longer than other types of relationships. The presence of even one true friendship in our lives can be healing and inspiring. However, we may sometimes have difficulty identifying a previously good friendship as toxic. We can be so desperate to keep a long-cherished connection alive that we overlook the signs that it is no longer serving us. If a friendship has become toxic, it is usually necessary to distance ourselves from it in order to thrive and make room for healthier relationships. Below are five common signs of a toxic friendship.

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1. Your friend doesn’t encourage your emotional growth.

We are all constantly changing as we encounter new experiences in life. Sometimes we initiated a friendship at a particular time in our life when having a relationship with this person made sense, and we benefited from her company and our experiences with her in some way.

As you change over time, you may find that your relationship with an old friend doesn’t fit who you have become. Maybe you and your friend used to gossip about other people a lot, but you have realized that having a mindset of judging and mocking others creates negativity in your life. If your friend doesn’t support your wish to stop gossiping, this friendship has probably slid into toxic territory, due to your differing values.

Another example involves changing lifestyles. For instance, maybe you have developed healthier habits, such as drinking less alcohol, but your friend pushes you to drink more whenever you are out together. In this case, your friend isn’t respecting your wishes about something that is making you happier and improving your life. This kind of attitude can start to hold you back from making important personal gains. Ann Smith, an author at Psychology Today, remarked that sometimes in life it is normal to experience an “emotional growth spurt” that causes a particular friendship to no longer fit you (1).   

2. Your friend overtly or subtly puts you down.

Feeling put down or subtly insulted by a friend is a sign of a toxic friendship that is surprisingly easy to overlook. Few friends will openly insult you. If you experience this with a friend, it is a red flag that your friend has little respect or empathy for you. Some friends may somewhat openly put you down, but disguise it as advice. Ann Davis at The Huffington Post wrote that a toxic friend’s advice may feel like an embarrassing kick in the gut (2). Trust your instincts. If this is happening to you in a friendship, you should limit or end this relationship fast, in order to protect your self-esteem.

More subtle put-downs may be overlooked because there can be a lot of pressure in close personal relationships to be “relaxed” or able to “take a joke”.  For example, your friend may have made a habit out of “jokingly” mimicking your accent, or laughing about how tight your jeans are when you are self-conscious about your weight. In this sort of situation, it’s possible that your friend has no idea that her comments are upsetting you and will be shocked if you discuss your discomfort with her.Try gently talking to your friend about how you’re feeling and observe whether she makes a diligent effort to change her behavior. 

3. Your friend doesn’t support you when you need her.

Do you sometimes feel as if you are your friend’s armchair psychologist? Does she call you up on a regular basis to discuss all of her problems in extensive detail? This in itself may not be an issue for you, but if you find that your friend doesn’t return the favor, and she seems to disappear when you need her help, this is a sign of an unbalanced friendship. In this situation, you are giving much more than you are taking and you are not receiving the support that you deserve from her. A healthy friendship should be relatively reciprocal. You should feel as if you’re important enough for her to make time in her life to support you and listen to you. 

Even if your friend does lend you an ear from time to time, she may still be emotionally unsupportive. Lauren Suval of Psych Central wrote that we should expect friends to accept us and not judge our choices (3). Of course, this maxim excludes circumstances in which our choices are grievously detrimental to our health or safety. In most everyday life situations, our friends should bring a supportive attitude to the table even if they disagree with us.  If you feel frequently judged by your friend, this is a strong sign of a toxic friendship.

4. Your friend drains your energy.

Ideally, a friendship should refresh you. Time spent with friends is often the cherry on top of our lives. A conversation with a close confidant is something to look forward to after a long day. We should be able to confide in a friend when something is troubling us and feel somewhat better afterward, not because she was magically able to solve our problem, but because she genuinely cares for us, listens to us and supports us. If, instead of leaving you feeling refreshed, lighter and happier, time with your friend makes you feel stressed, frustrated and down about yourself, your friendship has probably grown toxic.

Therese J. Borchard of Psych Central recommends asking yourself tough questions about how your interactions with your friend make you feel and trusting your gut (4). It’s tempting to discount our feelings about a negative relationship when it has lasted for many years or we have otherwise attached significant value to it.  However, getting in touch with how you truly feel about a situation is often one of the most insightful ways to evaluate it, and change it if necessary. If you feel completely exhausted , unhappy and in need of a nap after you see a friend, it may serve you to spend less time with this friend and find other relationships that energize you and build you up.  

5. Your friend’s behavior is consistently negative.

No one is perfect. We all have rough days and most of us occasionally take our negative feelings out on those closest to us. When you think about whether a friendship may be toxic, be careful not to judge your friend too quickly if you have seen one of the above signs in her behavior once or twice. Think about patterns in your relationship, how your friend makes you feel more often than not, and whether your friend generally supports you. Heather Hatfield, a health writer for WebMD, wrote that toxic friends “seem to bring on their nasty behavior on a consistent basis (5).”  

If your friend behaves in a toxic way toward you once or twice, it is often best to sit down with your friend and discuss your feelings in a nonconfrontational manner. If your friend’s behavior changes afterward, and you don’t see the toxic behavior again, the friendship is probably not unhealthy for you. However, in other cases it becomes clear that, for whatever reason, your friend cannot stop belittling you, putting you down, or being unsupportive of your personal growth. This friend’s consistently toxic behavior will start to hold you back if you let it continue to influence your life.

If several of these five signs of a toxic relationship frequently present themselves in your relationship with your friend, it may be time to distance yourself from her. Jessica Firger, a writer for CBS News, interviewed Karen Valencic, an expert in conflict resolution, on the subject of toxic friendships. Valencic remarked that determining the health of a friendship can be boiled down to the question of whether both friends are feeling honored in the relationship (6). Feeling honored may include feeling respected, appreciated, supported, empathized with and genuinely loved by your friend. As hard as it is to end a friendship, especially if it has lasted for a long time, it is worthwhile to minimize the amount of space in your life that you give to toxic friendships, in order to make room for true friendships to grow.  

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