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We all know that friendship is a critically important aspect of our lives that can get more difficult to come by as we age (especially when we relocate to a new city). We are social creatures who need to feel seen, heard and loved. We need to belong and both support and be supported by others.
Healthy relationships provide companionship and physical and emotional support, but many of us have at least one particular friend who gives us an unsettled feeling. Perhaps she is extremely jealous, emotionally draining or may even enjoy spreading secrets about others (and likely about us behind our backs). These friendships cause us more harm than good, making us feel constantly drained mentally, emotionally, spiritually and psychologically.
In popular culture, these friendships have been coined as "toxic" and, unfortunately, toxic friendships are very common. This survey reported that 75% of men and 84% of women have a toxic friend at some point.
In this article, we'll explore the 11 most common red flags of a toxic friendship and I'll provide some suggestions for confronting and addressing toxic people so you can take the necessary steps to protect yourself and build a strong support network of close friends who uplift and inspire you.
What Exactly is a Toxic Person?
A toxic person is typically characterized as someone who engages in behavior that is damaging, manipulative, and emotionally draining to those around them. They often create an atmosphere of negativity and discord and tend to put their own needs and desires above those of others. Their actions and attitudes can result in emotional or psychological harm to others.
It can be tough to identify when a close friend is causing harm. If you grew up with these behaviors normalized, you might not realize that they are actually unhealthy.
Simply put, if you have a friend who frequently criticizes you, manipulates, acts selfishly, lies, distorts the truth, or refuses to take responsibility for their actions... you are likely dealing with a toxic individual.
11 Signs of a Toxic Friendship
There are common signs that can help you determine whether your friendship is a healthy or a toxic one. Understanding toxic traits will help you recognize and avoid these individuals and navigate your way toward focusing your energy on cultivating true friendships.
1. You feel bad about yourself when you're together
A true friend is uplifting, encouraging and has your best interests at heart. They may give you advice, suggestions, direction, and constructive feedback, but their intention in doing this is to support your growth.
If, however, this is done in negative ways and you find yourself frequently being criticized, nitpicked, and belittled, this is actually emotional abuse and a clear sign of toxicity. (Tip. If you confront your friend about this behaviour, they might say things like "it's just a joke".)
Receiving constant put downs from a friend can negatively impact your self confidence, making you feel less confident, sad and can even lead to more serious and long term mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
2. You do all the giving
Healthy friendships are about cooperation and reciprocity. Within a healthy friendship, there should be a reasonably equal amount of give and take. If there is a big imbalance in your friendship, with you typically being the one giving, listening, and putting in effort, this is a sign of a one-sided, toxic friendship.
3. You can't tell them your secrets
Trust is the foundation of any strong and healthy relationship. If you believe that your friend is unreliable, cannot keep personal secrets, and betrays your friendship, there can be no trust. This is an obvious sign of a toxic friendship that few of us would miss.
However, it's not always this clear cut. More commonly, we find ourselves, without even realizing it, holding back from confiding in a particular friend. We do this quite naturally when we do not feel safe and secure around a person. Our instinct is to avoid sharing any information that can be used against us. (Assuming we are not this way with all of our friendships, which is a sign of something else entirely...) This unwillingness to share with a particular friend is a more subtle sign a toxic friendship.
4. You feel guilty and manipulated
"Guilt-tripping" is a form of manipulation in which someone makes you feel guilty in order to persuade or influence you to change your emotions, decisions, or actions. A toxic friend may use this tactic to evoke distress and gain control in order to get you to change your behavior in a way that best serves their interests.
Examples of this to watch out for include playing the victim or blaming you for something you had no control over. Your friend may make you feel like you are a "bad friend" and may say manipulative things like, “You don’t care about me anymore.”
5. You hesitate to share your successes
In healthy friendships, we support and celebrate each other’s successes, joys, and both big and small wins. It's human nature to feel some jealousy over another person's success, but if you notice that a friend is unable to feel a sense of happiness and pride for you in these moments, minimizes your achievements, rarely gives you compliments, or (even) tries to compete with you, this is a sign of toxicity.
6. Your boundaries are not respected
Respect is another foundational cornerstone of any relationship. A good friend understands and respects you and your boundaries. In contrast, is the toxic person who deliberately ignores your boundaries and disrespects you.
Examples of this include ignoring your need for solitude, stepping into your personal space, borrowing your things without permission, and repeatedly pushing you to reveal uncomfortable and sensitive information.
7. You notice you're spending less time on other relationships
Toxic friends tend to get jealous when you spend time investing in your other relationships. They often try to isolate you from other people who care about you in order to make you feel dependent on them.
They may actively and overtly discourage you from spending time with your other friends or family or may, more subtly and slowly, convince you that you are better off without them and that they are the only friend you really need. In more extreme cases, they may even insult your friends, or worse, go behind your back to attempt to sever your relationships with other people.
8. You feel drained and exhausted by all the drama
Another common sign of a toxic friend is the presence of constant drama and unnecessary conflict. Toxic people bring chaos with them wherever they go. Examples of this include arguing and causing problems. They often have that victim mentality (this happened to me) instead of taking control over and improving the situation.
This negativity and constant drama is emotionally draining and exhausting. Remember, healthy friendships should provide you with a sense of stability and peace.
9. You don't feel seen and heard
A healthy friendship is emotionally supportive, and makes you feel seen, heard and that your feelings are validated.
Toxic friends, in contrast, may disregard your feelings when you express them, making you feel like you are being sensitive or overreacting. They do not create a safe space for you to share difficult emotions, so you find yourself not wanting to share these feelings.
One more subtle example of this is the person who asks you how you are doing and then (frequently) returns the conversation to themselves without fully acknowledging the information you have shared about yourself.
10. You start to question your sense of reality
Gaslighting is another form of manipulation where a person makes you doubt your own memories, and understanding of events and perception of reality. They do this for their benefit and to gain control over you. Examples including feeding you lies, twisting the truth to their version of reality, or blaming you for the problems in your friendship. All these can affect your sense of reality and create an enormous sense of confusion and self doubt.
Dr. Cortney S. Warren, a board-certified psychologist, identified common statements of gaslighters. Some of these include: “You’re overreacting,” “You made me do it,” and “I’m only telling/doing this because I love you”.
11. Your mood worsens when you're together
Although it is normal for friends to share struggles and complaints, a constant barrage of unceasing negativity and complaints can be exhausting and considerably affect anyone's mental health. If you have a friend who is frequently pessimistic, complaining, and unwilling to see the bright side of things, it may be time to move on.
7 Tips for How to Deal with a Toxic Friendship
Recognizing toxic friendships is an important first step. Once identified, it's crucial to implement strategies that protect your mental and emotional well-being.
Here are some tips on how you can deal with toxic friendships.
Identify patterns. Going through the list above, how many of these fit? Is your friend consistently negative or dismissive of your feelings? Does the friendship revolve around their needs while neglecting yours?
Evaluate how the relationship makes you feel. Start by reflecting on the friendship and assessing its impact on your life. Are you constantly feeling drained, mistreated, or undervalued?
Communicate your concerns: Confront your friend about the toxic aspects of your relationship (choose a calm and private setting and use "I feel" statements).
Set clear boundaries: Communicate your limits and expectations, and be firm in enforcing them. Pay attention to whether your friend pushes back or consistently continues to cross your boundaries without remorse or respect.
Surround yourself with good friends. Seek out other friendships that are positive and supportive. Spending time with people who uplift and inspire you will help counteract the negative effects of a toxic friend and, if needed, will help give you the insight and confidence to quit an unhealthy friendship. (One great way to find healthy relationships is to join The Trybe Women's Social Club*!)
Practice self-care. This is always good advice, but taking care of yourself is particularly crucial when dealing with toxic friendships. Engage in activities that bring you joy, practice self-compassion, and prioritize your mental and emotional well-being.
Consider professional help. If a toxic friendship is causing significant distress, it will be helpful to seek professional help. A therapist or counselor can provide guidance, help you process your emotions, and offer strategies for dealing with toxic relationships.
In conclusion, toxic friendships are common and can have a profound impact on our mental and emotional well-being. By recognizing the signs of a toxic friendship and taking proactive steps to address and (often) end these relationships, we can protect ourselves and focus on healthier ones.
Remember, you deserve friendships that uplift and inspire you. Do not to settle for anything less. Trust your instincts, set boundaries, practice self-care, and seek support when needed.
About the Author
Angela Caveney, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, Neuropsychologist and Founder of The Trybe. Her absolute favorite thing to do is to help women find their people and thrive throughout midlife. She can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
(*Note. If The Trybe Women's Social Club is not in your location, reach out to Angela Caveney to start a conversation about creating a club where you live. Even if you don't know a single person in your new city, don't worry! This is a great way to start to meet new people fast. We'll provide the framework to get you started.)