10 Signs You’re in a Toxic Friendship

·11 min read
Photo credit: Eddy Chen - HBO
Photo credit: Eddy Chen - HBO

Friendships are some of the most important connections to build, nurture, and maintain in our lives. From graduation to prom to first dates, friends are there to support and uplift you, make you laugh, challenge you, and of course, have fun with. But sometimes, a friendship can become unhealthy, and the effects can be damaging to your overall well being. It’s normal to fight with friends and go through ups and downs, but when a friendship starts bringing more pain and hurt than happiness, it may be time to end the relationship or take a break. If you’re wondering if it’s time to distance yourself from a friend, it’s helpful to know the signs of a toxic friendship.

“A healthy friendship is one that's looking to provide social support, be beneficial, feel good, give a person a sense of being cared for, and a sense of enjoyment when they're with that person,” Dr. Ginger Carlson, a pediatric psychologist at Phoenix Children’s Medical Group, explains to Seventeen. “A toxic friendship is one that would actually do quite the opposite. It would bring them down, make them feel more negatively about themselves, and make them feel the relationship is unstable or not predictable.”

It’s important to note that you don’t need to label a friendship as “toxic” to distance yourself from someone. “The truth is that every relationship is hard work and sometimes, it's more about finding the right fit rather than labeling someone or the entire relationship as ‘toxic,’” Dr. Pauline Yeghnazar Peck, a Santa Barbara, California-based licensed psychologist, explains. The friendship may no longer work for you, or “the season for having this person in your life may have passed,” she adds.

But some friendships present repeated signals of unhealthiness, and warrant a step back for your mental and emotional health. Some toxic friendship signs are more glaring than others, but all can take a serious toll. Below, Dr. Carlson and Dr. Peck identify 10 common red flags that a friendship has turned unhealthy, and offer advice on how to address the issue and distance yourself from destructive friends.

1. The friendship is not reciprocal

“Healthy friendships are about give and take. If your friendship feels like it's all give and no take, it could be a sign of unhealthiness,” Dr. Peck says. She points out that there are certain times where one friend might need more support than the other, but a consistent imbalance is toxic and emotionally exhausting for the one always giving more of themselves.

One common example of a nonreciprocal friendship is if “you spend time listening to and supporting your friend, but they are too busy when you need a listening ear or a supportive hand,” Dr. Peck explains. In another scenario, you might always invite them out, reach out to them first, or offer to pick something up from the store for them, but they never return the favor. This might leave you feeling frustrated, hurt, and confused about whether or not this person values your friendship.

2. Your friend tries to control your other relationships

A toxic friend might attempt to isolate you from other friendships or potential romances. They might do this by frequently expressing negative opinions about certain people in your life, or become possessive and try to demand most of your free time for themselves.

“If they're globally trying to isolate you and keep you under their control, that's a bad sign,” Dr. Carlson says.

“A friend might feel insecure about your friendships with others, or feel rejected and left out. A healthy friendship is one where these things can be talked about or worked through without trying to control the other person to make you feel better,” Dr. Peck adds. “Unhealthy relationships that operate based on control often also operate on power — the person wants to isolate you from others, so they can more easily control your actions. These are not often conscious efforts by the person, but that doesn’t change the impact.”

3. Your friend tries to to harm your reputation

A signal that it’s time to distance yourself from a friend is if they make a calculated and intentional decision to spread a rumor or gossip about you, Dr. Carlson explains. If they post statements online about you that might harm your reputation or make you feel embarrassed, this friend is deliberately trying to hurt you.

“Have you lost friendships because of things your friend has said about you? Have you lost work, professional, or other opportunities because of them? Take this into account when you're assessing whether this person brings goodness or misery into your life,” Dr. Peck says.

4. The friendship is inconsistent and unpredictable

Some friendships might have rough patches, and friends disagree every now and then, but a constant rotation of high and low moments is not healthy.

“Sometimes, in harmful relationships, [there is a] cycle where there's a honeymoon phase. It feels really good and the person's really nice to you for a while, you feel on top of the world, and everything's fine,” Dr. Carlson explains. “Then it shifts to being more hostile or harmful, and then there's usually a crisis point where something really upsetting happens. And just as you're about to end that relationship, they pull you back in with the kind, sweet behaviors again.”

“But they're not consistent or genuine. That cycle is a sign of a problem,” she adds. A healthy friendship shouldn’t feel like a rollercoaster, where you never know where you stand with the person or how they might treat you.

5. The friendship is conditional

Just like with romantic relationships, friends should accept and love you for exactly who you are. A friendship that is conditional — which means that it’s “based on [you] doing certain things, wearing certain things, or being a certain way,” Dr. Carlson explains — can be destructive.

“This is the friend who supports you ONLY when they agree with you or when they approve,” Dr. Peck adds. “In healthy friendships, differences are accepted and welcomed. Support is based in care for the person, not in always being on the same page as them.”

6. Your friend violates your trust

It’s hurtful if you’ve disclosed something personal with a friend and they share it with others.

Sometimes it’s a mistake, and Dr. Carlson notes that “anybody can slip up once in a while.” A friend might not have realized that what was said was meant to be kept a secret. In this case, explain to them that you’re hurt by their actions and do not want them talking to others about what you’ve revealed in confidence.

Other times, a friend might go to others out of a place of concern. “If [someone] discloses something that they're doing that could be harmful to them, a close friend may very well go to get help, and violate trust to do that,” Dr. Carlson explains. “They might ask a teacher [or] a parent and say that they're worried about their friend. That’s not a toxic friendship.”

However, it is not a positive relationship if you can’t rely on a friend to keep something just between the two of you. A friend is someone who you should be able to trust, so if they’re continuously going to others to broadcast your private information, then the friendship might not be right.

7. You feel worse after spending time with them

Friends are supposed to uplift and inspire you. You should look forward to spending time with them.

“If [you] feel negatively about [yourself], feel more insecure, feel less confident, if [you] dread those interactions, that's a sign that there might be something wrong,” Dr. Carlson says.

“Our bodies don’t lie,” Dr. Peck adds. “They give us messages about who does and doesn’t feel good for us, who does and doesn’t nourish us, who does and doesn't give us energy. If you feel utterly depleted, upset, confused, dis-regulated, or hurt after spending time with this person, it's a good indication to trust that something is off.”

8. They never take responsibility

Friends get into arguments. But if someone constantly blames you when things go wrong, or if they rarely apologize, this friendship may no longer be working for you, Dr. Peck says. You might both play a part in the fight, but it’s only fair that you each own up to your actions and admit fault.

When a friend has hurt you with their words or actions, they should take responsibility, and make an effort to not let it happen again. It’s a red flag if you bring up your feelings and they gaslight you, diminish your emotions, or deny any responsibility.

“Often, these poor communication tactics also go hand in hand with pretending that none of this happened after they have calmed down. They might expect you to forgive and forget and just go on,” Dr. Peck adds. This can lead to resentment and further hurt, and it’s not healthy to hold onto those bitter feelings.

9. You feel used

“It is a beautiful thing to be generous in our friendships but there is a fine line between that and being used,” Dr. Peck says. A friend that seems to only come to you for money or invites to events or parties is most likely putting material desires before the friendship.

“If your friend asks to borrow money but does not repay it even though agreed upon, always expects you to pay, borrows your car or uses your things without asking or without acknowledgment of your needs, this could be a sign that this person does not value you — only the ‘things’ and resources you can provide them," Dr. Peck adds.

10. Other friends and/or family are concerned about the friendship

Take note if other close friends, family members, or people you trust come to you and express concern over a friendship, Dr. Carlson notes. They have your best interest at heart. If they recognize a shift in your attitude or demeanor after you’re with this person, they probably don’t think it’s healthy to stay in the friendship as it stands.

“When people express concern, try and take in their observations without defensiveness,” Dr. Peck advises. “Take your time to let it settle and marinate — what is true will resonate, and what isn't will fade away. Give yourself the time to process this.”

What should I do if I’m in a toxic friendship?

It’s so important to recognize and honor your feelings when you’re questioning a friendship breakup. “Validate that you feel how you feel and are entitled to it,” Dr. Peck says. “You don't actually have to determine that THEY are toxic in order for YOU to decide what is best for you.”

Next, be sure to create some boundaries. “This could include saying no to them using your things, or wanting to go on an endless rant on the phone with no space or consideration for you,” Dr. Peck explains. “Stick to these boundaries, even if they get upset. If they don't respect your boundaries and constantly push them, this is more encouragement to keep those boundaries and create even more distance.”

If it feels safe to do so, both Dr. Carlson and Dr. Peck recommend having a conversation with this friend, to explain why you’re hurt or why you’re distancing yourself. “Ending a friendship doesn’t always have to be high conflict; sometimes we need to tell them we need to take a break,” Dr. Carlson explains.

“If this goes well, they might apologize. Remember that an apology includes words and actions, so watch to see if things change,” Dr. Peck adds. “If they don't, I would not suggest continuing to talk about the same thing again and again. Believe that the person is doing the best they can, and if they can't show up like you need them to, you have some choices to make.”

If it does not feel safe to approach this individual in-person, or if it’s distressing to you, Dr. Carlson recommends trying to drop off quietly. This could mean saying “no” more when they ask to hang out or borrow your items, busying yourself with other activities, or telling them less and less about your life. Confrontation might lead to an escalation of issues, so it might be best to avoid that, if possible. Dr. Peck notes that you don’t owe them an explanation, and if they do question the distance, you “can simply state that you are prioritizing yourself and your needs,” she says.

It’s also helpful to explore why you have stayed in a toxic friendship, Dr. Peck says. “Once you have identified what is keeping you connected here, you can practice gently challenging some of these thoughts,” she suggests. You might consider therapy or professional counseling.

“Finding a community of people who DO support you and feed you emotionally can help you build strength for handling the more difficult relationships in your life,” she emphasizes.

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