13 Signs of a Toxic Friend—And How To Tell Whether To Salvage the Friendship or End It

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You know that friend who snaps 18 selfies a second at every group hang but can’t seem to find the time to listen or help when your cat is missing or you’re going through a breakup? You might not be the only one feeling uneasy around them. When it comes to people we love, it’s easy to forgive a few friendship red flags—but certain negative behaviors reflect the signs of a toxic friend, or a relationship that can have harmful effects on our mental and physical well-being.

Recognizing the signs of a toxic friend starts with understanding just the opposite: the qualities of a healthy friendship, which include mutual respect, communication, support, and enjoyment of each other’s company. “In a healthy friendship, both parties feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, feelings, and boundaries without fear of judgment or rejection,” says neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD. “True friends show empathy and understanding, actively listen to each other, and offer encouragement during both good times and challenges.”

“If a friend constantly drains your energy or makes you feel worse about yourself, they may be toxic.” —Kristin Wilson, LPC, therapist

A toxic friend, on the other hand, will roll their eyes if you bring up a personal problem or bail on your housewarming party even though they demanded you come to that last-minute hot yoga class with them. “If a friend constantly drains your energy or makes you feel worse about yourself, they may be toxic,” says therapist Kristin Wilson, LPC, chief experience officer at Newport Healthcare, a network of healing centers for young adults with mental health disorders.

Experts In This Article

The longer we stay in a toxic friendship, the less we’re able to self-reflect and the more deeply we may find ourselves trapped. Ahead, mental health experts break down all the not-so-obvious signs of a toxic friend (or even a toxic friend group), how a toxic friendship can affect you, and exactly how to deal with a toxic friend (including how and when to respectfully cut things off).

How do you know if your friend is toxic?

1. You’re constantly fighting

Disagreements over, say, where to have lunch or even how to deal with a romantic issue or a problem at work are par for the course in any friendship. But, persistent fights or arguments where there’s an intention to inflict harm are certainly red flags of something toxic. Perhaps they respond passive-aggressively when you explain why you can’t hang out with them, or they’re constantly guilt-tripping you when they don’t get their way.

“When it feels dangerous to disagree, you find yourself withholding information out of fear, or you feel like you are walking on eggshells to appease the other person, it is time to question how healthy the relationship is,” says psychotherapist Aimee Barr, LCSW.

2. You don’t feel supported by them

A toxic friend always puts themselves first, even if it means disregarding your feelings and needs. “They might expect you to show up for important events in their life or remember their birthday or things that they invite you to, but they may not reciprocate that and remember things that are important to you,” says clinical psychologist Vanessa Kennedy, PhD, director of psychology at residential recovery and substance abuse treatment center Driftwood Recovery.

In other cases, a lack of support might look like snarky comments instead of genuine congratulations whenever you share an accomplishment or piece of good news, says psychotherapist Courtney Glashow, LCSW. “In a healthy friendship, someone will encourage you to grow and succeed,” not be envious or condescending, she says.

3. They regularly gossip about other people

If you’re spending a lot of time with someone who is constantly spreading rumors or talking bad about people behind their backs, be wary. “If they gossip about others to you, there’s a strong likelihood that they’re turning around and gossiping about you to others as well,” says Wilson.

4. You feel physically drained with them

Sometimes, toxic friends can manifest as energy vampires “who complain to you endlessly about the stressful things going on in their lives without recognizing the impact it has on you,” says Dr. Kennedy. If you leave interactions with this person feeling emotionally wiped or physically exhausted, there’s a good chance they’re a toxic friend to you.

The same goes if you feel tense or on edge during interactions with this person or when you’re on the way to meet them or see their name pop up on your phone—all bad signs.

5. They disrespect your boundaries

A toxic friend may be the person who is willing to violate your boundaries for their personal gain. “They might call you at odd hours and ask you to drop everything at a moment’s notice to help them or listen to them even when it inconveniences you, not respecting your time or your responsibilities,” says Dr. Kennedy.

6. You can’t be yourself around them

You might find that you’ve put up so many walls to protect yourself from a friend’s criticism that you no longer feel like you can be yourself with them. Changing aspects of your personality or appearance to appease someone is a clear sign that they’re a toxic friend. “A true friend would never want you to change who you are,” says Glashow. Your friends should inspire you to be the best version of yourself—not someone completely different.

If you find that you can’t tolerate it when a particular friend is unhappy with you or disapproves of something about you, or it changes your entire day, that’s a sign that something is off, says clinical psychologist and applied neuroscientist Kate Truitt, PhD, LCP.

7. The friendship is abusive

As with romantic relationships, friendships can be physically and emotionally abusive. “Neglect and abandonment can be weaponized,” says Dr. Truitt. “If the toxic person’s needs aren’t met, they can move into a state of weaponized neglect where it’s an intentional cutting off of engagement or a changing of the pattern of the relationship.”

They might be overly critical, jealous, controlling, or prone to angry outbursts—all of it as part of a manipulation tactic to get you to do things for them or act a particular way in the friendship, regardless of whether you’re getting anything in return. “At that point, it's important to seek help from a psychotherapist to assist you in how to leave that relationship safely,” says Glashow.

8. It’s always about them

Being in a toxic friendship can be like being the backup dancer to a pop star: You may be onstage, but it’s never really about you—and it’s always about them. “Toxic friends may feel jealousy or competitiveness, which can lead to resentment or attempts to undermine others’ success or happiness,” says Dr. Hafeez. They might monopolize conversations, frequently interrupt or talk over you, and demand your undivided attention, adds Dr. Kennedy.

9. They stir up drama

Drama is a toxic friend’s middle name. “They may thrive on drama and conflict, constantly stirring up arguments or gossiping about others to create tension and maintain control over relationships,” says Dr. Hafeez.

Even if this person says they dislike drama, they’re probably the person who always seems to be at the center of it, picking fights for no reason—if only to have something to talk about or an “exciting” problem with which they need to deal.

10. They seem to enjoy putting you down or do so often

A friend should uplift you—not drag you down. So, if you notice that someone is constantly making you feel worse about yourself than you felt before you saw them, that’s a clear sign of a toxic friend.

According to Dr. Hafeez, this can look like constantly belittling your achievements, bubbling up your insecurities, finding little ways to criticize you, or trying to one-up you. For instance, if you have good news to share, they may diminish it by focusing on one of their accomplishments instead. Or, perhaps they just don’t like it when the spotlight is on you and try to steal it away.

11. You can’t trust them or rely on them

If you feel like you can’t count on your friend to really be there for you when you need them, or to do what they said they would do, that’s a clear sign that they’re an untrustworthy person—and a toxic friend, too. “Toxic friends may be unreliable or inconsistent in their behavior, making promises they don't keep, canceling plans last minute, or only reaching out when they need something,” says Dr. Hafeez.

12. There’s a noticeable power imbalance in the friendship

A healthy friendship has a balanced give-and-take, where each person is, at times, making decisions and playing the leader role, and at other times, receiving support and following along. Whereas, in a toxic relationship, there’s often an imbalance of power, “where only one person is getting air time,” says Dr. Truitt. That tends to look like one person making the final decision on group plans or getting others to help with their problems.

You might be used to someone playing the more dominant role in a friendship, “which can make it tough to differentiate [a good friendship from a toxic one] because our mind and our body lean into what’s comfortable or familiar,” says Dr Truitt. But, it’s important to remember that what’s comfortable isn’t always the same as what’s safe or preferable, she adds. So, if a friend is running the show at the expense of your ideas and needs, you’d be wise to take note.

13. They’re manipulative

“Toxic friends may use manipulation tactics to control or influence others, such as guilt-tripping, gaslighting, or playing the victim,” says Dr. Hafeez. This can lead to feelings of guilt and self-doubt that make you wonder who’s really hurting whom in the friendship.

Dr. Kennedy adds, though, that our emotions can function like data points that help guide us, which is why it’s important to pay attention to any feeling that something is off and challenge situations that make us doubt our sense of reality.

How do I know if I am in a toxic group of friends?

Is it possible your entire friend group is toxic? Potentially. But this might say as much about you as it does about them. “If you constantly feel drained, anxious, or invalidated after spending time with your ‘friends,’ you may be part of a toxic group of friends,” says Wilson. “The key question is how you feel about yourself after spending time with the group.”

Spotting the signs of a toxic relationship can be difficult, especially if you’re evaluating an entire group. But if you notice that your friends regularly violate your personal boundaries, activate your insecurities, or don’t make you feel like the best version of yourself, you might want to take a step back. “Perhaps you’re with a group of friends that leads you to take more risks or act on impulse more frequently in ways that feel risky or unhealthy for you,” says Dr. Kennedy. “That might be a situation where you need to take space and reevaluate your social network.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean there’s something inherently wrong with the people in your group of friends, but they just may not be the best fit for you. Consider why you may be drawn to these specific types of personalities and how you might lean into other relationships that make you feel more secure instead.

How does a toxic friendship affect you?

Toxic friends are often needy, and maintaining the friendship tends to leave little room for self-reflection—but it’s important to actively set aside time to consider how they make you feel. “Constant criticism, negativity, manipulation, and betrayal from the toxic friend can lead to feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, and diminished self-esteem,” says Dr. Hafeez.

“Constant criticism, negativity, manipulation, and betrayal from the toxic friend can lead to feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, and diminished self-esteem.” —Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, neuropsychologist

If these feelings are ignored, over time, they can have a major destabilizing effect on your emotional and physical well-being. “When it comes to stress within a relationship, it can start to rewire our brains,” says Dr. Truitt, “which impacts the way we think about the world.” This can also have downstream effects on the physiology of our hearts and lungs (consider how your heart rate and breathing rate can spike when you’re stressed), as well as our ability to fall asleep, adds Dr. Truitt, which is also directly connected to our mental state.

What causes a friend to be toxic?

Whether you’ve known them since middle school or you met them at that friend-of-a-friend’s housewarming party last year, you might think that toxic friend has always been this way. Chances are, though, your friend’s toxic behaviors developed over time. “The nature of any relationship is informed by the experiences of our past,” says Dr. Truitt.

For instance, a traumatic upbringing or a childhood in which someone was made to feel insecure or unworthy of love or support can have a powerful impact on the way they (consciously or unconsciously) present themselves. “Many people don’t have healthy models for relationships growing up,” says Dr. Truitt. “It’s not that they’re intentionally trying to do harm; they just don’t have the skills or the knowledge to do otherwise.”

In turn, toxic-friend behavior could develop in a person who either observed unhealthy relationship dynamics throughout their formative years, or who has developed an insecure attachment style as a result of being in an unsupportive relationship themselves.

Even so, it’s important to remember that no matter the previous events that led someone to develop toxic behaviors, they’re still ultimately responsible for their actions in the present and how those actions might harm others.

How to deal with a toxic friend

Managing a relationship with a toxic friend requires self-awareness and reflection. “Consider whether you've tried to address the issues in the friendship and whether it's truly salvageable,” says Dr. Hafeez.

If you feel safe enough to do so, start by having a conversation with your friend about how you’re feeling, and suggest boundaries that might alleviate pain points. For instance, if your friend is always talking over you, your boundary might be that each person gets a specific amount of time to talk before the other person can speak.

If they’re attentive and seem amenable to change when you bring up your concerns, there may be hope. “If both individuals are willing to engage in open, honest, and respectful dialogue about their feelings and needs, it can pave the way for positive changes,” says Dr. Hafeez.

To help move your relationship in a healthier direction, you might consider making plans with this friend that bring out the best in them. Maybe your toxic friend is more tolerable when they’re hiking or at a concert, or perhaps they’re better in large groups than one-on-one hangouts. “You might simply want to take more space and more time in between encounters with that person or that group,” says Dr. Kennedy. “Experiment with what works best for you.”

If your friend responds in a defensive manner to your critiques or suggestions, however, you may be in an addictive toxic relationship—which is one where, deep down, you know the person has no interest in changing, but you still keep holding onto a shred of hope. It’s human nature to want to change this person for the better, but mutual respect and trust can only exist if both people are actively working toward it.

When should you cut off a toxic friend?

If your friend seems unwilling to take ownership of their behavior and its effects on you or refuses to be receptive to your honest feedback, it might be time to cut them out of your life.

Another indicator is if you experience a new milestone that sparks a shift in your boundaries. For example, if you start a new job, get married, or have a child, you might not have as much energy to tolerate your toxic friend’s behavior. “You should consider ending a toxic friendship when the friend’s behavior consistently negatively impacts your mental health, self-esteem, and overall well-being, despite attempts to address the issues and set boundaries,” says Wilson.

“It can be profoundly saddening to acknowledge that a relationship once valued has become harmful.” —Dr. Hafeez

Taking that step to end things is often easier said than done, though, even when you know it’s the right move. “It can be profoundly saddening to acknowledge that a relationship once valued has become harmful,” says Dr. Hafeez. “Saying goodbye to someone who has been a significant part of your life, despite the toxicity, can evoke feelings of grief, loss, and loneliness.”

But no matter how painful it may feel at first, it’s important to follow through on your decision to end the friendship once you’ve come to that conclusion. After all, being partly checked-out of a friendship while not entirely ending it can facilitate even more toxic behavior.

How do you quietly end a toxic friendship?

When you’ve decided it’s time to break up with a friend, start by creating gradual distance, advises Wilson. This might look like blocking them on social media or making a point to avoid that one coffee shop you both like to stop by every Tuesday morning for a little while. It’s also a good idea to limit communication, and be polite but firm when turning down plans or setting boundaries to help minimize confrontation and drama.

To effectively end things, “you may want to directly address the person and say, ‘This just isn’t a healthy relationship for me at this point in my life,’ if you feel like that will be productive,” says Dr. Kennedy. In other cases, however, you may not feel totally safe cutting things off, which is when it would be best to back away from the relationship slowly and seek support from others.

The guilt you feel after a platonic breakup might come as a surprise, but it’s important to remember that what you did was necessary for your well-being. “Seek support from trusted individuals or a licensed mental health therapist to process feelings of grief, anger, or betrayal, and to rebuild trust in yourself and others,” advises Dr. Glashow.

Mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation and physical exercises like running can also help alleviate some of the pain of losing a once-close friend. Similarly, it’s a good idea to lean into hobbies and interests that bring you joy, and set goals for yourself to work toward building healthier, more fulfilling relationships in the future.

“Take time to reflect on patterns that you might have ignored, focus on self care, seek closure by expressing your feelings, and start to cultivate positive relationships that uplift and validate you,” suggests Wilson. “And remember: You deserve to have friends who genuinely care about you.”

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