"The reason any of us has friends is to both give and receive support and strength," says licensed psychologist Lauren Hazzouri, PhD. "Healthy friendships feel safe, secure, empowering, and uplifting. A friend is a true friend when her presence reminds you of all that you are, not all that you're not."
"A toxic friendship is one in which you feel energetically exhausted when interacting with the person," says Judy Ho, PhD, a triple board-certified clinical and forensic neuropsychologist. "Your friend may be an emotional vampire who seems to suck the life force out of you whenever you speak to them or spend time with them.”
That said, not all toxic friendships present themselves so conspicuously, says Dr. Ho. A friend who pretends to be happy for you when good things happen, passive aggressively puts you down, tries to steal attention away from you, makes everything about them, or makes excessive demands of you but does not reciprocate is also toxic.
10 signs you have a toxic friendship
1. You don’t feel supported
Your friends should celebrate your success, not diminish it. Be wary of the friend who makes snarky comments when you share your accomplishments or good news, says Courtney Glashow, LCSW, a psychotherapist and owner of Anchor Therapy in Hoboken, New Jersey. "In a healthy friendship, someone will encourage you to grow and succeed," not be envious or condescending, she says.
And the pep talks should go both ways. "A friendship should be a support system between two people," says Glashow. "You want to make sure the people close to you in life are there to listen, support you, and share their successes and struggles as well."
2. You’re constantly fighting
Friends fight—nothing unusual about that. But if the bad blood overtakes the good vibes, or if you and your friend intentionally hurt one another, it may be time to re-evaluate. "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 Aimee Barr, LCSW, a Brooklyn-based psychotherapist.
3. You feel physically drained
"Pay attention to your body when you're with the friend and when you think about reaching out to them," says Elizabeth Cohen, PhD, a clinical psychologist practicing in New York City. "Our bodies have a lot of information about how comfortable we feel with another person." Are you tense and on edge or relaxed and upbeat? Think about the physical and emotion reactions you have when your friend's name pops up on your phone's screen.
4. You can't be yourself
Another sign of a toxic relationship is if your friend does not accept you for who you are and you find yourself changing something about your personality or appearance that doesn't feel right," says Glashow. "A true friend would never want you to change who you are." Your friends should inspire you to be the best version of yourself—not someone completely different.
5. The friendship is abusive
Just like romantic relationships, friendships can be physically and emotionally abusive. Emotional abuse can be so subtle—it doesn't exactly leave you black and blue—that you might not recognize it for what it is. But if a friend is overly critical, jealous, controlling, or prone to angry outbursts, she's crossed the line. "At that point, it's important to seek help from a psychotherapist to assist you in how to leave that relationship safely," says Glashow.
6. Your friend gossips about other people
Even before a friendship becomes toxic, there are red flags to look out for including how your friend talks about other people behind their back, says Dr. Ho. For instance, if they gossip about people a lot and justify it by saying they only do so because they care about them, that may be a sign that your friendship with them is perhaps heading down a toxic path. Or, perhaps they don’t gossip about other people but they are overly critical when they talk about them or they seem jealous, conniving, or domineering. “Chances are one day it’s going to come around to you," says Dr. Ho.
7. It’s always about them
Just like any relationship, a friendship is a two-way partnership. Another sign of a toxic friend is that they make everything about them and don’t seem invested in you and empathetic to what you’re going through. For instance, when you’re conversing with them, they may find a way to focus the conversation on themselves and their experiences instead of giving you the time and space to share as well, says Dr. Ho.
8. They stir up drama
When things are going well, a toxic friend may stir up chaos by doing things such as picking a fight for no apparent reason and actually revel in it. “[A toxic friend] may do things to cause drama in their life or yours, and then seemingly relish in having to deal with the drama,” Dr. Ho. “They can’t just enjoy the peace of having no problems to deal with and cause trouble in order to feel like their life is exciting.”
9. They put you down
A healthy friendship should uplift you, not make you feel less than, which is why Dr. Ho says putting you down in any way is another big sign of a toxic friend. That can mean they find little ways to criticize you. It can look like your friend 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.
10. You can’t trust them or rely on them
One of the biggest perks of friendship is knowing that your bestie will be there when you really need them. A toxic friend, however, may not live up to that, even if you put in the time and energy to be there for them when they need you. This is why Dr. Ho points to not trusting or relying on them as another sign of a toxic friend. Or worse, in some cases, she adds, a toxic friend may even try to sabotage your success.
How to deal with a toxic friendship
Have a conversation with them
According to Dr. Cohen, not all toxic friendships are beyond repair: "If it feels safe enough to engage in [honest conversation], I encourage bringing up your feelings with your friend."
To do this, voice your concerns to your friend. “Make sure to describe the behaviors that are bothering but don’t attribute your own interpretation about what they mean,” says Dr. Ho. “Rather, open it up to them and ask them why they do something a certain way and how it makes you feel.”
Set firm boundaries
As part of your sit-down conversation with your friend, Dr. Ho advises communicating your boundaries with them about what is okay and what is not in the relationship. For instance, if your friend tends to dominate the conversation focusing on what they’re going through, your boundary might be that you both get equal time to talk about what you’re experiencing and how you’re feeling.
Consider distancing yourself from them
If there is hope for changing the dynamic of the friendship, your friend will ideally respond in a non-defensive way and be willing to explain why those behaviors happen, be open to discussing how to make things better, and respect your boundaries, says Dr. Ho.
However, if your friend is defensive or blames you for being overly sensitive, Dr. Ho says it may be time to start distancing yourself from them and stop investing your time and energy into the relationship further.
The same goes if even broaching the topic of a friendship detox doesn't seem like an option. It's time to move on. "You need to take care of yourself and let go of the negative energy in your life," says Dr. Cohen. You'll grieve the loss of the friendship, but you’ll likely regain your confidence.
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