Dealing with toxic friendships
Updated: Jul 25, 2022
Sometimes the question is not "How do I make this work?" but "SHOULD I be making this work at all!?"
We've all been there, and hopefully many of us have come through without too much pain and resentment, but toxic friendships often rear their heads to threaten our joy - and even our sense of worth. But what are they, how might they affect us, and what can we do about it? (This article was edited for a piece in Pick Me Up Magazine)
· What are the warning signs of a toxic friendship?
The warning behaviours to look out for include the following, and we are well advised to take a moment to make sure they are not behaviours WE are indulging in ourselves!!
1. They put you down
No matter what the situation, you were wrong or you fell short of the mark – whether it is that “You misunderstood”, or you “obviously didn’t get the joke.” Perhaps their “funny stories” include embarrassing anecdotes about you, or they make throwaway comments on things they know you are sensitive about.
2. They break plans or behave in a “flaky” way
Even if you do challenge them and ask for an explanation or a reason, they will often say “oh that’s just me” – which in many ways is endearing, BUT what it is actually saying is “I don’t value you enough to think that your time is important enough not to waste!” If you find yourself making excuses or telling that friend to arrive 30 minutes early because you know they are “always late” – it may also be worth questioning if their other attributes are worth your making excuses over!
3. It really IS all about them (and they LOVE your compliments)
If you notice that your relationship is becoming very much about whether they want to do that, what they want to do, and you begin to feel like an accessory to their life, this can indicate a friendship is turning toxic. In conversation, somehow it will always turn around to being about how great they are and what they achieved recently. They are notably brightened when you tell them how great they are, but you might recognise that they are not often doing the same for you. Any validation, or compassion in the relationship seems one sided. They may also work to “go one better” even if you express something you are upset about eg “Oh you think that’s bad well I…”
4. They gossip – or worse, tell YOUR secrets
If you notice that a friendship is based on gossip, what you know, what they know and what they think of others, it is very likely that they will be saying much the same about you in your absence. You might even find they have told someone something you said in confidence and on challenging them they say something like “He just guessed”. Perhaps you are willing to give this the benefit of the doubt the first time, but perhaps try not to get yourself in the same situation in future.
5. Other friends aren’t all that keen
“You can tell the measure of a man by their friends” (Spanish Proverb) – and I personally had cause to question one of my friendships (which did turn out to be toxic) when someone I trusted told me “I don’t really want to go on holiday with you if X’s is coming as I don’t really like them.” If people you trust and whose opinions you value are less keen to see you if you have that friendship in tow, perhaps you need to ask yourself if there is something you are overlooking.
6. They are using you for their own benefit
Perhaps they are speaking about your assets in terms of how they will “make others jealous” or “be so much better than…” other people. Perhaps they want to join you for all the opportunities you create, or maybe it’s because they like your money & generosity/car/house/pool/membership of a club. Take away the opportunity and suddenly they find a reason not to be there.
7. They seem not to have long term friends
While in this fast-paced world it is not always easy to stay in touch, those who have been friends with a toxic person may take advantage of the respite of time and space and not bother to reach out. Interestingly toxic people may even use this to their advantage by telling you “I have so many people who used to be really good friends with me and then couldn’t be bothered.” …you might need to ask yourself why…especially if you are feeling the exhaustion.
8. They try and change you
They may try to shape you into becoming someone that you don’t want to be. Real friends accept you for who you are and only offer that sort of intervention if you solicit it, or at least ask you first if you want that. If you feel as if you are being swept along with things you don’t really enjoy, first of all, say no to them, and see what happens…a real friend who hasn’t realised you weren’t enjoying them is likely to work out other things you can do together, a toxic friend may get angry or simply withdraw.
9. They don’t validate your feelings
While not the most harmful of all traits, “toxic positivity” can leave you feeling unheard. This is when you might confide in a friend for example “I feel so fat and ugly” and their response is “No you’re not, you’re gorgeous…” and they go on to tell you all the reasons why. Now, while this often initially comes from a place of love, because they really DO see all the positive traits and they don’t want you to feel horrible, you might need to say to them – I don’t want a solution, I just want someone to listen…if they can do that, they are a good friend. If they insist on throwing pixie dust and unicorns at you, perhaps they aren’t able to offer you the depth of friendship that you need.
Alternatively, they may be projecting onto you something that isn’t there. (Recently I had to tell someone who had “elevated” my relationship status with them from work colleague to “good friend” - something that I wasn’t comfortable with, that while I was “Honoured and privileged” – I didn’t want to be put in a position where I would just let them down, and also – because I’m a psychologist – they needed to reflect and ask themself what out of “being nice/doing my job well” did they see as meriting his interpretation or courting it.)
I am acutely aware when people are projecting something onto me often through phrases such as “I know you so well” (when they don’t) or “I really want to do X/Y/Z with you” (when you have made it clear that they are furthest from what you enjoy) and it is one of my most important red flags to nip something in a bud…not least because I wouldn’t want a friendship to be formed on something which is inauthentic.
10. You feel exhausted having spent time with them
Whether it’s their passive aggression, their need for attention, the fact it’s all about them, that they don’t listen to you – or any of the above 9 points…you just don’t really enjoy spending time with them anymore.
· How do toxic friendships start?
Toxicity can be defined as “Poisonous, or very harmful in a pervasive or insidious way”…in other words, we might not know we are involved in a toxic friendship until we begin to feel that something is not right or causing us to feel bad.
As such, unless it has been deliberately curated by one party (which brings it more akin to gaslighting), a toxic friendship will often start in the same way as any friendship – two people simply connect on shared interests and start spending time together.
However, what is important to recognise is that we all go through life carrying some sort of emotional baggage. We do not need to have experienced deeply traumatic events to feel a sense of rejection, much less have it impact on your life. If we, as children, were always told “Cheer up”, “stop it”, and/or we never had our feelings acknowledged (even the idea of “family hold back” can result in some children creating a belief that they are not as important as the people mum and dad are trying to impress), we can grow up with a need for acknowledgement or people pleasing, without really having learned the tools to provide this for ourselves. As such, we try different ways to receive what we are craving and as such we might be unconsciously drawn to people who either emulate the behaviours we are used to (eg. not acknowledging our feelings) because a sense of familiarity is often more comfortable than the unknown; or our need for validation or attention might ignite something unresolved in them and so we fall into a pattern of co-dependency that isn’t really anybody’s fault, but can become quite icky to resolve.
Another reason for a friendship to turn toxic is when jealousy or envy result in one party “acting out” rather than working to develop their own strengths within themselves. If you have received a promotion, a one good friend may suddenly turn against you, or stop wanting to spend time with you, or even try to discredit you, because they are envious of your success but are without the tools or the strength to work on achieving similar for themselves. It becomes all too easy to, rather than to show acceptance of difference or even learn from that other person, try to negate that of the other – it is the act of “normative idealisation” – what I do is normal, what you do is odd (it makes our own ego feel better); or to return to my first point of looking outwards - we might alternatively just be picking on others to avoid thinking about our own problems – and something which makes them “different” is an easy target…and sometimes it means by bringing someone down (rather than working to raise ourselves up), we feel better about ourselves – and don’t need to admit we need to do something about our own insecurities.
The first thing to recognise is that when it comes to love and validation, if we are able to give it to ourselves, the source is infinite – there’s no scarcity…therefore no need to feel you are losing out. The second is, in building our character, a focus on self-compassion is important (eg: I didn’t win, but I’m proud I actually showed up to run as I could easily have sacked it off!) – building ourselves up with our only “competition” being that we are perhaps that little bit better today than we were yesterday! Whenever we are pointing the finger outwards, it tends to be because we are trying to avoid looking inwards! By making it clear there is someone else (a “weaker prey” perhaps) to focus on, we can remain “safe”. But perhaps our friend hasn’t learned…or maybe WE haven’t if you notice these more negative tendencies in yourself!
· Is there a certain type of person who's likely to be toxic / a certain type of person who's more likely to have a toxic friend?
It is possible that someone with narcissistic tendencies can easily become a toxic friend just because of the way they are.
Narcissistic people do not need to be sadistic, they can just be highly self involved.
While many diagnosed with a psychopathic disorder lack empathy for others, the narcissist has an empathetic response to themselves. This means that if they perceive anyone not to treat them in the manner they desire, they will tend to “axe” them from their circle (dumping, firing, cutting them out) or try to change them. It is also notable that while narcissism – although hugely unpleasant – may need to be treated very much like other forms of neurodiversity eg: it needs to be accepted/worked around – a narcissist can be encouraged to utilise his/her strengths rather than “cured” –BUT, yes, there are also “malignant narcissists” (of the kind we often read about or watch in dramas who appear to take pleasure in causing others pain – however this does not apply to all narcissists.)
I mention Narcissism because it is not difficult to be attracted to a narcissist – they can be extremely charming, very successful and outwardly, as a first impression a lot of fun – as I said toxic friendships do not always start off that way! It is only after getting to know them a little longer, that we may begin to see that their world really does revolve around them and them alone.
If anyone has every said to you that “you collect strays” – you may be drawn to toxic people. This can be because in your past you may have felt rejected or neglected, or not loved in the way that you desire and are seeking what is called a “corrective experience” – unfortunately this often manifests in offering all the love and compassion you have to give on others and hoping they will fill the need that you have. As that need was often for parental approval, it would not be possible for others to meet it anyway, AND on top of that, that sort of commitment may not have been what they signed up for…they might have thought you were just being nice, not that you were expecting them to make you feel better.
What can we do?
Practice Self Love
If this resonates is work on your own self value and self-compassion, start by identifying your boundaries, the sort of behaviour you are willing (or not willing to accept), as well as your values – and work to live those every day. You may find that some people may drift away (and it is important at this point to recognise that it is NOT worth holding onto a friendship that was draining.)
a) Reassure yourself through self-compassion rather than self-esteem statements
When something doesn’t go your way, or if you have said or done something you regret try:
I’m proud of xxx elements because I worked hard on them/I contributed creatively/I pushed my boundaries
I did xxx better than everyone else
I’m sad that I lost my temper, but I realise what triggered me and I can watch for that sort of comment in future
I’m sad I lost my temper – but x provoked me
There is a very subtle difference, but self-compassion focuses on you and your response – it is quite empowering; self-esteem focuses on praise and even acceptance, but in the context of comparison with others.
b) Try some “Compassion Focused Therapy” (CFT) (or “interventions” if you prefer)
Compassion Focused interventions ask you to reflect on your response to threat – are you better supported through “Soothing” actions or “Energising” ones?
Soothing (like the “Yin” approach) includes relaxation, going for a walk, meditation, massage…
Energising (like the “Yang” approach”) is more active – it might be accomplishment or socialising or trying something new.
Energising yourself may be a little more “esteem” based, but that’s why I say “accomplishment” rather than “achievement” – you only need to be a bit better than you were the time before(!) – but it’s about learning more about you and how you can help make yourself feel better.
· How can you avoid toxic friendships or being a toxic friend?/What is the best way to deal with it?
- Be aware of the red flags and do not excuse them.
Asking friends “What did you mean by that” or “When you said X, that upset me, why did you do that?” – when you’re in a calm environment can open a dialogue which any good friend would be willing to have – and capable of having. Remember toxic behaviour may not be deliberate, so giving the other person the chance to reflect and explain can help them as well…if they are able to address it, you may have forged and even deeper friendship, if not, by calling out (kindly) you have given them the opportunity to reflect, and if they cannot, you need to decide whether to continue that relationship or not.
- Set boundaries on your time
This can help you preserve your energise for those who make you feel great:
BUT Saying “no” takes practice so sometimes having a helpful – yet empowering response pre-prepared can help you when you are caught off-guard in a “will you just…” situation.
Practice these statements:
1. (Set Boundaries) “Of course I can help but I can only do it at/by X time” or “I only have 5 minutes, and I must get on with X”
2. (Delay) “I don’t have my diary - Can I let you know at the end of the day/tomorrow?” (this gives you time to think about whether you really CAN do something, and think of an excuse if necessary!)
3. (Empower, don’t do it for them) Here’s one I made earlier (give them a sample template – especially helpful if it’s a question you’re normally asked) and/or ask them “How would you like me to help you/What do you think is best for me to do/What would be of most help to you at this time?” (This ensures the responsibility is on them to define the problem and what they see as a workable solution).
- Identify what YOU really want out of a friendship
Then, actively seek it out (or spend time with those in your life who already give that to you…as a bonus it means you can genuinely say “no” to the more exhausting people without feeling bad…you really ARE already busy!
Look carefully at your current relationships. Ask yourself:
- Which ones are reciprocal?
- Which ones bring me joy?
- Which ones encourage honesty?
- Which ones can I rely on?
and most importantly
- Which ones are with people I respect for their own values and actions? (Which ones does I actively want to choose?)
Then contact those people – you might even do it now!!
- Ask yourself - how do you envision a relationship that will make you happy? (Unfortunately, you will not be able to put a specific person there, because their choice is always their own - but you can have an idea of the type of person you seek.)
- Set out what values you want in that person, and what you are not willing to accept.
- Set out what values you want them to recognise in you.
THEN focus on living your values...and make your choices accordingly.
Developing current or new friendships
1. Ask yourself "With whom am I most 'myself'?"
2. Identify why - what is it about those people that you love?
3. Work to spend more time with those people AND to be those things back to them!
Remember though, friendships are not an alternative to loving yourself – don’t seek others solely as a means of making yourself feel better – other people are not there to complete you. It is important that relationships in your life are a bonus rather than replacement for self-love.
· What can you do to get over a toxic friendship?
As with any breakdown of a relationship – depending on the intensity there can certainly be a grieving process as something significant in your life has changed.
The Kubler-Ross model is the most common descriptor of the grieving process and most people, when experiencing loss, will go through these stages although the time they spend in them can vary:
- Denial – pretending everything is ok
- Anger – perhaps anger at yourself for not stopping the friendship earlier, or anger at the friend for their behaviour
- Bargaining – in the grief model this behaviour is usually described as “hope that grief can be avoided” – the way it might be applied in this case is in making ultimatums with the toxic friend (perhaps not following them through), or hoping for them to feel what you are feeling (often an off-shot of anger) almost as a sense of punishment and thus validation that “they did you wrong”.
- Depression – You may worry you won’t find other friends, or that EVERYONE is “playing you”.
- Acceptance – you come to see that their issues were their issues, and did not necessarily reflect on you. You do not need to become someone who “never trusts again”, but you recognise that your generosity and kindness and patience are lovely traits, and perhaps they were misplaced. (I find it helpful to mentally thank them for what they taught me, wish them well and let them go mentally so they no longer have a hold over me.)
This is the best point at which you can learn from your experience.
As such, treat every experience as an opportunity to learn. While you may have spent a long time in a toxic friendship, forgive yourself – and try to forgive the other person (for yourself, not necessarily for them) – at the very least they were not able to give you what you needed at that time.
- Recognise what you are drawn to, and perhaps the traits that may make you overlook red flags. For example, if you value humour, you might remain longer in a toxic friendship with someone who makes you laugh because the benefits of that trait overshadow the behaviours you enjoy less.
- See if you can identify any patterns in your toxic friendships – so that you are more aware in future:
o What drew you in/attracted you to that person?
o What behaviour would you say were your “overlooking” behaviours?
o What behaviours do you notice in yourself when something “isn’t sitting right”?
o What has worked in the past for ending toxic friendships?
- It IS OK to edit your life
- You may not get an apology – so don’t stew (that’s a waste of time and energy)
- Spend time with your other friends – with whom you feel great
- You MAY need to cut the toxic person out from your life completely eg: blocking on social media – BUT you cannot expect your friends to do the same.
- Revisit your boundaries and values for future friendships.
While it can feel horribly personal, having a toxic friendship may have been more about the p[lace the two of you were in your lives at the time than directly speaking to your personalities…the question I always ask myself when I reflect and feel a pang of regret is:
Do I find their behaviour pleasant/attractive and do I need that energy in my life right now?!
· Can toxic friendships ever work?
If a friendship was not deliberately toxic, but both of you needed to grow and learn about each other and yourselves, then yes, it is certainly possible for potentially toxic relationships to change into very positive fulfilling ones. However, this takes work from both parties to understand themselves and each other and want to meet those needs.
Perhaps you both didn’t have a friendship problem but a listening problem eg:
There are 3 key mistakes we make when listening - try to avoid those:
i) Rehearsing what you are going to say rather than listening. In this case, try to listen and see if you can then springboard off where the other person stops rather than bringing it back round if you thought of your response early on in the story!!
ii) Evaluating - listening only to critique the speaker. This can include fault-finding which is listening in order to catch the speaker out. Ask yourself why you are needing to be critical and what that might be doing to the relationship. If you are only spending time with that person to wind them up, is it really the best use of your energies!?
iii) Derailing - making it about you - either by "topping" their experience with your own, or making a big deal about if YOU were in that situation, or a "what about me" approach. Again, this might need some soul searching to think about why you need that validation in someone else's experience, as well as why you are reluctant to let others have their moment
Instead try to practice ACTIVE LISTENING. This is where you interact with what is being said by asking open questions, writing things down, or paraphrasing back to the speaker what they said, just to make sure you have received the information accurately. If asking questions ask open questions to learn more - those which begin with "Who", "What", "Why", "Where", "When" or "How". These elicit more detail than close questions which often only need a one word answer eg:
OPEN: How are you?
CLOSED: Are you well?
Or maybe you set your expectations too vaguely:
It's ok if you'd rather not spend time with people - you do not have to give more time to others than you choose. Try the following to politely continue:
- Active positive response: Oh that’s so interesting, why/what/how did you do that…?
...or close a conversation:
- Passive positive response: Oh that’s so interesting, thanks for sharing.
(If in response to being invited somewhere: That sounds lovely, I hope you enjoy it.)
Maybe you have both changed in the time apart:
If you are:
Both are in a healthier life space for that relationship
Both perhaps had the opportunity to experience more…and recognise what is important – and your values now are in alignment
Recognise the factors contributing to the breakdown of the friendship
Then…in some ways it is like starting a new friendship which has a sense of familiarity
BUT – do not rush back into a friendship just because you are feeling down, or guilty – ask yourself:
- What made you leave and has that changed?
- What will be different this time?
- Can you be explicit with your needs, and what will you do if your friend is not open to them? (relationships are much healthier as a negotiation rather than a game)
- Are you clear on your boundaries?
- Can you communicate your values, your needs and be mindful of what you are or are not willing to compromise in yourself?
- Recognise your own changes and work on your own self worth so that you know healthy friendships are a wonderful bonus to your life…and you are the type of person who can find friendships in abundance (don’t be scared to look further out!)
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author with a specialty in the "how to take action", rather than just giving explanation and advice. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience. For self development tools based within positive psychology: click Her YouTube Channel . Twitter/IG @draudreyt