You know all the qualities that make a good friend — someone who is supportive, trustworthy, dependable, the list goes on… It’s easy to tell when someone is worthy of maintaining a close friendship with. The hard part is knowing when someone is a bad friend — when they’re behaviors toward you have reached toxic levels. It usually boils down to a distinct feeling in the pit of your stomach, quite literally.
“If we have an allergy to milk or peanuts, it’s toxic to our body; people can be the exact same way for us and will actually end up doing some of the same things — our stomach may be in knots, we may feel panicky when they are around, and we may even lose sleep worrying about their emotions or what they might do or say,” explains Kevin Gilliland, PsyD, a clinical psychologist, mental health expert, and author of Struggle Well Live Well.
Toxic friends also tend to take more than give. “These people can be like emotional vampires that suck the life force out of you, constantly demanding your attention and time but offering little back,” says Judy Ho, PhD, Triple Board-Certified Clinical and Forensic Neuropsychologist, and author of Stop Self Sabotage. “Depending on your personality and your history with this person, you may even feel obligated to keep rescuing them or managing their feelings and wellness, sometimes at the cost of your own.” This, of course, has obvious consequences.
While it might seem less stressful in the short term to stay friendly with this person, it usually costs you in the form of drained energy and sanity overtime. “Oftentimes the unpredictability in toxic relationships can affect your mood and even lead to feelings of low self-worth, anxiety, and depression,” says Johanna Kaplan, child clinical psychologist and director of the Washington Anxiety Center of Capitol Hill. “Recognizing that this dynamic is triggering negative feelings is the first step to then deciding whether or not to address it.”
So how do you spot a toxic friend? Here are eight signs psychologists say to look out for, plus when to pull the plug on the relationship.
You know the classic polite put-down: a statement that’s dressed up to make you feel good, but in reality, makes you question your self-worth. “Toxic friends will often say things that sound like a compliment but have an edge to it, like, ‘If I was as skinny as you I’d eat whatever I want, too,’” notes Dr. Ho. To address this behavior, she recommends confronting your friend in the moment instead of waiting for another time to bring it up. “Ask them right then and there to explain what they mean by that,” Dr. Ho suggests. “Put them on the spot and make them unpack what they said to you, and depending on their answer, either set them straight or make a mental note that this is an example where this person does not want or wish for your best interests.”
Friends should be supportive, not overly critical. If you have a friend who rolls their eyes or gives an eyebrow exchange to another person seated at the table when you’re talking, consider breaking up with them. “Whether it is a verbal or nonverbal judgment, this type of behavior makes you question your own judgment and decisions, and throws you off balance,” says Dr. Ho. To address this, she recommends letting your friend know that you feel good about your decision and that you don’t need their approval. Then, leave it at that. “These individuals like getting you to react to their judgment, so don’t give them the satisfaction and close the conversation so there isn’t more room to argue,” she adds.
This type of negative behavior from a friend makes it near-impossible for you to maintain a glass half-full perspective, which is important in life. “This behavior can bring you down over time and weigh on your outlook, but it’s important to note that most of the time it’s coming from a place where that individual is struggling with their own stuff and hurting,” says Dr. Ho. “Ask them what’s going on that makes them take such a negative stance, and then listen without judgment — perhaps they just need a little encouragement for themselves to get through their own issues.” However, if the negativity is consistent, you may want to decide whether it’s worth your energy.
Somewhat obvious but significant. When untruths, deceit, and deception lay the foundation of any relationship, the result is toxic, warns Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John's Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, CA. “Living in a pool of lies distorts reality, confuses decision-making, and compromises trust, and the impact is that a person cannot be counted on to for information and questioning credibility results,” she says. “Questioning the truth may be one way to confront the lies and deception, but if the foundation of the relationship was established on a lie, the relationship is likely to move forward in a healthy manner and may be best dissolved.”
Jealousy is only natural, but jealous responses – aka talking down or trying to upstage your achievements – should not be common in a relationship. This is a major red flag, according to Dr. Ho, who warns that many friendships do not survive this toxic behavior. To address this, she recommends having an open and honest talk with your friend, letting them know that some of their behaviors make you question whether they’re truly happy for you. “Be prepared that they may be very defensive, but if this friendship is worth anything to you, it is worth it to give the conversation a shot and see if you can have an honest conversation of how to best support one another,” Dr. Ho says. You deserve to feel that your best friend is truly happy for you.
When your best friend is constantly telling you what to do, issuing you ultimatums, and demanding you to act a certain way, they are trying to illicit control over you. This type of behavior is toxic because it interferes with another person’s individuation and autonomy, explains Dr. Mendez. “Controlling behaviors impose restrictions, deny people their rights to independent thinking and being, disrupts the process of creativity, interferes with collaboration and negotiation flexibilities that promote problem solving building of partnerships and alliances,” she says. “The results of controlling behaviors on others is loss of individuation and identify, which is emotionally dysregulating and toxic to mental, physical, and emotional stability.”
If you feel like you’re doing all the heavy lifting in the friendship and your friend is playing a passive yet emotional role, they are likely being passive aggressive. “There’s nothing wrong with pursuing someone after a disagreement or just because you know they are a little timid or passive, but constantly pursuing someone is exhausting and we may not be able to figure out if they’re a runner or we’re a chaser, either way, that’s a common and terrible relationship,” says Dr. Gilliland.
Always feel like what you’re saying is going in one ear and out the other? That's another sign of a toxic friend. Poor listeners not only leave you feeling unheard, but they also leave you feeling unimportant. “This kind of self-centeredness can stem from so many areas, but the result in how we begin to feel is the same,” says Dr. Gilliland. “Our opinions or needs or desires just don’t end up being considered and we may be vulnerable to doubt ourselves, believe things that aren’t true, and that will tear away at our mood and confidence.” Good communication is the key to any successful relationship.
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