It all starts innocently enough. You can’t sleep, so you’re whiling away your insomnia by taking personality tests online. Then, something compels you to click on a toxic friends quiz. At the time, you reassure yourself that it’s just something to do — no big deal because the friend you’re thinking of surely won’t have any of the trademark signs of a toxic person.
But as you scroll through the symptoms of a toxic friendship, you start to get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. It might not happen that night. It might not happen for another month of nights. At some point, though, the notion that you have a toxic friend in your life will start to nag at you. How do you know for sure? What should you do?
To help you wade through these tricky waters, we asked a couple of therapists and relationship experts for their professional insight. Consider this your guide to toxic friendships: how to identify them, how to get rid of them, and how to deal with the inevitable emotional fallout from doing so.
What are some of the symptoms of a toxic friendship?
Is my friend toxic? Once you start asking yourself that question, chances are you already know the answer. Still, it can be tough to reconcile the good things about this person with the fact that they might be bad for you. A huge red flag to keep an eye out for — according to Candice Cooper-Lovett PhD, LMFT, Sex Therapist — is a lack of reciprocity. “If you find yourself giving more in the friendship and that is not being done in return, that is a tell-tale sign that your friendship may be toxic. For example, if you’re always there for them in their time of need but they are rarely there for you, that is an example of a lack of reciprocity. Patterns don’t lie. Isolated incidences are different, but if you notice this trend you may find yourself in a toxic friendship,” Cooper-Lovett explained to Scary Mommy.
Other ways to tell you may be in a toxic friendship? Your friend might be prone to jealousy, giving negative advice, possessiveness, getting defensive, delivering backhanded compliments, and offering unsolicited critiques. You may feel exhausted, insecure, or anxious after spending time with them.
What causes a person to be toxic?
Unfortunately, this is one of those questions that is extremely hard to ever truly know the answer to. A solid rule of thumb to follow, though, is to remember that bad behavior doesn’t necessarily mean a person is inherently bad. Rebecca Newkirk — an online counselor and licensed clinical social worker with a degree in psychology and sociology — specializes in complex trauma and suggests it is often the cause of toxic behavior.
“Frequently, complex trauma manifests in relationships as either staying in unhealthy friendships, difficulty with boundary setting, or difficulty feeling emotionally safe in relationships,” she said. “Additionally, the friend in these situations is frequently not good at having healthy relationships either. This is usually due to some type of relationship trauma that they may have experienced early in their life, or just plain lack of having good role models for healthy relationships.”
Hoping to avoid toxic friendships moving forward? According to anxiety specialist Kelsey Torgerson Dunn, MSW, LCSW, you should be wary of people who have a grandiose sense of self-importance; a preoccupation with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love; a need for excessive admiration; a sense of entitlement; a lack of empathy; interpersonal exploitive behavior; or a demonstration of arrogant and haughty behavior. “Also, more rarely, people can have narcissistic tendencies or even meet criteria for NPD, or narcissist personality disorder,” said Torgerson Dunn.
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Can a toxic friendship be saved?
Good news and bad news on the toxic friend front: Some toxic friendships can be saved but, alternately, some can’t. “Ask yourself what you would like from the friendship and whether you think the person can give it to you,” suggested Snehal Kumar, Ph.D., licensed psychologist. “If you want to work on the friendship, create and identify your boundaries and respect them. Give your friend a chance to show up for you — be clear about what you’d like, what you appreciate about them, and what has been hard. While it might be tempting to write down a list of 15 miserable things they’ve done, identify instead one or two core themes that have been hard. Be clear about what you will not tolerate and set the boundary kindly. Point out ways you might perpetuate negative cycles (e.g., do you partake in gossip that weakens the trust in a friend circle?) and shift them.
How do you walk away from a toxic friendship?
Once you’ve laid down the gauntlet, it’s up to your friend to rise to the challenge. If they don’t, it might be time to cut your losses. But as tempting as it is, Newkirk says it isn’t advisable to ghost a toxic friend. “They might keep coming back every so often and every time you will feel guilty and upset about ‘letting them down’ or hurting them,” she explained. “Depending on the length and intensity of the friendship, you may want to sit them down for coffee (I recommend a public place so it’s less likely that they’ll cause a scene) or even just send an email.”
It’s best to toe the line between hard and gentle. Underscored Newkirk, “It’s not helpful to be mean in these conversations, but it is necessary to be very clear. Keep it short and sweet, and then stick to your boundaries. Going back and forth is just going to confuse the situation and make it harder for you to set boundaries and for them to respect them, in the future.”