Signs That Your Friendship is Toxic
Most of the time, friendships are a source of happiness — they’re the relationships we don’t need to stress about or obsess over. The right friends can provide a shoulder to cry on when things get tough and laugh with us when life looks good.
However, not all friendships are stress-free or make our lives any better. Some people can bring out the worst in you— twisting you up in gnarled knots until you’re just a ball of anxiety and paranoia. For lack of a better term, these are toxic friendships.
Most of the time, toxic friendships aren’t overtly obvious. Nobody introduces themselves as, “Hi, I’m toxic, nice to meet you.” You may not even realize you are or were in a toxic relationship until years later.
Fortunately, the good news is that, while toxic people may not tell you they’re toxic, there are certain red flags that you can look for. Dr. Susan Heitler and Dr. Sharon Livingston have highlighted eight key signs that tend to pop up in a toxic friendship:
They never want to hear about your day
Ever called up a friend to catch up and he or she immediately launches into how bad their day, week or month is? Your friend may go on for hours about every struggle in their life (all while seeking your emotional support), but they never seem to ask about your day.
Or, when it does come time to talk about what you’ve been up to lately, they immediately try and steer the conversation back to their own life.
They may go as far as to end the conversation once they’ve dumped all their emotional issues on you and gotten the reassurance they wanted.
Dr. Heitler calls this an “imbalance”. While some people may just lack social awareness when it comes to asking about other people, it can also resemble a disturbing pattern of someone who takes and takes, but never cares to give back.
You’re in a competition that you never signed up for
One way that a toxic person can make you feel inadequate is by comparing you to their other friends. These comparisons are often made in sly little comments that hurt just enough to sting. For example:
You got your friend a hoodie for her birthday. Although she appears grateful, she begins talking about how her other friend, Leslie, got her these amazing concert tickets. Your friend never says that Leslie’s gift is better than yours, but she continues to brag about how great Leslie’s gift was while completely ignoring yours.
Your friend is going through a tough time. When you try to offer emotional support, she makes comments like: “Whenever I need to talk to someone, Leslie is always my first call,” or, “Joe always knows what to say to me. When I called him, he drove by my house and gave me flowers.” Afterward, all you can think about is why you aren’t her first call and if you should bring her flowers the next time she feels sad.
Although the toxic friend is never directly saying that their other friends are better, the proof is in the pudding. By constantly making comparisons about who does more for her, you can’t help but feel like you don’t measure up. If you aren’t careful, you can get caught in the competition and spend a lot of time trying to win a race that has no finish line.
There’s no balance about who calls whom
As Dr. Heitler suggests, in any good friendship, there has to be a balance about who is contacting whom. If you’re the one constantly reaching out and trying to make plans while your friend makes excuses, it can become frustrating and discouraging.
On the flip side, having a friend who texts you 24/7 and demands every free moment of your time isn’t great either. In any healthy relationship, both people have a balanced investment.
Insults are disguised as brutal honesty
Although friends should offer support, there may be times for tough love too. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing — surrounding ourselves with people who will deal with us honestly rather than be just “yes” men is ultimately a good thing.
That being said, toxic people may sometimes try and disguise damaging comments or insults as “brutal honesty” or “constructive criticism”. For example, your toxic friend may say something along the lines of:
You’re always so clingy. No wonder guys never like you.
You call me all the time. Do you really think I have nothing better to do than talk to you?
When you question your friend about how hurtful these comments are, don’t be surprised if they tell you they’re “just being honest,” or that you “need to lighten up and take a little criticism.” Toxic friends often try to gaslight you into thinking you’re the one who's overreacting or being irrational.
It has nothing to do with whether or not these comments are true. A non-toxic person will try and find a better way to address their concerns such as — I feel like you get a little too attached in relationships or you call me a lot and while I do want to talk to you, I’m also pretty busy.
Both versions say the same thing, but the latter won’t insult anyone or leave emotional damage behind.
Dr. Heitler says to keep in mind that toxic people may also try to harshly criticize other people for their own insecurities. When your friend berates you for being too clingy, they may secretly worry that their own clinginess drives people away.
You’re always walking on eggshells
We all have people in our lives that we have to walk on eggshells for. For family members, there might be times when you hold your tongue to avoid making a scene at Thanksgiving dinner.
However, you shouldn’t need to walk on eggshells for your friends. We choose our friends, and it’s a pretty big red flag if you feel like you constantly need to watch what you say around close friends to avoid conflict or an argument.
One way that toxic people often try to manipulate those around them is through adult temper tantrums. You say the wrong thing and your friend’s mood flips like a switch — suddenly they’re passive-aggressive, angry, or even violent. Toxic people use these temper tantrums to condition you into behaving the way they want you to.
Toxic friends never change
In her article, Dr. Heitler points out that toxic people tend to cast judgment on everyone else while never examining their own flaws. While everyone can sometimes be a little blind to their own faults, most people seek to understand their flaws so they can overcome them.
Toxic people, on the other hand, never recognize their own need to change. They’ll always call other people out — often with “brutal honesty” — but they’ll never try and grow as people themselves.
It’s an emotional rollercoaster you can’t keep up
If there’s one thing all toxic friendships share, it’s unpredictability.
Dr. Heitler points out that the pattern of toxic friendships: “It started out as an amazing connection and you felt so bonded. But now, you can no longer predict what to expect. You always worry that she’s going to react negatively or get upset with you. When it’s good, it’s great. But then, for some unknown reason you land on her enemies list and… what’s going to happen next?”
You might like rollercoasters, but nobody wants to be stuck on one that they can’t get off of. Toxic friendships can make you feel one of two ways — like you’re on top of the world or you’re trying to climb your way out of a sinkhole. Even when the friendship makes you feel good, it’s only a matter of time before things head south again.
The stress is beginning to affect you
Over time, a toxic friendship can begin to take its toll on you mentally and physically. You may find yourself second-guessing everything you say, leaving the house with a pit in your stomach, or just experiencing much more anxiety than usual. Even if the friendship brings you joy sometimes, interacting with a toxic person on a continuous basis can take its toll.
These aren’t the only signs of a toxic friendship or person, but they are some of the most prevalent. Once you’ve recognized several of these red flags in someone you know, the hard part can be figuring out how to deal with it.
In mild cases, the relationship might be worth salvaging — your friend may have a few toxic traits they aren’t aware of and all it takes is a stern conversation to handle it.
However, many toxic relationships can’t be salvaged (and aren’t worth salvaging). If you try to confront a toxic person, don’t be surprised if they throw a temper tantrum or try to twist your words so that you become the villain in the story.
Dr. Heitler recommends one course of action: “While relationships often have ups and downs, if you’re on a wild ride, you may want to think about hopping off before you turn green.” Every situation is different, but in most cases, the best solution is to just hop off the emotional rollercoaster and cut the toxic person out of your life in any way you can.