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Signs Your Friendship May Be Toxic

By Kerry Weiss
November 22, 2023

Social connections are important to your overall health and well‑being. But when it comes to friendships, quality matters. “A healthy friendship makes you feel emotionally safe and supported,” says Anna Kress, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist based in Princeton, New Jersey, and author of the upcoming book Heal Your Past to Manifest Your Future.

On the flip side, a toxic friendship is one that is abusive and demoralizing. “Toxic friendships are those that are chronically not good for us,” says Julie Shafer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and relationship coach based in Portland, Oregon. “This is a relationship with somebody who’s not considering you, who might be saying or doing things that are hurtful, or who might be
manipulative.”

Signs That a Friendship May Be Toxic

As damaging as toxic friendships are, they can also be hard to identify. “It can take a while to notice what’s happening,” Shafer says. Here are some signs that may indicate that your friendship isn’t as healthy as it could be.

You Dread Talking to Them

“One of the quickest ways to spot a toxic friendship is to observe your reaction when a friend’s name pops up on your phone,” Kress says. “If you dread responding to their texts or interacting with them, it’s usually a red flag that something is off about the friendship.”

You Feel Worse After Spending Time with Them

Maybe they engage in subtle behaviors like gaslighting, blaming, bullying, or even manipulation. These interactions may leave you feeling bad without a clear sense of why, says Kress.
“Feeling worse after interacting with a friend can mean the dynamic is unhealthy,” she adds.

You Have to Walk on Eggshells Around Them

Ideally, you should feel free to be open and yourself when you’re with friends. If, instead, your conversations feel like walking through a minefield of topics you need to stay clear of so as not to upset them, it can be a sign of a problem. “This means that you carefully watch what you do or say because they’re emotionally reactive and you’re afraid of upsetting them,” Kress says.

You Give More Than You Get

A healthy friendship should have a good back-and-forth. If you only hear from your friend when they need something, but they’re missing in action when you’re struggling, it could be a sign that the friendship is one-sided.

“Each of you is going to have your struggles, and they’re probably not going to overlap too much,” Shafer says. “But what we find in more toxic relationships is that you help your friend, but your friend is not there for you.”

They’re Overly Competitive

A so-called friend may try to make you feel bad about yourself by downplaying your achievements or make you feel like they’re insignificant. “Some toxic friends engage in one-upmanship by trying to outdo you,” Kress says. “They might listen to your stories and then use them to try to do something bigger or better—whether it’s the size of your engagement ring or which classes your child is taking.”

You Feel Betrayed

“When you’re friends with somebody, they probably know a fair bit about you,” Shafer says, “and a toxic person is going to use that against you.” Maybe your friend makes jokes or snide remarks about you, puts you down in front of others, or treats you differently in private than they do in public, she explains.

They Bring Out the Worst in You

Whether you feel peer-pressured or are simply trying to fit in, a toxic friend may lead you to engage in behaviors you wouldn’t normally do. “For example, you don’t normally gossip, but find yourself gossiping with them and regretting it afterward,” Kress says.

Tips for Handling Toxic Friendships

Once you start noticing these behaviors, you can move on to addressing them with your friend. “Focus on the behavior and how it made you feel,” advises Kress. “Let them know that you’re interested in repair and how you’d like them to treat you in the future.”

Then gauge their reaction. “If they respond with blaming or dismissing, you have a good idea that they’re not available for you in a friendship,” Shafer says. However, that doesn’t mean you need to ditch the friendship altogether. Instead, consider keeping them at arm’s length.

“We’ve got a range of people that we might call friends,” Shafer says. “You might assign this toxic person to a much lower level of friendship and not share as much with them or indulge in their toxic behavior.”

But if engaging in healthy communication and setting boundaries around the friendship doesn’t work, it may be time to move on, adds Kress. “You deserve to have good friendships with people who support you,” she says. “Sometimes it’s easier to notice and leave toxic dynamics behind.”

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