- Toxic friendships can leave you feeling anxious 24/7 and be a real drain on your emotions
- It can be hard to recognise a toxic friendship – and even harder to decide whether it’s possible to mend things or if you’re better off cutting ties
- Here’s what to do if you find yourself trapped in a friendship that’s become unhealthy
How to tell if your friendship is toxic
First up, it’s important to realise that ‘toxic’ isn’t a word that should be used lightly. If your friend is often five minutes late or keeps ‘forgetting’ to transfer across that £7 they owe you, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re toxic – maybe they’re just going through a tough time. Or they could just be a bad friend.
Being ‘a bad friend’, however, is different to being a toxic friend. According to clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior, a toxic friendship “emotionally harms you, rather than helping you.” Speaking to Women’s Health, Dr. Bonior explains that a toxic friend will “cause stress and sadness or anxiety” and “doesn’t help you be who you want to be.”
Toxicity can manifest in different ways, and there’s no quick, easy way of figuring out if your friendship is toxic or not. But if one of your friends routinely makes you feel small and unimportant; criticises you constantly; and regularly guilt trips you, it may be the case that you’re stuck in a toxic friendship.
How to talk to them
As with any relationship – be it romantic or platonic – the key is communication. If you feel uncomfortable about a friend’s behaviour, you should always tell them. However, this is easier said than done. In some cases, you might feel too intimidated to approach your friend and broach the topic with them.
Dr. Bonior suggests being open and diplomatic when opening up a dialogue with a toxic friend. ““I try to take the path of, ‘Hey, is everything okay? I noticed that you haven’t seemed yourself lately, or you haven’t been as excited, or you haven’t been following through on plans, and that’s not really like you’,” she explains.
Dr. Bonior makes the point that we do owe our friends the benefit of the doubt sometimes – especially if the friendship has spanned years. “You have to make a good faith effort because, to me, that’s what friendship is all about,” she tells InStyle.
Your friend might be responsive and thankful for your concern. Perhaps they’ve felt the same way and they’re actually grateful to you for broaching the subject. Arguably, the way your friend reacts when you bring up the elephant in the room will help determine whether they’re toxic or not – if they’re open to talking, they’re probably dealing with some temporary personal issues and are willing to patch things up with you.
If they’re hostile and take any criticism badly, it’s likely they’re a genuinely toxic person. While that’s not to say someone will remain toxic forever, it’s possible they’ll need psychological help before moving forwards.
Know your boundaries
It’s essential to have boundaries in any relationship and crucial to acknowledge your own limitations when it comes to supporting a friend. You can be there for someone as a friend – but not as a punching bag or therapist. You can care immensely for someone but trying to fill in for professional help will only end up hurting you both.
It’s important to accept that you can’t change people by yourself, nor can you blame yourself for someone else’s actions. If a toxic friend is taking advantage of you, realise that it’s likely because they’re projecting a lot of their own insecurities onto the friendship. In any case, their actions say a lot more about them than they do about you, and keep in mind that you shouldn’t necessarily take their behaviour personally.
How to cut ties with a toxic friend
As aforementioned, it’s important to set boundaries in any relationship. If your toxic friend repeatedly violates your boundaries and is unresponsive when you try to communicate with them, you might be best off cutting ties with them altogether.
Again, this is easier said than done – especially if it’s been a years-long friendship. “The memories that are integral to any friendship are irreplaceable,” says Dr. Irene S. Levine, psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. “If it’s a childhood friend, you may have shared many firsts together: first day at school, first date, etc. [They] may have known your parents and siblings.”
This is why it can feel so difficult to sometimes take a step back from a friendship and regard it objectively. If you’ve known someone for years, you’ll probably see them through rose-tinted specs and make allowances for unacceptable behaviour. But you should try and view the friendship as an outsider would when figuring out if it’s run its course.
If it feels natural, you can let the relationship fizzle out naturally. “If you see your friend occasionally, you can always avoid contact as much as possible, with just a response here and there if they contact you. You can continue saying you’re busy until they take the hint and leave,” says friendship expert Cherie Burbach.
If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of never talking to your friend again, you can also ask if you two could have a break where you get some space and don’t speak for a few weeks. Given the need for intensity and constant attention that a lot of toxic people exhibit, it’s possible that they’ll be unwilling to give this a go – but it’s always worth asking.
If you’d rather things ended more definitively, you’ll need to bite the bullet and have a sit down chat with your friend. As psychologist Dr. Nicole Martinez tells Bustle: “Keep things as brief and clean as possible. You do not owe them some long and drawn out explanation. Simply let them know they will not be in your life and why. Do not argue, do not engage, state your point and move forward.”
Doubtless, it’ll hurt to end an old friendship, but throw your energy into cultivating new relationships that are mutually fulfilling and you’ll feel much better for it. As Dr. Martinez says, move forward.