8 classic signs of a toxic friend, according to psychology

Good friends are one of the greatest gifts in life, right? Healthy friendships are all about both giving and receiving support; everyone benefits.

But what happens when friendship turns toxic?

A friendship that’s turned toxic is based on manipulation. It’s usually one-sided, where the manipulator is controlling everything, reaping all of the benefits and offering little in return.

The thing is: most friendships don’t start toxic, they slowly become toxic over time, which makes them hard to spot and even harder to walk away from.

Are you worried that one of your friendships might have turned toxic? I know how tough this is because I found myself in the same place a few years back. I investigated the signs of a toxic friend and realized that one of my friendships had turned toxic.

Today I want to share 8 signs of a toxic friend with you to help you figure out what’s going on. From there, you’ll be better prepared to make the best choice for yourself.

Let’s jump straight in. 

1) They disrespect your boundaries

Does the friend in question respect your boundaries?

Boundaries define the things you’re willing to accept and the things you’re just not. I know that you guys are the best of friends but just because you’re super close doesn’t mean you don’t have boundaries. We all have boundaries and real friends will respect them.

As outlined by Psychotherapist and author Kaytee Gillis, “One way to tell if a friend is toxic is if they disrespect your boundaries.”

You’ll notice that they don’t respect things like your need for personal space, your decisions and opinions, and even your time by showing up late a lot.

When you’re close to someone you can fall into the trap of relaxing your boundaries a little, but believe me, it’s a bad idea.

Looking back to my toxic friendship, the first sign it was turning toxic was my friend, let’s call her, Leah, started to ignore my boundaries. And I let it happen.

If someone is constantly disrespecting your boundaries, pay attention, it’s a warning sign they could be a toxic friend.

2) They always play the victim

Do you know someone who always seems to be the victim in every situation? It’s like no matter what’s happened, they’re always the injured party and someone else is at fault.

Here’s the thing: playing the victim is their way of avoiding accountability and winning sympathy by getting people on their side.

At first, they’ll use it to get you on their side, but later on, chances are you’ll be the bad guy in their story and they’ll be getting someone else’s sympathy.

Psychotherapist and author Erin Leonard Ph.D. talks about signs of a toxic friend, noting: “Frequently they play the victim, asserting they have a more difficult plight than anyone else.”

Playing the victim like this is not only a telltale sign of a toxic friend. It’s also a very common manipulation tactic, which makes sense because manipulation is at the heart of toxic friendships.

If you notice someone is always the victim in their stories, it’s time to ask yourself, “Am I getting the whole picture here or is there something more going on?”

3) They guilt-trip you

Guilt-tripping is a classic manipulation tactic and a firm favorite among toxic friends, so watch out for this one.

“If someone has ever made you feel bad about something you’ve done (or didn’t do) and then used those bad feelings to get you to do something for them, then you have experience with guilt-tripping,” explains Kendra Cherry, psychology author, and educator.

They act as if you owe them something but really, you haven’t done anything wrong and don’t have anything to feel guilty for.

When I started playing with a new sports team, I was making lots of new friends and Leah didn’t like it. She started to guilt trip me by saying things like, “We never get to hang out anymore because you’re too busy with your new sports friends, I guess they’re more important now.”

When she said this, at first I felt bad and promised to make it up by doing something nice on the weekend. Looking back though, I only spent an hour or two per week with my new friends and I didn’t have anything to feel bad for.

Have you noticed your friend guilt-tripping you about things that most people wouldn’t even mention? If so, it’s looking even more likely that you’ve got a toxic friend.

4) They try to isolate you

I know this might sound like I’m talking about a possessive partner but believe it or not, toxic friends might try isolating you from other friends.

Let me explain: toxic friends want to control and influence you to do what they want. When you’ve got other friends, it’s harder for them to manipulate you because you’ve got outside influences to call out their bad behavior.

As outlined by clinical psychologist Bethany Juby, isolation is one of the stages of manipulation where the goal is to “separate you from people who might be able to stop the manipulation.”

If you’ve noticed any of your friends speaking badly about other friends or being excessively negative towards them with no real cause, it’s a big red flag that you’re dealing with a toxic friend.

5) You find yourself making excuses for them

Listen up, this one is more about you than them, but it’s really important.

Be honest: do you often find yourself making excuses for your (possibly toxic) friend?

This one really hits home with me because if I’m completely honest, I was constantly making excuses for Leah to everyone. Various friends from different social groups and even my family warned me about her, questioning her behavior and calling it what it was – manipulation. 

I’d defend her constantly by saying things like “Yeah, but you don’t get it, that’s just how Leah is, she doesn’t mean anything by it” or “You don’t get our friendship so I don’t expect you to understand”.

But here’s the kicker: they were all right, every single one of them. I wish I’d listened sooner. I thought I knew better but I was blind to it at the time.

If you notice that you’re defending them and their behavior to others or yourself, it’s a sign that deep down you know how they’re acting is not acceptable.

6) They’re passive-aggressive

When it comes to conflict with a toxic friend, it’s all sly digs and indirect jabs. It’s almost impossible to sit down and have a discussion about how you both feel.

Instead of being upfront, they’ll deploy passive-aggressive tactics that are both confusing and hurtful. This includes things like sarcasm, back-handed compliments, lots of eye-rolling, and even the silent treatment.

Sound familiar?

As noted by PsychCentral, the presence of passive aggression is a telltale sign of a toxic friendship.

Regina George (played by Rachel McAdams) from the original Mean Girls is the queen of passive aggression. She constantly uses these tactics to control and manipulate her group of friends. She’s the ultimate example of a toxic friend.

Look: all friends have disagreements. But if every little thing scores you a sarcastic comment or a few days of the silent treatment then it’s a huge warning sign that your friendship has turned toxic and you’re putting up with stuff that no one should have to go through.

7) They downplay their actions

At a certain point, you’ve had enough and you start to push back, right?

But guess what?

Your toxic friend refuses to take any accountability for their actions. Instead, they downplay their part and shift the blame.

Your toxic friend downplaying their actions like this is a form of gaslighting because they’re making you question your perception of reality. You start to wonder if they’re right and that you might really be going crazy.

Psychologist Dr. Courtney Warren Ph.D warns that if you hear things like “You’re overreacting” or “You’re being crazy”, they might be gaslighting you.

If this resonates with you, it might be time to accept that you’ve got a toxic friend who’s gaslighting you.

8) They try to emotionally blackmail you

When your toxic friend can’t get you to do what they want as easily, they might try to use emotional blackmail.

Therapist and author, Susan Forward defines emotional blackmail in the title of her book “Emotional Blackmail: When the People in Your Life Use Fear, Obligation, and Guilt to Manipulate”.

They know you well and they know which buttons they can push to control you. Emotional blackmail might be when they say, “If you were truly my best friend, you’d do [insert thing of choice]”.

In this scenario, they’re trying to use your loyalty as a friend to get you to do something that you don’t want to do.

Final thoughts

Dealing with a toxic friend is not easy because as well as all the bad things we’ve discussed today, there are also times when they are the best friends in the world. This is the friend that you don’t want to lose and the friendship you’re holding onto.

The problem is: you can’t have the good without the bad. And at a certain point, the negative effects of a toxic friendship start to outweigh the benefits. It may be time to walk away.

It’s not easy but believe me, you’ll be glad you did.

Cat Harper

Cat is an experienced Sales and Enablement professional turned writer whose passions span from psychology and relationships to continuous self-improvement, lifelong learning and pushing back on societal expectations to forge a life she loves. An avid traveler and adventure sports enthusiast, in her downtime you'll find Cat snowboarding, motorcycling or working on her latest self-development project.

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