Toxic friends: 10 common signs and what you can do about it

Image credit: Shutterstock - By Roman Kosolapov

Do you have friendships that bring you more stress than joy? You’re not alone.

The sad reality is that we are all at least partly surrounded by toxic friendships.

According to a recent study published in PLOS One, only about 50% of the average person’s friendships go both ways.

This means that out of all the people you consider your friend, only roughly half of them feel the same way about you.

And yet we continue to persist in toxic friendships in all areas and stages of our life, no matter how young or old we become.

So what makes a toxic friendship, and why do so many friendships go sour but stay alive?

In this article, we discuss all there is to know about toxic friendships – why we deal with them, how to identify them, and when to know it’s time to end the charade.

What is a toxic friendship?

A toxic friendship can seem like an oxymoron – a friendship is supposed to enrich your life, while anything that is toxic is a source of unhealthiness and unhappiness.

But many of us live with toxic friends, whether we realize or not, and find ourselves simply unable to get out of the relationship.

At its core, friendship is an agreement between two people.

No matter how relevant or important the friendship is to your life, there must be a balance, where both individuals give and take the same effort and satisfaction from the relationship.

But toxic friends give people the opposite of satisfaction. They stress us out and make things more difficult than they need to be.

These are friends who drain us more than they uplift us, and make us regret the time we spend with them.

Characteristics of a toxic friend

No one grows up wanting to be a source of negative energy.

Oftentimes, the toxic behavior of a person is a byproduct of certain characteristics or personality traits they have carried and nurtured their entire lives.

Some of these characteristics include:

1) Self-absorbed

What they think about it: “I’m just being tough in a dog-eat-dog world.”

Why it happens: No one ever said no to them while they were growing up. They don’t know how to prioritize other people and put themselves in the backseat.

How it manifests: They will only offer to help other people if they can get something out of it. But they will never help others out of the goodness of their heart.

2) Insecure

What they think about it: “I’m just competitive.”

Why it happens: They have huge insecurity issues, and they aren’t comfortable with something about themselves – their body, their intelligence, their accomplishments, or something else.

How it manifests: They put down their friends, always diminishing them in various ways. When someone else is talking about something good about them, they will have to one-up them with their own story, true or not.

3) Short-sighted

What they think about it: “I just like living in the moment.”

Why it happens: Even if they are incredibly smart, toxic people lack the ability to look very far in the future. This is why they get too emotional, bitter, and resentful over small things that aren’t even about them.

How it manifests: They will turn on their closest friends, if they see a way that it will benefit them. They will spread gossip, lie, hold grudges, and bully, because they care too much about what’s going on right now instead of thinking long-term.

Identifying a toxic friendship – signs of a toxic friend

The biggest obstacle people have when identifying toxic friendships in their lives is doubt.

Our first instinct is to naturally see the goodness in our friends, so when we believe to see behavior that we think to be toxic, we are the first ones to defend them – “Oh, they’re just having a bad day,” “They didn’t mean it that way”, and “They will be nicer next time.”

To properly identify a toxic friendship, it helps best to first look around you. Here are three steps to identifying a toxic friendship by looking outside:

1) Watch others: See how your possible toxic friend acts towards other people. Do they do the same toxic behavior to them that they do to you?

2) Ask around: If you see them being toxic to other people, then it’s time to ask. Ask your mutual friends if they feel the same way.

3) Look at them: Does your possible toxic friend have many long-term relationships? Do they often complain about other people, and do they struggle to keep friends, family, and romantic partners around?

Common signs of a toxic friend include:

1) They sabotage even their closest friends by killing their time and their energy through involvement in pointless drama that they manufactured on their own.

2) They exclude friends from groups because they prioritize certain friends over others, despite friendship seniority.

3) They almost never acknowledge the achievements of their friends, but always talk about their own.

4) They will use people to get new friends, and then forget about the initial friend. This is known as triangulation.

5) They love playing the victim, always ensuring that they have the most difficulties in their social group.

6) They project their own toxic behavior on those around them, making it more difficult for their friends to truly identify their behavior because they end up blaming themselves.

7) They know when to play nice, so that their friends won’t accuse them of being toxic. When others are around, their behavior will be perfect.

8) If their friends stand up to them, they will frame their friends as being the toxic instigators, while they were the victim all along.

9) They have an inability to empathize and will change the topic or just not pay attention if a friend is opening up to them.

10) They will make shady comments that hurt those around them, but aren’t obvious enough to be thought of as an insult.

The psychological impact of toxic friendships, and why we keep toxic friends

If you suspect that you might be in a toxic friendship, it is important that you take it seriously rather than dismiss it.

The more frequently you interact with your suspected toxic friend, the more important it is that you identify and, if necessary, remove them from your life.

The psychological impact of having a toxic friend can leave a serious toll on your life.

People who let toxic friendships persist in their life generally have problems with self-esteem.

Instead of standing up to the source of their stress and mental fatigue, they think of reasons why they let them toxic friendship continue, simply to avoid confronting the issue head-on.

Some of the most common excuses for keeping toxic friends include:

1) Longevity of friendship

Your excuse: “I’ve been friends with them since we were kids. They’re not really as bad as you think they are.”

How they take advantage: They play the “kid” card whenever you try to confront them, talking about old times and reminiscing of the past.

Most of the toxic friends that we keep are people that we have been friends with since childhood. Maybe you used to play with them in the park, or maybe you were best friends in middle school.

But for one reason or another, they aren’t exactly the same nice person that you grew up with.

Their life took one too many negative turns, and now they take it out on you and their other close friends.

However, you feel a kind of loyalty towards them, simply because you have known them for so long, so you just can’t stand to end the relationship.

2) Possible positive networking opportunities

Your excuse: “I know he/she is a jerk, but I don’t want to burn that bridge. They might know someone.”

How they take advantage: They dangle the possibility of their network over you, promising you to introduce you to the “right person” to advance your career.

Just because you aren’t the toxic person in the friendship doesn’t mean that you don’t have your own self-interests in mind.

There are some people that we maintain friendships with simply because we enjoy the comfort of being socially connected with them. Maybe they have just the right contacts you need for your career, or maybe they are an important member of your community.

This is when you are forced to decide: does the benefit of being their friend outweigh the negativity they bring to my life?

There is also the case where they might be part of your social circles, so you don’t want to stop being friends with them or else you might cause an uncomfortable, awkward rift that the rest of your friends will be forced to deal with.

3) You genuinely still believe in the friendship

No excuses, no fake reasons.

The truth is that with so many friendships displaying signs of toxicity, we often have to make the decision to persevere in toxic friendships simply because we know this might just be a phase, or their toxic behavior doesn’t tell the whole story.

Toxic friends do not necessarily have malicious thoughts in mind.

There are many cases where a toxic friend is just someone who needs a little help or is going through a rough patch.

This is a judgment call only you can make, and it’s something you need to think about with every toxic friendship.

Is your friendship salvageable?

Confronting toxic friends is a tricky situation. On the one hand, finally having the talk with them could ultimately change your friendship for the better.

However, your toxic friend may also be unresponsive to your efforts, causing irreversible damage to your friendship. 

Before cutting them out of your life, try to evaluate if your friendship is worth saving in the first place.

Ask yourself the following questions to evaluate whether or not your toxic relationship is worth the effort.

Do you share the same interests and values as your friend?

People grow apart, and sometimes these life changes aren’t always for the better.

Maybe your friend has gone through some tough times and became more bitter and quicker to anger as a result.

That doesn’t mean this new attitude towards life has completely changed who they are at the very core.

At the end of the day, we stick to friends because we enjoy their company.

We like the same things, we value the same virtues, and we live by the same principles.

You don’t have to like every single thing about your friend, but you must at least like who they are.

If you still do, it’s a sign your friendship is still worth saving.

Do you enjoy hanging out with your friend? 

Why bother keeping a friendship you don’t enjoy? Friendships are all about sharing bonds, creating memories, and helping each other out.

At the very least, you should find your friends’ presence pleasant.

If you’re cringing at the sight of their text, muting their social accounts, and deliberately ignoring every social call, there’s a good chance you would rather be alone than spend time with your friend. 

Maybe they have gotten into the habit of talking about themselves and nothing else, maybe they just tend to make you feel bad without knowing it.

Whatever the reason, being around this friend doesn’t make you feel good, and is a clear sign you should steer clear instead. 

Is your friend reliable and trustworthy?

Talking about your friendship will require some vulnerability.

To make this work, the other person has to be receptive to criticism and open to change.

If your friend is known to be hateful, averse to criticism, and overly sensitive, talking to them might not fix anything at all.

Instead of propelling your friendship forward, you might just inadvertently downgrade yourself to enemy status.

This “friend” of yours might turn your innocent effort into a full-blown soap opera.

They might start talking behind your back and calling you self-righteous, at which point it’s better to walk away or call it quits. 

Has your friendship gone through the test of time? 

At the very least, you should try repairing your friendship for old times’ sake.

Even if old bonds are the only thing gluing you together, they should at least let them know what you feel about the relationship. 

It doesn’t matter if you no longer like the same things and barely hang out.

If you have been through thick and thin before, there’s a good chance you can still rekindle the friendship.

But if all else fails, you can realistically evaluate the current state of your friendship and still say your goodbyes, while honoring all the time you have spent together.

How to deal with toxic friendships

Solving a toxic friendship doesn’t always mean you have to get down to brass tacks. In some cases, the best solution to a negative, hateful, and condescending friend is by showing them some patience,  love, and compassion.

By displaying these traits to toxic friends, you are portraying model behavior, which could inspire them to become better friends and individuals. 

However, going the nice way isn’t always the suitable solution.

Toxic people can get into the habit of putting down others without even knowing it, making it difficult to inspire epiphany.

When push comes to shove, you should consider being straightforward with your friend regarding their behavior.

Dealing with toxic behavior

Behavior Friendly Solution Extreme Measure
They tend to hog all your time and get mad when you don’t prioritize them.  Schedule a healthy amount of time together once a week so you don’t feel obligated to be present for them 24/7.  Let them know you can’t be the only person they can depend on, and that they need another support system in their life. 
They expect you to drop everything and become 100% available during a personal crisis.  Pick situations where you can lend a hand, but don’t give all your time to them.  Say no every single time until the friend learns their happiness isn’t your primary responsibility. 
They tend to be cold and space out when you need them.  Reach out and let them know you miss them and need them. Make sure they know how important this is for you.  Let your friend know about their behavior and make it clear that the ball is in their court, and then move on to friends who reciprocate effort when they don’t change. 
They complain, rant, and vent negatively about everything around them, which makes you feel drained.  Offer different views on things and always try to put a positive spin on conversations.  Offer constructive but straightforward criticism on their negativity, and help them develop a more positive outlook. 
They talk behind your back when you get into arguments.  Aim to resolve issues together, on the spot.  Make it clear that badmouthing is not an option, and will not be tolerated in this friendship. 
They ask you for favors but you never get any in return.  Only choose to do favors where you don’t have to go out of your way.  Be honest about their tendencies, and make it clear that friendships need to be reciprocal. 
They hoard conversations, never asking about you, your job, or your interests.  Volunteer topics you are interested in to get your friend to stop talking about themselves.  Be open about their self-involvedness or take a break from talking to them entirely.
They make jokes at your expense, privately or in front of other people.  Change the way you feel about the situation or avoid being in the same social situations as this friend.  Say their jokes are often offensive and you are more hurt than amused. 
They make you feel bad about the things you like and believe in.  Ask questions as to why they feel this way, and guide them into reflection.  Protect your confidence by spending less time with this person or not bringing up the topics entirely. 

When to move on, and how to break up with your toxic friends

In situations where friendship is doing you more bad than good, the only possible solution might be to nip the relationship in the bud. Consider moving on to more beneficial and less toxic relationships when:

  • You have talked to your friend in the past, and nothing has changed. 
  • They don’t show signs of remorse or self-awareness. 
  • They aren’t receptive to criticism and turn your efforts to help them into an emotional crisis. 
  • They make it clear that your relationship is only instrumental and one-sided. 
  • Your needs remain unmet. 
  • There is an ongoing cycle of abuse and bad behavior. 
  • Betrayal and badmouthing come naturally to your friend.
  • You feel like you have to walk on eggshells around them. 
  • You are not confident sharing good news with them, in fear they will respond negatively. 
  • You are emotionally drained and no longer want to preserve the friendship.
  • They are incapable of living on their own and hold you responsible for everything. 
  • Spending time with them feels like a social chore. 

Related: I was deeply unhappy…then I discovered this one Buddhist teaching

Three ways to break up with toxic friends

1) Slowly move away 

Do this if: You think the other person is incapable of changing; You’re uncomfortable with confrontation; You’re not sure what to do about the friendship; You want to keep in touch but be less friendly with each other

Slowly extracting yourself out of your friend’s life doesn’t mean you’re a passive-aggressive coward.

This just means you want to spare yourself (and your friend) the trouble of opening a can of worms.

Eventually, your friend will pick up on your missing presence and take that as a hint that you need time for yourself or that you have chosen to downgrade the friendship.

You can choose to let them know what you feel when you’re more comfortable or when things are a little less tense.

When the time comes, it will be evident to the both of you where your relationship stands, and ending it will be much easier and less complicated.

2) End the friendship formally

Do this if: You want to offer feedback to your friend; You want to give you and your friend closure; You feel confident that you can talk calmly and end things peacefully

If you feel the need to share criticism to your friend, you should be prepared to officially end your friendship. Toxic people won’t be prepared to accept your criticism, much less your friendship after a heated discussion. 

Being open about their behavior is the only way to deal with difficult, selfish people. After trying everything – from talking to counselling to being vulnerable – and still getting nothing in return, it’s time to put your foot down and let them know what’s done is done. 

Maybe they will learn to be better friends next time; maybe they won’t.

Ending the friendship isn’t about them – it’s all about you speaking your mind and letting them know their abuse be tolerated forever. 

3) Cut them out entirely 

Do this if: Their behavior is extremely damaging to your self-confidence; They are persistent about keeping the friendship alive; They can’t take subtle hints; You need some time for yourself

In some cases, just completely dropping your friend is also a perfectly reasonable resolution. No communication, no heartfelt messages, no attempts to fix things. Cutting out toxic people entirely is the only answer to years of abuse. After mistreating you and failing to hear your needs, you shouldn’t feel the obligation to let them know they have been cut off. 

So, what do you do? You can delete them on social media and block their contact details so they can’t reach you.

At this point, this person is no longer your friend, and you shouldn’t feel bad for not wanting to waste another second of your life in their murk of negativity. 

Are you the toxic friend?

Friendships are a dynamic force. A lot of variables could turn a once happy, fruitful friendship into something hateful and envious.

It could just be that time has taken a toll on both parties and molded you into something either no longer recognizes.

It could be that one of you is giving more than they are receiving. Or it could just be that the friendship has finally reach its end. 

At the end of the day, it’s important to ask what you’re bringing to the table. It’s easy to blame the other person for letting the friendship stagnate, or worse, rot.

However, saving your friendship requires some self-reflection.

By doing so, you can bring your best self to every friendship in your life. 

Here are some tell-tale signs that you are exhibiting toxic behavior, which may be pushing your friend away:

1) Your friend hangs out with other people but not you 

How many times have you heard “I’m sorry, I can’t make it out tonight” only to see them on Instagram or Facebook sharing fun weekend pictures?

Exclusion isn’t always an act of bullying; sometimes it’s the only resort to keep bullies away. 

If you’ve been making your friend feel bad about themselves, chances are they’re going to want to spend less and less time with you.

The fact that they make time for other people, but always seem to be inaccessible and busy for you, is a sign that you haven’t been your best self around them. 

2) You never hear about bad (or good) news from them 

Whether it’s a job promotion or a family tragedy, you never seem to hear these personal stories coming out of their mouth anymore.

You used to be among the first to know about all the good and bad in their life, but now it feels like you have been cut off. 

Have you ever displayed insensitivity or insecurity during their time of need? Have you ever shown anything but support and celebration during their time of success? If so, you might have invalidated their feelings in the past, which is why they’re choosing to leave you out of it. 

3) You have a history of failed relationships

Do you feel like you’re meeting and losing people every year? Does it feel like you’re reliving relationships again and again?

If you have a revolving door of people in your life, it’s a good sign that you’re bringing the toxicity to every relationship.

At first, it’s hard to realize what’s really going on. You will be tempted to blame other people and tell yourself “real friends won’t act like that”.

But the short turnover of friends in your life shows that you can’t seem to build real relationships with the people around you. 

Ask yourself truthfully if this has become a pattern in your life. If the answer is yes, you should take a step back and evaluate what is making you the toxic friend.

Only by accepting that you do have toxic tendencies will you be able to repair your relationships, and create long lasting ones in the future.  

Related: My life was going nowhere, until I had this one revelation

Why it’s important to weed out toxic friendships

The world we live in can be challenging enough as it is. Friends and family offer respite from frustrations, failures, and daily incongruencies.

They provide stability, support, and help center your being. Toxic friendships do the exact opposite. 

They take joy out of the things you’re proud of and make you question your core values. They betray your sense of trust and can influence the way you understand healthy relationships.

Recognizing and weeding out toxic friendships is crucial for your mental health. In a world where so many things can aggravate you, it’s important to build a support system you can truly rely on – one that is built on mutual respect, fondness, and love. 

If your friendships are anything but, it’s time to say goodbye and move on to healthier relationships.

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Lachlan Brown

I’m Lachlan Brown, the founder, and editor of Hack Spirit. I love writing practical articles that help others live a mindful and better life. I have a graduate degree in Psychology and I’ve spent the last 15 years reading and studying all I can about human psychology and practical ways to hack our mindsets. Check out my latest book on the Hidden Secrets of Buddhism and How it Saved My Life. If you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Facebook or Twitter.

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