Five Signs of a Toxic Friendship

Image description: two women are turning away from each other with their arms crossed. This image is used to show how a toxic friendship might make you feel.

When people get married, they exchange vows. When someone starts a new job, they sign an agreement with the employer. What about friendships? And how do we know when a friendship is toxic?

By Lauren Grossbach, LMFT

Friendships don’t come with vows, contracts, or transcripts. We’re often left wondering what it means to have a healthy friendship. What does your friend expect of you; and what do you expect of them? What role do they play in your life? How often do you have to see this person to consider them “close”? How do you know when your friendship has turned toxic?

There is no recommended length of time, number of FaceTime calls, or minimum number of mutual interests for forming a close friendship. In addition, how close you are with your friend(s) will wax and wane. Life events, distance, and mental health issues are common challenges in maintaining a close friendship. Sometimes friendship just means that this person adds, and doesn’t subtract, from your life and energy.

Sometimes a healthy friendship is as simple as this: it’s not a toxic friendship.

Toxic friendships often start out on a positive note. We often don’t realize we’re in a toxic friendship until someone else points it out to us. Whether you realize the friendship is toxic or not, you want this person in your life. Maybe you’ve known each other for years. Or perhaps you went through a difficult experience together. For one reason or another, you feel tethered to this person. Despite the connection you two share, this friendship feels like more work than the others. You might have already tried talking to your friend but to no avail. Maybe you tried dropping obvious hints that something is wrong.

Toxic friendships can make us feel inadequate, uncomfortable, or exhausted.

So what are the five signs of a toxic friendship?

1. Unhealthy Competition

There is a difference between motivation and competition. Some of our healthiest friendships challenge us to be and do better. But is your friend cheering for you on the sidelines? Or trying to steal the ball from you? Unhealthy competition means someone is keeping score, and not just for fun. You might feel angry or hurt when your friend is “winning”. Or maybe you’re confused because you didn’t even realize you were even in a competition with this friend! Healthy friendship means cheering each other on, not competing for the title.

2. Unfair Judgment

Our friends are sometimes the first people we go to for opinions and advice. We trust them to guide us in the right direction. Sometimes that means disagreeing with us or calling us in when we mess up. Before they give you their two cents, does your friend make an effort to understand where you’re coming from? Is their intention to protect or inform you? Disapproving judgment, on the other hand, can sound like:

  • “I wish you weren’t this way.”
  • “You should be embarrassed. I would never do that.”
  • “If you had any respect for yourself, you wouldn’t do that.”

In healthy friendships, you seek to understand each other’s points of view. Sometimes you agree and sometimes you don’t. Even if your friend disagrees with you, you shouldn’t feel judged or less than. Sharing different opinions is an opportunity to learn and grow together, not judge each other.

3. Boundary pushing

We probably all have friends who are more adventurous, bold, and spontaneous than we are. These friendships can make life fun and exciting. But what happens when you start feeling more pushed around than just pushed by your friend? In toxic friendships, your boundaries are pushed, broken, or ignored completely. You end up feeling angry, powerless, or invisible. If you’ve already tried communicating these boundaries to your friend more than once, and they still aren’t respected, it may be time to distance yourself. Remember that your boundaries are up to you, and you only.

4. Unconditional Expectations

Have you ever had a friend who always expects the world from you? If you don’t answer every text, show up for every birthday party, or remember the name of every ex, you’re letting them down. The truth is that close friends try their best to be there for each other. Sometimes life throws us challenges at the same time, and we can’t show up for each other in all the ways we’d like to. We should be able to lean on our friends, but expectations of support shouldn’t be unconditional. In healthy friendships, we’re all trying our best with what we have.

5. One-Upping

If you’ve had a bad day, they’ve had a worse one. They’re always more unlucky than you. And your problems pale in comparison to theirs. Toxic friends are often one-upping you in every situation. They don’t have space for your pain because their pain is always greater. Healthy friendship means being a good listener. Sometimes it helps to hear about a situation that’s similar to ours, but remember toxic trait number one from this blog: it’s not a competition.

If you’re struggling with toxic friendships, contact us here to learn how we can help.

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