Dealing with a toxic friendship? How To Identify and Let Go of Unhealthy Relationships

The mate who always seems mad at you. The pal who always puts you down. The “best friend” who only seems happy when you’re not doing as well as they are. Whether you call them frenemies, haters, or toxic friends, engaging in social relationships that make you feel bad can do real damage to your sense of self-worth, and yet, they are surprisingly common. In fact, a joint survey by Self Magazine and Today.com showed that 84 percent of women and 75 percent of men said they’d endured a toxic friendship at some point, with 1 in 3 admitting it was with the one they called their bestie.

This means that at some point, everyone reading this has had – or will have – to step back from a relationship that doesn’t make them feel good, and it’s harder to do than you might think.

“Losing a friendship is a major loss and can cause lingering pain. The hurt is real and there are times when it needs to be mourned the same way you would to a romantic relationship,” says Jennine Estes, MFT, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and founder of Estes Therapy.

Am I overreacting or is my friend toxic?

When friends show a Regina Georges-style mean streak, it’s easy to pinpoint. But what about those friendships that sit in the purgatory between supportive and stressful? The ones where you constantly question whether or not you’re overreacting? That’s where things can get tricky. 

Paying attention to how your body reacts when thinking about friendship is a good way to assess the health of a relationship. Do you feel minimized and/or disregarded? Do you dread returning texts? Freeze at the thought of meeting up? These are clear signs you may need to hit pause. “Toxic friendships can take a lot of your energy and have a real impact on your body and life,” says Estes, who warns the emotional distress and unpredictability of an anxious relationship can show up through physical symptoms. “Headaches, stomach issues, sleeplessness, and/or fatigue are all common warning signs.” The constant stress of this kind of dynamic can have a domino effect, impacting your other relationships, work, and can even lead to burnout. 

But you don’t have to wait until you’re stressing out in work meetings and waking up in the middle of the night to highlight a friendship as toxic. There are other red flags to look out for such as constantly creating drama, always speaking in the negative, using others, reaching out only when they need something, or keeping the conversations focused solely on themselves. “These are all indications that something is out of balance,” she says.

Should you try and salvage a friendship before giving up?

“It depends on the severity of the toxicity,” says Estes, who suggests that you walk away completely – and without explanation – if you’re ever in a place that feels unsafe or feel that you just feel you need to get out. For other situations, giving a clear and specific reason as to why you’re distancing yourself will give your friend a chance to make necessary changes while providing you with some space to regroup and decide if you want to continue the friendship. 

This conversation can be uncomfortable so it might be useful to write out some key points and prepare for your friend to feel hurt, vulnerable, and even defensive. “Tucking a boundary statement between two positive statements such as, “I love your sense of humor and laughing together, but when you make comments about my flaws it’s hurtful and makes it hard for me to be around you. I need you to stop this for us to keep spending time together.’ can be useful,” says Estes. 

Can Toxic friendships be co-created?

“Absolutely,” says Estes, who warns that engaging in unhealthy behaviors perpetuates a cycle of toxicity. We do this by action (joining in the gossip or negative chatter) or inaction (not stating your discomfort with the statement or activity). If you’re conflict-avoidant, this can be especially difficult. These types of people are more prone to allowing others to ‘walk all over’ them and disown their emotions because they rarely ask for what they need. “Not standing up for yourself sends a recurring message that it is OK for others to treat you poorly or cross the line. This increases levels of resentment and emotional distress over time,” says Estes.

What are some ways to keep my friendships healthy?

While it’s not possible to control how others behave, having a clear understanding of your value system, needs and expectations is essential when setting boundaries in any relationship, including friendship. “Remember that you don’t need to fix other people’s issues and if something doesn’t feel OK, speak up right away and let the other person know you’re uncomfortable,” says Estes. Honoring your own need for space and autonomy is essential which means that you should never feel pressured to drop everything to respond to a message or take care of someone and you don’t need to be a sponge, soaking in all of their moods. “You can support someone without taking on their emotions as your own.”

I want to end the friendship, but I am scared/anxious/feel guilty. What do I do?

Whether you decide to let the relationship fade out or have a heavy heart-to-heart, ending a friendship can be scary for many reasons. Oftentimes there are friends in common or social/work ties that can’t be severed and there can be immense levels of guilt for walking away. All of this can make for a messy exit which can trigger a range of emotions, including fear, which Estes points out is healthy. “Your internal alarms are assessing the situation properly. Most toxic friends have difficulty managing their emotions and react poorly when hurt. Remember, boundaries are healthy and protective. We all need them. It is okay for you to set a boundary and stop the relationship.” If you need help taking the initial step, getting support can be a great way to build confidence. “Friends, family, and therapists can help you learn how to speak up for yourself. They are great at reminding you what is okay – and is not – okay for you,” she says. Finally, you must remember that you matter above all else in your life. “You may be so scared that you avoid doing what is good for you, but taking care of yourself is important,” she says. 

What if my friend gets angry?

It’s normal for anyone to get hurt or defensive when feeling rejected so allowing a friend to feel their emotions without judgment is only fair, but if you experience any kind of bullying, verbal attacks, or online stalking, block them. While uncommon, physical threats and safety issues can be a concern in some instances, and if that happens, Estes suggests contacting authorities and getting a restraining order. 

I am not looking to end the relationship but want to change the dynamics How do I do this? 

Read on for advice from Estes on how to tweak an otherwise healthy relationship.

The friend who always flakes on you

Let your friend know how it makes you feel when they flake and set boundaries. Say something like, “I love spending time with you and I look forward to it. This is why I feel so let down when you cancel plans at the last minute. I am busy myself and I want to know that when we book time together, you will show up. If it happens again, I will stop making plans with you.

The needy friend

Set expectations before there is an issue so that you avoid an awkward situation or hurt feelings. “Let your friend know you cannot focus on their texts with a simple and clear message such as ‘I won’t be available to talk throughout the day because I am working. You matter to me and I will do my best to respond when I am available.”

The ‘all about me’ friend

“Real friendships are mutually supportive and beneficial so set a boundary first thing by saying, “I would like to spend some time talking about something important to me. I’d love to get your thoughts.‘”

The friend who puts you down

“Let your friend know how their words make you feel and share the consequence if they don’t stop. Keep it simple by saying, “If you continue to talk poorly about me, I will have to leave.’”

The friend who can’t keep a secret

“Tell your friend that you shared your personal life with them because you trusted them and breaking that trust is a real violation of your boundaries. ‘If you do this again, I will stop sharing with you,’.

The gossipy friend

“People who gossip tend to use this negative way of communicating to connect, and while it may be thrilling to hear the latest drama, it’s not a safe and healthy way to bond with someone. Instead of giving in to the desire to dish, work to change the conversation. Say something like, ‘I don’t want to talk about someone who’s not here. I’ve been getting into (hobby, interest, topic, etc.) lately. Have you ever tried it? What have you been doing?‘”

The social climber 

“If you feel like you have a friend who is more concerned with who you know than who you are, create some distance immediately. People who are social-climbing don’t truly have your needs in their heart; this is not a safe friendship. You will need to spend some time figuring out how much of their friendship with you is based on you as a person vs what you can do for them and make a decision.”

The competitive friend

“Tell the person, “We are here to have fun today, not to compete with one another. Please stop.”

Finally, how do I handle a toxic friend who is trying to re-enter my life?

You have two options: Ignore the texts, calls, or emails or be honest and clear. “It’s not always easy but it is perfectly acceptable to say, “I am noticing how you are trying to reconnect with me again. Since the last time we talked, things have changed in my life and I am not comfortable continuing this friendship,” says Estes.

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