Nine signs you’re in a toxic friendship

Is someone you think of as a friend secretly undermining your self-confidence and self-esteem? Or bad mouthing you behind your back? Here are nine signs you’re in a toxic friendship.

When we think of abusive relationships, we immediately think of romantic relationships. Of ‘wife beaters’, and controlling husbands, wives, boyfriends or girlfriends.

But abuse can happen in any relationship: between employer and employee, between colleagues, parent and child, carer and patient, between family members, neighbours and between friends.

Toxic people can exist in any relationship in life and, just as it’s important to recognise the signs of an abusive relationship (and leave or protect yourself from it), it’s essential for your emotional wellbeing to spot any toxic abusers masquerading as friends.

Nine signs you’re in a toxic friendship

But how do you know if a friend is toxic? Toxic friends are usually very good at disguising themselves – they’ve wormed their way into your trust enough to earn the label ‘friend’ after all.

To help you identify any potentially troublesome friends, here are nine signs you’re in a toxic friendship.

1) They have a track record of ghosting

If you’ve ever been ‘ghosted’ by a friend you’ll know how unpleasant it can be. Ghosting is defined as “the practice of ending a personal relationship with someone by suddenly and without explanation withdrawing from all communication” and is more psychologically damaging than falling out with someone after an argument.

If you’ve had a disagreement with someone, or even an all-out row, and they cut you out of your life, you can understand why (even if you don’t agree with it). It makes sense to you. And, more importantly, you can understand what happened to ensure you don’t repeat any behaviours that may upset someone in future, if that’s relevant.

But when you’ve been ghosted, you often have no idea what you have done wrong. One moment you’re in what you believe is a happy, healthy friendship, and the next you’re out in the cold. You’ve been unfriended on Facebook, unfollowed on Instagram and all texts, calls and emails go unanswered.

Not only are you left mourning that particular friendship, but you can’t help but wonder what about you is so appalling or unforgivable that you need to be cut out of a friend’s life so completely. And you naturally worry that it may happen again.

Ghosting someone is a particularly cruel way of ending a relationship (if you are genuinely upset with someone it’s only fair to give them an explanation as to why you’re ceasing contact). And the kind of person who is happy to ghost someone often has form.

So if you have a friend who confesses to ghosting previous friends, beware. In our experience they’re usually happy to repeat the experience. And one day it could be you wondering why you’ve been cast out into the cold with no explanation.

2) They replay the same dramas

A few weeks ago we were talking to a friend. She’s a lovely, kind, thoughtful woman, the type of person we couldn’t ever imagine offending anyone – either on purpose or even accidentally.

And yet, she was worried because a good friend of hers had told mutual friends that she was upset with her. Our friend couldn’t work out what she’d done wrong, and was planning to visit her friend with gifts and beg forgiveness for this mystery offence.

Now this isn’t an isolated incident. When we questioned our friend, we discovered that this same drama had played out at least four times over the past year – always with the same result (our friend begging forgiveness for a crime she wasn’t aware she’d committed).

It was obvious to us that something was wrong here, and that both women were engaged in a toxic role play that was unhealthy for all concerned.

If our friend was such an awful person, why did her friend continue to welcome her back into her life? And if our friend believed she’d done nothing to upset her friend, why was she continually begging for forgiveness?

We don’t know about you, but our friendships are shelters in the storms of life. When things go wrong, we turn to our friends for advice, support and comfort. Our friendships shouldn’t be the storms we need to seek shelter from!

So if you have a friendship in which you are continually playing out the same drama – and it’s causing you any unhappiness – then we’d recommend ending that friendship. And replacing that friend with someone who helps you through dramas, not causes them.

3) They make you feel bad

One thing that we really value in a friend is honesty. But there’s a fine line between caring, well-meaning frankness, and insults and confidence-eroding comments – and a toxic friend is often happy to cross that line.

Much as an abusive partner will whittle down your self-worth over time, a toxic friend doesn’t want you to be confident, happy, or even to like yourself. They prefer their friends to be dependent, uncertain of themselves and feeling as if they’re not really worthy of the friendship.

Why? Because deep down, they’re so full of self-doubt and self-loathing themselves, that they can’t really imagine that anyone with an ounce of self-worth would want to remain their friend. So they leech their friends of any self-worth to ensure they don’t have the confidence to leave the friendship.

It also has the added bonus of bolstering up their own fragile self-esteem. By surrounding themselves with people who are patently less than them, they naturally become the top dog – the most beautiful, talented, popular person in the relatiosnhip.

This is a friendship that really has no saving graces for you. Your friend is so flawed they’re not likely to have an epiphany any time soon and suddenly treat you with respect. So if you notice that a friend is constantly putting you down – either with obvious statements (“were your thighs always that fat?”) or subtle digs (“if you think you have the talent to do it, then try”) – then say goodbye.

4) They bad mouth you behind your back

Many years ago I was at a vintage market with a good friend and a new acquaintance of hers. My friend tried on a Burberry coat and asked our opinions. It was a little large for her, so I told her so. Her acquaintance, however told her she looked amazing in it and should buy it.

But when my friend turned back to the stall, her acquaintance whispered to me: “She looked terrible in it!”

To this day, I have no idea why she did that. What was she hoping would happen? I’d agree and we’d have a good bitch or laugh about my friend behind her back? And what on earth would be the point of that?

Personally I prefer to befriend honest people. People who will tell me the truth (but diplomatically!) and whom I can trust to keep our conversations and secrets private. Of course we can all become frustrated with or worried about our friends at times, but there’s never any cause to gossip or bitch about them.

And, as with the ghosters, if a friend is happy to bad mouth or betray the confidences of others behind their backs, what makes you think you’ll be any different? Sure they may be polite to your face, but they’re probably just as indiscrete about you as they are their other friends when you’re not around.

So if you know someone who is happy to bad mouth others, we recommend keeping them at arms length, and not to trust them with your confidences.

5) They’re needy

We might like our friends to do or say something, or to accompany us somewhere, but a healthy person doesn’t need anyone else. Our self-esteem is self-maintained, and our relationships aren’t there to bolster or insulate us from the world, but to enhance our journey through life.

Of course there are times when we may lean more heavily on our friends. Our partner has left us or we’re mourning the death of someone we care about, and we value their emotional support. Our child is sick and we’ve run out of medicine, or we need to stay late at work and can’t collect for school, and ask if they can help.

But there’s a big difference between sometimes asking for emotional or practical help and needing it on a constant basis.

A needy friend expects you to be at the end of the phone whenever they’re having a crisis. (And often when they’re not.) They need you to understand their feelings. They need you to be in their life whenever they click their fingers. And if you’re not, you’re punished for it.

If you have a friend like this, the only thing you really need to do is quietly exit their life!

6) They make you feel responsible for their feelings

Talking of feelings… one of the biggest realisations of my adult life, one that has had a lasting positive and liberating impact, is that I’m not responsible for the happiness of anyone else. Yes, I can choose to make people happy – my partner, my children, my family, my friends, my clients and customers – and I do choose to, but I don’t have to if I don’t want to.

And they absolutely cannot hold me responsible for how they feel. They cannot tell me: “You make me angry”. They can’t say “It’s your fault I…” And they can’t say “You have to make me feel…” And equally, I can’t expect others to shore up my feelings – that’s my responsibility.

That’s not to say we all have licence to behave as poorly as we like to others. If you don’t act in a respectful, kind, generous, thoughtful way you’ll soon lose the friendship, respect, love and generosity of others – and suffer the natural consequences as a result.

The difference between toxic people and emotionally healthy people is that toxic people have no emotional defences. Their feelings are so raw and unprotected that the slightest thing can hurt them. A poorly judged joke at their expense. An unreturned text, call or email. Or the wrong expression on someone’s face. The tiniest, unintentional thing can set them off.

And when they’re upset, they hold you personally responsible. Even if you weren’t even aware of what you were doing.

Of course there are times when we can all hurt others, with or without realising. But when we have healthy boundaries in place we are able to address these occasions in a respectful way. We can express how we feel using non-blaming language like: “When you do/did that, I feel/felt…”. And then take appropriate action.

Importantly, we’re able to separate the action from the feeling. The action is your responsibility, the feeling is mine.

So if you’re constantly standing trial and apologising for hurting a friend’s feelings, maybe it’s time you stopped allowing them to hold you responsible for them. And instead find friends who have healthy emotional boundaries.

7) It’s all about them

A healthy friendship involves give and take – an equal exchange of emotion, support, effort and attention. But when you’re trapped in a friendship with a toxic person there’s more give than take. And it’s you who’s giving.

You’re expected to listen to every tiny drama in their life (and if they’re toxic, there will be a few). To drop everything to be with them at a moment’s notice. To make yourself freely available whenever they want to see you. And to be endlessly interested in the minutae of their life.

But when it comes to your needs, they’re less accommodating. Completely lacking in empathy (and very likely narcissistic), a toxic friend doesn’t want to hear about your dramas. And they’re an unsympathetic, even bored listener when you share your worries.

If you do open up to them in hope for a sympathetic ear or even practical advice, you’re more likely to find the conversation quickly turned around to their own experience. Your drama trumped by something far bigger and more important that’s happened to them.

Nothing you ever experience will be as bad as they’ve experienced. It’s like a game of emotional trumps – and they always hold the winning card.

So if your friendship isn’t well balanced, if you find yourself frequently being a shoulder to cry on, or talking a friend down from some emotional cliff, and not being afforded the same time and care in return, maybe it’s time to reconsider whether this is someone you really want to confide in. Or waste any more emotional energy on.

8) They can’t be happy for you

There are few things more wonderful in life than witnessing a friend’s good fortune. The happiness you feel for them is almost as good as if it were happening to you. But not if you’re a toxic friend.

If you’re a toxic person, another’s happiness is simply a reminder of what is lacking in your own life. And rather than experiencing vicarious joy in a friend’s good luck or deserved rewards, you just want to wail, “Why not me?”

It’s almost like there’s a finite amount of luck, joy, love or money available, and if some of that has gone to your friend, that means there’s less left for you.

A toxic person’s self-esteem and even contentment is also built on oneupmanship. It rests fragilely on the knowledge that they’re the better, prettier, richer, luckier, more popular (or whatever values matter to them) person in your friendship.

It may hurt to realise this, but a toxic friend could well keep you in their life because you’re usefully (in their eyes) less successful on some level than them. You’re there to make them feel good about themselves. (See point number three above.)

So when something amazing happens to you, they can’t possibly genuinely celebrate that with you. They’re not honestly happy for you. They’re resentful, and frantically trying to cope with the shifting sands of their perception: forced to confront the realisation that, momentarily at least, they’re not ‘better’ than you.

If your luck is fleeting rather than life changing you may just find them a little muted at your news. Balance will soon be restored, however, and you friendship will continue as before. But if your good news means a permanent shift in fortune – you fall pregnant, get married, get a better job, buy your own home – then you may find your friendship either suddenly coming to an explosive end, or slowly dying out. But trust us, that’s no bad thing.

9) They isolate you

One of the big red flags of an abusive partner is their insidious campaign to isolate you from your family and friends – or anyone who cares about and will support you. Why? Because you’re weaker and easier to control without your support network. And without anyone who may see through and point out to you when you’re being gaslighted.

And a toxic friend is the same. They can’t bear to share you with others; they need you all to themselves so they can control you and your friendship.

So how do they isolate you?

A warning sign of a toxic friend is when they start bad mouthing your family or friends. When they point out others’ flaws, or interpret the things they do or say as being negative; looking for the worst in them. They’ll also encourage you to take action against these perceived flaws and let downs, fanning the flames on any arguments and prolonging any fallouts.

They may even start planning competing events when you get invited out by other friends, and play the emotional card, forcing you to let down others to be with them. And gradually whittle away at the bonds and closeness you share with others.

A toxic friend needs you all to themselves so you can’t possibly love, care for, or need anyone as much as them. Yes, they’re that insecure.

So beware the intoxicating attention of a friend who always wants to be with you or talk to you. Save any feelings of flattery and instead see it for what it is: an attempt to isolate you from the non-toxic people in your life.

Are you ready to rid your life of toxic people?

Life is too short to waste a single second on a toxic person. So whether it’s an employer, colleague, partner, family member or friend, if you have realised that you have a toxic person in your life, it’s time to take action.

If you can’t remove this person from your life (abuse charities always recommend zero contact with an abuser if possible), then take all necessary steps to protect yourself. Don’t confide in them, rely on them, or let them past your emotional boundaries. And minimise your contact with them as much as possible. And whatever else you do, don’t allow them to hold you responsible for their life or emotions.

Focus on your own happiness and personal growth – the more happy and evolved you are, the more likeminded people you’ll attract into your life. and the more emotional energy you’ll have for those who really deserve it.

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