he phrase “toxic friend” has become a shorthand in some circles for anybody who fails to live up to every expectation of friendship. Someone who fails to return phone calls or struggles to find time in their calendar for coffee dates might find themselves dubbed “toxic”--but such overuse of the label is misleading and obscures the genuine ways in which the term toxic can be helpful.

There are some benefits to using the term toxic. Because the phrase has become so well-known, it’s an easily recognizable shorthand for someone who is bad for you. 

Calling someone toxic is often correlated with the decision to cut them out of your life entirely--but this isn’t always the best approach.

Read on for a comprehensive definition of “toxic friend,” as well as the signs and symptoms of having one. Also discussed are techniques for addressing the situation, including tips for letting go of toxic friends if the situation can’t be resolved.

What Is A Toxic Friend?

When Is Calling Someone “Toxic” Helpful--And When Is It Misleading?

In short, a toxic friend is one who is bad for you. Toxic friends may take advantage of you, gossip about you, display deceitful or selfish behavior patterns, or simply overwhelm you with their own negativity. A friendship that is truly toxic is filled with unsolvable issues--which is why using the label “toxic” is an important and delicate decision.

Deciding that someone is toxic can seem like a very final decision. The implication is that once a person is deemed “toxic,” they have to be removed from your life entirely. 

But not every friendship is perfect. You can have arguments and disagreements and things you’d like to change about the other person without labeling your friendship “toxic.” The key difference between a toxic friendship and one that simply has some rough patches (like most friendships do) is whether you can communicate your concerns and resolve them in a healthy manner.

The first step when dealing with a friendship that you think might be toxic is to identify and discuss the behaviors you feel are problematic. If you can’t discuss your concerns or find that communicating them causes arguments and accusations, it might be time to consider letting go of the friendship. 

Healthy friendships can withstand rough patches and resolve conflicts--when you feel like that’s not a possibility, it’s time to dive deeper into the emotions associated with that friendship, as well as the specific behaviors causing the problems.

A toxic friend is a constant source of stress, unhappiness, and negativity. Even if you have fond memories together or share hobbies and interests, if a friendship is taking a toll on your well-being, it’s time to consider letting go.

Realizing that a friendship is toxic is an important first step in preparing yourself to let go of that friend. The label “toxic” acts as a reminder of the negative impact that friend has on you.

Two friends sit together, the left figure with her head in her hands.
Arguments, accusations, and fights--constantly dealing with a rocky friendship is stressful, but you have the power to change it.

What Are the Specific Signs and Symptoms of a Toxic Friend?

The Behaviors of Toxic Friends and Impacts They May Have On You

Toxic friends may display some or all of these behaviors--or they may display other problem behaviors. At the end of the day, anything that decreases your self-esteem or makes you feel stressed is an issue that should be addressed.

Toxic friends are self-absorbed

They make comments without considering how their words will impact others--and oftentimes that impact is negative. Self-absorbed friends will sometimes be helpful and kind, but only if they perceive a benefit from acting that way.

You may find yourself having to repeat yourself frequently--a self-absorbed friend is more interested in what they have to say than your own thoughts, feelings, or emotions. Although their own achievements, no matter how small, are brag-worthy, they’ll probably never acknowledge your achievements.

Toxic friends belittle you or negatively impact your self-esteem.

Are you constantly fending off sarcastic remarks or feeling like the subject of their scorn? Toxic friends may tell you that they’re “only joking,” but don’t let that fool you. 

If you find yourself constantly feeling depressed or confused after spending time with them, that’s a big red flag. Friends should never leave you feeling terrible. 

Toxic friends will turn defensive if you try to communicate your concerns--you may find yourself apologizing for your own behavior.

When you try to address your concerns that your friend’s behavior is unhealthy for you, pay attention to their reaction. While it’s perfectly normal for people to become offended or hurt, you want to make sure that they’re still listening and appreciating how you feel.

Pointing out negative behavior patterns--such as constantly putting you down--may not be welcome, but it shouldn’t have you fighting off the “toxic” label. If your friend’s response to your concerns about toxicity is to call you the toxic one, be prepared to end that relationship.

Toxic friends may try to control your behavior.

Do you find yourself constantly going along with your friend’s ideas, never able to suggest your own plans? Maybe you feel that your time and how you spend it is monitored and influenced by your friend. 

A controlling friend may even try to influence how you dress, who you hang out with, what you eat, and the important decisions you make. 

In a healthy friendship, you’ll feel empowered and capable of making your own choices. A toxic friend may not even let you have any choices, constantly making decisions for you. Pay careful attention to attempts to deny you the right to make independent plans or to disagree with what they think is best.

A toxic friend talks behind your back, spreading rumors and secrets.

Maybe you realize that your confidential information seems to be public knowledge, or find yourself confronted with false accusations and wild rumors. This could be a sign that a close friend is sneaking around behind your back.

Nobody wants their close friends to spread their secrets, and doing so is a big invasion of trust and privacy. You should feel safe talking with your friends, confident that what you tell them will remain between the two of you.

Gossiping with others, especially when that gossip involves spreading malicious rumors or private information, is a toxic trait that can have widespread consequences. Dealing with rumors is time consuming and stressful, especially if those rumors can negatively impact your life--like a rumor that you’ve cheated on your partner or are stealing from your boss.

A rope frays as it is pulled apart, kept together by a single thread.
Severing toxic friends from your life doesn’t have to be painful. 

How To Let Go Of Your Toxic Friend

5 Tips To Easily Let Go of a Toxic Friend 

Not every toxic friendship can or should be dealt with in the same way. Many variables can impact the techniques you use to let go of toxic friends. How close you are, their specific problematic behaviors, and the necessity of navigating mutual friendships will impact the experience.

Allow Yourself to Drift Apart from a Toxic Friend

The easiest way to end a friendship with someone you aren’t very close with is to simply drift apart. The term “ghosting”--when you suddenly cut off all communication with someone-- has a lot of negative implications, but when dealing with a toxic friend it can be the least messy way to end things.

Don’t text, call, or hang out with them. Make sure any mutual friends know the situation and are willing to let you know if your toxic friend is invited to any hang outs. Try to avoid their presence. If they confront you, be prepared with an explanation about why you can no longer be friends.

Organize Your Thoughts in Writing

Write it out. Get your thoughts in order before talking with them by developing a script to follow in which you outline the problems in the relationship and their negative impacts on you. 

Sticking to a script may make it easier for you to ensure that all your concerns are addressed and will serve as a reminder of why you’re letting go of them--even if they try a counterattack, reading your script will remind you about all the hurtful and negative behavior you’ve experienced.

Lean On Your Support Network

Spend time with other friends. In addition to helping you come up with reasons to no longer spend time with your toxic friend, being around people who are good for you may prevent you from running back to the friendship.

It can be difficult to end a toxic friendship if you feel like they’re your only friend. By reminding yourself of all the healthy relationships you can develop, spending time with other people will help ensure that you don’t miss someone who isn’t good for you.

Give Yourself Emotional Space from Toxic Friends

Distance yourself emotionally from your toxic friend. Stop sharing secrets, relying on them for emotional support, or updating them about your life. Someone who doesn’t appreciate you or deserve you as a friend shouldn’t be privy to the important things in your life.

Instead of turning to this friend, identify other people in your life you can turn to for emotional support. This is also a key step in building new friendships and is a good way to ensure that you have someone willing to help you through the process of letting go.

Try to Neutralize Toxic Behaviors

Identify specific toxic behaviors and work to neutralize them. Perhaps you have a toxic friend whose problematic behaviors are limited to certain circumstances. Someone can be a toxic friend and be unwilling to change their behavior and still have a place in your life. 

For example, perhaps your friend is extremely possessive and requires constant attention and takes up an unhealthy amount of your time. Try limiting the time spent together by creating a strict schedule of when you’re available--and let them know that you can’t always be available 24/7.

If eliminating the specific scenarios in which your friend’s toxic behavior flourishes works, then consider keeping the relationship. But if you find that your efforts to set boundaries are constantly being frustrated and that nothing you do seems to have a positive impact, it’s time to move on from that friendship.

A woman holds her hands, shaped into a heart, up to the sun. The sun shines through and creates the illusion of an illuminated heart shape.
Self-love can be difficult, but learning to respect your own boundaries and make healthy decisions is empowering.

Why Is It Necessary To Identify Toxic Relationships?

The Ultimate Act of Self-Love

The path to getting rid of toxic friends may seem difficult, but it’s essential for a healthy life.

When you’re constantly surrounded by people negatively impacting your health and well-being, you may feel depressed, useless, stressed, and overwhelmed. One toxic friend may not seem like a lot, but the psychological and physiological impact of their negative influence will prevent you from living your best life.

You may never get the apology or closure that you feel that you need in order to truly let go, but it’s important to recognize that removing sources of negativity from your life is the key to growing as a person.

Cutting out toxic friends can be the ultimate act of self-love. By choosing not to allow people who belittle, control, or depress you to continue to manipulate you, you are empowering yourself to make better life decisions. 

Your act of self-love may even help inspire other friends to identify and let go of their own toxic friends. It’s important to set an example of how you deserve to be treated not only for yourself, but for those around you.

No one has to put up with toxic friends. You deserve healthy friendships that inspire you to grow, encourage you to pursue your dreams, celebrate your accomplishments, and empower you to make positive decisions. 

May 27, 2020

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