Friends. Besties. Gal pals. Whatever label you prefer, friendships are the magic ingredient that can make our days a little bit brighter.
Whether you’re blowing off steam after a stressful meeting or sharing your latest online shopping win, every moment is made better by having a network of supportive friends by your side.
In fact, the benefits of healthy friendships extend beyond just having a bestie to bring to brunch on the weekends. A recent study of nearly 1,500 older Australians revealed those with strong social connections and a close network of friends tend to lead longer and happier lives.
And these findings aren’t a one-off. Numerous similar studies have reached the same conclusion, with research finding that those of us with strong social ties have double the chance of living longer than those without a strong friendship circle.
But what happens if your friendships aren’t supporting you to be your best self? Does your bestie seem possessive or jealous when you meet up with other people? Do you catch yourself second-guessing what you say around your friends out of fear of criticism? Do you dread seeing that one friend that always seems to deplete your energy? If you’ve experienced any of these situations, chances are you could be in a toxic friendship without even realising it.
So, what does a toxic friendship actually look like? And what practical steps can you take to shift the power imbalance and repair a damaging friendship dynamic? Keep reading to discover our practical guide to identifying and navigating toxic friendships and learn how to empower yourself to take control of your social network.
What is a toxic friendship?
Although there’s no exact science, toxic friendships often tick a few of the same key criteria. But before we dive into what warning signs to watch out for, let’s start by explaining what a toxic friendship is.
In essence, the label ‘toxic friendship’ is used to identify when a friend is no longer contributing positively to your life. In many instances, a close friend’s behaviour may shift and change slowly over time, making this unhealthy relationship difficult to clearly identify.
The signs of a toxic friendship can be subtle. You might start noticing your friend becomes increasingly flaky and hard to meet up with face-to-face. Or maybe your catch-ups are becoming a drain on your energy or causing feelings of stress, dread or anxiety.
The specifics of each relationship will look different for everyone. The common thread? Toxic relationships commonly deplete your energy, diminish your self-confidence and deflate your overall mood.
The warning signs: How do you know you’re in a toxic friendship?
Now that we’ve got a clear idea of what a toxic relationship looks like, let’s identify the key signs and red flags we should all pay attention to.
ReachOut, Australia’s leading online mental health organisation, reveals the common characteristics that could indicate you’re socialising with a toxic friend.
The signs of a toxic friend can include:
- Displaying a negative attitude towards life
- Excessive gossiping about their friends (or even you)
- Making critical comments towards you (both subtle remarks and direct critiques)
- Reminding you of the mistakes you’ve made in the past
- Manipulative behaviour that forces you to do or say things you don’t feel comfortable with
- Behaving or speaking in a way that causes you stress or anxiety
- Possessive or demanding behaviour that leaves you depleted, exhausted or fatigued, without giving back anything in return.
One of the clearest common themes throughout these characteristics is the notion of power imbalance. In most cases, a toxic friendship thrives through one friend holding an unequal amount of power over another. Through tactics of intimidation, toxic friends create a sense of fear and anxiety that allows their actions to go unquestioned.
In a recent article for Women’s Health, clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, Ph.D. explained that recognising these types of relationships can be a difficult task for many people. As this kind of behaviour starts slowly, these warning signs are often very subtle and challenging to notice.
In many cases, distinguishing between merely a bad friend and a toxic one can be a fine line. However, Dr Bonior points out that clear difference with toxic friends is that they work to “emotionally harm you rather than help you” by acting in a way that “doesn’t help you be who you want to be”.
The importance of setting boundaries
Once you’ve identified that you might be in a toxic friendship, what are the best ways to change your situation? Before you run for the hills, it’s important to consider whether the relationship can be repaired.
The first step to healing a toxic relationship is to consider what your ideal friendship looks like. Do you want a friend that respects your time by always texting you if they are running late? Maybe you wish you could share your financial goals with your bestie to avoid being invited to expensive wine bar dinners? Or perhaps you’re looking for someone to talk to openly and honestly when you’re experiencing a bad day?
Start by identifying what your ideal criteria for a bestie looks like, and reflect on whether this aligns with your current situation. If you feel your friend isn’t respecting you, doesn’t acknowledge when they’ve hurt your feelings, or seems ambivalent about turning up to catch-ups on time, it could be time to start a conversation about your concerns.
The next part is all about setting clear boundaries. Now, this step can be a bit unconformable, but it’s an essential part of the process. Why? Because having the confidence and conviction to say ‘no’ and act in your best interest means you’ll be able to stand up for yourself.
Setting clear boundaries is all about understanding and expressing how we want to be treated. What situations make you uncomfortable? Are there certain topics or past events you don’t feel happy discussing? By creating clear boundaries within your friendships, you’ll have the authority and self-belief to avoid becoming overwhelmed and disempowered by toxic friends.
When to call out toxic behaviour
This next step comes back to the idea of power.
Healthy relationships are built on both parties having equal power and respect for each other. By voicing your concerns and explaining how your friend’s toxic behaviour is making you feel, you’re taking the first brave step towards redressing the power imbalances that may exist in your friendship.
As we’ve discussed, toxic friendships don’t look or feel the same for everyone. For some, the realisation might come slowly following a string of passive-aggressive conversations and belittling comments from a friend. For others, it might be more direct, such as behaving in an excessively competitive way, with your bestie always trying to ‘one-up’ your achievements.
Once you’ve identified a negative pattern of behaviour, it’s important to find a constructive way to open up a dialogue about how these experiences are impacting your mood, emotions and feelings.
To ensure you start a productive conversation, it’s crucial to find an appropriate time to call out your friend’s toxic behaviour. If you’re experiencing strong feelings of anger, annoyance or frustration, it’s a wise idea to wait until the heat of your emotions has subsided. Why? Because it can be difficult to express ourselves thoughtfully and clearly when we are fired up and distressed.
By taking some time out to reflect on the situation, you’ll be able to effectively articulate how your friend’s action has impacted you in a way that’s constructive and productive for your friendship.
How to communicate how you feel
For anyone who might be experiencing a toxic friendship, open communication can be tricky to navigate.
In many cases, toxic friends can hijack conversations to suit their agenda and can make you feel as if your thoughts, feelings, and opinions don’t matter. Whether they criticise who you’re dating or bring up embarrassing stories that you’d rather not discuss, toxic friends often dominate conversations to ensure their opinions are acknowledged.
In order to move forward and repair a toxic friendship, it’s essential to communicate your thoughts and feelings clearly. One of the best strategies for opening up a productive conversation is to express how your friend’s behaviour is making you feel.
Rather than accusing or attacking the other person, try to frame your concerns around how their behaviour has made you feel. Using phrases such as “I felt X when you said X” is a great way to foster empathy. Plus, your friend is much more likely to see the situation from your perspective.
However, it’s also important to remember to be clear about your expectations for the friendship moving forward. Make sure to openly discuss what you’d like to see from your friend moving forward to ensure you’ve established clear boundaries and frameworks for a healthy relationship.
Although change won’t happen overnight, it’s wise to check in regularly if you continue to notice toxic behaviour from your friend. Remember, repairing a toxic friendship isn’t always possible and, in some cases, it can be best to part ways if your friend isn’t willing to treat you better.
This article was written by Lucinda Starr and originally published on A Girl In Progress.