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It can be challenging to recognize the signs of a toxic friend, especially when they’re subtle. How do you know if the judgemental comments they drop as you walk past another group are unintentionally cruel or a genuine warning sign? Their self-centeredness or jealous tendencies could be cruel jabs or completely unrealized to them. Without any experience to draw from, how do you know a toxic friend vs. a good friend?
Her Campus spoke with mental health professionals to help nail down the biggest signs of a toxic friend to look out for and what to do about them so that you can effectively separate yourself from the harm this type of relationship can cause. Even though cutting a toxic friend off may be the best thing to do in the long run, in the short term, it can be hard to navigate the fallout – especially if it happens to be a whole friend group. As you relax and reflect this summer, try to evaluate your friendships, so you can take the warning signs with you as you navigate new relationships this summer and school year.
red flags you can’t ignore
We all know how it goes. When you’re in a friendship, those red flags can look a little bit pink when you’re looking at it through rose colored glasses. Take a step back and really look at your friendships: you may find that some red flags are too bright to see past.
1. Your friend is only there when it’s convenient for them.
If your friend doesn’t make an effort to hang out with you when you’re the one trying to make plans or be there when you need a shoulder to lean on, it’s probably time to reevaluate the relationship. “Within a healthy friendship, there should be an equal effort of the way that individuals show up for one another,” Nyanda A. Sam-King, LCSW, tells Her Campus. “If you feel as though you’re exerting more energy than you should, then that could be a red flag.”
If they’re only interested in you when it directly benefits them, it’s not a healthy relationship.
2. They have trouble celebrating your successes.
If your friends don’t get excited for you when you have good news to share, that’s a red flag, too. “[If] they’re not interested or find flaws [in your news or] ways to take away from your achievement, [and] they never seem to be happy for you when things are going well in your life,” Dr. Toni Falcone, a licensed psychologist, tells Her Campus, it’s a good indicator of a toxic relationship.
It might be difficult to tell for sure if they’re cheering you on through their jealousy or letting it overpower their response. “Healthy friends want great things for one another,” Sarah Frankfurt, LMFT, tells Her Campus. “Even if they want what you have, their jealousy and envy don’t get in the way of sharing in your joy.”
But if you find yourself scared to share your wins with them, they’re probably not the right friend for you.
3. They’re overly critical of you.
Your best friends should be your biggest cheerleaders. They’re honest with you and may call you out when they see a valid reason to, but they’re there to support and encourage you. There’s no reason to be critical just for criticism’s sake, especially when it comes to your appearance, tastes, or preferences. You shouldn’t be scared to share things with them because of the reaction you anticipate.
“Important caveat: If you frequently worry about most people’s reactions to you, then you are likely experiencing some social anxiety,” Frankfurt says. But if the worries are specific to one friend – or set of friends – it may be a toxic relationship.
4. They tell you you’re too sensitive when they bully you.
Have you ever felt ridiculed by someone who then told you you were too sensitive for the way it made you feel? “Toxic friends often point out your insecurities, flaws, or mistakes, and try to frame the criticism (or at times, even bullying) as just joking/teasing,” Dr. Falcone says.
That may lead you to feel like you have to hide who you really are around them because you fear their judgment or lack of acceptance.
5. They gaslight you when you point out the way they hurt you.
Not only will a toxic friend mistreat you, but they’ll try to turn it around and pin it as your fault. “When you try to address something the toxic friend said or did that may have hurt you, they often minimize your experience, mock you for it, or try to convince you that you’re crazy [or that] it’s your fault that you were hurt by their behavior,” Dr. Falcone says. “Toxic people can always explain why whatever they did was justified and make you feel like you’re just not understanding or compassionate.”
They may lack the insight they need to see what they’re doing, and they usually struggle to take accountability for their actions. “They have limited awareness of the way they come across, and due to their highly sensitive and reactive nature, they don’t take feedback or constructive criticism very well,” Dr. Falcone says.
6. They’re dishonest.
If you notice that your friend tends to lie to you or others, that’s another red flag. “Trust is the center of all healthy relationships. Without trust, you’re in a boat with a leak in it,” Frankfurt says. And you can’t trust someone who is regularly misleading you or others.
7. They’re constantly gossiping about others.
If they’re always talking about other people behind their backs to you, chances are they’re doing the same to you when they’re with others. If they can’t keep anyone’s secrets or are constantly judging everyone else, it’s not a solid friendship.
8. You start to feel bad about yourself when you hang out with them.
“If you typically call your friend excited about something and notice that by the end of the call you’re not excited anymore, [or you start to feel bad about yourself] after spending time with this friend,” Dr. Falcone says, it’s a good sign that they’re toxic.
She explains that while some indicators of a toxic relationship are overt, many others are more subtle. You might not immediately realize that those subtle effects are because of them. If you notice a pattern in feeling bad after interacting with them, take the sign for what it is.
9. You always have to be available for them.
If you’re expected to be available at the drop of a hat, especially if they rarely return the favor, that’s another clear sign that they’re not the right friend for you. “You may notice that you feel pressured into responding to them immediately, answering their calls, complying with their requests, following their plans,” Dr. Falcone says. If you don’t want to answer because of what you think they may say but are also scared of their reaction if you let them go to voicemail, take the indication at face value.
10. They boss you around.
If you feel like you’re constantly being ordered around by your friend, they’re probably not much of a friend. “Telling another adult what to do is a boundary violation,” Frankfurt says. “It’s controlling and can be abusive.”
Not to mention the fear you may feel over the idea of telling them no, or deviating. “You might feel anxious about setting them off if you make a small mistake,” Dr. Falcone says. But a true friend will understand if something goes wrong or if you’re unable to help.
11. Their problems supersede yours, every time.
“Toxic friends always seem to have problems that are more important, bigger, more relevant, or more significant than anything you are dealing with,” Dr. Falcone says. “You might find yourself worried about letting them down or feeling guilty about contributing to their pain, and so you rationalize complying with their demands or tolerating their otherwise unacceptable behavior.”
But your problems are just as significant and deserve a reciprocal response from your friends.
12. They’re more interested in your relationship when you’re having a hard time.
Your friend may take a greater interest in you when you’re experiencing hardships. “They engage with you during this time to help themselves feel better and may directly or subtly be putting you down or making you feel worse about yourself and the situation, rather than providing the care, support, and encouragement that you would hope to get from a healthy friendship,” Dr. Falcone says.
13. You only experience negativity in the relationship.
If your friendship only seems beneficial when you’re not in a good place, and if it’s bringing negativity into your life when you are otherwise in a good place, it’s yet another red flag. “Discussing negative topics is normal, but if negative subject matters become a reoccurring discussion that can become emotionally exhausting, which inevitably creates an unhealthy friendship dynamic,” Sam-King says.
If you’re not having any fun or are never talking about positives, then the friendship is more draining than beneficial.
How to approach ending the toxic environment.
There are a few different ways you can approach the relationship you have with your toxic friend, but ignoring the aspects that hurt you is not one of them – nothing is going to change on its own.
“The first step is to ask yourself very honestly if you want to work on the friendship,” Frankfurt says. “Is it what you want? Or do you feel you owe it to this person to work on it?” If you genuinely want to try to salvage the relationship, there are a few things you can try. Some people out there are so set in their ways that you won’t be able to salvage the relationship, but most people probably don’t want to be seen as the toxic friend – so you may be able to shed some light on their behavior.
Frankfurt urges you not to do any of this over text. “Written communication has too much room for misinterpretation and error. Talk to your friend in person, on the phone, or on FaceTime,” she says. It may feel scary, but it’s the right way to do it. Not only is it more respectful, but it has a higher chance of success. “Talking face-to-face reminds us of our shared humanity and the person sitting across from us. You reduce the likelihood of jabs and barbs if you talk rather than text.” She also advises using “I” over “you.” Nobody can disagree with how you saw or felt something, but they can argue against what you say they did. “Starting with ‘you’ automatically puts the person on the defensive and therefore less able to listen to what you say,” she warns.
1. Try to gently – but specifically – address the issues you have.
“If the friendship is important to you, and you haven’t tried to address the toxic behaviors, having a direct and compassionate conversation may help increase their insight and awareness into some of these behaviors and start to make changes,” Dr. Falcone says. If you’d like to try addressing the issues you have with their behavior first, rather than cutting them right off, Dr. Falcone recommends trying what she calls the sandwich technique: start and end the feedback you want to offer them with something positive. Just make sure you’re being specific in the issues you want to bring to their attention.
She suggests saying something like, “I’m sure you weren’t intending to be hurtful or come across as mean when you said XYZ, but it really made me feel bad, especially because our other friends were there. I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t say things like XYZ about me in front of other people. I wanted to tell you that this bothered me now so that I can let it go because I’m sure you weren’t trying to make me feel bad. I really loved spending time with you today, and I’m really glad I got to see you!”
Frankfurt adds, “No one does well with a character assassination.” That means terms like rude, disrespectful, immature, and unkind are out. She also recommends leaving out any indications of behavioral patterns. “Don’t use ‘always’ and ‘never’ when talking to your friend. I can almost guarantee if you use ‘always’ or ‘never,’ your friend will come up with an exception, and that is not the point of the discussion.”
2. Offer empathy while you give them the benefit of the doubt.
“Having empathy for your toxic friend, and giving them the benefit of the doubt, can help you approach the feedback in a gentle way that might increase their willingness to hear and acknowledge what you are saying,” Dr. Falcone says.
You may also find that your friend is going through a difficult time of their own and needs a little patience while they evaluate their reactions to it. However, if you’ve already tried a gentler approach, and they were receptive to your words, but you don’t see a change, you may need to remind them a little more directly.
3. Give mediation one more try.
Depending on what issues you’re looking to address with your friend, you may want to try a moderate or high-intensity approach when you bring them up again.
An example moderate-intensity script from Dr. Falcone is: “Last week I shared with you that it was hurtful that you said XYZ in front of our other friends, and it happened again this week. I felt really embarrassed and upset that you brought it up again. It’s becoming hard for me to trust that I can share important things with you when XYZ keeps getting repeated. Please try to be more aware of this in the future.”
A higher intensity example is: “Is it okay if I share with you something that’s been on my mind lately? I feel like there have been several times that we were together, and you said something like XYZ in front of our other friends, which really embarrassed and hurt me. We have talked about it, and I appreciate you apologizing after it happens, but when this keeps happening, it pushes me away because it makes me feel uncomfortable and disrespected.”
4. Set your boundaries.
In the end, some people just aren’t willing to change. Dr. Falcone advises setting a boundary with your toxic friend if you don’t see an effort to modify their behavior. “You may need to be a bit more firm and direct, or ultimately set a boundary that if the behavior continues, you will have to distance yourself from the friendship,” she says.
Frankfurt says, “Tell the friend what you’d like to see happen and offer a solution. For example, ‘I want us both to have the freedom to make our own choices and have other friends,’ or, ‘I will not tolerate name-calling and belittling from you or anyone anymore, and I will let you know when it is happening.’ This is an opportunity for you to state your needs and wants.” It’s not unreasonable for you to have wants or needs, nor to speak up about them. “You are allowed to have them.”
5. If all else fails, redirect your energy to the friendships that fulfill you.
Shari Leid, a certified life coach and author of The Friendship Series, knows that ending a friendship is never easy, no matter the reasons for its demise. “But there are a few tools that can ease the pain,” she tells Her Campus. “Instead of focusing on the toxic relationship, put your energy into friends who leave you feeling supported,” she says. When your energy is redirected to those who fulfill you, it’ll be easier to let go of the ones that didn’t.
In the best-case scenario, the toxic friendship will hopefully just gradually fade away. “If a gradual fading of the toxic friendship isn’t possible, sometimes you need to simply say, ‘It’s me, not you.’” Leid advises to always talk about your feelings rather than what you think the other person did or said or feels.
That said, you shouldn’t use this as an opportunity to ghost anyone. “[It’s] not respectful or kind,” Frankfurt says. “[It] also robs them of valuable information they might need to change their behavior. Be the friend you’d like to have, even if you aren’t ready to share all the gory details of why you need a break.”
6. Don’t take it personally if they react poorly to the end of the friendship.
You may experience one last round of criticisms or gaslighting when the time finally comes to end the friendship. “If you choose to cut off contact, be prepared for your toxic friend to get upset and make you feel like you’ve been a bad friend or you are doing something wrong/hurtful to them,” Falcone says. Being prepared for that negative reaction can help you brace for it. It’s not your fault, no matter how convincing they may be, and it’s the healthier option for you in the end.
This year is the year of healthy relationships and boundaries, bestie! You deserve it!