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Wellness

Identifying and Overcoming Toxic Friendships

When it comes to jobs, habits, and even romantic relationships, it’s often relatively easy to tell when something isn’t serving your mental or physical health. But with friendships, it can be difficult to contemplate whether the relationship truly gives you the value you hope for and deserve. As such, I aim to discuss the pillars of a healthy, symbiotic friendship as well as tips for when you’re struggling with certain friendship dynamics.

I should start with a disclaimer that I’m hesitant to use the word “toxic,” because it implies that something is entirely detrimental. In reality, I think there is a lesson to be learnt, as well as value, in every friendship, even if you have to dig deep to find it. That said, in some cases the most responsible thing to do is re-evaluate the grounds of your friendships and reflect on whether they are genuinely serving your friend and serving you, for your sake and theirs.

Even the “healthiest” of friendships don’t feel great 100% of the time. Everyone has good and bad days, and even your truest, closest friends won’t always treat you as you might hope. While no one is entirely predictable, it is reasonable to expect someone you trust to most commonly express their emotions in safe, healthy ways. If the other person constantly leaves you feeling drained, stressed, or isolated, it may be time to reconsider what you are giving versus receiving from the friendship. 

The first step is to pay attention to how you feel around your friends and be aware of the telltale signs of an unbalanced or “toxic” friendship. Take a moment to reflect on your current, most prominent friendships. Do these people make you feel supported, light-hearted, and inspired? Or does the thought of spending too much time with them ignite even the tiniest knot in your stomach? Because nobody wants to think badly of their friends, it can be difficult to take a step back and examine the nature of your friendships. To make things simpler, I’ve broken down a few general warning signs for which to keep an eye out: 

You feel on edge around them

Unpredictability doesn’t automatically signify a toxic friendship, but feeling like you’re constantly walking on eggshells around the other person due to the uncertainty of their reaction can be an indication that they might not have your best interest at heart.

They constantly make themselves the centre of attention 

Part of being a supportive friend is being a cheerleader on the sidelines to celebrate each other’s successes. People who feel the need to constantly place themselves in the spotlight and who don’t want to give you your own time to shine are simply not treating you like a genuine friend. True friends don’t just take – they offer support and empathy for your own concerns, whether in good times or bad. 

You blame yourself for their behaviour

Ah yes, the classic consequence of a manipulative relationship. Manipulation is not always intentional, but gaslighting yourself into thinking you are at fault for the other person’s actions is a quintessential sign of a toxic friendship. 

They disrespect your boundaries 

Although they can be challenging to establish, clear boundaries are the essential foundation of any healthy relationship. Friends who believe they are exempt from your boundaries, especially when they need something from you, are not treating you like a true friend. Even your closest friends will work hard to understand and respect your limits. 

You give far more than you receive

I once had a teacher who described relationships like a potluck. When everyone contributes something, there’s enough to go around and everyone is happy. But if even one person only takes without giving, the whole operation is thrown off balance. Friends who fill their plate without bringing anything to the table aren’t respecting the equity of a true friendship.

So, now that you might have identified some of these factors in your friendships (I have no doubt they ring a bell for each of us on some level), what should be your next step? I am definitely not asserting that the wise solution is always to promptly label the friend as toxic and cut them out of your life. Most often, the mature and responsible next step is to be incredibly direct and communicate when you are not comfortable with how they act around you. There’s a reason the Golden Rule is drilled into us as children. If you allow people to treat you differently from how you treat them, or how they treat others, you are not only harming yourself but also the reliability and longevity of your friendship. By openly setting boundaries, communicating when you aren’t happy with how you’re being treated, and creating space when it feels necessary, you are demonstrating the behaviour that you expect to receive in return. 

Every relationship is built on different grounds that will never be in perfect equilibrium, but genuine friendships are a two-way street. Although it requires immense confidence and self-respect to be honest with yourself about how your closest friends make you feel, it is crucial to be able to identify and overcome the signs of a toxic friendship before you find yourself too far down a one-way road with little chance of turning back. 

Peyton is a fourth-year Psychology and Art History student at the University of St Andrews. She grew up between London and San Francisco, and speaks like Peppa Pig despite being 100% American. As a proud foodie, she loves creating recipes out of ingredients that really shouldn't go together, and will never be caught dead without a tasty snack in hand.
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