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20 Glaring Signs You’re in a Toxic Friendship – And How to Escape

You’re toxic, I’m slipping under – and not in the steamy, romantic way.

Until my freshman year of college, I managed to avoid most of my high school friend group’s inevitable gossip, drama, and influx of superficial people. However, college came and with it, I gradually realized I’d endured an extensive amount of emotional manipulation and harm by a former friend, something that took a while for me to process and eventually cut ties.

Chances are, if you’re like me, you’ve experienced (perhaps without your knowledge) a damaging relationship or are currently recognizing one. Although most people attribute the term “toxic” to romantic partnerships, it can apply to friendships that are just as abusive and detrimental to one’s mental/physical health, adversely impacting an individual’s self-esteem and overall well-being. While toxic friendships manifest in different forms, they generally leave you feeling drained, isolated, and frustrated, inducing stress, guilt, and doubt in an individual instead of bringing comfort, empathy, and support. To help spot these red flags, here are 20 common signs that indicate it’s time to reassess a friendship.

Everything Revolves around them

In novel conversations, both parties speak and relate, forming connections based on empathy and active listening. Toxic people, however, regularly pivot the discussion back to themselves so that they’re always the center of attention. Additionally, these individuals are often unreachable and unreliable, as they’ll gladly dump their problems or seek advice from you but instantly disappear when you reach out.

Constantly puts you down

A playful dose of teasing and banter is healthy for friendships, but consistently demeaning remarks or criticisms that belittle your style, body, relationships, accomplishments, interests, etc., and make you feel miserable, insecure, and hurt, is corrosive. True friends respect your feelings and express genuine support instead of insincere comments or subtle tactics that deride you further. No friendship is transactional, but if you’re feeling drained around them and avoid telling them new developments in your life in fear of what they’ll say, then it may be time to reevaluate your attachment.

Your relationship is one-sided

If you’re constantly extending yourself for someone who doesn’t match your efforts and only appears when they need help, then vanishes once you’re struggling, they’re likely toxic. Dr. Andrea Bonier, a clinical psychologist, asserts that a primary tell is if “there’s a big imbalance between what you’re giving and what you’re getting,” implying that the friendship is on their terms instead of a mutual bond. Granted, this doesn’t necessarily mean ditch your friend, as no one can (nor should) be there for others all the time, especially if they’re experiencing hardships, mental health issues, and extenuating circumstances, but if a pattern emerges where you’re repeatedly accommodating with no reciprocity, then it’s not sustainable (Bonior).

There’s a lot of drama and gossip

Toxic people relish being in the spotlight and thrive on inciting chaos wherever they go, typically stirring arguments or causing problems for amusement. Moreover, they’re incredibly intrusive and love talking sh*t about others, deliberately spreading secrets, and injecting themselves into any situation. While anyone can make a mistake, toxic friends purposefully divulge personal information for personal gain and enjoy the havoc they wreak.

You feel uncomfortable, apprehensive, and don’t enjoy spending time with them

Perhaps you feel anxious and unsettled around them or dread their texts/calls and rejoice if they cancel plans. Maybe they get exceedingly irritated or yell at you for minor instances one minute, then act as if nothing happened the next. Or you have an uneasy sensation in your stomach, headaches, and shakes whenever you’re with them. These are all signs that hint it’s time for a break and to reexamine your bond.

Tries to change you

While it’s important to share things in common and (to an extent) respect each other’s values, someone who tries to change your character isn’t an ideal friend. True friends understand people have unique personalities and will embrace and celebrate your differences, providing guidance and encouragement if needed, not degrade your style.

jealous of other friends and your success

Toxic people can’t stand “sharing” you with others and get excessively jealous if you spend time with friends. As such, they’ll attempt to shift blame and create tension between you and existing friendships going “so far as to tell you you’re their only friend, and you’re the only person they care about” (Psychologist Perpetua Neo).

Likewise, instead of congratulating and being happy for your achievements, they’ll condescend, dismiss, or ignore them entirely, acting as if they’re superior.

compares themselves to you/others and is overly competitive

In a similar manner, toxic friends are extremely competitive and shark-like, subtly wishing for your failure and engaging in competition in unrelated areas, such as career opportunities, romantic partners, new material possessions, etc. Neo emphasizes that “they want to compete with you, even if you’re not competing with them,” meaning that they despise the idea of you excelling at something, especially if it doesn’t involve them.

Immensely needy and clingy

Sometimes, you’ll find yourself feeling as if you unknowingly picked up an obsessive significant other, as they’ll call/text you 24/7 and persistently hang with you even if you’ve said you’re busy. If you don’t reply or take time for yourself and other friends, they’ll throw a fit and attempt to guilt-trip you into spending time with them.

extremely hypocritical

One of the most prominent signs of a toxic friendship is that it’s teeming with hypocrisy. Toxic people contradict themselves extensively, pitching a storm if you don’t hang with them or insisting you owe them X (money, car rides, food, etc.) but ignoring it vice versa (as the instant anything applies to them, their stances change), leaving you frustrated and exploited. Yet, because they’re so dramatic and irrational, you’ll probably let them get away with it, as confronting them would set them off and exacerbate the situation.

continuously guilt trips you and plays the victim

A key tactic of toxic individuals is manipulation, as they’re masters at influencing you into feeling a sense of responsibility or obligation towards them, coercing you to change your behavior and do things you wouldn’t normally consider simply because you “feel bad.” They may act helpless and hurt or engage in passive-aggressive behavior to maintain control over you, such as: giving you the silent treatment, making sarcastic or snide comments about your efforts or progress, bringing up past mistakes, acting angry but denying there’s a problem, etc.  

fails to take responsibility for their actions

Similarly, these people blatantly refuse to admit their faults, always finding some feeble excuse to justify their behavior, resulting in insincere apologies (“I’m sorry BUT…”) and exaggerated stories. In their warped minds, they haven’t done anything wrong because you’re to blame for everything. Additionally, they’ll sometimes create baseless issues that serve to make them “right”, which is both contradictory and infuriating, as they focus on irrelevant details, intentionally skewing the conversation and causing you to doubt your thoughts, emotions, and perceptions (hello gaslighting).

refuses to acknowledge your pov

On the same note, these people adamantly reject hearing your perspective, solely focusing on their myopic view and repudiating any efforts of addressing your side. Once they’ve said their piece, they become unreasonable as anything that doesn’t match their pov is instantly rebuffed.

lies, catastrophizes, distorts or deflects the truth to garner sympathy

Additionally, toxic people love twisting scenarios to fit them, changing their manner, and inventing new circumstances that exclusively work in their favor, such as inflating their backstory, dramatizing events, and exaggerating relationships to invigorate their cultivated tragedy. They might tell several stories that don’t quite make sense or emphasize a particular condition as a crutch/excuse for their actions, which might be silent cries for help and should be treated with caution.

assumes and accuses without reasoning

Sometimes, it feels as if you’re set up for failure despite not outright doing anything. Toxic persons love engaging in public displays of drama and may randomly call you out on unwarranted notions such as assuming you conspired against them or stood them up without this ever happening. It’s very irritating and can lead to worse occurrences if not handled.

projects their issues, anxiety, and insecurity onto you

Likewise, they’ll sometimes project their problems onto you, causing you to feel responsible for them and prolonging the conflict. They’ll blame you for actions, traits, desires, or impulses that they can’t accept about themselves and use this defense mechanism to render you immobile.

doesn’t respect your boundaries

Although close friends may occasionally cross boundaries, such as borrowing clothes/items without permission or showing up at each other’s doors uninvited, a person that consistently has little to no regard for your privacy and space and makes you feel disrespected, uncared for, or unheard is someone you should reconsider as your companion.

encourages your worst traits

Nobody is perfect 100% all the time or is expected to be, but there’s a fine distinction between somebody who eagerly pushes you in the wrong direction and doesn’t care about the consequences and someone who looks out for you but makes a mistake. A true friend is genuinely concerned for your well-being and helps guide your decisions, while a toxic individual couldn’t care less and gladly engages in reckless, chaotic behavior.

you feel embarrassed by their actions and make excuses for them

If a friend constantly humiliates others, is rude, puts you in uncomfortable, tense situations, stirs trouble in group dynamics, demands unreasonable things, or otherwise acts inappropriate in public, they’re probably toxic, even if they’re nice to you. For example, these friends may make fun of a mutual acquaintance and coerce others into joining them or they’ll interrupt and ignore individuals, prompting you to instantly leap to their defense with, “Oh, you just don’t know X. They’re really sweet and compassionate once you get to know them…” and justify them for reasons you don’t even know.

you no longer trust them

This point is self-evident, as friendships are built on trust; once that’s broken, it can be hard to repair. If you no longer feel like someone’s reliable and they constantly let you down without a legit reason, they probably don’t have your best interests at heart, and it may be time to rethink your relationship.

So, they’re toxic, now what?

Debating whether to terminate a friendship is a complex, difficult (albeit necessary) process when dealing with a toxic friend. Before deciding, bear in mind that most people likely exhibit a few of the listed traits and aren’t inherently pernicious, as everyone is dealing with life and is bound to make mistakes. The difference contracts to whether they’re willing to change their behavior and own up to their actions or slip further into their acidic mentality, at which point it’s best to part ways. Here are several guidelines to consider:

Use “I” language and other productive communication

It’s okay to want to offer a second chance, as some people don’t realize they’re toxic and aren’t deliberately malicious, but their actions still negatively impact you. Use “I” statements and other feeling language to express yourself and state your thoughts civilly, transparently, and patiently. Some individuals may realize their faults and welcome constructive conversation, while others might feel attacked and act defensively. Be civil and calm when reiterating your assertions.

Talk to a trusted friend or family member

Reach out to other close people and gain an outsider’s perspective, as their detachment can offer unique insight, help catch unnoticed signs, and provide support and reassurance that your emotions and experiences are valid.

Establish Boundaries

Set clear limitations and stick by them. Make sure they understand you won’t tolerate certain behaviors such as lying, cheating, gossiping, shouting, or canceling plans last minute with no reason, and explain how these actions affect you and your response.

TAke a break

Sometimes, you just need some time for yourself to process your feelings and get clarity on the next steps. Time apart will depict how your life is without that person in it, and if things improve significantly, maybe it’s time to consider ending the friendship.

Consider counseling

If there’s a chance of salvaging a friendship and you both are willing to work through your conflict, a licensed counselor or non-biased mediator may prove beneficial in navigating your relationship, as they can professionally address both sides.

Practice first

Before the discussion, write out key points and practice what you’re going to say beforehand. This will help organize your thoughts, boost your confidence, help you from lashing out, and reaffirm your decision.

Be direct

Once you’ve decided to cease a friendship, let them know. While you could slowly fade out of the relationship, as this is the easiest and most convenient way to remove yourself, Bonior cautions against it, explaining that “it only works when both parties recognize what’s happening, and both parties take a step back naturally.” If the other friend doesn’t recognize this, they might become even more hostile and cut you off or try to turn the situation against you. In that case, it’s best to remain calm, even if they become aggressive and unreasonable, and restate your decision firmly and leave.

Weigh getting back in touch

If you’ve cut ties, trust your instincts and refrain from reaching out or responding to attempts of contact. Granted, people can change; if you genuinely believe they’ve reformed and are sincere in their apology, then proceed with caution when talking to them again.

Put yourself first

Regardless of your decision, your mental health and wellbeing are valuable and come first. If a friend isn’t making any efforts to change or only does so temporarily, then you’re better off without them. Make sure you take care of yourself by:

  • Surrounding yourself with loved ones
  • Getting quality sleep, food, and exercise
  • Spending time on enjoyable activities
  • Engaging in healthy hobbies such as journaling, coloring, listening to music, walking, etc.
  • Consider seeing a therapist
Anna van Eekeren is a second-year Entertainment and Media Studies major at UGA with a minor in Film Studies. She is passionate about the environment, social justice, culture, and media. She enjoys reading, writing, playing video games, listening to music, swimming, traveling, and taking personality quizzes.
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