Identifying Toxic Friendships: 5 Questions and Next Steps

Often, we are taught from a young age how to recognize abusive romantic relationships. But friendships as vehicles for abuse almost never cross our cultural radar.

As a general rule, romantic relationships take social precedence over friendships. And because people assume that friends aren’t capable of abuse (since, supposedly, they lack the degree of intimacy and emotional access that a partner would have), toxic friendships often go unnoticed.

Friendships are perceived as life’s safety net, free of the responsibility and seriousness of relationships. For a friendship to be justifiably in question, a betrayal of epic soap opera proportions must occur.

Consequently, toxic friendships can become a hotbed of emotional and psychological microagressions because our desire to leave them is never validated or supported.

If friendships aren’t as legitimate as relationships, then any hypothetical trauma they could cause can’t possibly be genuine, right?

Voicing these concerns to others will often lead to patronizing tone policing in an effort to invalidate your feelings as irrational and overdramatic, which will only make you feel worse about having the audacity to feel crappy.

So what do you do?

If you find that your friends are a detriment to your mood and/or life outlook instead of a benefit, it might be time to take a step back and reevaluate whether it’s time to break up.

Things to Consider

1. Do You Have Bad Taste in Friends?

Sure, many of us claim, to validate our romantic woes, that we have bad taste in potential partners, but we don’t realize that this is equally applicable to who we choose as friends.
I’ll use myself as a brief example.

Hi, my name is Erin, and I’m a narcissist addict.

For some reason, narcissists are like friendship catnip to me. There’s something so seductive about them, even platonically. They’re so charismatic and self-assured, which are qualities that I frequently doubt within myself.

I still find myself drawn to similar people, even after numerous dysfunctional friendships that were disastrous to my self-esteem.

If you do have a bad type, it doesn’t mean that any toxic friendship you may find yourself in is automatically your fault. No one willingly enters a friendship expecting to be treated poorly.

However, identifying unhealthy patterns can provide insight on what’s driving you to pursue toxic friendships and enable you to surround yourself with more positive influences in the future.

2. Are You and Your Friend Equally Invested in Each Other?

This can take several forms, but it is most easily observable in everyday interactions.

How much of your average conversation is spent talking about you versus them?

Do they make an effort to actively ask questions about you, or are you fighting to get a word in edgewise?

Perhaps in keeping with the narcissist thing, I have had conversations where I could – and maybe should – have been substituted by a parrot with a five-word vocabulary.

The same thing goes for spending time together.

If they make a habit of flaking on you, but expect you to drop everything to hang out with them, it’s not a good match.

You’re their peer, not their entertainment.

3. Does Your Friend Constantly Compare the Two of You or Knowingly Bring Up Your Insecurities? 

Everyone has that one friend that has to go out of their way to subtly remind you that they’re better than you.

This could eventually turn into a perpetual monologue about their own awesomeness or informed flaws until it feels like every outing becomes a two-person Hunger Games for social dominance, regardless of whether or not you actually want to compete with them.

Insecurity is another big issue.

It’s bad enough if someone purposely brings up your insecurities to get under your skin, but it’s an entirely different league of cruelty when a “friend” pokes fun at your insecurities as a running gag in your relationship because they find them funny.

Fuck that noise.

Don’t subject yourself to a friendship that’s maintained by your supposed inferiority.

4. Does Your Friend Promote Negativity?

We all vent to our friends from time to time. That said, there’s a point where it becomes excessive.

There is also a difference between using a friend’s perspective to discuss or work out problems and forcing your friend to confirm or deny every unflattering opinion you’ve had about yourself since elementary school.

I have friends who will obsessively declare how ugly or fat they are over and over again. The expectation is that a good friend will immediately counter the self-deprecation with a compliment. The first friend denies it, the cycle starts over, and your entire conversation goes nowhere.

Or simple small talk, like “How was your day?” somehow goes straight to “Listen to this extensive laundry list of why my life sucks!” every single time. Talk about a buzzkill.

If they do this frequently, they’re not asking for your advice or your help or even cheering up. They’re just trying to find an excuse to continue feeling bad or spread that feeling to others.

By all means, if your friend is struggling with low self-esteem or anxiety about their appearance or their life or whatever else, please encourage them to seek professional help!

Remember that you’re not their psychologist, and they’re taking advantage of you if they expect you to feed into their negativity or carry their baggage.

5. How Does Your Friend Make You Feel?

This seems like a fairly simple question, but it’s amazing how much we dismiss our own emotional responses to mundane interactions, especially in friendships that we’ve had for a long time.

As with romantic relationships, we get comfortable and start sweeping things under the rug because we might not want to imagine what life would be like without that person.

Take note of your mood before hanging out with your friend, while hanging out with your friend, and after you leave.

If being around them has a negative impact on your emotions, that’s an obvious red flag – particularly if they cause you to doubt not only your friendship, but yourself.

True friends do not trigger self-deprecation.

Don’t ever let people, and especially not your friends, take away your right to enjoy being you. Anyone who makes you feel insignificant clearly doesn’t deserve you.

Friendship can be difficult, but it’s supposed to be fun! A friend worthy of your time will respect you just as much as you do them.

The Next Steps

How you deal with your toxic friendship is up to you.

If you feel things are at a breaking point, try having an honest discussion with your friend.

Of course, we’re all only human and you shouldn’t go in demanding a total personality overhaul. Just be frank about what’s bothering you.

It will be uncomfortable, but it’s better in the long run to bring these issues to their attention, and if they really want to keep you in their life, they’ll listen.

If they become defensive or try and make themselves seem like the victim, that’s a fairly good indicator that your instincts were right in wanting to move on.

Give them a little while to cool off, and if they don’t express their desire to make a change, slowly allow yourself to drift apart and fall out of contact.

If that’s not your style or you want formal closure, simply tell them that you don’t think you’re compatible as friends anymore.

I read a quote the other day that I found to be extremely relevant to the journey of friendship: “Don’t lose yourself trying to hold on to someone who doesn’t care about losing you.”

Friendship is all about supporting each other. Do you really want to spend all your energy giving a piggyback ride to an unwilling participant?

Hold on to someone who wants to hold you back.

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Erin Tatum is a Contributing Writer at Everyday Feminism. She’s a feminist, queer theory lover, and television enthusiast living in Pennsylvania. She is particularly interested in examining the representation of marginalized identities in media. In addition to Everyday Feminism, she’s also a weekly contributor to Bitch Flicks.  Follow her on Twitter @ErinTatum91 and read her articles here.