How to spot a toxic friendship
Not all friendships are #squadgoals… Here’s how to deal when you suspect a pal has turned toxic.
In an ideal world, you and your mates are as close-knit, supportive and downright cool as the cast of New Girl. Your bond is unshakeable, you understand each other perfectly and you never hurt each other’s feelings. If only all friendships were that simple, right? The unfortunate fact is, the same old dramas and complications from our high school days can crop up in the adult world too, and even the best of friendships can become what you might describe as ‘toxic’.
“‘Toxic friendship’ is not actually a psychological term, but people tend to use it when they feel that a friendship is harmful to their psychological health and wellbeing,” says WF’s resident psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson. “When this occurs, people often find themselves ruminating about the friendship, being preoccupied by negative aspects of the relationship, feeling repeatedly undermined by their friend, perpetually planning how to protect themselves from their friend, and generally feeling less rather than more supported, valued and cared for.”
That’s hardly the kind of experience we look for when we’re chilling with our pals, but no friendship is perfect – and identifying whether a friend is harmful and navigating the process of repairing a fractured relationship can be tricky, says Dr Johnson. “What’s toxic for one person may be absolutely fine for another,” she explains. “The real issue is knowing yourself, your sensitivities and your needs in friendships, and determining what is healthy or unhealthy for you.”
Despite what the internet might tell you, it can be difficult to pinpoint whether your pal really is kinda poisonous. What you might consider totally warped behaviour could just be your friend’s way of being, well, a friend. “People differ in the degree of closeness and distance they seek in friendships,” says Dr Johnson. “A closeness- seeker may find a distance-seeker rejecting and hurtful. A distance-seeker might find a closeness-seeker demanding and unreasonable. Neither is necessarily right or wrong. It’s just a matter of fit.”
However, some people treat their so-called friends in cruel and abusive ways, Dr Johnson adds. “This often takes the form of systematically sabotaging a friend’s success, self-worth or their other friendships and relationships,” she says. Key signs can include that you feel bad about yourself after spending time with that particular friend; you feel powerless to protest about her behaviour; she puts you down but claims she’s just joking; or her criticisms are dressed up as well-meaning advice.
But, before you label a mate toxic, it’s important to consider what you bring to the relationship – and that might mean facing some uncomfortable truths. “Take an honest look at yourself. Are you accidentally playing out habitual relationship patterns in your friendship, perhaps inadvertently hurting your friend in the process? Could you be perceiving malice where it isn’t intended? We all carry relationship baggage of one kind or another, and we all see everyone else’s far more clearly than our own,” says Dr Johnson. “Having taken a good, honest look at yourself, while striving to be your best self in the friendship, if you still feel psychologically mistreated or undermined, then the friendship may be toxic for you, at least right now.”
So what’s the best approach if you find yourself in murky friendship waters? If you can still remember the good times, it’s likely there’s a bond worth repairing. “While it can be a painful experience, tackling a toxic friendship can teach you important lessons about managing difficult people, and ultimately build your self-esteem,” says Emma Gleadhill, an educational speaker specialising in wellbeing.
As an adult, it can be easier than it was as a teen to walk away from a bad friendship. But, says Gleadhill, simply distancing yourself can be a missed opportunity. “Give the friend one or two examples of things she’s said or done and how they’ve made you feel,” she advises. If you’re still able to express your feelings to each other in a respectful, non-hostile way, this approach could pay off.
If things are less healthy between you, you might still be able to address the issue in a more low-key way, says Dr Johnson. “Sometimes a simple remark is, for instance, ‘That’s a bit harsh’ or ‘I don’t think I deserve that’,” she tips. “Another more indirect approach is to simply make it more difficult for your friend to mistreat you. You might decide, for example, not to make advance arrangements with a friend who repeatedly stands you up. Or you might think twice before being generous or giving in ways that have been exploited in the past.”
Destructive behaviour in a friendship can be hard to get your head around, but it’s important to note that it could be a sign that your mate is struggling with her own problems. “In a misguided effort to cope with their vulnerabilities people can inadvertently treat those closest to them in dysfunctional ways,” reveals Dr Johnson.
Remembering that all friendships have their ups and downs and finding compassion for your bud could end up making your bond stronger. “Just take care not to compromise your own rights and needs along the way,” Dr Johnson adds.
If you feel you’re still being mistreated despite your best efforts to create a more healthy dynamic, you might decide the only solution is a break-up. And while it can be tempting to stage a dramatic The Bachelor-style showdown, handling the situation with sensitivity and care is ultimately the best move for both of you.
“If you feel that the relationship is unworkable, you may decide to fade things out over time. Or you may decide to let your friend know in a kind, non-blaming way why you need to pull back,” says Dr Johnson. “The more you tried to improve things beforehand, the more prepared your friend will be for the fading of your bond, and the more understandable and less painful it will be for you both.”
Like any break-up, it could take time to heal, and it’s likely that your self-esteem will be a little bruised. In the aftermath? It’s the perfect time to reflect on and learn from the experience, and spend time with other friends who make you feel good. “Focus on giving people the chance to treat you well,” advises Dr Johnson. “Appreciate it when it happens and let it really sink in. That way you’ll be a good friend not only to others, but also to yourself.”
This story originally appeared in the November 2016 issue of Women’s Fitness.