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Ask A Therapist: What are the Signs of a Toxic Friendship?

Relationships, Personal Growth, Boundaries, Ask a Therapist
8 min read
three friends sitting around a table looking at a phone

Dear therapist, What are the tell-tale signs of a toxic friendship, and how do you actually fix it?


Frame therapist, Laura Sgro, weighs in...

I want to start by recognizing how uncomfortable it can be to evaluate your friendships from this lens. I know folks who’ve expressed feeling guilty about examining their friendships because they have a long history with someone, or they don’t want to feel like they’re overreacting or causing problems. It’s normal to have these complicated feelings when we look inward at ourselves and our relationships, but it’s also important to remember that these feelings often come from a place of anxiety or the desire to please others.


It’s an act of self-love to ensure that your friendships are meeting your needs (and vice versa). In healthy friendships, both parties prioritize mutual respect, open communication, and positive, supportive shared experiences. In a toxic friendship, a skewed power dynamic can develop, where one person is trying to appease the other person or  “fix” things, while the other person is — intentionally or unintentionally — taking advantage. This is not a sustainable dynamic, and often leads to burnout and resentment.


I want to be clear that finding yourself in a toxic friendship doesn’t necessarily mean that either of you are toxic people. Like with any relationship, sometimes people just aren’t the right fit for one another. Your needs, values, and boundaries might not be compatible with theirs, and that’s okay. It’s also normal for some friendships to naturally drift apart over time. Other times, however, one person in the relationship is behaving in a way that would be indicative of toxic traits, and the best option to protect yourself might be stepping away from the relationship. More on that in a minute!    


So… what is a toxic friendship?


8 Signs That a Friendship Might be Unhealthy or Toxic

  • You like yourself less when you’re with them
  • You feel physically and/or emotionally drained after spending time with them
  • You feel like you can’t be yourself around this person or that they’re trying to change you
  • You can’t trust or rely on this person 
  • There’s a lot of negative energy (drama, gossiping, putting you or others down, etc.)
  • You feel pressured to do things or go back on your boundaries
  • It feels like they’re in competition with you — or other people in your life
  • You feel like you can’t talk to them about how you feel

If these signs feel relatable, you might be on one end of a toxic friendship. This can be a difficult reality to face, especially when the relationship is long-term or deeply rooted in shared experiences. I recommend exploring what you want out of this friendship, and what it means to “fix” it. Here are some questions to guide your reflection:


5 Questions to Reflect on Relationship Boundaries

  1. Does this friendship align with your values? 
  2. Would your quality of life increase or decrease if this friendship was no longer there?
  3. What types of boundaries, if any, need to be in place for this friendship to feel better or more fulfilling?
  4. Has this person historically shown themselves to be open to communication and/or feedback?
  5. Does “fixing” it involve mutual effort on both sides, or is that something where you would have to do most of the work?


Once you know what your goals are for this friendship, there are a few ways to move forward.


Explore and accept your feelings about the situation. Depending on how this reflection goes, you might find yourself navigating a lot of different feelings: anger, guilt, sadness, grief, frustration, relief. None of these feelings are wrong, but it can be difficult to sit with them, especially if some feel in conflict with others. I encourage you to notice the feelings that are coming up for you as you reflect on this friendship, and try to simply accept that they’re there. Try not to judge yourself for whatever feelings are coming up, and try not to fight the feelings that you wish would go away. Once we are able to accept that we feel the way we feel, without fighting the feelings and getting into a power struggle with ourselves, it becomes easier to make an informed decision about how you want to approach the friendship.


Have a conversation with them. Not all toxic friendships are beyond the point of saving if both parties are invested in putting in the work. If you feel like this friend may be receptive to an open and honest conversation, I encourage you to start there. This can give you important insight as to how motivated they are to work through whatever issues get brought up, or whether they become defensive or critical. When having difficult discussions, I encourage you to use “I” statements that focus on how you feel, rather than blaming them, which can activate their defense mechanisms (ex: “I feel uncomfortable when we spend a lot of time gossiping about other people. I would love it if we could spend more time doing things that make us both feel good”). It’s important to remember, however, that you cannot control their reaction to what you communicate, so try to go into the conversation with the intention of sharing your feelings, rather than expecting a certain response. 


Set firm boundaries — and enforce them. Although they can be difficult to communicate and enforce, boundaries are not mean or selfish — they actually enable us to have fulfilling relationships with others. If you’re feeling like this friendship is veering into toxic territory, or they were less than receptive to communication, I recommend setting firm boundaries with your friend. This could look like any number of things: limiting the amount of time you spend with them or the types of things you do together, not participating in gossiping or negative energy, saying no when they ask for things, declining activities or events you feel uncomfortable with, etc. Then, be sure to enforce the boundaries once they’re set. If your friend reacts angrily, or chooses not to respect your boundaries, that is an indication that they are unwilling or unable to meet your needs despite expecting you to meet theirs. Be firm and enforce the limits you’ve set. 


Remove yourself from the friendship entirely. We are all worthy and deserving of relationships that make us feel heard, understood, supported, and loved. If attempts at conversation or boundary-setting haven’t worked, or your friend has responded in a defensive or aggressive way, it may be time to stop investing your own time and energy into this relationship. Let your friend know your decision, allow yourself to grieve the loss of the friendship, and be proud that you’ve honored your own needs.


However you decide to navigate this friendship — and future friendships — remember that taking care of your emotional needs is a crucial component to having a successful relationship with anyone.


About the author: Laura Sgro, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist and EMDR practitioner based in Los Angeles, California. Laura specializes in working with perfectionists, people-pleasers, and anxious adults looking to work through codependency, attachment trauma, identity issues, and relational issues. Explore her Frame profile here to learn more about her approach and to schedule a free intro call. 

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