It’s never easy to recognise how our behaviours can affect others. As humans, we’re designed to be selfish; it’s part of our evolutionary survival. We have to think of ourselves, and so we often carry inflated egos and assume that people appreciate what we do.
But nothing can tear you down harder than a toxic friend. A toxic friend has the potential to do long-lasting damage to your confidence and identity, and we all have known at least one in our lives.
Almost everyone can name a toxic friend that they’ve experienced, which means that it’s likely that some of us have been viewed as one as well. You don’t just get ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people, ‘toxic’ and ‘non-toxic’. It depends on the situation, friend group and circumstances that you’re going through.
So it might be time to consider whether you’ve been that toxic friend, or if you’re still one today. There is always time to change, so consider the following behaviours and whether you may be guilty of them. Then check out the solution included, and wipe that toxicity out of our life and friendships!
Is your voice hoarse after every conversation? Do you notice your friend losing interest or trying to speak only to be silenced as you continue? Maybe you’ve realised that they know far more about you than you do of them. Well, if a conversation always ends up in your side of the ring, something isn’t right in this friendship.
Conversations are not like dancing; you don’t have a leader and a follower. Instead, you should be dipping between one another, taking turns and sharing the spotlight. There will be some conversations that are primarily focused on you, such as if something has just happened or you have something you need to discuss.
But if this is happening, time and time again, there’s an issue, and it might be you. You’re not that interesting, simply put, and they have things to share too. Don’t be the toxic friend who makes everything about you. Let them have their successes and failures; let them be in charge as well.
Start keeping an eye on your conversations, and consider how often they seem to ‘drift’ to you. Because here’s the gamechanger: they’re not drifting, you’re stealing them.
Of course, you should feel comfortable talking about yourself. But time should be equally balanced between both participants of a conversation. You should both get to discuss your highs and lows, without the other controlling the conversation.
If they have a success or failure, don’t try to relate it to yourself instantly. We often do this with pure intentions, we want to make them feel better about their mistake by mentioning our own, or we’ve gone through a similar feeling and want to show that we can relate. You don’t relate by mentioning your own experience, merely by using it in feeling sympathy. Instead, keep the focus on them. Ask questions, and actually listen. Wait until their conversation is done. Maybe they’ll ask if anything similar has happened to you, perhaps it will naturally slip in, but first wait to ensure they have had their time to share.
Jealousy is a natural emotion, and in every friendship, there will be times when you feel a little green. But this should be an exception rather than the rule, and this should never be at the cost of your friendship.
If your friend gets a raise and your first thought is that you deserve more money, or that you’re not happy for them, that’s a red light. If you’re incapable of celebrating the raise, or you find yourself dropping snarky comments, that’s another significant red light.
The difference between a good friend and a toxic one, is the strength and publicity of such envy. We all get a little jealous, but your friend should never be aware that you’re feeling this way. Because then they’ll feel guilty or assume they have to hide their successes, and that’s putting the blame on them.
You should both get to feel good and celebrate your wins, life is difficult, and we all need some highs. If you’re getting in the way of that for your friend, then it’s time to do some hard thinking.
Privately address your jealousy when it arises, rather than stifling so that it emerges as the sour drunk at the party. Work out why you’re jealous, why this makes you feel so insecure. Deal with these emotions and then put them in a box.
Next, be happy for your friend. Focus on why they deserve this, focus on your affection for them. You want them to be happy; otherwise, you wouldn’t be their friend, so bask in the glow with them.
Then rest happily knowing that when it’s your turn, that friend will be right there next to you, cheering for your win.
Look, many friendships involve some good-humoured teasing and jokes, and I’m not trying to take away from that. We all love to have a laugh with each other and bring up that night they got so drunk and made a fool of themselves.
But in this case, context is everything. You can have teasing, as long as it is reciprocal. If you’re the one always teasing them and they don’t seem to be enjoying it, then reality is that you’re actually bullying them. Too often, we associate bullying to the bleach smell of a high school, but bullying happens in workplaces, parenting groups and friendships.
If you make fun of them in front of other people, that’s toxic of you. That’s pulling them down in an unfamiliar setting and creating insecurities.
Also, consider why you’re teasing, what preceded the “just a joke”. Was it because they were feeling good about themselves, and this threatened you? Was it a defensive manoeuvre regarding something they said?
Making fun of someone with harmful intentions is a sign of a toxic friend. And if you’re making fun of them when they’re not even present? That’s also a huge warning sign.
Check in with your friends, ensure that a joke is always taken as just that. If you see their expression change or that they withdraw into themselves, approach this with them in private.
Consider why you just made fun of them. Did you feel insecure? If so, that’s no reason to take it out on someone else. Apologise and be honest, explain what happened.
Teach yourself the boundaries to humour within friendship through trial and error. A great way to recognise limits is to consider how you would feel if the tables were turned. But even with that, realise that everyone is different. If they’re offended and you wouldn’t be, that doesn’t take away from the fact that they are offended. Their feelings matter just as much as yours, we all have different pressure points, and you may be unconsciously pressing theirs.
I often feel like we’ve become a society that uses each other, we place people in our lives to fill needs and holes left by our childhood.
Your friends are not supporting characters for the film of your life. Your friends are not props to be engaged by certain moods. They’re not just there to party with you when you feel like it, or to listen to you when things are tough.
When you consider friends only in terms of what they give you, whether that is connections, knowledge or comfort, you have become a toxic friend. Don’t ‘booty call’ your friend when it suits you. They have emotions and a whole life of their own, they deserve the best and worst of you, and they deserve you to be there for them too.
Being used feels like crap. It makes you feel empty like you have nothing else to offer. You’re the one that they turn to when they need something, but they’re never there when you turn around.
You give what you get, whether that is karma or simply expectations. Provide your friends with unconditional love. Make it clear to them that you’re here when they need you, whether that’s for the good or bad, and then you can expect this in return.
If you notice that you’re not giving a friend enough back, focus on them, focus on changing this. Explore the depths of your friendship by engaging in activities together that you usually don’t. Make up for the lost time.
Or if you realise that you’ve packaged a friend into a box, then remove them from it and give them all the different parts of yourself. The person you always moan to or call if you’re stuck in a jam, invite them out for drinks, take a moment to celebrate a win of theirs.
There’s an anonymous quote I once saw that captures this perfectly:
“Things are meant to be used, people are meant to be loved. The main problem of the world is that we use people and love things.”
Humans are always growing and evolving, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. We hold this misconception that growth in identity only occurs in adolescence, but we actually continue to grow throughout our life. You become a toxic friend when you halt someone from such development.
It’s normal to like who you became friends with, as you became friends with them then for a reason. But they might change, things may happen, or new influences may shape them. And it isn’t your place to get in the way of this.
My father passing away was quite a reality check for me, as I had never realised just how short or unexpected life could be. It sharpened my priorities, and it allowed me to realise what was important to me. I was going to therapy for my BPD and trying to discover what parts of my identity were me, and which I had constructed in an attempt to keep people in my life.
I realised that I leaned towards introverted tendencies but had always masked myself as an extrovert. I preferred staying home to going out, and I didn’t want to be hungover and lose time that could be spent writing. I liked spending my nights reading or sitting with friends on a couch rather than going to bars.
My friends were surprised, as most of us had become close through such nightlife. A few believed that I had become ‘boring’ or that I was no longer ‘fun’ to be around. But my true friends adjusted to who I was, they spent time with me in settings that suited both of us, and went to bars with friends who enjoyed that. We found midway points, and we allowed the other to grow.
Stop telling them that they’re different now, that they’re changing too much. If they see to be detrimentally hurting themselves or others, you can naturally bring this up in a constructive manner. But if the issue is merely that the changes don’t suit your preferences or lifestyle, you need to check yourself.
You cannot expect the person you became friends with to remain that way forever. Give them the space to grow and adapt, give them the motivation to do so. Allow them to explore their identity whilst you take the room to explore yours.
Keep up with their changes; try to find the role you play in the new version of themselves. If you really can’t handle who they are and it bothers you so much, then perhaps limit the friendship. As it is unlikely they’ll go back to who they were, so all you’re doing is creating misery and tension.
I feel hypocritical writing this as someone with BPD, as a large part of my mental illness is my dependency on others for my self-worth and the extreme fear of abandonment that leads me to cling to them. But it is also for that exact point that I feel I must address this. I’ve been that toxic friend who was too needy and clingy, who used you to fill themselves rather than pouring back and forth.
I didn’t have malicious intentions, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t act poorly. Sometimes you’re a toxic friend for reasons out of your control, or without ever intending to be. You still need to recognise your actions and the consequences of them and work to improve.
If you demand all of someone’s attention, you’re a toxic friend if you don’t allow them to form other strong bonds and if such friendships immediately make you feel threatened. You’re a toxic friend if you try to distance your friend from others, such as their partner, and if you try to control everything. You might control how you see each other, when you do, what they’re permitted to do.
You’re a toxic friend if you emotionally manipulate them. They shouldn’t feel like they have to drop everything for you, or that they have to worry about you all the time. Friends care for one another and often will be willing to drop everything, but that should be a choice and not a regular occurrence.
Stop guilt-tripping your friends. If they have other friends and mention them, don’t drop little snide comments. Don’t play the pity game. Encourage these relationships, get to know these other friends if they want you to, and otherwise, respect the boundaries they are setting.
Don’t intentionally make your friends worry about you. Whether this is waiting to reply, leaving them on read or using loaded language. Look after yourself first, and allow them to do the same.
Don’t feel entitled to their time and energy. They must always choose to give this to you, just like you should to them. If they’re busy, respect that and find a compromise. If they’re overwhelmed at work or school and can’t reply to your messages, give them that space and don’t guilt-trip them.
By making sarcastic comments or complaining about how they don’t reach out, you only make them want to speak to you even less. Ensure that you’re someone they still want to be around, rather than forcing them to be with you.
If you really feel neglected or need more than they’re giving, then communicate this to them. Avoid highly emotive language or assumptions. Express how you feel but provide them with a chance to explain their side of things. Now more than ever, we have many things going on in our lives, and they shouldn’t have to feel guilty for needing space now and then.
A core part of a friendship is the ability to feel comfortable with someone. To be able to relax and truly be yourself. But you can’t do this if the other person is picking out your flaws and mistakes, if they read into everything and assume the worst.
If you make people scared to say or do something wrong, then you’ve become a toxic friend. You shouldn’t be seen as an authority figure by your friends, and you shouldn’t chastise them for every little thing that they do.
People deserve to make mistakes, to screw up or be less than perfect. Don’t judge something unless you’re confident you would do it differently.
If you consistently pick at them, then the result is that they’ll walk on eggshells around you. They’ll second guess themselves, rewrite a message to you several times to get it right and never be themselves. They won’t be the person that you initially became friends with.
This can be hard to spot, so if you think this could be the case, you need to stay vigilant and pick up any clues. Consider if you’re often correcting them or pointing out behaviours or comments you didn’t like.
Communication is essential, and you should feel able to share the things that bother you. You can often reach a point of looking for issues as if building a case against them or deflecting your insecurities. You should be able to share what bothers you, but if you’re doing this time and time again, either this isn’t someone you should be friends with, or you’re being hypercritical.
When something happens, first consider whether it actually bothers you or you merely think it should. Do you really care that they were late, or were you perfectly fine waiting with your book? Do you really feel left out that they didn’t invite you, or do you also recognise that this isn’t an event you would have enjoyed?
You don’t have to be bothered by something that would irritate others. Reach inside and actually consider whether you feel there is an issue. And always give someone the benefit of the doubt. Hear them out, ask for their reasons, and allow people to make mistakes. You’re certainly guilty of some too.
There are always two sides to a story, and as I said, many toxic friends don’t even realise that they’re one. But whether or not you intend to commit these behaviours, they have the effect of hurting others, namely your friends.
If you recognise yourself in any of these behaviours, even remotely, then this is your chance to change them. Be the best version of yourself, which involves being a good friend to others.
Treat people how you would want to be treated, but also recognise the differences across individuals. Just because you’re not offended by something doesn’t detract from the fact that they are. Just because you mean well by doing something, it doesn’t mean that the consequences match these good intentions.
And if you recognise these behaviours in your friend? Maybe send them this article and see if they spot it too!
Did I miss any vital toxic behaviours that you’ve seen exhibited by a ‘friend’?
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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