Friends are allowed to make mistakes—at least, that’s what you thought when your BFF forgot your birthday. But then she flaked on you again last week. She lied to you last month. And she’s just plain disappointed you so many times recently that you’ve lost count.
If you’re starting to feel like your “bestie” is no longer the best thing for you, chances are you’re in a toxic friendship. This kind of friendship has a tendency to sneak up on people because the signs are often subtle. But generally, a toxic friendship “emotionally harms you, rather than helping you,” says clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, PhD, author of The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With Your Friends and the “Baggage Check” column.
You can tell a friend is toxic when they “cause stress and sadness or anxiety,” she continues, and “doesn’t help you be who you want to be.” And if all that weren’t enough, a toxic friendship can also drain you and make you doubt yourself.
Especially during the ongoing pandemic, the toll such friendships take on you may be more exacerbated than ever. “COVID has created a pressure cooker of our lives; bringing out the best and worst in people, depending on perspective and experience. Friends with whom we thought we shared similar values may have demonstrated unexpected or even unpredictable behaviors, leaving us feeling distressed and unsettled about people we thought we knew,” says Erin Miers, PsyD, a psychologist and consultant for parenting website Mom Loves Best.
For example, there are kinds of toxic friends called guilt inducers, Mier explains. if your friend is a guilt inducer, they may have used the pandemic to take advantage of you. “[Guilt inducers] play victim in each situation.” Someone like this might do something like ask for money after being laid off a job, which in itself is fine, but if you fail to lend it to them, they might use guilt to make the other person feel like a bad friend, Miers says.
In general, being in a toxic friendship can do a real number on your mental health by depleting your energy, making you lash out on loved ones, and even lose sleep. “Toxic relationships put our bodies into high-stress mode. The stress of navigating unpredictable or negative situations creates an atmosphere of dread and discomfort,” Miers explains. So if you aren’t getting what you need from a friendship— companionship, enjoyment, and support—then it may just be time to leave it in the past.
While the definition of a toxic friendship is pretty clear, it’s not always easy to spot IRL. Don’t stress though—these signs will tell you if you’re dealing with a toxic friend:
1. You’re giving more than you’re getting.
If your friend always seems to need your help, but can’t return even the smallest favor, then chances are they’re toxic. You can tell when “there’s a big imbalance between what you’re giving and what you’re getting,” Bonior says. Case in point: that friend who always monopolizes the conversation with what’s going on in her life, but as soon as it’s time to talk about you, suddenly remembers that she just has to be somewhere.
Of course, Bonior doesn’t advise dumping a friend who’s not able to be there for you all the time, especially if they’re going through a tough time themselves. “It’s important that we understand that friendships be flexible,” she explains. “… But if the pattern is so ingrained that you always feel like you’re giving, giving, giving, and there’s no reciprocity over a long period of time—that’s a sign that it’s not gonna be very sustainable.”
2. You no longer trust them.
Friendships are built on trust. After all, if you can’t rely on your BFF, what’s the point of having one? So, Bonior says, “If you don’t trust that they have your best interests in mind… that’s often a sign that something’s not working.” For example, a toxic friend might say “they’ll pick you up at the airport and then back out at the last minute,” according to clinical psychologist Jill Squyres, Ph.D. Or, perhaps you have a pal who casually asks for work contacts and then takes advantage of your generosity and badgers your colleagues all the time.
Granted, sometimes people have to break promises for a legit reason, and that’s totally fair. But if you constantly feel let down by them, then it may be hard to build enough affection to keep that friendship going.
3. You dread checking your phone.
Technology has made it so easy to keep up with your friends—for better or, uh, worse. You’ll know it’s the second option “when the person calls or texts you [and] you feel a dread in the pit of your stomach instead of happiness,” says Squyres. A good friend shouldn’t make you freak out whenever your phone buzzes, so it’s probably time to hit that “Do Not Disturb” button.
4. You don’t enjoy spending time with them.
If you did a happy dance the last time they cancelled plans, it’s probably because you’re tired of putting in more work than the friendship is worth. “It feels more draining; it feels like a chore,” Bonior says. You also might notice “an increase in anxiety, headaches, or stomach disturbance when you’re with them,” according to clinical psychologist and author Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D.
This can extend even to the virtual space: Got a FaceTime or Zoom date with a certain buddy you keep putting off or are dreading? That could be a sign a specific friendship ain’t for you.
5. You don’t like yourself when you’re with them.
A toxic friend has a knack for spreading their toxicity to others, according to Bonior. “When you’re with that person, they bring out behaviors in you that aren’t your best,” she explains. Maybe you’re drinking too much, gossiping, or being passive-aggressive with them when you’re normally super-chill. Those are all signs of a toxic friendship, she says.
Or you might feel like you can’t be your realest self around them because you “consistently fear… how the other person will react” and “feel like you’re walking on eggshells” around them, says Lombardo. Basically, she adds, if “you feel lousy about yourself most of the time, then it may be toxic.”
6. You know they talk sh*t about you.
While “there’s a spectrum of talking about people behind their back,” according to Bodior, if your friendship is starting to resemble an episode of the Real Housewives, it’s probably toxic. The key, she says, is knowing if your friend is speaking out of genuine concern for your best interests or not.
“It’s one thing for some friends to be like, ‘You know, I really don’t like that guy Shelly’s dating. He seems like a jerk, and I’m concerned about it,” Bodior explains. “Once it launches into ‘Oh my god, Shelly always dates the dumbest guys,’ and [they’re] kind of laughing about it and making fun of her—that really veers into cruelty.”
7. You compete with them.
There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy competition between friends—emphasis on the little. This is especially true if you happen to be in the same field or have kids at the same time, Bonior notes. “But at the end of the day, you should still have good feelings toward your friend and want what’s best for them overall.” While it’s totally normal to feel jealous from time to time, if you feel like you’re in “a constant fight that you want to win over and over again,” that may not be the healthiest friendship sitch.
8. You don’t think they have good intentions.
Even the best of friends are nowhere near perfect (obvs), but they always have good intentions, and that makes a big difference. “Whenever we make mistakes in a friendship, that’s when the intention really matters,” Bonior notes. While a good friend might accidentally hurt you when her intentions were good, that’s way easier to forgive than when a toxic friend intentionally hurts you.
9. You can’t depend on their advice.
Life can be confusing AF. That’s why we need good friends to help figure it out. But when you ask for a friend’s advice and instantly regret it, that may mean they’re toxic. “They’re not gonna listen, and [they’re] not going to be terribly empathetic or compassionate,” says Squyres. “…If they do listen, it’s usually to give one-sided advice that makes them sound smart or more competent and successful than you.” Often, a toxic friend will insist on an expensive or impractical fix “where you feel like you have to agree” even though you know it’s not realistic.
10. You’re embarrassed by their behavior toward others.
One of the most common complaints Squyres hears about toxic friends is that they’re “rude to people you care about,” like your partner, your other friends, and even your kids. Or when you’re out together at a restaurant, “the person makes a lot of trouble, embarrasses you, demands things that you don’t think are reasonable, and sort of drags you along,” she adds. Another example of this? In a group chat with your friends, a toxic friend may make fun of a mutual acquaintance and egg on others to join in with the put-downs.
Even if they’re nice to you, at a certain point, their friendship isn’t worth the trouble it causes in your other relationships.
11. You make excuses for them.
When a friend is known for their bad behavior, they put you into the uncomfortable position of justifying their actions to others—and that’s toxic. This most often happens, Squyres says, when someone introduces a new friend to an old one. The new friend might later point out that the old friend ignored or interrupted her, prompting the main friend to say, “Oh, you just don’t really know her. She’s really very nice.” Sure, Jan…
12. You feel used.
One sign of a toxic friend, Lombardo says, is “manipulation or making you do things you don’t want to do.” Often, a friend can manipulate you into making an agreement that seems fair but really isn’t. According to Squyres, a toxic friend is “always insisting on splitting the check… when they spend a lot more” on food and drinks. You know it isn’t fair, but you go along with it to preserve the relationship.
13. You don’t know why you’re friends with them.
Once upon a time, you two were inseparable. But now, you feel like you’re on two different planets. While your priorities evolved and changed over the years, your friendship—not so much. “Just because you have a history with this person doesn’t mean you need to have a future together,” says Lombardo. “…You are not responsible for this person’s happiness, and you will not be able to change them (no matter how much you wish you could).”
In this situation, Miers stresses the importance of asking yourself why you’re still in this relationship. “Friendships should be uplifting and supportive,” she says, noting that longevity shouldn’t be the only reason to stay in a friendship. “This is especially true if [the relationship] is harmful to your mental health.”
14. They criticize you. all. the. time.
“In a toxic friendship, the person criticizes you, uses your failures against you, or makes you feel bad about yourself,” says Miers. “This isn’t just teasing in fun; this is the kind of talk that puts you down… in a way that makes you question yourself—that’s a problem.” If they constantly make fun of your style, home, or body in a way that leaves you swimming in self-doubt, she continues, they may be trying to run you down intentionally.
A true friend may not always tell you what you want to hear, but they won’t try to shame you. “A true friend speaks with respect,” adds Miers. Hear, hear.
15. They make you second guess yourself.
Instead of providing support, says Miers, toxic friends are all about gaslighting behaviors. “They lie or misrepresent information to create confusion and stress. They do this intentionally to mess you up and mess with your head,” she explains. For instance, they might make up a fake narrative to avoid responsibility for their actions, blame you for their shortcomings or mistakes, or create general chaos and stress in your life with no consideration for how their actions impact you.
Meanwhile, Miers points out, a real friend takes responsibility for their actions and apologizes (sincerely!) if they cause distress or stress.
So there’s no doubt about it: you’re friend is toxic. Now, what?
If you’re not sure whether you should end the friendship, Squyres suggests first talking to other people to get a “reality check” on the relationship. An outsider’s opinion can draw your attention to red flags you didn’t notice or have brushed under the rug.
“You could also try setting limits with this person,” Squyres adds. She did this herself with a friend who would always monopolize the conversation whenever they talked on the phone. Whenever that happened, she would just say, “I need to hang up now”—and she would actually do it.
Lombardo agrees and adds that once you “establish boundaries, stick with them.” If you have a friend who’s always calling you and begging you to bend over backward to help with her projects, tell her you can’t—every time.
When you’re just #overit, you can “slow fade” out of the friendship, says Bonior. “That’s the easiest, most comfortable way to extract yourself,” she explains. But, it “only works when both parties recognize what’s happening, and both parties take a step back naturally.”
If your toxic friend has no clue that they’re radioactive, they might push back harder, get offended, become accusatory, or just totally miss the hint, cautions Bonior. “If you have to be more direct, you have to be more direct,” she continues. “Nobody wants to do this— it’s totally awkward—but sometimes… you just have to be clear.” She recommends saying something neutral yet firm, such as: “Hey, I know you’ve noticed that I haven’t been able to spend as much time with you lately. To be honest, my life’s moving in a different direction. I value the friendship that we’ve had, but I just don’t see being able to spend as much time together.”
Best case scenario, they accept your decision. “But in a really toxic relationship, all bets are off,” says Bonior. “The person could start a huge argument, and when that’s the case, all you owe to that person is just be clear about what you’re doing. You can be respectful, but you gotta be firm.” To stay firm, she recommends going into this conversation with a clear sense of what you want to get out of it.
This will help you keep your emotions in check if it starts getting into a confrontation. When that happens, all you have to say is,”This discussion is upsetting to me. I’ve told you where I stand. I’m not going to be able to spend much time with you in the future. I am not going to be in touch.”
At that point, both Bonior and Squyres say you have the right to cut the toxic friend off. “You can’t have a constructive conversation with this person, so the ordinary rules of engagement no longer apply,” Squyres says. “You just need to exit as gracefully as you can and just realize that’s your answer.”