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How to know if you’re in a toxic friendship (and how to get out of it)

by Sara Lindberg

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Have you ever felt drained—mentally and physically—after a night out with a friend? What if you experience this feeling in nearly every interaction with this person?

Being a constant sounding board, safe place, and cheerleader for a friend can be both exhausting and unhealthy. It can also make you wonder if the relationship has become one-sided. When a friendship revolves around the other person’s emotional needs, leaving you feeling stressed rather than supported, it might be time to reconsider if this friendship is worth keeping.

How to identify red flags

When you invest your time and energy into a toxic friend, naturally, it can have a negative impact. But how do you know if a friendship is toxic? Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D., author of “Toxic Friendships: Knowing the Rules and Dealing with Friends Who Break Them”, says there are certain factors that determine if a friendship may be in danger of dragging you down rather than keeping you afloat:

  • You realize a particular friend leaves you feeling worse after spending time together.
  • You find reasons to avoid spending time with a friend or wanting to cancel plans once they’ve been made.
  • Your friend only seems to like you or want to spend time with you when they need something from you.
  • Your friend tries to isolate you from other relationships in your life.
  • Your friend typically draws more resources from the “friendship bank” than they put in.
How to know if you’re in a toxic friendship and how to get out of it

What to do if your friendship is full of red flags

It’s human to want to feel needed. But when the scales tip overwhelmingly in favor of your friend’s wants and needs over your own priorities, then it might be helpful to express your concerns.

“It can be difficult for some of us to get up the courage to confront a relationship issue,” says Degges-White. It’s important to remember that friendships are relationships of choice. Degges-White says that for most of us, the idea of a “relationship of choice” implies an expectation of reciprocity in the relationship. If you feel like you’re being consistently shortchanged, remind yourself that it’s OK to share your feelings with your friend. But before you lay it all on the line, there are a few rules of communication to consider:

  • Let your friend know that you would like to discuss the relationship. To avoid springing this conversation on your friend, give them some advance notice.
  • Choose a time and place that is agreeable for both of you. If you choose a more public space, like a coffee shop, you have a better chance of keeping the conversation more genial, and less likely to result in strong emotional responses.
  • Use I-statements. It’s important to focus on how you are feeling and thinking in response to your friend’s behavior.
  • Work toward a compromise. Healthy relationships usually involve compromise and adjusting to others’ needs or wants. Friendships are no different: it takes two to make it work. Be willing to “give a little” in order to allow your friend to “get a little.”
  • If your friend doesn’t agree with your perspective, you may want to reconsider if your assessment is as objective as it should be. If you reach a stalemate, you can then decide if the friendship’s value is worth accepting its limitations.

How to exit a toxic friendship

If you’ve shared your concerns and the relationship is still causing you stress, then it might be time to remove this person from your inner circle. If you decide to go this route, try to be mindful of how you approach this difficult situation. Being kind and nonjudgmental to yourself can help you be honest about how you feel. Degges-White offers the following tips to help you let go with as little hassle as possible:

  • Try not to let a toxic relationship continue for too long. Delaying the inevitable can make addressing the problem more difficult.
  • Ghosting and being flaky are ineffectual methods for ending friendships. Hiding behind your job, family, or other commitments may only further complicate the matter.
  • Weigh your “break up” speech carefully—make it about you, not them. Your honesty can be a parting gift for your soon-to-be ex-friend that may actually benefit them in the long run.
  • Avoid collateral damage as much as possible. If other friends feel the need to take sides, approach them as soon as possible so that potentially tricky social situations can be prevented. And in the case of mutual friends, be prepared for potential causalities.

The people we choose to surround ourselves with determine how healthy our friendships are. Identifying, confronting, and ultimately saying goodbye to a toxic friend can be one of the most freeing and empowering things you will ever do.


Artwork by KYLE BECK

Sara Lindberg

Sara Lindberg is a freelance writer with over 20 years experience in education, counseling, and fitness. With a B.S. in Exercise Science and a M.Ed. in Counseling, her writing covers a mixture of topics including: health, wellness, fitness, education, and mental health.

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