We’ve all grown in and out of friendships over the course of our lives. Some may have ended amicably with natural distance, while others not so much. When I moved to a new state not long ago, I rented a room from someone who I thought would be a best friend for life. We did everything together, seemed to have the same values, and had so much fun. But then slowly, our relationship shifted as I started to realize the relationship might be toxic.
“At its core, a healthy friendship should be reciprocal, in which both people are able to get their needs met,” says Elisabeth Netherton, M.D., a psychiatrist with MindPath Care Centers. “What the needs are and how that particular friendship meets those needs will vary by person, by friendship, and likely with time as our lives change and friendships grow and evolve.” But overall, if you can’t trust this person, your boundaries with them are non-existent, and they offer little interest in your life, then the relationship is likely toxic.
My former roommate talked about her traumas but failed to express interest in my life. She said I could trust her to reveal my values, and then would use them to judge me. I constantly felt exhausted, gaslighted, and like I had to walk on eggshells whenever I was around her. This is when I finally recognized the relationship was toxic and chose to move out, but it’s not always so easy to see at first.
Signs That a Friendship Is Toxic
A toxic friend might show any one of these characteristics—or all of them.
- They don’t show interest in your life. Is your friend constantly talking about their life, goals, and conflicts? “A toxic friend will generally dominate all of the time, energy, and discussion that takes place,” says Shelley Sommerfeldt, Psy.D., clinical psychologist and relationship coach at Loving Roots Project. “They often do not provide support in return, or if they attempt to, it may feel insincere.”
- They lie or express dishonesty. Lying or dishonesty can be a sign of a toxic friendship, says Crystal Burwell, Ph.D., director of outpatient services at Newport Healthcare. “When someone lies or becomes dishonest with you, this can increase stress and worry in the friendship,” she says, adding that this makes it hard to regain your trust for the person in the future.
- They fail to show up for you. Can you count on this person to be there for you, for big or small things? For instance, “they might agree to meet you and often fail to show up or cancel at the last moment,” says Forrest Talley, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at Invictus Psychological Services.
- They trigger bad vibes. Being around a toxic friend may feel draining. “You may frequently feel sad, scared, frustrated, or angry, but may push these feelings away because you are accustomed to putting your friend’s needs first,” says Suraji Wagage, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder and director of Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness. If your overall feeling around the person is negative, then it is a sign the relationship is toxic, Dr. Netherton adds.
How to End a Toxic Friendship
If you’ve identified that a particular relationship is toxic, then it’s important to protect your mental health by either ending the friendship or setting a strong boundary with how you’ll allow this person to be in your life going forward. Ending a toxic friendship can be extremely difficult, uncomfortable, and painful, but it may be necessary to protect your emotional wellbeing.
My former roommate and I decided to completely sever ties and ended our friendship. Not only did I move out of the apartment, but we set additional boundaries of blocking social media accounts so we would not re-engage. This was the best situation for my mental health as well as hers, although every person’s experience will vary based on the context of their relationship. That said, there are a ton of ways you can go about ending a toxic friendship, whether you’re cutting ties or setting new boundaries. Here’s what experts suggest if you need a little help.
Prepare for the conversation
You may feel apprehensive about speaking to your friend about ending your friendship or setting new boundaries. For one thing, the conversation could be uncomfortable and emotional for the both of you. But, it is important to be clear about why you’re ending the friendship, so you’ll want to prepare ahead of time.
✔️ Talk to a trusted friend or professional
Finding a trusted friend or a mental health professional can help you become clear about your feelings and take actionable steps towards protecting your wellbeing. “Counselors can also help mediate a conversation between you and a toxic friend,” Hokemeyer says, if that would make you feel more comfortable.
✔️ Write down everything you want to say
It may be a good idea to jot down some pointers you want to discuss during your conversation so you don’t forget them. You may even want to practice revealing what you want to say alone or with a loved one before meeting your friend.
Be honest when you talk.
While you do not owe anyone an explanation about why you’re ending the friendship, it may help your friend to understand your boundaries better by expressing where you stand. Plus, it’s better in the long run to be honest upfront about your boundaries—and then stick to them, experts say.
✔️ Be clear about what you’ve decided
“The very best way to end these friendships is to directly tell the other person that you have given the matter some thought and that you wish to no longer be friends,” Talley says. This might include telling the other person the particular aspect of their behavior that doesn’t work for you, Talley says, hard as that may be. Sommerfeldt adds: “Be honest about how you’ve felt in the relationship and explain why you no longer want to be friends.”
✔️ Set a boundary that limits your time and contact with them
It’s important to set clear limits on your time and contact with the friend, Sommerfeldt says. If you’re completely cutting them out of your life, this could look like eliminating all forms of contact, blocking social media accounts and phone numbers, and avoiding places where you could run into each other. Another option is to set a boundary that limits your time or contact with them. “It’s OK to say no and to not always be available, and this is especially true in an unhealthy relationship,” Sommerfeldt says.
Netherton adds that you can also set boundaries around a particular problematic pattern. “You might consider giving feedback about what is distressing you,” Netherton says. For instance, “It hurt my feelings when you told the rest of our workgroup something I told to you in confidence. It is important for me and for our friendship that you not share private information with others.”
✔️ Avoid engaging if they’re failing to listen
“Your friend may respond with anger, rage, or sadness, especially if they are used to having you to fulfill their needs without complaint,” Wagege says. “If this happens, it does not mean you are doing something wrong.” Avoid engaging if they are failing to hear you out. Constantly defensiveness, name calling, or the inability to allow you to express your concerns are signs that you should stop engaging in the conversation and walk away. At this point, you said your piece and now must move forward with your new boundaries. If there’s anything left to say that you could not outline in person, you may even write a letter.
Take care of yourself afterwards
Recovering from a toxic friendship can be challenging. After I ended my toxic friendship, I felt extremely vulnerable and needed to rely on extra support from my loved ones. I also experienced waves of uncertainty if I made the right decision as I reflected on some of the good memories we shared, but ultimately, I knew it was the right decision to end the toxic friendship and move on with my life.
✔️ Don’t re-engage
Once your very clear boundaries have been set, resist re-engaging with the person and hold true to your boundaries, even though it might be tempting. “No longer reach out to the toxic friend. If they ask you to join them in doing something together, politely decline,” Talley says. You may even sever the ties of communication completely and choose to block their phone number or social media pages. Honor your boundaries and what you need in the context of your particular relationship and personal experience with this former friend.
✔️ Surround yourself with good friends
Relying on the support of my loved ones is what helped me get through the traumatic experience that was my former friendship. Consider leaning on your friends for support, and invest your time, energy, and emotional bandwidth in relationships that do meet your needs, Netheron says. “Healthy friendships are reciprocal: You each enrich the other person’s life and you come away from interactions feeling understood and even restored and revitalized,” Wagage adds. Those kinds of friends will make you feel loved, valued, and supported in whichever ways you need.
✔️ Put yourself first
Know that by honoring your own needs and emotional wellbeing, you made the right decision in ending a toxic friendship. So often we may put the needs of others before our own to avoid an awkward situation or making them upset, but you have to stay true to yourself. “Put yourself first and think about what is healthy for you and your life,” Sommerfeldt says. Continue to focus on the healthy relationships in your life, amp up your self-care, and honor what you need to be happy.
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