All My Friends Are Toxic—Or Are They?

Do you think one of your friendships may be toxic? Here's everything you need to know about navigating toxic friendships.
two look away from each other during conflict or disagreement. Women have their backs on one another. Vector illustration

Not since Britney Spears’ 2004 hit song was released has the word “toxic” been as much a part of the modern vernacular as it is today. We commonly toss around this adjective to describe people we dislike or with whom we don’t gel. But just because we don’t vibe with a boss, a coworker, an ex, or a family member, does that justify labeling that person as a toxic individual? According to Courtney Morris, LPC associate and founder of Courtney Morris Counseling, probably not. “In my opinion, a person cannot be toxic, but a person’s behavior can be,” she says. “We are oversimplifying the word when we use it to describe a person as a whole.”

In other words, your friends might not be toxic, but your relationships with them might be.

Defining Toxic Friendships

Mature Woman Discussing Problems With Counselor

Not all friendships are built to last, but that doesn’t make them toxic. Sometimes people come into your life for a season based on mutual interests or connections. For example, that best friend you had in high school might not have lasted through the adult years simply because you moved or grew apart. The mom friends you had when your kids were little may vanish as your children grow and attend different schools. Your bond with a coworker might break if one of you leaves the company. These are not toxic friendships. Rather, they are situational friendships, often defined by age or stage of life. They simply run their course.

Toxic friendships are something else entirely, and they may be more challenging to define. Chances are, though, that you will know it in your gut when something is “off” about the relationship. Some signs of a toxic friendship include: 

  • You are constantly walking on eggshells around the other person
  • You hesitate to share a piece of good news
  • You feel like you are always in competition
  • You are the only one putting effort into maintaining the friendship.
  • You are constantly on the receiving end of disparaging remarks followed by “oh, I’m just kidding.” 

These are all signs that something bigger may be going on. “I think that one of the biggest red flags alerting us to toxic behaviors is when a friend continues to disrespect our boundaries,” says Morris. “Another is when they use our vulnerability against us to elevate themselves. At the end of the day, these toxic behaviors are typically rooted in the person’s insecurities.”

Addressing the Problem

Mature Asian lady with positive grey haired friend spend time together sitting at small table in street cafe on nice autumn day

According to Morris, relationships are like mirrors in that they reflect our own issues or behaviors back to us in many ways. “That is why our closest relationships can sometimes be the most difficult,” she explains. It can also make navigating a conversation around why the behavior is hurtful to you uncomfortable. That discomfort is why many people resort to “ghosting” the friend or sweeping the issues under the rug, but that isn’t the wisest course of action. Ignoring the problems simply allows resentment and hurt to fester, which can lead to even more issues down the road. Remember, there is a chance that your friend doesn’t realize that her behavior is hurtful to you or harmful to the friendship.

“It is important in these situations to clarify your boundaries and gain an understanding of how it feels in your body and mind when someone crosses them and what behavior that triggers in you,” advises Morris. “When we understand our role in this relationship dynamic, it can be much easier to address the issue with our friend.” For example, if you have a friend who’s always late, it might trigger feelings of unworthiness in you. One way to address that would be to say, “I look forward to spending time together, and I know we are both busy, but when you cancel or show up late, it makes me feel like you don’t respect my time.” Once your friend knows how the behavior makes you feel, the ball is in her court, and her response will tell you everything you need to know about the health of the friendship.

When to Walk Away from Toxic Friendships

By addressing a problem directly, you have made an effort to establish boundaries, as well as opened the door for an open, honest conversation. If nothing changes, however, then you have some choices to make.

“The hard reality is that once we see the behavior, we cannot unsee it,” cautions Morris. “Then the responsibility rests in our hands to put an end to the cycle by removing ourselves from the friendship in a capacity that is healthier for us.” One option is to remove yourself from the relationship altogether, although that can be tricky if you share a friend group. The second option is to create safe boundaries for yourself within the friendship. For example, if your friend is always “playfully” putting you down in front of others, perhaps you only engage with her one-on-one and avoid group settings. If she only calls you when she needs something, make yourself less available. She will either get the hint and change her behavior—or she won’t. But either way, you will not be subjected to it.

It’s Not You; It’s MeCheerful smiling African-American woman embracing her female friend during a dinner with family and friends.

To quote Taylor Swift, “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem it’s me.” Before you write off a friendship as toxic, remember that it takes two to tango. You might be bringing your own toxic behaviors to the table that attract these types of relationships, creating a vicious cycle. “There are many reasons a person might attract people with tendencies towards toxic behaviors in their lives,” says Morris. “It could be rooted in a tendency to people please or how relationships were modeled to us growing up.”

That’s where the inner work comes in, and it isn’t easy. Morris says it requires kindness and self-compassion to look at ourselves honestly. “These toxic behaviors tend to be rooted in insecurities, so when we are addressing this in another person, we are asking them to take a deep and honest look at themselves,” she says. “The most emotionally mature thing we can do when we expect this of another is to make sure we have first done it ourselves.”

All friendships have their ups and downs, and even the best of friends can get on each other’s nerves and need some space. True friendships are the ones that can survive those ebbs and flows through open, honest conversations and emerge stronger than ever. Those are the friendships to cherish.

Read More:

How to Have Difficult—But Necessary—Conversations

Go With Your Gut: Why You Should Listen to Your Intuition

The Meaning of Friendship: Small Circle, Big Support


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