Some friendships might not have such a positive effect. Others might be downright toxic.
Toxic friendships can take different forms, but they generally drain you mentally and have a way of bringing you down instead of building you up.
Wondering how to recognize a toxic friendship? Not sure how to deal with the situation or how it might affect you? We’re here to help with 25 tips on recognizing and dealing with friends that cause more harm than happiness.
Everyone has good and bad days. On a bad day, kindness doesn’t always come easily, even with loved ones. So, how can you tell the difference between a truly toxic friend and someone who’s just having a bad day?
Bad days vs. bad vibes
A good friend having a bad day might snap at you or seem distant, but they’ll likely apologize once things settle down.
Toxic friends, on the other hand, tend to follow a pattern that never really dies down. They won’t show much regret or inclination to change, even when they realize they made you feel bad.
Here’s a look at some other things a toxic friend might do:
Put you down
Friends often joke with each other, and a little good-natured teasing doesn’t mean your friendship is toxic, especially if you’re laughing, too.
When a friend regularly demeans you and makes you feel miserable, whether they use more subtle negging tactics or outright insults, your friendship probably isn’t a healthy one.
You told a friend something in confidence, and the next day, your entire social circle knows the details.
Anyone can slip up and say things they shouldn’t. Toxic friends might seem to enjoy spreading secrets around, even when you ask them to keep personal information private.
Someone who consistently breaks your trust probably doesn’t care much about your feelings.
Apologize without sincerity
When you call them out on their behavior, they shrug off your distress or give a flippant, “Sorry.”
Instead of taking time to consider your perspective, they say, “I’m sorry you feel that way” or follow up their apology with a defensive “but.”
You know the one: “I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, but it was just a joke.“
These non-apologies suggest someone doesn’t really care how their actions affect you.
Make you feel nervous
Unpredictability alone doesn’t necessarily indicate someone is toxic, but when their reactions could cause harm or feel abusive, it’s wise to proceed with caution.
No one is entirely predictable, but it’s reasonable to expect someone you trust to mostly express their emotions in safe, healthy ways.
Maybe they get extremely irritated and shout at you over tiny things, like forgetting to turn off the TV or not returning a jacket they lent you. Then, the next minute they act as if nothing happened.
If you never know how they’ll react, you might have a hard time feeling comfortable around them.
Leave you unsettled
Spending time with a close friend should make you feel good, generally speaking. Maybe spending time with one particular friend leaves you uneasy or upset.
You might not even have a good explanation why, but when you leave them, you feel more relieved than disappointed, and you don’t look forward to spending time with them.
If you notice this unsettled feeling, consider examining your friendship for other signs that things aren’t quite right.
Compare you to other people
Have a friend who likes to point out the ways you don’t measure up to their other friends? Maybe your apartment is smaller than X’s apartment so it’s not as fun to hang out with you. Or dressing more like Y would make you cooler.
People have their own unique traits and differences, and a good friend will recognize this. They won’t compare you to others or imply you’re somehow less than another person. They definitely don’t use peer pressure to get you to do things you’d prefer not to do, either.
Put themselves front and center — always
Ever had a fair-weather friend? They drop in when things are going well or when they need something, but when you’re struggling, you can’t reach them at all.
Some friends can go on for an hour about their recent problems. When they finish venting, they offer a token, “And how are you?” before quickly turning the conversation back to themselves.
True friends don’t just take. They also offer empathy for your concerns, in circumstances good, bad, or anywhere in between.
Try to change you
Someone who tries to change things about you may not be an ideal friend.
A true friend understands that people have different personalities, and they’ll accept you for yourself. If you ask for guidance on something you’d like to change, they might provide support and encouragement — but they’ll probably wait for you to ask instead of telling you what you should do.
Say you struggle in social settings and want to get better at meeting new people. A good friend might suggest you come to their next game night so they can introduce you to a few other friends in a comfortable environment.
Toxic friendships can have a pretty significant impact on overall well-being— and not positively. Spending time with people who don’t care about your feelings can eventually affect your emotional and physical health.
If you notice any of the following signs after spending time with a friend, you may want to consider re-evaluating the friendship.
You feel lonely and isolated
Spending time with friends should increase your sense of connection.
A toxic friendship might leave you feeling ignored instead. You reach out to make plans, but you’re left out of group events and your messages go unanswered (unless, of course, they need something from you).
They don’t seem to want to spend time with you, and the friendship doesn’t fulfill you or feel like a friendship at all.
Your stress increases
Reduced stress is one key benefit of strong friendships. Seeing friends might not always make you feel 100 percent better, but you’ll probably notice some improvement.
A toxic friend, far from helping relieve stress, can add to it. They might say or do things that upset you when you spend time together, for example.
Even when you aren’t with them, you might spend a lot of time thinking back to your negative interactions, which can make you feel tense, irritable, even downright awful.
You don’t feel supported
True friends offer support when you need it. Sure, this support isn’t always tangible. At the very least, friendship typically involves listening with empathy and offering validation for distress and pain.
In a toxic friendship, you never feel that support or compassion. You feel minimized when they brush off your problems or ignored outright if they never respond to your messages or requests for help.
In short, they aren’t there for you when you need a friend most.
Your self-confidence and self-esteem take a hit
When someone continually puts you down and treats you poorly, you might start to accept this behavior and stop expecting anything better.
As you begin to believe their put-downs and start to doubt your own strengths and capabilities, your self-esteem may start to diminish.
You blame yourself for their behavior
Another outcome of manipulation? You start to think you’re in the wrong.
When they lash out at you, you might believe you deserve it. You might decide they never offer support because you ask for help too often. So you try making it up to them by jumping in whenever they need something.
You might even feel grateful they spend any time with you since, after all, they’ve pointed out so many of your flaws.
You often feel off-balance
People who behave in toxic ways often use manipulation to get what they want. Manipulation often leaves the impression that something isn’t quite right, though you can’t identify exactly what.
You might feel as if you never know the right thing to say or do. They might take subtle digs at you or mock you openly, leaving you uncertain whether they mean what they say.
Their reactions (or overreactions) can further unbalance you. Sometimes they laugh things off, sometimes they shout. Not knowing which will happen can make you so confused you aren’t sure how to proceed — except with extreme caution.
This uneasiness can bleed into other parts of your life, leaving you jumpy and easily upset.
Your other relationships suffer
One toxic friendship can slowly but steadily begin to poison other close relationships.
Once you start to doubt yourself, you might see yourself as a poor friend. Even if you don’t start doubting yourself, you might find it difficult to trust others. You might wonder if everyone sees you as flawed, boring, or unsupportive and begin avoiding people as a result.
This can keep you from seeking support from people who really do care, leaving you further isolated and alone.
You’ve realized you have a toxic friendship, but what comes next?
You have two main options. You might want to try talking to your friend first. It’s possible they don’t realize just how unpleasant their behavior is. If you want to salvage the friendship, this might be a good first choice. The other choice involves ending the friendship.
The tips below can help you take a safe, healthy route — whichever path you choose.
It’s OK to want to offer a second chance…
Maybe they weren’t always toxic or don’t understand how their actions affect you. Some people do need a little extra support here.
If they behave in self-centered ways without showing outright maliciousness, talking to them about the impact of their behavior could improve matters.
Use “I” statements and other productive communication methods to start a dialogue. Be open about how their behavior makes you feel and consider setting boundaries for future interactions.
For example: “I feel hurt when I hear negative comments about my hair or clothes. In the future, please don’t mock my style choices.”
…but this isn’t always the best idea
If the friendship doesn’t have any positive benefits for you, and your conversation with them hasn’t helped any, it may be time to end it. The same goes for friendships that cross over into abusive territory.
You can tell someone how their actions affect you, but you can’t make them change. They have to do this on their own, and not everyone is willing to make the effort.
They might promise to change and treat you better temporarily. But if they start belittling you again or returning to other patterns of toxic behavior, you’re better off moving on.
Take space for yourself
If you spend a lot of time wishing a friend would treat you better, why not take a break from them for a while and see what changes?
Time apart from the friendship can help you sort through your feelings and get clarity on your next steps. You can also see how your life looks without that person in it.
Maybe things improve significantly and you feel much better when you don’t have to worry about seeing them. If so, this is a strong reason to consider ending the friendship.
If you do want to try maintaining the friendship, boundaries are key.
Make it clear that you won’t accept certain behaviors, such as shouting, lying, gossiping, or flaking out on plans with no explanation.
You might consider explaining how these behaviors affect you and how you’ll respond.
For example: “I don’t like being put down, so if you keep making jokes at my expense, we can’t hang out.”
Practice ahead of time
Once you know you need to end the friendship, let them know.
Communicating this in person is often best. Choose a public place that also offers some privacy, like a park or other neutral location. If you don’t feel safe, giving them a call or writing a letter can also work. Just try to avoid ending a friendship by text message, if possible.
Before the discussion, write out what you want to say. Will you explain your reasons or simply say the friendship no longer works for you? Organizing your thoughts and practicing beforehand (by yourself or with someone you trust) can boost your confidence and help you stick with your decision.
While the level of detail you provide may depend on the circumstances or your history with that person, don’t leave them with any ambiguity about the status of your friendship.
They may not want to end the friendship, so they may cut you off or try turning the situation around to make you feel guilty. Try not to react, even if they react angrily or aggressively. Restate your decision calmly (but firmly) and leave.
Think carefully before getting back in touch
If you decide to cut off contact, trust your instincts and avoid reaching out or responding to attempts to contact you.
In time, you might think about the good times you shared and wonder if they’ve changed. Remember why you ended the friendship. Restarting it could make you just as miserable again, so it’s best to let some time pass before you consider picking it back up.
People can change, certainly, and if your friend reaches out with an apology that seems sincere, you might try rekindling the friendship. Just move slowly to protect yourself.
Open up to others
Getting trapped in a toxic friendship can make you feel embarrassed, confused, or distrustful of others. If you’ve distanced yourself from other friends, you might have a hard time connecting again.
You probably have some good friends who really do want to offer support. Reaching out to them and explaining the situation can help you regain those positive friendships, which can help you heal.
What if we have mutual friends?
If you and a toxic friend have mutual friends, you might worry how they’ll react. Don’t feel you have to give more details than you feel comfortable with. They may already have some awareness of the situation.
You might simply say, “I decided to end the friendship because it had a negative impact on my well-being,” or something along those lines.
Take care of yourself
Once you end a toxic friendship, take some time to focus on yourself.
You went through something painful and difficult, so it’s perfectly reasonable to need some time to heal.
Practice good self-care by:
Fill your life with positive things and reach out for support if you need it.
Ending a toxic friendship can be challenging, and it’s completely normal to need a little extra support at any part of the process. A therapist can help you begin exploring your feelings about the friendship and consider options for ending it or repairing it.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.