We all like to think that the people we choose to spend our time with are our friends, and that they always have our best interests at heart. We love watching teen movies for the drama of the toxic friendships, thinking that our own will never be like that. Well, Mean Girls is actually more realistic than you might think. I’ve come across my fair share of Regina Georges, and ended numerous friendships because of toxic behaviour. I also work in a large secondary school, seeing hundreds of young people fall into dangerous patterns, which will certainly carry on into adulthood.
Clearly, this is something that could put our mental health at risk, so here is some advice for identifying and escaping your own toxic friendship.
What is a toxic friendship?
Friendships, like intimate relationships, can be delicate balancing acts. A strong friendship is one built on respect, support, and acceptance. You should enjoy spending time with your friends; you should want to spend time with them; and you should feel happy after you’ve been with them. Yes, friendships and relationships often have an element of give and take, so good friends might lend each other clothes, or the odd tenner here and there, or a lift to the airport, and always return the favour. Your friends are the people who you might ask to babysit your child, or check your cover letter for a new job, and you can trust that they will be honest, and respectful.
However, sometimes we find ourselves in a friendship that doesn’t balance well, that isn’t a 50/50 relationship. A toxic friendship often leaves people feeling hurt, alone, disrespected. We all know how toxic romantic relationships can negatively impact our mental health, but it’s exactly the same for a friendship. Like an abusive partner can leave you with trust issues or even PTSD for years, an abusive friend has the power to do the same.
Here are some behaviours that often surface within toxic friendships:
- Continual requests for money or materials without paying back
- Expectation for you to drop all plans for them
- Mean comments to you or behind your back
- Intentionally getting you involved in situations that could get you into trouble
- Always play the victim or blame you for their failures
How to identify a toxic friendship
Generally, a toxic friendship is most easily spotted by people on the outside. Have your parents or siblings made comments about the relationship, and aired some concerns? Perhaps your parents have gone so far as to say they don’t want you hanging around that person any more. Likewise, have you noticed acquaintances ‘stick up for you’ following something that the other person has said?
When I was training to teach, I had a friend in a different department, who in hindsight was a toxic friend. One afternoon, she came into my department’s office, and quite aggressively told me that I ‘looked rough’ and should put some make up on. The other members of my department looked on in horror as I actually went to my bag and began to apply another layer of make-up, while she smugly watched. In a matter of minutes, the head of department had told her to leave our office, and I listened to my colleagues tell me that she treated me poorly every time they saw us together. That was the first time I recognised that our relationship was toxic.
As time went on, I realised that she regularly made unpleasant comments towards me; shamed me because her relationship with her boyfriend was more successful than mine was with the guy I was seeing; talked about me behind my back.
If you don’t have the support of the people on the outside, look into yourself. Do you feel happy or miserable whenever you are with that person? Are you getting into risky situations that you wouldn’t have done before? Are you finding yourself second guessing your own beliefs? Chances are, this is a toxic friendship.
How to escape a toxic friendship
Breaking off a toxic friendship isn’t always easy. A broken friendship usually leaves at least one party feeling a strong sense of loss, and perhaps even guilt for the way in which it ended. However, there are ways that we can end toxic friendships without causing too much damage.
One thing you can do is try to make friends elsewhere, so you are not relying on the toxic friend for companionship. Join a new sports club, or gym, without informing your toxic friend. Creating opportunities for new friendships means that physically distancing becomes easier.
Another way to break off a toxic friendship is to start standing up to them when they do make unpleasant, negative comments. Understandably, you might not feel confident doing this in a private setting, but small rejections and brushing off meanness in front of others weakens the power of the toxic friend. As I said before, the likelihood is that everyone around you has noticed the toxicity of the situation, and will likely be on your side.
The last way is to physically distance, build up to a ‘ghosting’ scenario. Stop answering phone calls and messages instantly – build digital distance first to show them that you are not dependent on them. Then, start to say no to requests to meet in person. Use your family, or new hobby, or another group of friends as an excuse. Remember that the more we surround ourselves with people who do love and support us, the easier it will be to end such friendships.
So, the quicker we can identify and act on toxic friendships, the better our lives and mental health will be in the long term. Plus, if we have experiences of overcoming these friendships, we might be able to offer advice and support to others in the same situations in the future. I hope this advice has been useful, and please do share any other tips for escaping a toxic friendship you might have.