13 Signs Of Toxic Friends + How To Know When To Cut Ties
Friendships are one of life's greatest treasures—or, the good ones are, at least. But in the case of toxic friends, these relationships can end up doing more harm than good. Here's how to spot toxic friends in your life and how to handle them.
What are toxic friends?
The term "toxic" gets thrown around a lot nowadays, but what does it actually mean?
As doctor of clinical psychiatry Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, previously wrote for mbg, "A toxic person is someone who regularly displays actions and behaviors that hurt others or otherwise negatively impact the lives of the people around them, and they're usually the main instigating factor of a toxic relationship."
With that in mind, toxic friends are those people who claim to be your friend yet do things that actively harm you or your well-being. As psychotherapist Annette Nuñez, Ph.D., LMFT, puts it, a toxic person in your life (whether a friend, significant other, or family member) will do the opposite of bringing out your best self, eliciting negative feelings, tension, and more.
"Of course, there's a difference between being toxic and acting toxic," Neo clarifies, explaining that for someone to be toxic, it's become ingrained in their personality, and they actively enjoy hurting others. Anyone, however, can have the capacity to act toxic sometimes, she adds.
And notably, a friend can be impacting you negatively even with the best of intentions, such as in the case of a codependent friendship. In other words, toxic friends are not always secretly horrible people, but their subtle behaviors and dynamics can still cause you harm.
13 signs of a toxic friend:
They don't respect your boundaries.
Good friends understand and respect boundaries, and according to Nuñez, a person who continually ignores the boundaries you set is likely toxic. While this can happen in the form of someone deliberately disrespecting and crossing your boundaries, therapist Anna Marchenko, LMHC, Ed.M., says a lack of boundaries is also often a feature of codependent friendships, wherein friends become so enmeshed that they lack appropriate separation and autonomy. "When boundaries have slipped, the intensity of one's connection to another can escalate to an unhealthy level for both individuals," she previously told mbg.
The friendship is one-sided.
Any relationship, including platonic ones, should have reciprocity, as in, an equal give and take. If it's not, and you're in a one-sided friendship, it is likely toxic. As Nuñez puts it, you may feel you're giving more of yourself to the friendship than they are. They take, take, take, and you get little in return, she explains, as you put a majority of the emotional labor into the friendship.
You feel drained by them.
One big thing to pay attention to if you think you're dealing with a toxic friend is how you feel around them, or how you feel after you've hung out with them. As Nuñez explains, you may feel emotionally drained, whether your mood drops, you feel anxious, or are just simply exhausted by their presence. Those are all signs that the friendship is impacting you in negative ways and may therefore be unhealthy (i.e., toxic) for you.
Everything is always "your fault."
Nuñez also notes that toxic people have a hard time holding themselves accountable or taking the blame for their wrongdoings. In this case, "They may place blame on you, like everything is always your fault, and you're to blame for everything in the relationship," she adds.
They guilt trip you.
A toxic friend may also lean on guilt tripping, whether they're blaming you for something, and/or disrespecting your boundaries. Imagine a friend trying to guilt trip you into doing something with them, saying things like, "You never want to see me anymore," for example. "So they blame you and make themselves the victim—and you feel guilty because of it," Nuñez explains.
They're not trustworthy.
Trust is a huge component to any healthy relationship, and if you know you can't trust your "friend," that's probably because you know to some extent that there's something toxic about them or the friendship. "Loyalty is big, so not being able to trust them—whether they backstab you or can't keep your secrets—you know you can't confide in them, and that's toxic," Nuñez says.
You've outgrown them.
Sometimes we outgrow people, simple as that. Even if your friend isn't explicitly doing "toxic" things, Nuñez explains, the very fact that you've outgrown each other can lend itself to repeating old patterns or keeping yourself small. "As we get older, our dynamics and what we value in friendships may change. It's OK to not feel bad for having a long-term friend and not necessarily being that close with them," she adds.
One or both of you enable the other.
Enabling can be a super-subtle sign of a toxic friendship. As couples' therapist Alicia Muñoz, LPC, previously explained to mbg, "enabling" is when you give someone the power or means to do something. For example, you may want to quit drinking, but this friend is always insisting you come out for happy hour with them. When someone enables you, it tends to "reinforce the powerless position" you're already in, Muñoz notes.
We all know to avoid manipulative people, but manipulation can be very subtle. Guilt-tripping, passive-aggressive behavior, and gaslighting are all forms of manipulation that can be hard to spot. As therapist and relationship expert Ann Barham, MFT, previously told mbg, manipulation encompasses any behavior when someone is "trying to trick you into behaving a certain way, whether it's giving you something, doing something for you—but without coming straight out and saying it, and instead trying to get you to do it without you knowing it."
They bully you.
This one might seem obvious, but bullying can be discreet, too. Bullying is emotional abuse, Nuñez notes, whether they gossip about you behind your back, yell at or demean you, throw you under the bus in front of other people, and so on. "Anything that makes you feel less than," is a sign of a toxic friend, Nuñez says.
They never seem happy for you.
A good friend will celebrate your wins with you, not feel jealous, bitter, or resentful. "With fake friends [...] there's this underlying jealousy where they don't want you to do too well," Nuñez previously told mbg. A toxic friend may even go so far as to sabotage your success because of this sense of competition and jealousy, whether they're constantly trying to undermine or embarrass you or telling you not to do things that are good for you.
They don't empathize with you, either.
Similarly, a toxic friend isn't going to be great at holding space for your difficult emotions either. Whether they display toxic positivity or seem to go cold whenever you're upset, Nuñez says these kinds of friends will not be concerned when you're going through a hard time. They may try to "fast forward" through those conversations to get back to having fun, i.e., the "fair-weather" type of friend.
They don't actually accept who you are.
Last but not least, a toxic friend will not truly see you for who you are, and even if they do understand you, they don't accept you. This may look like outright degradation or diminishment, but it can also look like constantly trying to fix you. As Neo previously wrote for mbg, "One of the most mortifying situations is when someone well-intentioned gathers others to shame you for a flaw, thinking this will whip you into action. Other people aren't our projects, and just because we can solve a problem doesn't mean we should."
What causes a friend to be toxic?
There are innumerable reasons a person could wind up being toxic, but it almost always comes down to how someone has internalized the experiences they've had in their life thus far, and namely, their early environment.
As Neo previously wrote for mbg, "We're fundamentally copycats—we learn behaviors by modeling others, and sometimes we have the wrong role models. At other times, we run into a bad spate in life, get jaded, and see the world through a pessimistic lens. And so our toxic behaviors grow."
Whether it's a defensive mechanism for self-preservation, an unhealthy preoccupation with competition and success, or this person simply lacks healthy examples of friendship, people will lean on the way they've always done things, and that includes toxic behavior.
"If we grew up in a household where we saw unhealthy relationships, or around our friend group or in our community we saw unhealthy relationships as models, it's easier to think that it's normal, acceptable, or just the way things are," relationship coach Shula Melamed, M.A., MPH, previously told mbg, adding, "It can also come from having lower self-esteem or a lower sense of self-worth and not understanding what a healthy relationship looks like."
How toxic friends affect you.
Toxic friends can impact us in a variety of ways, namely making us feel less than, lonely, and even betrayed. As Nuñez tells mbg, simply being around a toxic friend can leave you feeling emotionally drained, and over time, this may impact your sense of self-worth and/or self-esteem.
And as therapist Alyssa "Lia" Mancao, LCSW, previously wrote for mbg, "Staying friends with someone only because there is history or because you feel guilty for leaving them is a recipe for burnout and resentment," adding that staying in these dynamics can "prevent you from pursuing your dreams [...] limit you from furthering yourself in life, [or you] find yourself falling back into old behaviors and patterns that you may have been trying to shed."
What's important to remember, however, is that the onus is on us to determine what we're willing to put up with. If you believe your friend is truly toxic, here's how to deal with it.
How to deal with toxic friends.
The main question to ask yourself when dealing with a toxic friend is whether you want to try to amend the friendship or simply let it go. According to Nuñez, you can try opening up a conversation, but if this person is truly toxic, there's a chance you're not going to get far.
If you do manage to set boundaries that are then honored and respected, that's a good sign that this person can take what you say to heart and make some necessary adjustments. If not, though, that would indicate it might be best to walk away.
"Maybe your friendship turns into reaching out on the holidays, wishing them happy birthday, and you become acquaintances more than friends," Nuñez says, adding that this is totally OK.
As licensed marriage and family therapist Tiana Leeds, M.A., LMFT, previously told mbg, sometimes an outright friendship breakup isn't necessary. "Ending the friendship may be as simple as no longer initiating contact or plans as frequently and allowing the connection to naturally fade," noting that it can be helpful to instead focus on investing your time in friendships that feel fulfilling and mutual.
"I'm a big believer in talking things out and just not ghosting people, but if you feel that the friend is going to really take it hard, you can let the friendship go naturally. Just saying no or, 'I don't have time or that' because then it will naturally phase itself out," Nuñez adds.
Long story short? Toxic people may not take criticism or conflict well. You can try to amend the relationship if you think it's salvageable, but if your "friend" is displaying a number of the aforementioned red flags, it may be in your best interest to simply distance yourself and allow the friendship to naturally fade.
How do toxic friends behave?
Toxic friends will make you feel bad, small, stressed, or uncared for in one way or another, whether it's through talking about you behind your back, subtle manipulation, codependence, or disregarding your feelings and experiences.
How should you deal with a toxic friend?
If you think the friendship can be salvaged, you can try to open up an honest conversation, as well as set (and maintain!) boundaries with this person. If that doesn't work, it's likely in your best interest to distance yourself.
What does a toxic friend group look like?
In a group scenario, toxic friends can have an unhealthy sense of competition or jealousy among one another. The group may only stay together for status, convenience, or some other gain, with no real emotional connection. Friends in the group may put each other down, engage in power struggles, and not genuinely support others in their success, happiness, or growth.
We all deserve to be surrounded by healthy, supportive friends who have our best interests at heart and help us to feel like the best versions of ourselves—anything less is only going to bring us down. If you think your friend is toxic and find that keeping your distance is necessary for your own well-being, then keeping your distance is exactly what you should do.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.