“I’m so excited for you,” your best friend tells you when you announce that you got a promotion at work. “But you’ve been so busy lately, isn’t this just going to be more work?” It sounds like a comment made in earnest; a genuine point of concern. Then again, the issue of more work didn’t really occur to you. You were just excited about the improved pay and opportunity for growth. Funny how that “friend” always finds the negative to each of your positives. This is the very nature of the toxic friendship: comments made that you initially think are innocent. Then, you stop, think, and realize those comments only made you feel badly about a situation. This is evidence of the kind of friendship that slowly chips away at your self esteem. It’s the very essence of the “frenemy,” that person in your life who you insist is “just honest, not malicious.” But if you constantly find yourself attempting to one-up the other person, always striving to be better and to sound better, it’s not healthy competition … it’s a problem. They can “drain you emotionally, financially, and mentally, and they’re not very good for you,” explains Jenn Berman, PhD, a California psychologist.
Signs & Symptoms: A Diagnosis
So how do you tell if that girl (or guy) who always answers the phone when you need her, who can make you laugh when you’re down, and who you think just offers the reality check you need when you need it is actually a toxic friend? There are some pretty common “toxic friendship” situations that you might not realize are sure-fire warning signs: 1. You talk all day via text or Gchat—sharing every little detail with one another. This is just part of the competition for you both. You share how busy you are, how much your boss loves that report you wrote, and how healthy your lunch was. Down to the most minute detail, your hope is that you prove you are somehow outdoing the other person. 2. You/your friend regularly offer unsolicited advice. This is a great way to undermine the other person. Just say, “You really should work out more,” or “You shouldn’t date people like that,” and you’re sure to make your friend feel, well, worse. 3. You don’t actually feel happy/sad for your friend: When he or she is successful, you just feel frustrated. You actually feel happiest when their date goes awry, or when they confess that they’re having a rough time living in the city they just moved to. Somehow their downfall is a win for you. Or, you sense that they are happy when you are going through a rough patch.
So Wait … Why Are We Friends?
That’s the million-dollar question. How do you even forge these toxic friendships, and why? They may actually come about as a result of your own sense of self worth. You may simply be teaching people to treat you a certain way, choosing friendships based on how you would like to treat yourself. According to Sophia A. Nelson, a journalist and self-help writer, it’s all about the law of attraction — the idea that like attracts like. While this doesn’t mean that a toxic friendship is your fault, it does mean that you may have inadvertently drawn negativity into your life because you exuded it. Perhaps you felt badly about yourself, and wanted someone else to articulate your own degrading thoughts. You may have sought out someone who wouldn’t respect your personal boundaries, your personal choices, or your method of resolving conflict because you were in a bad place in your life. But just because you were friends with this person at one stage in your life, doesn’t mean you need to remain their friend. Sure, maybe you went to the same high school or college. You’ve evolved since then (hopefully), and you certainly don’t need to be around someone whose negativity is a reflection of a long-passed, “bad” time in your life.
If salvaging a bad friendship is oh so crucial, you might be able to do so by limiting what you say to this negative person in your life. Don’t share “the bad” with them…that’s just fodder for them to criticize you and judge you. You may also want to limit your time with this toxic friend. Maybe you spend too many hours each day or each week together. Distance could make the heart grow fonder, or at least a little more respectful. Aside from this, candor is always a great option. According to author Florence Isaacs, who has written about forging true and toxic friendships alike, people are “afraid to communicate what’s wrong because they don’t want to alienate a friend.” The reality is, you are doing a greater disservice to yourself and the person if you don’t say anything. Expressing yourself on a subject lets off steam. More importantly, it allows the other person to apologize. If they don’t apologize, maybe that’s all you needed to know about them. You called them on their bullsh*t, they didn’t express remorse, and now you know that your “friend” has no awareness of, nor regret for their own behavior. When all the cards are on the table and they still can’t see a problem, you know there’s little opportunity for change.
What To Look For In a Real Friendship
We’ve all heard that it’s not about quantity, but quality. This applies to friendships. One of the first steps to moving away from toxic friendships is realizing that as we get older, we lose friends. It’s just a fact of life. We’ll make new ones, but old ones will dissolve and we will probably have fewer and fewer close friends as time goes on. That’s fine. You’ll also have less time and tolerance for bad behavior from people in your life. Take the little time you do have between work and family life, and spend it with people who matter. Friends should inspire you, and be honest with you in a way that is actually helpful and promotes improvement. They should celebrate your wins with you, without finding “the negative,” and they should be individuals who simply listen and pick you back up when something bad happens. You’re not in high school anymore, when mean girls and guys may have led us to forge friendships rooted in backstabbing and competition. These friendships likely came about due to typical teenage insecurity, a desire for validation from peers, and a belief that how many friends you have is what matters most. Now that you’re older and wiser, it can be hard to let go of the “I need more friends mentality,” but it’s crucial. No one has time for Regina George … or the Heathers.