How to Identify Toxic Friendships And Take Away Their Power

Not all friends are good for your mental health. But you can decide on your boundaries.

How to Identify Toxic Friendships And Take Away Their Power
Photo by Noémi Macavei-Katócz on Unsplash

Not all friends are good for your mental health. But you can decide on your boundaries.

When I moved to a new city, Niyati was my only friend. She helped me set up my place and provided company on evenings I’d otherwise have spent alone. On the surface, everything was great and I had a wonderful friend. But deep down, I felt depleted, as if I had to spend a lot of energy trying to stay happy while spending time with her.

She liked to talk a lot about herself, which was fine. But the moment I started sharing my story, she would cut me off, changing the topic as if my words weren’t important. She made casual remarks about my weight, saying I needed to start working out. I’m not really insecure about my looks, but having that said to me day after day made me second-guess my beliefs about myself and my body.

Was there something wrong with me? Or was my friend to blame?

A friendship is supposed to inspire you and push you to be better. If spending time with your friends leaves you feeling exhausted or suffocated, you might need to take a step back and reconsider if it might be toxic. According to Psychology Today, “The signs, at least initially, can be subtle. But if you’re beginning to feel diminished, depleted, used, criticized and worse when you’re with this person, it’s time to take a new look at the friendship.”

Identifying if Your Friendships are Toxic

Being friends with Niyati took such a toll on my emotional well-being because I ended up feeling inferior and invisible, and started doubting if I was a bad person. According to a post by Psychology Today, a toxic friendship can erode your sense of self and compromise your mental health.

So, how do you go about identifying if your friendships are toxic? Clinical psychologist, Susan Heitler, PhD and author Ann Smith lay out some signs that show whether your friendships are toxic:

  1. They make you feel bad for who you are. Toxic friends label your traits as your “flaws” and convince you into thinking there’s something wrong with you. Like Niyati made me think I wasn’t thin enough by constantly urging that I needed to wear looser clothes to hide my protruding belly.
  2. There’s an imbalance in caregiving. The friendship is always about them and what they want and rarely focussed on your needs. I found myself taking care of Niyati way too often, and when I was the one in need, she never came to my aid.
  3. They cannot be trusted with your secrets. A small slip-up here and there can be forgiven, but if your friends consistently disappoint you by blurting out your secrets in front of others, you might need to reconsider your feelings for them. I was so shocked when I found Niyati had shared all the details about my fears with other people. When I confronted her about this, she laughed it off as if it was no big deal.
  4. They bring out the worst in you. They influence you in negative ways and tell you it’s alright to continue nurturing your “bad” habits. Spending time with Niyati made my self-confidence and self-esteem take a hit.
  5. You feel drained after every interaction. Instead of feeling bolstered by your connection, you start feeling weakened. Things might get so bad; your body starts showing symptoms of stress too: anxiety, headaches, stomach upset, etc. I had to struggle hard to not let Niyati’s barbs affect me, but on more nights than I can count, I ended up crying myself to sleep.

How to Not Let a Toxic Friendship Affect You

If you realise you’re in a toxic friendship, there are two main options available. You can try talking to your friends first and make them see how it’s affecting you and damaging your relationship. If they’re willing to listen and try to understand, there’s a chance you can salvage the friendship.

The other choice is harder and a lot more unpleasant: ending the friendship.

1. Offer a second chance

Communication always helps. Use “I” statements and other productive communication methods to start a dialogue. Be open about how their behaviour makes you feel and consider setting boundaries for future interactions.

However, if they’re not willing to make an effort, you can’t force them to change. There might be temporary relief when they try, but the moment they start returning to their patterns of toxic behaviour, you’ll need to be careful about not letting yourself get hurt.

2. Draw better boundaries

In every relationship, you must draw clear boundaries. These can include what they can say and get away with, when you leave a social gathering, etc. You also need to be clear about the demands on your time and space your friends are not okay making. New York-based psychotherapist and psychoanalyst, F. Diane Barth, L.C.S.W., suggests the following steps to drawing better boundaries:

  1. Clarify what you want for yourself.
  2. Be realistic. Know what you want, but don’t expect your boundaries to change your friends’ behaviour right away.
  3. Be consistent and don’t send out mixed signals. If you slip up with boundaries from time to time, it’s essential to try to get back on track and stay there.
  4. Be respectful — of yourself and the other person.
  5. Take responsibility. Instead of always seeking ways to blame others, learn to set solid boundaries and be in charge of your own life.

3. Perform frequent detoxes

Time apart from the friendship can help you understand your feelings better and obtain some clarity on what can be done next. You can also introspect and visualise how your life looks without your friends in it.

Healthline suggests some quick and easy ways to practise self-care and enjoy your own company: try out some relaxing yoga poses, practice mindfulness, get outside, take a bath, make some soothing tea, get better sleep, or practise a hobby, like gardening, crafting, or baking.

4. Steer the conversation in your direction

Even after drawing boundaries and being clear with what you want, if your friends continue talking about things and people that made you feel bad about yourself, you should try to steer the conversation in the direction you want it to go. According to Inc. Magazine, here are some steps you can take to be in charge of what the conversations are about:

  1. Open with a joke. Tell an intelligent, clean joke that makes your friends smile. Now, you’ve instantly created a sympathetic connection that can sometimes sustain for an entire conversation.
  2. Start with an innocuous observation. Comment on something related to your intended topic of discussion. Then, gradually introduce a string of conversation that points toward your intended goal.
  3. Ask a question peripherally related to your intended topic. People participate in conversations best when asked specific questions. Rather than trying to open a conversation with your intended topic directly, ask a related question to ease your friends gently into the topic.

5. Draw the line

If none of these work, the only option left is to draw the line and cut your toxic friends out. This is easier said than done. You might find yourself oscillating between Can I make this work? and Should I just leave? It can be a hard decision, but you’re the only one with the power to make it.

When the interactions feel forced and drain you too much, understand that no matter how hard you try, there are some things you can’t just force. Maybe this friendship is one of them.

I gave my friend, Niyati, a lot of second chances. I struggled for months to try and make our friendship work. But there was something about her that brought out the worst in me. Even though we spent most of our time together laughing at jokes, I used to cry to sleep each night, racked by insecurities I never knew I had.

When I could handle the negativity no longer, I detached myself from Niyati. Yes, she’s still pretty much my only “friend” in the new city, but I’ve drawn clear boundaries. We don’t spend our evenings together anymore and our interactions are limited to text messages and the occasional trip we take together. Since a trip involves a lot of other things to engage our time, we barely get a chance to talk about personal issues, and that’s fine by me.

I love my friend with all my heart. But she wasn’t good for my mental health. I didn’t let her go. Rather, I took the last resort to protect myself and no, I’m not ashamed of what I did.

A toxic friendship can make you feel as if you need a lot of energy and willpower to stay happy. It can make you second-guess your decisions and force you into situations you don’t want to get into.

However, once you identify if a friendship is toxic, you can detach yourself and start taking care of yourself better. You can communicate with your friends clearly and give them a second chance. You can learn to set better boundaries, take frequent detoxes and steer the conversation in whichever direction you’re willing to take it.

If you have a toxic friend in your life, prioritise yourself and draw better boundaries before you’re sucked into the abyss of sadness and self-loathing.