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Toxic friendships: What are they?

It was during lockdown we needed friends more than ever; a shoulder (or phone) to cry on, a first port of call for any problem, question, gossip, or even just someone to recognise our existence and certify our sanity. It’s over the last few years that those without strong friendships have felt extremely lonely.

Contrastingly, others may have found themselves enjoying a soothing break from their irritating acquaintances and making the most of using Covid-19 to excuse themselves from seeing even their nearest and dearest. Maybe there’s a person in your life who has been on your side every day since school, a friend who is practically your parent’s second child. Perhaps you have travelled the world and gone on countless adventures with them. But despite the history you’ve shared, you can’t help but notice the sad reality. They are distracted, self-absorbed and they show no interest in your life: the friendship has gone stale, toxic.

Florence Isaacs, the author of Toxic Friends/True Friends, defines a toxic friendship as one with no balance. She speaks of the toxic friend as one who is overly demanding, self-obsessed, and stress causing. (1)

I am most certain that her simple and relatable definition rings a bell or two for many of us. It is, however, most likely to be one which we have not pondered to a great extent. Is that not remarkable, though, while society never ceases to warn of toxic romantic relationships through music and the media? Why are we not reminded to be aware of toxic friendships? Because they are harder to identify, perhaps? That may be, but you probably have a certain individual in mind already, do you not?

But you are doubting yourself, asking yourself how that person could possibly be a toxic friend. They give you gifts, are always reaching out to make plans, and never fail to tell you that they love you. Ask yourself this, though: Do they listen, or just talk? Do they do, or do they just say?

Ricky Derisz, author of Mindsets for Mindfulness, has published a list of six major clues that your friend could be toxic towards you. These include behaviours such as: passive aggression, extreme jealousy, guilt tripping, pressurising, creating a sense of discomfort, and draining your energy. (2)

However, he is keen to point out that “toxicity” is down to a dynamic, not an individual. To address this, he recommends reassessing your role in the friendship, and more specifically, your boundaries or lack thereof, intuition you may be ignoring, and the ways in which you could be overexerting yourself. (2)

While you cannot change the actions of others, you can always grow as an individual and improve your own behaviour and approach when dealing with toxic individuals. Derisz writes, “The best time to set boundaries is at the beginning of a relationship, the second best is now.” (2) Grab that difficult friend for a chat and tell them what you aren’t happy to tolerate. Moving forward, in future friendships, try to set boundaries before any toxic behaviour has time to develop.

Equally, do not undervalue the relevance of love languages. People require, and show, love and affection in different ways. Becoming in touch with your need for words of affirmation and quality time will enable you to look for relationships that can fulfil this. Additionally, you will tune into the areas in which you and the person on the other end of the toxic friendship may differ; giving gifts and carrying out acts of service could be non-negotiable for them, but mean nothing to you, for example.

Derisz identifies ‘three routes to resolution: I change, the behaviour changes, or the relationship changes’, and highlights that while the concept of loyalty is important, a relationship that feels like an obligation cannot be healthy. (2) Take some time to mull it over and decide which change to the friendship could be the right one.

You may see some of the previously mentioned habits in your own behaviour. You might come to realise you have at times filled the role of ‘toxic friend’ in group situations, simply by being the most excitable, assertive and talkative, which, due to group dynamics, has been negatively received by others. In the same way your friends may be easy-going and introverted, you may be highly motivated, and forthright. This dynamic between friends can sometimes become toxic.

No friendships are black and white. Society works with packs and leaders. So, if we are to assume that each friendship will have a leader and we accept their leadership skills and position in the hierarchy, we can also safely presume that they can’t all be villainous demons.

Toxic friendships are tricky: every individual is unique, and every situation is different. If you feel that a friendship of yours is toxic, try asking yourself these questions. Does this person make me feel happy? Do they lift me up, boost my mood? Do I look forward to seeing them? Remember that you are an individual, unbound. If a person is unable to show you the kindness you deserve, be kind to yourself: set yourself free. If you feel you have ever filled the role of toxic friend in a group, empathy is the key word to remember. Consider the views of others, and by doing so you are wholeheartedly committing to separating yourself from toxicity.

1. M. Liew., 2017. 10 Signs of a Toxic Friend Who Is Secretly Poisoning Your Life [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed: 23 June 2022].

2. R. Derisz., 2021. Toxic Friends: 6 Signs of a Toxic Friendship, and When To Call It Quits [online]. Goalcast. Available at: <> [Accessed: 23 June 2022].


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