What Everyone Should Know About Toxic Friendships

No one teaches you this stuff in grade school!

Friends are some of the most influential people in our lives, especially as we enter adulthood.

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I’ve always thought that friends are the family you choose — especially as someone who moved across the country from my family at age 18. Many of us rely on our friends, and they become our support group as we navigate the challenges of growing up.

But some friendships can be…well, draining. Some can even be toxic. There’s a lot of focus when we’re growing up and in media on romantic relationships and what good and bad relationships look like — but what about good and bad friendships?

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Growing up, I never really learned what I should look for in a friendship, or even how to create healthy friendships. I’m from a small town, so I made my friends at age 7 and never really branched out. I have social anxiety, so I struggled a lot to make friends in college and afterward. Once I did, I was so grateful to have friends that I never questioned the quality of these friendships and their effect on my life. One of the biggest things I’ve learned in my twenties is that some people should just not be in your life, and that’s okay.

While I have my own experiences and insight from therapy, I also wanted to talk to an outside professional to help me create a list of things to know about unhealthy friendships. To get the lowdown, I spoke to Jordana Jacobs, a New York City–based clinical psychologist.

Inna Schynader / InnaLila.com. / Via jordanajacobsphd.com

Jacobs has worked with young adults and uses both cognitive behavioral therapy (my fellow therapy-goers know alllll about that) and a focus on an entire lifespan to look at someone’s relationship patterns, the unconscious, and defensive structures. You can check out her website here.

You can also check out the photographer for the above image, Inna Schynader, here!

Here are 16 things I think every young adult should know about unhealthy and healthy friendships!

1.

Friendships are really not that different from romantic relationships.

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Many of the same symptoms of toxicity apply, as do the markers of a good relationship. Friendships require work and compromise, but you should never feel like you are compromising who you are. Jacobs told BuzzFeed, “The biggest red flag in any toxic relationship, whether it be friendship or romantic, is that you feel like you have lost yourself.” You should feel that your friend truly sees you and naturally helps you to be better, instead of seeing who they want you to be or constantly trying to get you to change.

2.

Which means that there needs to be a balance.

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It’s natural for friends to lean on each other during hard times — but overall, both of you should feel that your needs are being met and you’re maintaining your independence. Sometimes you may need to drop everything to help a friend — but when this becomes constant, you might need to ask yourself if your friend would really do the same for you. What’s going on in your life is just as important as what’s going on in theirs, even if their situation might seem more serious. Jacobs says, “When you cater too much to another’s ‘needs,’ whether it be feeling like you are walking on eggshells so as to not upset them or spending copious amounts of emotional energy figuring out how to please them, you are sacrificing pieces of who you are for the sake of the relationship. This creates an unhealthy imbalance in the friendship, one that can be quite hard to recalibrate.”

3.

Speaking of hard times: They are not an excuse for your friend to treat you badly.

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We’ve all been there; we’ve all taken out our own hard times on others. I know I have. But when a friend refuses to apologize for their actions or tries to explain them away as the result of their mental state or current circumstances, that is a sign that they do not like taking responsibility, and their actions will likely continue. Friends having a hard time are absolutely deserving of support; but if they continue to lash out, you don’t have an obligation to forgive them and continue to put up with it. Jordana tell her patients, “There is no excuse for bad behavior.” Meanness, criticism, judgment, name-calling, etc., are all extraordinarily detrimental to relationships as well as to self-esteem. With that said, you and your friend have the absolute right to feel whatever it is you’re feeling, including some of those more difficult emotions, like rage or envy. Feeling is beyond your control. However, the way you choose to act is within your control, and there is no excuse for acting out or behaving badly.

4.

Do not let a friend consistently cause you to question your version of events.

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Along with explaining away outbursts or hurtful words as a result of hard times, friends may also insist that certain things didn’t happen or that they happened differently from how you remember, invalidating your feelings (this is called gaslighting, folks) and your ability to have a reaction. While plenty of arguments are misunderstandings, if it feels like things are always being reframed to be your fault or that you have to constantly defend your feelings, that could mean your friend cares more about winning the argument than addressing your hurt feelings.

5.

Your feelings are valid even when your friend doesn’t agree with or like them.

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You are allowed to be upset, hurt, offended, or even annoyed. I had an experience where one friend was extremely sensitive to any perceived rejection, however small or warranted, and it became the largest issue in our friendship. She did not want me to have a reaction to anything, reasoning that even if I was a little annoyed or frustrated or hurt, it wasn’t worth reacting and causing her immense pain and worry. In this way, her pain was prioritized above mine — I bought into and allowed this by trying to mute all of my reactions, struggling to hide all of my expressions and act extra friendly even when she was bothering or offending me.

6.

You should never feel solely responsible for your friend’s mental state and well-being.

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By muting my own reactions, I bought into the idea that I was responsible for my friend’s emotions and even mental state. As my friend continued to struggle, I began to feel an intense guilt and sense of responsibility, devoting all of my time and energy to her. This both alienated my other friends and made me resent her, something that she sensed, and only made her emotional state worse in a toxic cycle.

7.

Which brings me to one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in my twenties: You cannot change anyone else, and you cannot save them.

Brooke Greenberg / BuzzFeed

In the end, I did my friend far more harm than good. I allowed and enabled destructive actions and fed into an unhealthy cycle that hurt both of us. It’s not that people cannot change or become healthy; it’s that they have to want to. You cannot be the only one fighting for someone — it will not work and it will leave you empty. You have to take care of yourself first.

8.

You can only save yourself.

Brooke Greenberg / BuzzFeed

When you expend all of your energy on one person, you have little left to give to yourself or others. Jacobs says, “The primary thing I see is that being involved in a toxic friendship can deeply affect your relationships with other people. Most unhealthy friendships are quite enmeshed and emotionally preoccupying, meaning you have little to no time to invest in your connections with other people. This can be particularly dangerous because the more you feel cut off from other, perhaps more healthy relationships in your life, the more you rely on the toxic friendship to meet your attachment needs. This makes it all the harder to leave the unhealthy relationship.” You have a responsibility to yourself and your other friends to remain healthy and stable. If your friendship is keeping you from doing this, you might need to reassess. Put your own mask on first, people.

9.

You are not a bad person if you choose not to be friends with somebody.

Brooke Greenberg / BuzzFeed

I’ve always seen myself as really loyal, and it was super difficult to justify what I saw as abandoning a friend, especially when I felt like they needed me. But you do not have a responsibility to keep people in your life. By allowing problematic behavior and dynamics to continue, you’re probably doing more harm than good.

10.

It is important to take responsibility for your part in an unhealthy friendship rather than place all the blame on your friend.

Brooke Greenberg / BuzzFeed

It would be so easy to decide that you hate your friend and feel used or manipulated by them. But toxic relationships involve two people. Jacobs says, “Contrary to popular belief, if you blame all of the toxicity on one party, then it is likely you’ll end up feeling disempowered and out of control. It is important to take responsibility for your part in the unhealthy dynamic manifested — even if it’s just allowing it to continue — in order to ensure that you have enough control in order to walk away when you need to.” You teach people how to treat you. When you accept or encourage behavior, it continues.

11.

No one is “right.”

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This is a sentiment that’ll help if you decide to take a step back from a friend whom your other friends still see. It can be easy to want people to choose sides, or to need validation that you’re in the right. While one party can definitely inflict more harm than the other, assigning blame does not help in the healing process and will only make this friendship breakup more difficult. I know it’s hard not to be able to talk to your friends about what’s going on — that’s why it can be super helpful to talk to a therapist or even a family member, or a friend who has no relationship with your toxic friend.

12.

That being said, not all toxic friendships have to end in a friendship breakup.

Brooke Greenberg / BuzzFeed

The most important thing is that a) you’re both willing to work on it, and b) you set some hard boundaries. Jacobs says, “Some friendships can be salvaged, even after they become quite unhealthy, if both parties are willing and able to give each other time and space to heal. If possible, an open and mutual conversation about pain points in the relationship could aid in the healing process. If both parties end up feeling heard and can come to an agreement regarding how to redefine the relationship — i.e., with better boundaries and perhaps from a safer emotional distance — the relationship has hope.” Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need and deserve, or to say that someone else’s behavior is not okay. If they turn it around on you or expect you to fundamentally change who you are, that’s a good indication you may need to take a step back.

13.

Some things can’t be fixed and will not get better.

Brooke Greenberg / BuzzFeed

Everyone deserves boundaries and space. If your friend does not accept that or dismisses your needs, you might need to take a step back from this friendship or end it completely. Jacobs says, “However, if signs of emotional abuse or bullying are present — including but not limited to criticism, name-calling, contempt, stonewalling, dismissiveness, and a lack of personal responsibility — it would be advantageous to take a real step back and reevaluate whether you want this person in your life at all.” I knew my friendship was over when my boundaries were casually crossed with no apology or acknowledgment of wrongdoing, and I realized that my friend did not respect my needs or deem them valid in the face of hers.

14.

You are capable of ending a friendship, even if it feels impossible.

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Your other friends will understand or, at the very least, accept it. You should not feel the need to explain yourself to anyone; it’s perfectly acceptable to say that you were not compatible or had differing expectations of friendship. I know sometimes it can be hard to imagine life without your friend, or you might worry that your friend will not be able to handle losing you. If you are worried about the effect of ending a friendship or are dealing with intense guilt, Jacobs stresses seeking professional help. I’m in agreement: I don’t think I would’ve been able to end my friendship without the help of my therapist.

15.

“Closure” does not exist, and searching for it is futile.

Brooke Greenberg / BuzzFeed

You may never 100% understand what happened, and it’s natural to have doubts or regrets. But I would advise against reaching out to an old friend again or attempting to constantly sift through the relationship to figure out what went wrong. Answers, if they can even be found, often do not help, and reliving this trauma is not healthy for you. I know it won’t be easy, but you’ll need to be kind to yourself and give yourself time. As Jacobs says, “Friend breakups can be equally if not more painful than a breakup because while significant others come and go, you expect friends to stay in your life for the long haul.”

16.

But here’s the good news: There are amazing friends out there, and you will find them!

Brooke Greenberg / BuzzFeed

Friendships can turn bad or start out bad, but most friendships are wonderful sources of energy and happiness. It can be a breath of fresh air to go back into the world with new expectations for what you want out of a friendship, and finding friends who actually meet them will bring so much freedom and happiness to your life. It gets better — I promise.

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