How to Tell When Friendships Turn Toxic and What to Do About It

Ever heard the term ‘energy vampire’ before?
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Ever heard the term ‘energy vampire’ before?

If you’re lucky, you have several close friends. Some might bring an electric sense of wonder into your life; others might keep you grounded with their snarky humor and resourceful advice. But what about those friends who leave you feeling like you just hit a wall—a wall underneath a stormy cloud of misery and confusion, no less?

Sure, no friendship is perfect. Day-to-day, it’s never going to be an equal exchange of give-and-take. And it’s vital to be supportive for those loved ones who are hurting and struggling. But being there for a friend who’s having a hard time is very different from allowing a negative friend to envelop you into their world of negativity. 

"Negativity can come in all kinds of forms," says Sarah Argenal, founder of Working Parent Source, certified professional and life coach, as well as career coach that often deals with clients in toxic relationships. "Manipulation, a 'Debbie Downer,' or even being a classic 'one-upper,'" all have negative influences on your friendship. When negativity has become the relationship’s defining characteristic, it can become a toxic friendship, which means it’s time to analyze where the relationship is going as well as what the heck happened.

Do You Have Toxic Friends?

“Toxic behaviors are deal breakers,” shares Argenal. “Ultimately it all boils down to respect—and toxic friends are those who don’t respect healthy boundaries.” Toxic friendships don’t just affect you, they can affect your other relationships, your job, and your own sanity. You may not want to believe it, but you owe it to yourself to determine whether this person is helping you through life or hurting you. Argenal suggests you ask yourself these questions:

  • Are they consistently putting you down, or making you feel bad about yourself?
  • Do they often criticize your behavior without reason?
  • Is their character questionable? For instance, do they have a hard time being honest? Do they fail to stick to agreements? Do they see the worst in others?
  • Are they manipulative? (Do you find yourself wavering on your own beliefs or wishes around them?)
  • Do they not respect other people’s time, money, or energy?
  • If you give an inch, do they take a mile?

If you can answer "yes" to any one of these, you should be concerned. Keep in mind, toxicity largely depends on your temperament and the way you receive negativity as well. Some high-energy, confident folks might just shrug when they talk to their Debbie Downer friend. But someone with a different temperament might be more strongly influenced by a negative personality. You have to assess where you are and figure out how to change the situation before the situation changes you. Here's how.

01. Face Your Fears About Confronting Your Friend

Long before a friendship turns into a toxic wasteland of a relationship, there are little signs. A comment that wasn’t exactly kind; or a criticism that didn’t exactly have a point. But considering that you’re 50% of the relationship—and an adult—you have incredible power as to whether or not these little signs continue. However, implementing changes can be tricky, especially if you’ve made people-pleasing a lifelong habit, or if you’ve let the negativity simmer, not wanting to rock the boat.

Argenal shares that when she looked at her own relationships with "energy vampires," she realized that it began with her own poor discernment. She had to decide first to be honest with herself and then with other people. "Sure, I was a victim," she says, "but I was only a victim because I let people take advantage of my giving nature."

Instead of assuming that everyone around her was actively taking advantage of her goodwill, she took a step back and realized that she never really gave them any boundaries to begin with.

Whether we’re cognizant of it or not, all relationships have boundaries. And toxic relationships often cross them. “It depends on your personal threshold, but negativity in a relationship can build, and if boundaries are not addressed at some point or another, the relationship can become toxic,” says Argenal.

While establishing boundaries might not necessarily solve another person’s general negativity—that is their own personal struggle—it could influence how that negativity affects you and your mental wellbeing.

If you find yourself afraid to stand up to friends, realize that doing such is imperative for the friendship to last. “It will be awkward at first, but it gets better with practice,” Argenal shares.

Cicely Wilson, CPC, ELI-MP, who often works with clients who are working on inter-personal relationships in their lives, adds: “If you’re new to this, or not necessarily the greatest speaker, I often suggest writing a letter, and sitting in front of the person while you read the letter out loud. It might be awkward, but at least you’ll be getting everything off your chest.”

However, if they’re not necessarily crossing the line, but aren’t positive forces in your life and are actually affecting your own perception of yourself, it might be worth taking a step back in the relationship. “You have every right to be choosy with your friends,” says Wilson.

02. Decide if the Friendship Can Continue

If you’ve put your boundaries out on the table, it’s time to discern if the relationship is salvageable. “If they respect the boundaries, it might even bring you closer. Your friend will know what to expect from you,” shares Argenal.

While the reciprocation of your boundaries might not always elicit instant positivity—emotions can range from extremely apologetic, to shocked, to even angry—you’ll eventually realize whether or not they’re motivated to change.

“Usually they do change—especially if the relationship is a long-standing one,” shares Argenal. However, if they don’t change, or even get angry with you for addressing your boundaries, you have your answer there.

“If they’re not willing to see your boundaries, they’re not interested in a healthy relationship,” Wilson shares.

While the possibility of losing this person as a friend might seem scary, realize that you have the right to say no—and that your boundaries are going to be different from other people’s boundaries. A true friend will respect your needs as well as offer their own because they'll want the relationship to be of value to both of you.

03. Let Go, and Let Live

“Whenever preservation is possible, that's the mode of action to prefer. Nevertheless, there are insinuating circumstances where that might not be the case,” shares Wilson. Ultimately, all you can really be responsible for is communicating your boundaries in the clearest way possible.

If at this point, they’re still not getting it, or even trying to manipulate the situation and playing victim to your assertions, you should realize that you’ve got a truly toxic relationship on your hands—and it’s time to break up.

“At that point they’re being stubborn and selfish,” shares Wilson. “Here, it’s important to consider that you don’t have a friend anymore. Once you realize this, it will be easier for you to detach from the relationship.” While she expresses that none of this is easy—especially with longer-term friendships—it is necessary and vital for your own wellbeing.

As Argenal adds, “While a lot of people shy away from the idea of established boundaries, I’ve realized that those with the healthiest, calmest, and most fulfilling lives with high-quality friendships…are those are the people who have learned this skill.”

Once you start working on establishing boundaries, it becomes a really natural part of self-care. “It might seem awkward—and even unnatural—at first to have these conversations. But as time passes, you’ll get better at them,” Argenal adds. Friendships are challenging. Good or bad, they require effort. But a good friendship will be worth every ounce of effort. A toxic one, on the other hand, may be hard to change or cut loose, but you'll be stronger for it.

Image Credit: Erica Sharp