We've all heard of toxic friendships, but realising when you might have an unhealthy relationship with a pal is easier said than done. After all, every friendship has its high and low points, right?
Absolutely... except sometimes those low points can be soul-destroying. We shouldn't have to tell you that friendships should not negatively affect your self-esteem or happiness, but if you've found yourself in a tricky situation, there are healthy ways to extract yourself from it.
UKCP registered relational psychotherapist Emma Azzopardi explains how to spot the warning signs and when to make an exit:
What is a toxic friendship?
Do you feel drained of energy or bad about yourself whenever you hang out with a certain friend? Any friendship which negatively impacts your mental health could be considered toxic. Being aware that the relationship is toxic is crucial to being able to protect yourself.
"Friendship and connection is important to everyone," says Azzopardi. "Unfortunately, not all friendships are created equal. Some friendships produce a very positive impact on us, while others do not. It is possible to have a friendship that is actually hurting you. A toxic friendship can cause a lot of damage, emotionally, mentally, even physically."
The warning signs of a toxic friendship
Not sure if your friendship is toxic? There are a few key signs to look out for. "It's important to mention that in my opinion, toxic behaviour exists on a spectrum," says Azzopardi. "All people and all relationships do some of these things some of the time, but that does not make them toxic. A toxic relationship is defined by the frequency of these behaviours, the consistent intensity of them and the damage to your sense of self and esteem."
"Not all toxic relationships are easy to leave," she adds. "But being aware of the signs will make it easier to own the power that you do have in drawing your boundaries with that person."
Azzopardi outlines the following warning signs to look out for:
✔️You avoid saying what you need
We all have needs in relationships - connection, intimacy and recognition. If your attempts to talk about what you need end up in an argument, empty promises or accusations of neediness, insecurity or jealousy, you have a choice. You either bury the need or harbour resentment. Either way, it’s toxic.
✔️All of the compromises come from you
No one person can hold a relationship together if they are the only one doing the work. It’s lonely and it’s exhausting.
✔️You are not allowed to say ‘no’
‘No’ is an important word in any relationship. All healthy relationships involve compromise but they also respect the needs and wants of both people. A friend or partner will respect that you’re not going to agree with everything they say or do. If you’re only accepted when you’re saying ‘yes’, it’s probably time to relearn how to say ‘no’.
✔️Are you always ‘wrong’?
Making mistakes is all part of what we do as human beings. It’s how we learn. When those things are brought up over and over, it will slowly kill even the healthiest relationship and keep the ‘guilty’ person small. Healthy relationships nurture your strengths. Toxic ones focus on your weaknesses.
Passive aggressive behaviour is an indirect attack and a play for control. The toxicity comes from impeding your ability to respond and for issues to be dealt with directly. The attack is subtle and often disguised as something else, such as anger disguised as indifference. You know the action or the behaviour was designed to manipulate you or hurt you, but it’s not obvious enough to respond to the real issue. If it’s worth getting upset about, it’s worth a discussion, however passive aggressive behaviour closes this down.
✔️Your experiences pale in comparison to theirs
In a healthy relationship, both people take turns at supporting and being supported. In a toxic relationship, even if you’re the one in need of support, the focus will always be on the other person. No matter what you have experienced, it is never as significant as that which they have.
What's it like to be in a toxic friendship?
Fiona Thomas, author of Depression in a Digital Age, knows how heartbreaking a toxic friendship can really be. "I was diagnosed with depression in 2012, and my best friend at the time barely left my side," she told Netdoctor.
"From the outside, it looked like she was a great support. She would message me every day and take me out every weekend to the pub or we would sit at home and drink wine, eat nice meals and watch reality TV.
"I was off work for almost a year because my illness made everything impossible. Some days I couldn't brush my teeth, shower or leave the house and I was regularly plagued with suicidal thoughts. During that time my instinct was to self-medicate with alcohol and this particular friend was always on hand to enable this.
"I didn't realise at the time but looking back, I was on a road of self-destruction and she was there by my side encouraging my negative behaviour. Every time we got drunk I would set my recovery back for weeks, and eventually, my counsellor told me I had to give up drinking for a while if I was serious about overcoming depression.
"As soon as I started changing my drinking habits everything changed. I could tell that she didn't like me being sober and she made a point of still getting drunk around me even though I was gasping to have a drink.
"It all came to a head one night when we were out and she went home with a guy instead of sharing a taxi home to mine where she was supposed to be staying. My anxiety was through the roof because I wasn't confident getting taxis on my own for the 45-minute journey, but I did it anyway. Her toxic behaviour was crystal clear to me the next day when she refused to admit any wrongdoing on her part.
"We haven't spoken since, and although it might seem like we fell out for a petty reason the truth is I could see that her toxic behaviour was getting in the way of me recovering from a serious mental illness.
"I still grieve for our friendship because there are a lot of good memories. We had a real energy when we were together but ultimately she brought the worst out in me when I was at my most vulnerable. I know it was the right decision but it is still hard to come to terms with losing contact with someone who has brought you so much joy."
What's the best way to deal with toxic friendships?
If, like Fiona, you've spotted abnormal behaviour in a friend and want to call it out, there are ways of doing so without it blowing up. "If you recognise toxic qualities in a friendship, then you need take steps to change,' says Azzopardi.
"For many people the first reaction may be to lash out and tell the person what a lousy friend they've been, venting anger and frustration that have been kept bottled up inside. Others simply want to run away from the relationship without talking at all.
"While either approach would end the toxic friendship, neither is as helpful as understanding the part that you play.
"If you’re in a toxic relationship, you can change it! Casting blame on the other person may be convenient, but it is generally unproductive. If you’ve been treated poorly by someone, chances are you’ve allowed it. So start by acknowledging your part, and focus on what you can do to change yourself."
The importance of boundaries
"The first step is to put boundaries in place," says Azzopardi. "All relationships require personal boundaries. Boundaries are like a personal electric fence that helps you to define how you interact with others, and how you allow other people to treat you. They are defined by your core values, which say a lot about you.
"For example, your ability to say no to others may demonstrate that you have self-respect. You began to listen to yourself and become aware of when certain people or situations may be unsafe and you stay away. People with permeable boundaries tend to put others’ wants and desires before their own needs, and they become easy targets for those who are seeking to take advantage. If this describes you, then determine now what your boundaries will be and make them stick.
"You may consider ending the friendship. A true friend is loving and can hold that others have needs too. As difficult as it may be, if you’ve tried to establish some better boundaries with your toxic friend and nothing changes, then it may be necessary to end the friendship. A person like that may never respect you or see you as an equal. Staying in such a relationship will only continue to damage you. There are other people who are willing and able to be a true friend to you.
"If you feel unable to break away from an unhealthy, toxic relationship, then it may be time to consider outside help to find out why you are letting yourself be treated with such disrespect. Advice from someone outside the relationship who is unbiased and professional, such as a psychotherapist can make the difference in your restoring balance to your relationships and life."
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