Do You Have a Toxic Friend?

The Nystrom & Associates provider consulted for this article is Dr. Karin Ryan, PsyD, LP, Clinic Director, and Outpatient Therapist. Our friendships have a significant impact on our well-being, at any age in our lives. When they are good, they lift us up, protect our mental health, and make us feel connected, supported, and understood. When friendships turn sour, they hurt our self-esteem, increase stress, and make us feel sad and lonely. Related: How to Manage Stress So It Doesn’t Lead to a Breakdown

Toxic Friendships

Anyone of us can find ourselves in unhealthy or toxic relationships.  As a matter of fact, 80% of Americans have been in a toxic friendship. Sometimes they sneak up on us and we don't realize they are unhealthy until we feel really stuck in it. Other times, we don't know what is unhealthy or toxic for us.
Adolescence is a time when we are more vulnerable to toxic friendships. Teens' emotional survival includes fitting in, having friends, and being liked. We can also find ourselves in toxic friend groups when our kids are on sports teams, in certain social circles, or later in life in community living.
The key is to know the signs of toxic friends and what a true friend looks and feels like to help us try and avoid them and make changes if we are in it. Related: How to Maintain Friendships

Toxic Friends vs. True Friends

Here are several differences outlined by Dr. Karin Ryan to help distinguish a toxic friend from a true friend.

Toxic Friend Traits

  • Toxic friends criticize, make fun of us, or compare us to others.
  • Toxic friends gossip about you and/or other friends. You might find yourself feeling pulled to do the same.
  • Toxic friends hurt our feelings and insult us. They might post negative things on social media or use social media to make us feel left out.
  • Toxic friends make us feel nervous, unsettled, or insecure. You might feel like cannot trust them, or you might be worried about what will upset them. You fear they are going to say or do something hurtful.
  • Toxic friends put themselves first, take too much control, or do not consider your needs as much as their own. They are jealous of your success. It might always feel like a competition.
  • Toxic friends pressure you into doing unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking, smoking, and drugs.
  • Toxic friends can lack boundaries, putting the responsibility for their emotional well-being on the other person. This can happen when people have few friends, and one or both become dependent on the other. You might feel drained after spending time with them; you give more than you receive.
Related: Social Media and Mental Health: What’s the Impact?

True Friend Traits

  • True friends like us for who we are. They know what jokes we think are funny and what will hurt us.
  • True friends will come directly to you if there is an issue. They keep your confidence and secrets.
  • True friends are empathic and make us feel heard and seen and supported. They try and include us and make us feel wanted.
  • True friends make us feel good and we feel positive and connected after time together. They may be crabby or say something insensitive every now and then, but the majority of the time, they make us feel calm.
  • A true friend will be selfish at times, but overall care for you, and make decisions with you. They celebrate your successes and achievements.
  • A true friend lets you make your own decisions, and sincerely wants what is best for you.
  • True friends support each other and care, but also know they cannot fix another person, and that another person cannot fix them. A true friend gets support from you but also takes personal responsibility for their well-being.

Changing a Toxic Friendship

If you find yourself in a toxic friendship, you do not have to stay in it.  If you want, you can first try and ask for change and if that is not able to happen, recognize your power to decide who you are around and how you want to feel. Sometimes the healthiest thing is to end a friendship. Other times, you can decide not to spend as much time with that person or group. Then, reflect on who your true friends are and give them your time and attention.

Children/Teens & Toxic Friends

If you find your child or teen in a toxic friendship, you will likely feel pulled to want to control that situation or forbid that friendship, which can often backfire. Give them information about what a true friend is. Express what you notice in how that friend treats them or others.
Watch for your child being the toxic friend.  If you hear them gossiping, putting others down, bossing friends around, gently bring us a conversation about it with them, sharing what you are observing. A great way to keep a pulse on your teen's friends is to offer to drive carpools, let them have sleepovers at your house, let your teen have friends over for pizza and a movie, have a team/musical/band/chess party at your house.
Related: 4 Ways to Support Children’s Mental Health this School Year

A Word From Nystrom & Associates

If you're struggling with a toxic friend, we have providers who can help you navigate the situation and your mental health. Talk with us at 1-844-NYSTROM or request an appointment online at any convenient location.  Related: Men’s Mental Health: What You Need to Know

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