Are you in a toxic friendship?

Are you stuck in an unhealthy friendship?

As a therapist, I often work with clients to increase and enhance their positive relationships.  In most instances, as we describe and explore these relationships, we uncover unhealthy or toxic friendships. It always amazes me that regardless of the damage being done, some of us continue to rationalize or justify staying in the relationship.  Sometimes we feel sorry for them, maybe our lifestyles have changed, or perhaps we are just uncomfortable discontinuing the friendship.  Regardless of the reasons why we stay in these negative relationships, if you want to create and maintain emotional wellness it is important to begin evaluating your relationships to determine if it is a source of negativity in your life.

Let’s first identify the need for friendships.  In my experience, the top reason to develop relationships is to establish a connection.  This is a connection with someone besides ourselves, colleagues, spouse, or family members.  These social connections allow us to:

·         have someone to talk, laugh, or cry with

·         ask for help and provide help when needed

·         be ourselves, with nothing to hide

·         share secrets, that nobody else will ever know

·         encourage and support us in times of need

According to the American Psychological Association, research suggests that a sparse social circle is a significant health risk.  Other research indicates positive social connections might accelerate disease recovery. In a study of 200 breast cancer survivors, psychologist Lisa Jaremka, Ph.D., and colleagues at the Ohio State University found that lonelier women experienced more pain, depression, and fatigue than those who had stronger connections to friends and family.

What factors make an unhealthy friendship?

There are a few different factors that make an unhealthy relationship.  Friendships are about getting our social needs met – some of those needs are described above.  Many times, as we take a closer look at the dynamics of the friendship it turns out very one-sided.  In other words, if your friend is taking much more than they are giving, that is a normally a substantial factor in unhealthy relationships. 

Another factor would include a deficit in your own positive self-identity.  This lack of self-worth often leads to my clients finding and continuing toxic relationships.  In some cases, toxic relationships occur when an individual begins looking for external sources of self-worth rather than finding and believing their own internal self-identify and self-worth.  When we are unable to feel good about ourselves we begin to look for positive validation from external sources.  In many cases, these external sources are friendships that can be taken advantage of.

What should you keep an eye out for as warning signs?

An important element in getting and maintaining supportive, healthy friendships to stay mindful of warning signs that your friendship could be turning unhealthy.  For you to keep an eye out for warning signs, you first must believe and understand that unhealthy relationships really do exist.  Many people are in such denial or lack awareness that they do not even stop to consider it possible for them to be in an unhealthy friendship. 

This is the initial work I do with many of my clients.  First, we work on awareness of positive and negative relationships.  Clients must accept that fact that unhealthy friendships are possible and they could potentially be in one themselves.  Then we review each friendship, keeping a close eye on factors that make healthy and unhealthy friendships.  Once you understand the factors that lead us to unhealthy behaviors we begin to look for warning signs.  These warning signs could be obvious such as fighting/arguing without a desire to compromise.  Another warning sign could be that their morals and values or that they do not match your own.  Other warning signs could include:

·         they gossip about you behind your back

·         they lie to you or purposefully leave you out of details of their life

·         they criticize you alone or amongst other friends

·         they make you feel bad about yourself

·         they aren’t happy for your life success’

If you're in an unhealthy friendship, how can you get out of it, especially if there are mutual friends involved?

Suddenly realizing you are in an unhealthy friendship can be a tough pill to swallow.  It can be so tough in some cases that your immediate response is to deny the unhealthy nature or rationalize maintaining the friendship.  In this case, your best course of action is to work with a mental health care professional to identify and correct the factors that play into the dysfunction.  This could include working on self-identity and self-worth or being more mindful of your own needs. 

Once you have identified and overcome the factors that have led you to maintain an unhealthy friendship, the next steps would be to establish boundaries and use effective communication.  Using the warning signs that indicate an unhealthy relationship you would use those to set a boundary.  It would sound something like this:

“Last week you made me feel insecure about myself because you openly criticized my decision to quit my job.  I cannot allow that type of insecurity in my life so if you continue to openly criticize my life choices then we can no longer maintain our friendship”. 

This scenario uses effective communication to establish healthy boundaries within the friendship.  In a healthy friendship, they would try to respect your healthy boundary.  If it is an unhealthy friendship you will likely continue seeing the same type of warning signs.  At this point, you would make the decision to communicate to this friend – and any mutual friends – that you are choosing to discontinue the friendship and state the reasons (in this case it would be because they choose not to respect your boundaries).