How to Deal With a "Toxic Friend," According to Someone Who Was One
“Toxic” is a tricky buzzword slapped on practically anything from skincare products to teas claiming to rid the body of harmful...somethings. It’s an umbrella term with a suspiciously vague definition, often showing up in pop psychology and self-help as a catchall for anything unmistakably bad. This also extends to relationships with co-workers, romantic partners, and friends. If you haven’t commiserated with someone about a “toxic friend,” perhaps you think you’ve been one.
The internet is saturated with checklists of so-called “warning signs” of a toxic friendship, like lack of trust, a feeling of competition, and jealousy. Much of this advice hinges on the premise that a friend who bullies, gossips, or puts down others should be cut off immediately and without question, and it’s not entirely wrong. It can be difficult to find the energy to put into a friendship that just doesn’t feel good anymore, and some people really aren’t great at being friends. But calling someone “toxic” misses the point: People are more complex than a numbered list of negative actions, and usually, the reasons behind their behavior are much more complicated. The concept of so-called toxins in our bodies has largely been debunked, so let’s take that a step further and consider that there is no such thing as toxic people, only people in crisis. I know, because I was one.
A few years ago, I experienced a period of severe depression that coincided perfectly with a flare-up of my autoimmune disease and a string of failed relationships. I missed birthday parties and nights out because I was too sad and too tired to get dressed. I never told any of my friends how badly I felt because I figured no one would miss me anyway.
I was wrong. I lost friends because I didn’t show up and didn’t seem to care, and some of them eventually stopped calling because they were tired of being ignored. I wasn’t a good friend, but I also wish someone would’ve just asked me what was up.
Dr. Andrea Bonior, licensed clinical psychologist and author of The Washington Post's "Baggage Check" mental health advice column, believes the word “toxic” can be inaccurate and hurtful when used to describe a difficult friend. “It's overused, and it runs the risk of maybe pathologizing individual people,” she says. “It's a loaded word, and I think we have to be careful when we use it.” A friend can be flaky, dishonest, or unreliable, but simply calling her “toxic” doesn’t leave any room to examine why; it’s a dismissal that undermines the friendship of which she’s supposedly one-half.
“There are so many possibilities regarding why a friendship might start to feel ‘toxic,’ and curiosity is a great first step,” says Amanda Zayde, Psy.D., Attending Psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “If you have a friend whose behavior suddenly becomes problematic, checking in with them about what you’ve noticed and expressing a desire to understand the thoughts and emotions underlying their behavior may help them to feel safe enough to open up.”
A friend who doesn’t answer texts, starts missing birthday parties, or always seems to steer the conversation back to their own problems is still a friend, and it’s important to approach them with empathy. “Maybe you have a friend who’s really struggling, whether it's depression, substance abuse, or dysfunctional patterns with romantic relationships,” Dr. Bonior says. The explanation for their change in behavior might not be easy for them to describe in a quick text or over brunch, but that doesn’t mean no explanation exists.
Living with trauma from an abusive upbringing, an emotionally draining romantic relationship, or grieving the loss of a family member can all impact someone’s ability to focus on being a good friend, and these experiences can trigger a variety of emotional responses. “They may isolate themselves, feel less excited to do things they used to enjoy, and their mood may be pessimistic, hopeless, or irritable,” Dr. Bonior explains. A friend in crisis may feel embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid to speak openly about their feelings, potentially causing them to pull away from their relationships and social life. Chronically bad moods, constant one-way conversations, or total silence can be annoying at best, but may also indicate someone struggling.
Those “toxic friend” survival guides would instruct you to see your way to the door. Can’t return a text? Didn’t show up to my party? That’s it, we’re through. What if, instead, we consider our own role in the friendship? Sometimes, being a friend means showing up for a person even — especially — when they are unable to reciprocate that kind of care.
“I always advise people to try and see the other person's perspective, because sometimes when a friend needs the most help is when they're actually the toughest to be around,” Dr. Bonior says. Forget the so-called signs of “toxic” friendships — express a willingness to listen. They may be ignoring calls or “being a downer,” but simply sitting and listening can mean a lot. “I try to take the path of, ‘Hey, is everything okay? I noticed that you haven't seemed yourself lately, or you haven't been as excited, or you haven't been following through on plans, and that's not really like you,” Dr. Bonior added. “I want to listen, I want to hear what's going on.”
Instead of writing someone off as toxic and immediately cutting ties, Zayde suggests trying to specifically identify what’s going on with the friendship, whether it feels emotionally draining, dysfunctional, one-sided, or even destructive. This helps avoid a full-fledged confrontation or accusatory rant, which can damage the friendship even further. Sometimes, Zayde says, the relationship may just need a temporary pause or reboot. This doesn’t always mean the relationship isn’t special or meaningful — it’s normal for people and friendships evolve. “When the friendship is a longstanding one, I think we owe it to our friends that we have a history with, and are really intertwined in their lives,” Dr. Bonior says. “You have to make a good faith effort because, to me, that's what friendship is all about.”
As painful as it is to watch a good friend struggling, jumping in to help might not always be effective. Offering well-intentioned but unqualified advice to a friend in the midst of severe depression or a mental health crisis, for example, isn’t helpful or safe. “It's really hard in those situations to draw your own line because you don't want to abandon the person, but it also doesn't do any good for you to drive your own mental health into the ground just for the sake of trying to help a friend,” says Dr. Bonior. “It's almost like you're a paramedic. The first thing that you learn is not to endanger yourself when you're saving someone else.”
In some cases, ending a friendship is necessary for the sake of everyone involved. “You have the right to say, ‘I feel like you need something more from me and I don't know how to give it, and I do need to take care of myself. I love you, I care about you, and I want the best for you, but I also need to be able to regroup and get some space for my own self-care.’” This is an exit strategy, yes, but it’s not flushing a toxin from your life as much as it is honoring the difficulty that you and your friend are both experiencing. And that’s real.