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Signs of a Toxic Friendship: Is it Worth Saving or Time to Let Go?

Updated on August 7, 2012
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Most of us have that one friend who’s a bit ‘out there’ – the one who borrows your clothes and somehow never gets around to returning them, or has one drink too many and starts throwing her weight around at every party, or who talks so much about herself that no other topic of conversation ever seems to get a look in.

She’s not selfish, exactly, but self-concerned. She’s charismatic, and she can be fun to be with. She’s chatty and self-confident. You’ve been friends for ages, and Saturday nights just wouldn’t be the same without her.

Sometimes, a friendship is ‘toxic’ but we just can’t let go. But how can you tell the difference between a friend who’s charismatic, and one whose own life is taking over yours? When is a friendship worth saving? And when is it time to move on?

Leaders and Followers

Some people are natural leaders – they have boundless energy, they ooze charisma, they can strike up a conversation with anyone. Others seem content to follow. But scratch the surface of any ‘follower’, and you’ll usually find some discontent. Because no one can live your life for you. If you’re a follower, and your sparkly friend persuades you again to go to that trendy little bar she likes so much, where you always end up sitting in the corner while she flits about like a social butterfly, you might start to wonder if you’re really her friend at all, or if you’re a convenient ‘tag-along’ who’s only there to mind the coats and drinks.

Natural leaders can be great friends, especially if you’re a bit shy and stay-at-home, but if you’re always watching from the sidelines, maybe it’s time to rethink whether it’s reallyso much fun to follow someone else’s good times, or whether it’s time to follow your own drum beat.

Is she really so funny, or is it always at someone else’s expense?

Sometimes she has you crying with laughter. Really, this girl is comedy gold. She has you in stitches all the time. But every once in a while, you notice that everything she says, every joke she tells, is aimed – whether deliberately or not – at hurting someone else.

Does she belittle other people to get laughs? We’re all guilty occasionally of relieving the tension with a bit of humour that might be a bit mean, but some people can’t stop. And it’s contagious. If you find yourself feeling awkward that your friend is mocking someone, no matter how funny it is, you might want to consider if you really want to pick up this habit that should be left behind with high school, and how your friend’s comments reflect on you.

Do you always do what she wants to do?

Good for her. She knows her own mind and she sticks to it. Because this isn’t a one-way street: sooner or later, unless you want to spend the rest of your life doing things that other people want to do, you’re going to have to strike out on your own. If you have a hankering to watch the stars but she laughs at the idea of going to the astronomy club, it’s time you started doing things by yourself no matter how shy you are.

The odds of you meeting, spontaneously, someone who shares all your interests are astronomical. The excuse ‘I’d love to do X, but I’ve got no one to go with’ cuts no ice.

Whether you think your friend bullies and coerces you to do all the things she wants to do, or whether you think that maybe your shyness is stopping you from breaking away and doing things on your own, it’s time to take a risk and find the stargazers’ weekly meeting, or the local knitting circle, or whatever floats your boat.

Dangerous Situations

If your friend has ever led you into a situation where you feel at risk – whether it’s at a seedy party or whether you’ve ended up walking home alone through an unfamiliar part of town when she swore she could get you a ride home, it’s time to just get out of the friendship.

Does she ‘put down’ the things you like?

A bit of humour is great. If she gently mocks your love of silent movies, but does it with a friendly twinkle, this is all a part of friendship. Taking offence at every little thing is a fast-track to getting a dozen cats and living in a hut on the edge of the forest.

But if she constantly wears down your good humour with jibes at the way you dress, or your extraordinary fondness for jazz-punk fusion, then she’s attacking your personality and self-esteem. The jibes might even be disguised as compliments: ‘I love the way you don’t care how you look’, and they might be well meaning – only a very best friend could ever tell someone they have bad breath – but if she gives you these little pieces of advice every time you see her, or criticises everything you hold dear, you’re either going to have to walk away or become a carbon copy of her to keep the peace.

Love Matters

Dating each other’s exes isn’t a sin, and if she ends up going out with the guy you’ve had a crush on for ages, that’s pretty much life, and the moral high ground is to forget about him and be happy for them.

But some situations are unacceptable. If she deliberately pursues every man you like, or deliberately makes you look bad in front of your latest crush, or flirts outrageously with your boyfriend, eventually her behaviour will lead to tears and an almighty fight. One mistake is just that – a mistake – but if you’re sure you aren’t just being a little bit paranoid (and who hasn’t been a bit paranoid in affairs of the heart at some point?), then avoid the inevitable showdown by leaving this friendship now.

New Boundaries

You don’t have to necessarily break off all contact with a friend who isn’t very good for you. Sometimes a bit of distance helps to redraw the lines of a friendship that’s become too claustrophobic or stale. Limit your endless phone calls to each other down to a weekly catch-up, and if you don’t like the places she invites you to, tell her so and suggest something different. You might not want to burn the friendship entirely, but make it more equal: be clear to yourself about what her friendship means to you, and put your thoughts into action.

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