Good friends support our most audacious dreams and empower us to be the best version of ourselves. However, the truth is, many of us are walking around clinging to unhealthy friendships. We have a hardwired fear system built into us which often causes us to live with an unhappy friendship rather than let that person go. However, toxic behaviour is harmful to our mental health and our growth as an individual. You might not even realise that a friendship has turned unhealthy, but knowing these warning signs will enable you to walk away.
Healthy friendships have established boundaries: two people who can take care of their own needs without relying heavily upon others. If the focus in your friendship is your friend and their exclusive wants and needs rather than your own, you need to start working on your own self-worth and confidence to avoid finding yourself in a similar situation in the future. Good friends understand you have an independent life separate from them. If you are unable to set boundaries or you feel you are sacrificing who you are – your values and principles – then it may be time to reconsider having this friend in your life.
Sometimes, we accept emotional abuse from a friend in a way we never would a romantic partner. A damaging friend will criticise you but not in a constructive way, they find ways to undermine your character through passive-aggressive and hurtful comments. Long-term this will chip away at your self-esteem and be detrimental to your wellbeing.
Sometimes a friend might constantly compare themselves to you, and their self-worth is tied up in how much they are winning in life. They might compete with you, or even your partner or family members, and they take any opportunity to prove they are superior. Psychologist Şirin Atçeken says: “An unhealthy friend is someone who is never supportive and is maliciously competitive, or uses your success to get ahead themselves. Toxic individuals can also often lie to make themselves look better than others. This borders on narcissism. It is important to understand the warning signs and recognise when healthy competition crosses the line.”
Think back to your last achievement or success. Who wasn’t there? Who didn’t clap for you? A toxic friend will actively choose not to show up for your achievements or find an excuse to not be present for a recent accolade of yours because it is their way of dimming your light and making themselves feel more successful. If you are worried about sharing good news with your friend out of fear that they won’t be happy for you, or will turn it around to be about them, alarm bells should be going off.
If hanging out with this friend is beginning to feel like a chore and you would describe them as a drain rather than a radiator, you should reassess your rapport. An unhealthy friend will reach out only when they need something, and will be oblivious to the amount of time and energy you offer them. If you do all of the emotional work and feel responsible for propping them up again and again, this is not a healthy friendship and it may be worth suggesting they seek professional help.
A true friend will never encourage you to do something that you’re uncomfortable with. Maybe you have stopped feeling as though you can be your true, authentic self. If you are hiding who you really are, or you’re feeling pressure to do things you don’t want to do, it’s time to find other friends.
A friendship is like a seesaw, it’s a balancing act between two people. As with any close relationship, both parties should make the effort to grow together. If you are feeling as though you give more than you receive, this friendship is no longer worth the effort. Of course, there will be times when you need more support from your friend, and vice-versa. But if the friendship is starting to feel more like a transaction rather than a genuine connection you should consider giving them up. A strong friendship is about mutuality and reciprocity – if neither word springs to mind when thinking of this friend it is time you stepped away.
A tell-tale sign that your friend is a bully is if they make you feel unsafe or insecure. They might try and weaken you through intimidation or manipulation because they have seen something in you that threatens them. This could be belittling your success, talking about you behind your back or even trying to take credit for your work. Mindset mentor Charlotte Balbier says: “When a friend bullies it always comes from a place of jealously and insecurity. Look out for the way they are speaking to you and the words they are using. They will use words above anything to make you feel small.”
Cutting an unhealthy friendship from your life could be one of the most empowering and liberating things you ever do. It means recognising your value and taking action. Given that close friendships can still hold the same intimacy as romantic relationships it doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking but, ultimately, you can only gain from getting rid of the toxicity in your life. Healthy friendships are full of joy and happiness, both of which you are fully deserving of.
Scarlett V Clark is CEO and Founder of Smart Girl Tribe and author of ‘The Smart Girls Handbook’, published by Wellbeck Balance, 4 March 2021, £10.99.
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