In the words of the Beatles (and The Wonder Years), we get by with a little help from our friends. But sadly, not all of our pals are doing their jobs. While a good friend can lift you up when you are feeling blue and enrich your life, a bad friend can make you doubt yourself and feel guilty for just being you. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, there are those in our circle of BFFs who manage to undermine us and drain us, both emotionally and physically. These are the toxic friends.
You know who they are, right? Those people in your lives that you aren’t quite sure why they are there other than to get you heated, piss you off, or diminish your confidence in mere minutes. Although sometimes, the clues aren’t as clear — you can have a good time together, and they’re there for you when the going gets tough. Yet, on a regular basis, they’re more of an energy suck. What gives?
“There are a few different types of toxic friends,” says Art Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Smart Thinking . “At a general level, what they all have in common is that they take much more from you than you get in return.” Turns out, there's something to the whole fair-weather-friend thing after all. “Any friendship ought to be balanced in the long run — most of the time, you are neither taking much from someone else, nor are you giving much away,” he says. “But, every once in a while, you do need to be there for a friend if they are having a rough time of things. And, you should expect that they will be there for you in return.”
Okay, so how do you know who in your crew fits the toxic bill? Here, Dr. Markman’s guide to identifying the characteristics that could be red flags to get out. Now.
Narcissists are people who build up their self-esteem by drawing on energy from other people, he says. “At first, narcissists are great to be friends with, because they are completely devoted to you," he says. "They make you feel special, but eventually they raise up their accomplishments over yours, make you feel bad about the things that go well in your life, and start to resent the successes you have.”
We all have some friends who have less than we do, and it can feel good to treat that person to coffee or buy her a drink, says Markman. “But, some friends just don't like to reciprocate, even when they can, and these friends borrow things from you and don't return them.” Some key signs: They always let you pay for lunch or drinks. And, let's be honest: Being the one to constantly foot the bill is not fun.
“There are some people whose lives seem fascinating when you first meet them,” says Markman. “They tell you about spectacular fights with friends. They have bosses who do terrible things, and their parents are always misunderstanding them. At first, you share their outrage at the world around you — because the world just seems aligned against these people.” There's one thing that these dramatic situations have in common, though: the friend, who's manufacturing his or her own drama. Walk away before you become an "enemy."
Leaving a friendship can be easier said than done. “It can be hard to end a friendship, just like an intimate or sexual relationship," says Markman. He does have a few hints on the most painless and polite ways to disengage without hurting someone's feelings too much. "For new friends and co-workers, it is easier; you can stop answering emails and politely decline offers to grab a cup of coffee or get a drink after work,” he says. Eventually, you'll be forgotten and they'll just stop calling — no fuss, no muss.
As for your besties from way back when, well, first be sure you want to break ties. Then, start to hang out with those that make you feel good. By doing that, you just will have to turn down invites from those that don’t. “At some point, though, you may need to have that hard conversation, where you tell that person that you really need a bit more space,” says Markman.
Bottom line: “Ultimately, it is important to make sure that you are getting as much out of your friendships as you put in,” says Markman. And if not, well, your BFF just was not meant to be forever.
Illustrations by Zhang Qingyun