Recently, Sarah* got ready to see a friend – something she had done many times before. She texted, "Can’t wait to see you too!" in response to a message from them but as she was typing out the words, she felt a tightening sensation in her chest. "I realise now it was uneasiness," she says.
Trying to push the feeling to the back of her mind, she mentally hyped herself up. But at the drinks – same as always – the friend was argumentative, bringing up points of old conflicts as "a joke" or making subtle passive-aggressive comments such as this one, in response to Sarah talking about her plans to move to the seaside: "Well, make sure you do it. You don’t want to be one of those people that just talks about doing things." Sarah left the drinks feeling deflated and exhausted.
"I felt bad," says Sarah, a writer in London. "I feel like we’ve all been conditioned to think that either a big argument or something 'toxic' has to happen to want to end a friendship. The truth is, this friend had really been there for me in the past. And we've had many conversations where we hashed out things that were bothering us, but a good month would pass by and it would be straight back to square one. I realised I was holding on to these fun or happy moments from years ago, and I just didn’t have the energy for them anymore."
Studies have proven time and time again that healthy friendships not only have a positive impact on our wellness but can also influence how long we live, our happiness levels, anxiety, depression and cognitive ability. So what happens when the dynamics are off and veer the other way?
Uneasiness can mean all sorts of different things to different people but at its root, it is a sign that you don't feel safe or comfortable.
One study found that negative social experiences contributed to higher levels of pro-inflammatory proteins in the body, which could lead to stress, diabetes and even cancer. Another study, conducted over 30 years on a group of subjects in their 20s to 50s, showed that low-quality friendships (measured by how "intimate, pleasant or satisfying" the exchanges were) in your 20s – and especially in your 30s – had a serious impact on emotional wellbeing later in life.
Through social media and the increasing use of the word 'toxic' to describe people and situations, it makes sense that many – like Sarah – have held on to the belief that extreme betrayal or overt disrespect is the only circumstance in which a friendship should be ended or re-evaluated. In the wake of the global COVID pandemic and multiple lockdowns, many of us rushed to reprioritise loved ones. Could it have led us to overlook certain behaviours that we wouldn't necessarily classify as 'toxic' but which bother us on a slow, insidious level? For example, when spending time with someone leaves us drained, triggered or feeling a little bit down? These niggling pain points need to be taken as seriously as the highs and lows, says Sharon Breen, a London-based counsellor and registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP).
"On social media or TV, we sometimes get an unrealistic idea that things are at one end or another end of the extremes," she says. "So things are either abusive – verbally, physically, emotionally – or everything is perfect. And of course, things often fall into grey areas. [And sometimes] you get a gut feeling… your body telling you the things that feel nourishing that we want to move towards, and those things that maybe we want to move away from even when we can't quite explain why. It can be a stress response."
@heymisskelsey The body doesn’t lie and there’s a reason you always feel uneasy #lifeadvice #bodyawareness #signs #adviceforwomen ♬ original sound - Heymisskelsey
In a recent TikTok video with 350k views, titled "If you always feel uneasy around someone", TikTok user @heymisskelsey talked about this very phenomenon: "If you have someone in your life where you have to mentally brace yourself before you have an interaction with that person… that is your body telling you that you don’t feel safe around them. I think sometimes, some of us, we want to be wrong about people. Something I have learned is, the body does not lie."
Trained counselling therapist and published author Ceryn Rowntree agrees, saying: "Uneasiness can mean all sorts of different things to different people but at its root, it is a sign that you don't feel safe or comfortable. Though friendships – just like any relationship – will go through challenging times, our friends should be 'our people' and, by and large, the people that we feel safest and comfortable with."
Rowntree underlines that listening to your body is always important and that "the idea that we must wait for a big fallout in order to re-evaluate or even end a friendship is quite a damaging one". She emphasises that it is important not to make rash decisions based on a gut feeling but definitely interrogate why you might be feeling this way. "My advice is always to spend some time with that feeling of unease and ask yourself why before taking action," she says. "Does the unease come from a boundary that needs to be set or a conversation that needs to be had? If the answer is yes and the friendship is one that you value, then it doesn't hurt to try those steps first. But if the answer is no and you keep coming back to that feeling of unease, then it's something you may well want to listen to."
It’s true. We wouldn’t hesitate to reassess a romantic relationship if there were constant bickering or conflict or it didn’t make us feel good so why wouldn’t we do that with friendship? Breen believes there is a multitude of reasons why many of us are more reticent to end a friendship than a relationship and that often "it really is quite fun with that person. Or you might have a lot of friends in common. And it’s quite complicated if you 'break up'. But then there's also the idea of a shared history."
Sarah says that she would force herself to recall one specific fond memory she had of her and her friend together whenever she felt uneasy or anxious about seeing them. There was a time, years ago, on public transport where her friend stood up for her in a potentially scary situation. "It was a moment that kind of cemented our friendship; I like that they took no shit and didn't think twice about lashing out at a stranger in defence of me. But I realised that the not-so-great stuff since then – their unrelentingly argumentative nature, pettiness, negative comments or bitching about other people – had fully eclipsed the good in the past two or three years. That one memory just wasn’t enough to sustain me anymore."
"A friend being passionate or quite argumentative may have been very helpful if, say, you were bullied at school and that person stood up for you," says Breen. "It's almost like a flashbulb memory because it’s a horrible situation where you would have felt quite vulnerable and stressed, and the friend was protecting you. But then, obviously, sometimes that quality we find admirable in some situations can feel quite stressful in others."
Breen says that when reassessing a friendship, it is also very important to question why your friend’s behaviour triggers such a negative bodily response in you. "It may remind you of things that have happened in your life," she says. "For example, if you come from a family where there were a lot of arguments, or there were a lot of divisions between people – people had allies, or you had to be either in or out – that can actually be very triggering emotionally for people in their friendships. But you could also be attracted to friends like that because it feels quite familiar."
She continues: "It is really important to be aware of your own stuff. And if needed, to maybe get a little bit of support, whether [or not] it's from a therapist, to look at any patterns in friendships and relationships."
At the end of the day, we are all aware that when a friendship is healthy, it can be truly wonderful – to have a kindred spirit, someone to confide in, or even what feels like a platonic soulmate. It’s definitely not a case of ditching a friendship the second things get hard but if there is a long-running pattern of upset and hurt, with no change, then it may be time to call it a day.
"No breakup is ever easy and, more often than not, someone will be upset in the process," says Rowntree. "But as long as we communicate, and do that with compassion, respect and, wherever possible, honesty, we can say that we have done our best." Just like a relationship breakup, it can be hard to know that you're doing the right thing but Rowntree says this is part of the process. "The end of any relationship undoubtedly comes with a lot of uncertainty, fear and even frustration. And just as we sometimes regret a relationship breakup, there may be times that we wish we'd done something differently. However that doesn't mean this was the wrong thing. Trust yourself to know what's right for you and remember that walking away from a friendship that isn't right always opens up space in your life for more of those that are."
Feeling unsure? Rowntree highlights five examples that might not necessarily be considered 'toxic' but warrant potentially re-evaluating whether a person should have space in your life.
You no longer have anything in common and struggle to connect
This isn't toxic at all. It's totally normal for people to grow and change, and it's just as normal to allow our friends to do the same.
Your friendship feels especially unbalanced
Every relationship goes through ebbs and flows, times when one person gives and another takes, but when that becomes the case all of the time, it may be time to ask if this is really a positive relationship.
You feel unable to be yourself around someone
If you find yourself biting your tongue, scared to share parts of your life or actively toning down who you are, then it's worth asking whether this is a friendship that's right for who you are now.
Your boundaries are crossed
It's important that we tell the people in our lives what is and isn't okay so that they know the boundaries we consider healthy and comfortable. If you do that only to find a person continually crosses your boundaries, then this may be a sign that this isn't a respectful relationship. For example, a friend who continually texts you until the early hours of the morning, or calls if they don't get an answer, then continues to do so even after you've made your boundaries clear.
They continually bring drama into your life
Often, the people who complain and talk about drama are the ones who cause it. We've all had periods of drama in our lives but if you find that a particular friend is continually calling upon you to rescue them from drama, or listen to their complaints about others' dramatic behaviour, then it might well be a good time to step back from them.
*Name has been changed to protect identity