You can forgive a friend for a lot—like, maybe your college pal forgot your birthday or your new mom friend flaked on your dinner plans last minute. But even with the best of friends, it becomes difficult to overlook an increasingly frequent pattern of more toxic traits, like making passive aggressive comments, lying, and putting you down.

If you’re starting to feel like your “bestie” is no longer the best thing for you, chances are you’re in a toxic friendship. This kind of friendship has a tendency to sneak up on people because the signs are often subtle. But generally, a toxic friendship “emotionally harms you, rather than helping you,” says clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, PhD, author of The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With Your Friends.

You can tell a friend is toxic when they “cause stress and sadness or anxiety” and “doesn’t help you be who you want to be,” she adds. And if all that weren’t enough, a toxic friendship can also drain you and make you doubt yourself.

Meet the Experts:
Andrea Bonior, PhD, is a clinical psychologist based in the Washington, DC area and the author of three mental health books, including The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With Your Friends.

Erin Miers, PsyD, a is a clinical psychologist, a consultant for parenting website Mom Loves Best, and an Instructor in Psychiatry at Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine.

Jill Squyres Groubert, PhD, is a clinical psychologist based in Arvada, Colorado and the author of 8-Week Couples Therapy Workbook.

Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and the author of three mental health books, including A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription To Happiness.

For example, there are kinds of toxic friends called guilt inducers, says Erin Miers, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and consultant for parenting website Mom Loves Best. If your friend is a guilt inducer, they may use certain situations to take advantage of you by playing the victim, she explains. Perhaps a friend asks you for money after being laid off a job—which, in itself, is fine—but if you fail to lend it to them, they might use guilt to make you feel like a bad friend, Miers says.

In general, being in a toxic friendship can do a real number on your mental health by depleting your energy, making you lash out on loved ones, and even lose sleep. “Toxic relationships put our bodies into high-stress mode,” explains Miers. “The stress of navigating unpredictable or negative situations creates an atmosphere of dread and discomfort.” So if you aren’t getting what you need from a friendship (e.g. companionship, enjoyment, and support), it may be time to leave your so-called pal in the past.


15 Signs Of A Toxic Friendship

It’s clear that a toxic friendship can take its toll, but it’s not always easy to spot the red flags IRL. Ahead, experts explain the commons signs that a pal may be poisonous:

1. You’re giving more than you’re getting.

If your friend always seems to need your help, but can’t return even the smallest favor, then chances are they’re toxic. You can tell when “there’s a big imbalance between what you’re giving and what you’re getting,” Bonior says. Case in point: You go to lunch with a friend who always monopolizes the conversation with what’s going on in her life, but as soon as it’s time to talk about you, she suddenly remembers that she just has to be somewhere.

That said, just because a friend isn’t able to be there for you all the time doesn’t necessarily mean they’re toxic, notes Bonior, especially if they’re going through a tough time themselves. “It’s important that we understand that friendships be flexible,” she explains. “… But if the pattern is so ingrained that you always feel like you’re giving, giving, giving, and there’s no reciprocity over a long period of time—that’s a sign that it’s not gonna be very sustainable.”

2. You no longer trust them.

This is a biggie because trust is the foundation of any solid friendship. After all, if you can’t rely on your BFF, what’s the point of having one? “If you don’t trust that they have your best interests in mind… that’s often a sign that something’s not working,” says Bonior.

For example, a toxic friend might say “they’ll pick you up at the airport and then back out at the last minute,” adds clinical psychologist Jill Squyres Groubert, PhD. Or, perhaps you have a pal who casually asks for work contacts and then takes advantage of your generosity and badgers your colleagues all the time.

Granted, sometimes people have to break promises for a legit reason, and that’s totally fair. But if you friend constantly leaves you feeling let down or disappointed, then it may be hard to maintain enough affection to keep that friendship going.

3. You dread checking your phone.

Technology has made it so easy to keep up with your friends—for better or, uh, worse. You’ll know it’s the second option “when the person calls or texts you [and] you feel a dread in the pit of your stomach instead of happiness,” says Squyres Groubert. A good friend shouldn’t make you freak out whenever your phone buzzes, so it’s probably time to curate your contacts list.

4. You don’t enjoy spending time with them.

If you did a happy dance the last time they cancelled plans, it’s probably because you’re tired of putting in more work than the friendship is worth. “It feels more draining; it feels like a chore,” Bonior says. You also might notice “an increase in anxiety, headaches, or stomach disturbance when you’re with them,” according to Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription To Happiness.

This can extend even to the virtual space: Got a FaceTime or Zoom date with a certain buddy you keep putting off or are dreading? That could be a sign this friendship isn’t the right fit for you.

5. You don’t like yourself when you’re with them.

A toxic friend has a knack for spreading their toxicity to others, according to Bonior. “When you’re with that person, they bring out behaviors in you that aren’t your best,” she explains. Maybe you’re drinking too much, gossiping, or being passive aggressive with them when you’re normally super chill. Those are all signs of a toxic friendship, she says.

Or you might feel like you can’t be your realest self around them because you “consistently fear… how the other person will react” and “feel like you’re walking on eggshells” around them, says Lombardo. Basically, if “you feel lousy about yourself most of the time, then [the friendship] may be toxic,” she explains.

6. You know they talk sh*t about you.

While “there’s a spectrum of talking about people behind their back,” according to Bodior, if your friendship is starting to resemble an episode of Real Housewives, it’s probably toxic. The key, she says, is knowing if your friend is speaking out of genuine concern for your best interests or not.

“It’s one thing for some friends to be like, ‘You know, I really don’t like that guy Shelly’s dating. He seems like a jerk, and I’m concerned about it,'” Bodior explains. “Once it launches into ‘Oh my god, Shelly always dates the dumbest guys,’ and [they’re] kind of laughing about it and making fun of her—that really veers into cruelty.”

7. You compete with them.

There’s nothing wrong with a little healthy competition between friends—emphasis on little and healthy. This is especially true if you happen to be in the same field or have kids at the same time, Bonior says. “But at the end of the day, you should still have good feelings toward your friend and want what’s best for them overall.”

It’s totally normal to feel jealous from time to time, but if you feel like you’re in “a constant fight that you want to win over and over again,” she notes, that may not be the healthiest friendship sitch.

8. You don’t think they have good intentions.

Even the best of friends are nowhere near perfect (obvs), but they always have good intentions, and that makes a big difference. “Whenever we make mistakes in a friendship, that’s when the intention really matters,” Bonior says. While a good friend might accidentally hurt you when her intentions are good, that’s way easier to forgive than when a toxic friend intentionally hurts you.

9. You can’t depend on their advice.

Life can be confusing AF. That’s why you need good friends to help figure it out. But when you ask for a friend’s advice and instantly regret it, that may mean they’re toxic. “They’re not gonna listen, and [they’re] not going to be terribly empathetic or compassionate,” says Squyres Groubert. “…If they do listen, it’s usually to give one-sided advice that makes them sound smart or more competent and successful than you.” Often, a toxic friend will insist on an expensive or impractical fix “where you feel like you have to agree,” even though you know it’s not realistic.

10. You’re embarrassed by their behavior toward others.

One of the most common complaints Squyres Groubert hears about toxic friends is that they’re “rude to people you care about,” like your partner, your other friends, and even your kids. Or when you’re out together at a restaurant, “the person makes a lot of trouble, embarrasses you, demands things that you don’t think are reasonable, and sort of drags you along,” she explains. Another example? In a group chat, a toxic friend may make fun of a mutual acquaintance and egg on others to join in with the put-downs.

Even if this person is nice to you, at a certain point, their friendship isn’t worth the trouble it causes in your other relationships.

11. You make excuses for them.

When a friend is known for their bad behavior, they put you into the uncomfortable position of justifying their actions to others—and that’s toxic. This most often happens, Squyres Groubert says, when someone introduces a new friend to an old one. The new friend might later point out that the old friend ignored or interrupted her, prompting the main friend to say, “Oh, you just don’t really know her. She’s actually very nice.” Sure, Jan…

12. You feel used.

One sign of a toxic friend is “manipulation or making you do things you don’t want to do,” says Lombardo. Often, this friend can manipulate you into making an agreement that seems fair but really isn’t. And, according to Squyres Groubert, a toxic friend “always insists on splitting the check… when they spend a lot more” on food and drinks. You know it isn’t a fair ask, but you go along with it to preserve the relationship.

13. You don’t know why you’re friends with them.

Once upon a time, you two were inseparable. But now, you feel like you’re on different planets. While your priorities evolved and changed over the years, your friendship—not so much. “Just because you have a history with this person doesn’t mean you need to have a future together,” says Lombardo. “…You are not responsible for this person’s happiness, and you will not be able to change them (no matter how much you wish you could).”

In this situation, it’s of the utmost importance to ask yourself why you’re still in this relationship, says Miers. “Friendships should be uplifting and supportive,” she adds, noting that longevity shouldn’t be the only reason to stay in a friendship. “This is especially true if [the relationship] is harmful to your mental health.”

14. They criticize you. all. the. time.

“In a toxic friendship, the person criticizes you, uses your failures against you, or makes you feel bad about yourself,” says Miers. “This isn’t just teasing in fun; this is the kind of talk that puts you down… in a way that makes you question yourself.” If they constantly make fun of your style, home, or body so you’re left swimming in self-doubt, they likely don’t have your best intentions at heart.

A true friend may not always tell you what you want to hear, but they won’t try to shame you. “A true friend speaks with respect,” adds Miers. Hear, hear.

15. They make you second guess yourself.

Instead of providing support, says Miers, toxic friends are all about gaslighting behaviors. “They lie or misrepresent information to create confusion and stress. They do this intentionally to mess you up and mess with your head,” she explains. For instance, they might make up a fake narrative to avoid responsibility for their actions, blame you for their shortcomings or mistakes, or create general chaos and stress in your life with no consideration for how their actions impact you.

Meanwhile, a real friend takes responsibility for their actions and apologizes (sincerely!) if they cause distress or stress.


How To Break Up With A Toxic Friend

So, there’s no doubt about it—your friend is toxic. Here’s how to navigate a friendship breakup, according to the experts:

1. Have an objective third party assess the situation.

If you’re not sure whether you should end the friendship, Squyres Groubert suggests first talking to other people to get a “reality check” on the relationship. An outsider’s opinion can draw your attention to red flags you didn’t notice or have brushed under the rug.

2. Set new boundaries.

Not prepared to part ways permanently? “You could try setting limits with this person,” Squyres Groubert adds. She did this herself with a friend who would always monopolize the conversation whenever they talked on the phone. Whenever that happened, she would just say, “I need to hang up now”—and she would actually do it.

Once you “establish boundaries, stick with them,” adds Lombardo. If you have a friend who’s always begging you to bend over backwards to help with her projects, tell her you can’t—every time.

3. Slow fade out of the friendship.

When you’re just #overit, pulling a “slow fade” is “the easiest, most comfortable way to extract yourself,” says Bonior. “…[But, it] only works when both parties recognize what’s happening, and both parties take a step back naturally.”

4. Be clear with your breakup convo.

If your toxic friend has no clue they’re radioactive, they might push back harder, get offended, become accusatory, or just totally miss the hint, cautions Bonior. “If you have to be more direct, you have to be more direct,” she continues. “Nobody wants to do this— it’s totally awkward—but sometimes… you just have to be clear.” She recommends saying something neutral yet firm, such as: “Hey, I know you’ve noticed that I haven’t been able to spend as much time with you lately. To be honest, my life’s moving in a different direction. I value the friendship that we’ve had, but I just don’t see being able to spend as much time together.”

Best case scenario, they accept your decision. “But in a really toxic relationship, all bets are off,” says Bonior. “The person could start a huge argument, and when that’s the case, all you owe to that person is just be clear about what you’re doing. You can be respectful, but you gotta be firm.” To stay firm, she recommends going into this conversation with a clear sense of what you want to get out of it.

5. Know when to cut your losses.

Coming into a friendship breakup conversation with clear intentions and goals will help you keep your emotions in check if it starts becoming a confrontation. When that happens, all you have to say is,”This discussion is upsetting to me. I’ve told you where I stand. I’m not going to be able to spend much time with you in the future. I am not going to be in touch.”

At that point, you have the right to cut the toxic friend off, say Bonior and Squyres Groubert. “You can’t have a constructive conversation with this person, so the ordinary rules of engagement no longer apply,” Squyres Groubert says. “You just need to exit as gracefully as you can and realize that’s your answer.”

Trust that your relationship with your non-toxic friends, family members, partner, and—most importantly—yourself will be better sans any BFF baggage.

Headshot of Lindsay Geller

Lindsay Geller is the Lifestyle Director at Women’s Health, where she oversees the Life, Sex & Love, and Relationships sections on WomensHealthMag.com and the Mind section of Women’s Health magazine. When she’s not writing or editing articles about the latest dating trends and pop culture phenomenons, she’s usually watching reality TV or playing with her dog, Lucille (Go Fetch That) Ball.

Headshot of Perri O. Blumberg

Perri is a New York City-born and -based writer; she holds a bachelor’s in psychology from Columbia University and is also a culinary school graduate of the plant-based Natural Gourmet Institute, which is now the Natural Gourmet Center at the Institute of Culinary Education. Her work has appeared in the New York Post, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, Oprah Daily, Insider.com, Architectural Digest, Southern Living, and more. She’s probably seen Dave Matthews Band in your hometown, and she’ll never turn down a bloody mary. Learn more at VeganWhenSober.com.