• Red flags in romantic relationships are a popular subject—but what about our friendships?
  • Friendship red flags are real and can be an indication that your friendship is toxic or at least needs some work.
  • If you spot manipulative or controlling behavior in your friendships, it’s important that you set boundaries.
  • Remember to be assertive but not aggressive when confronting a friend’s toxic behavior. Be sure to prioritize your own needs—don’t bend over backward or eventually, you’ll break.
  • Lastly, don’t be afraid to cut off toxic friends if the relationship isn’t benefiting you and your mental health is suffering as a result. If you can’t talk things through, or friendship therapy isn’t helpful, saying goodbye could be the best choice.

Toxic relationships are everywhere: We can have an unhealthy attachment to our parents, our partners, even our phones— anything that we interact with, really. Yet rarely do we take a look at our friends. This might be important, considering they’re the people we often vent to about everything (and everyone) else in our lives. Toxic friends can be tough to identify, and even tougher to get rid of, especially when we’ve known them for some time. The thought of making new friends in adulthood may seem overwhelming to many of us, too. 

Thankfully, dealing with our toxic friends doesn’t mean that we’re doomed to dump them. But if we allow others to manipulate, lie, or put us down on a regular basis, there’s a chance that we may absorb some of their behavior or that it may affect our self-image. No matter how close we may feel to them, toxic friends can have a destructive influence. Don’t let friends who don’t support your goals or align with your values lead you astray: Learn how to identify toxic friendships and set boundaries like a pro. 

Friendship Red Flags 

The last thing we want to do is criticize the people we love, but if their behavior is harming us, it’s our responsibility to defend and speak up for ourselves. That said, it’s normal to feel unsure of where to begin in evaluating your friendships. Here are some common friendship-related red flags that you might have overlooked: 

  • Your friends always help you celebrate your achievements but are usually nowhere to be found when you experience failure and need support.  
  • Your friends get jealous when you start dating someone or spend time with people outside of their circle.
  • They offer backhanded compliments that leave you wondering what their words actually meant.  
  • They gossip about you, sharing private details of your life with others.  
  • You feel obligated to lie about details of your personality or lifestyle for fear of their judgment. 
  • Your friends lie to you, but you’re afraid to call them out for it. 
  • They coerce you into unhealthy behavior that doesn’t align with your personal beliefs. 

One or more of these red flags might pop up occasionally—whether or not we like to admit it, we all have manipulative tendencies and might face the temptation to infringe on someone else’s boundaries for our own benefit. But if our friends routinely show this sort of manipulative behavior, we need to take action. 

7 Ways to Maintain Boundaries Around Toxic Friends

  • Be assertive, but non-aggressive in maintaining your boundaries: Remember that there are three types of anger: passive aggression, open aggression, and assertive anger. Assertive displays of anger involve directly (and politely) stating what is bothering us, and requesting from the person who has displeased us to help us resolve the issue. Assertive anger is the only truly productive way to express our anger. Give the person you’re upset with the opportunity to make things right; don’t haphazardly burn a bridge that either one of you might miss or need later. 
  • Evaluate your own behavior before judging your friends too harshly: Relationships are a two-way street, and even if you aren’t comfortable with your toxic friend’s behavior, it’s hard to cry foul when your own actions match theirs. Still, taking a “holier than thou” approach to your friendships will leave you lonely—so keep your evaluations to yourself at first, or better, talk with a therapist or counselor for guidance. You can get their help with listing the positive personality traits and life goals that you identify closely with. Are those traits and goals still in sight when your friends are present?   
  • Take control of your social life—meet with toxic friends on your own terms, if at all: Being available at the drop of a hat might make you feel like a good friend, but if doing so leaves the rest of your life in shambles, it’s time for a second glance. Toxic friends might expect you to meet up with them out of the blue and may leave you with feelings of guilt or FOMO if your own schedule doesn’t align. Metaphorically speaking, don’t rush out the door with the oven still on. True friends will understand if you can’t make it or need time for self-care. Toxic friends won’t. 
  • Don’t get sucked into the drama: If your friends talk dirty about others in your circle when they aren’t around, expect the same for yourself when you’re not present. It’s actually normal to laugh at gossip or to be interested in it. But choosing to feed the gossip beast on a regular basis may end up decaying our own reputation and personal relationships. 
  • Remember that you aren’t their therapist. It’s not your job to absorb their every emotion: When the people closest to us try to overshare intense experiences or introspective thoughts with us on a regular basis, it’s known as trauma dumping. Empathetic and caring individuals often feel like it’s their solemn duty to absorb and process every tough situation for their friends. But there’s a distinct difference between offering a shoulder to lean (or cry) on and becoming a statue that’s always present, no matter what. Though we may not like to admit it, empathy requires recharge time. And when we don’t receive it, we often harbor resentment and exasperation towards those who trauma dump on us. 
  • Determine whether hanging out with your toxic friends is simply an easy way to avoid loneliness: If you’re recognizing that your social circle, acquaintances, or friends could potentially be toxic, consider whether you tolerate their behavior because it’s better than being alone. Like diving into cold water, being alone might feel shocking at first, but after taking a moment to breathe and evaluate the situation, the initial unpleasant feelings will pass. Plus, you’ll make new friends, and these friendships will serve you well. Disconnecting from toxic friends might entail working on yourself, identifying your personal needs so that you can connect with people who will help propel you forward. 
  • Don’t be afraid to cut them off, especially if it’s best for your mental health: If you’ve thought twice about remaining friends with someone, consider why. Is it because they make you uncomfortable? Perhaps they’re immature or simply don’t respect you. Whatever the case, if you’ve given them chance after chance, to no avail, it’s perfectly acceptable to end the friendship. You might need time to grieve your loss (that’s right, losing a friend can send us through the 5 stages of grief), but afterward, you’ll feel so much better having made the healthy choice to do so. 

Self-Growth Doesn’t Always Mean Sacrificing Friends

It’s one thing to spot toxic friends, and it’s another to be able to create and maintain boundaries with them. Though choosing between our friends and self-growth is an unfortunate position to be in, it does happen. Thankfully, if our friends are truly understanding, they’ll listen when given the chance, and friendship therapy may offer an opportunity to work on the relationship. It’s possible that your toxic friends don’t know they’re toxic—with a little communication, you may be able to improve and preserve a close relationship instead of ending it.