How to identify and confront a toxic friendship

Psychologists advise putting limits on friends that cause discomfort. If their behavior doesn’t change, it may be a good idea to distance yourself. Experts also recommend speaking to a toxic person individually, rather than in a group setting

woman sulking at party
Toxic relationships can explode outwardly through arguments and inwardly through anxiety.JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images (Getty Images/Tetra images RF)
Ixone Arana

A friendship is toxic when it takes away your peace of mind. Silvia Congost – a psychologist who specializes in conflict, toxic relationships, dependency and self-esteem issues – offers up this simple description.

“Being with [a toxic] person causes us anguish. We feel bad; we aren’t relaxed and calm, but anxious,” she clarifies.

This is precisely what happened to 27-year-old Lucía (a pseudonym) with one of the people in her friend group:

“We justified her borderline attitude by assuming that it was just part of her personality, because [she always said things like] ‘This is how I am and you have to accept me.’ I was always on the defensive, because I knew she was going to attack me – I was preparing my counterattack. But we got tired of accepting it; it became uncomfortable and, in the end, things exploded.”

The explosion took place during a conversation that the entire friend group had long felt was necessary, but had been postponing. It was Lucía who took the first step.

“I told her that I didn’t feel comfortable with her and that she had hurt me. I spoke about myself, because it seemed unfair to speak on everyone’s behalf – but I knew that [the rest of my friends] felt the same way.”

Javier García – a psychologist specializing in emotional dependency and affective relationships – advises addressing this type of conflict individually, rather than collectively. In this way, it’s more impactful and effective. Of course, this is easier said than done.

“The problem arises when the person who wants to set limits doesn’t feel strong enough to do it alone. Perhaps within the group, she feels more supported – but there’s the risk that everyone won’t support her at the moment of truth [and] she collapses,” he warns.

In Lucía’s case, however, a group confrontation worked. “Since then, [we’ve all] made an effort to get along. At the group level, we notice that she’s friendlier,” Lucía admits. And even if the mission fails, García considers that “setting certain limits” with a toxic friend is appropriate for two reasons: on the one hand, because whether it changes or doesn’t change the person’s behavior, “it [stops] the other person for hurting us” and, on the other, because “we’re able to tell ourselves that we’re capable of dealing with the situation.” Such a strategy will likely be required at work, the gym, within a family, or in any other facet of life.

Angry woman ignoring her roommate sitting on a couch in the living room at home
The discomfort caused by ignoring the problem can accumulate and explode both outwardly, in the form of arguments, and inwardly, turning into anxiety.AntonioGuillem (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

A toxic friend makes us feel “judged, used, despised or ignored,” according to psychologist Silvia Congost. “We may realize that [this friend] approaches us only out of self-interest… so that we listen to them, or so that they can get something from us. But when we need [this friend], they’re never around.”

Unfortunately, many people fit this description, such as a lifelong friend of 30-year-old Nicole (a pseudonym). “She’s very selfish and only thinks of herself. She comes to see us when she has nothing better to do… but as soon as she has another plan – and especially if she finds a boyfriend – she takes off. Then, when she’s single, she runs back and wants to [hang out].” Nicole and her friends eventually spoke to the woman about this, to no effect. “The moment you tell her these things, she promises you that she’ll change, but it doesn’t last for long. It’s like hitting a wall all the time,” Nicole laments.

In this type of situation, Congost believes that the optimal thing is to “learn to say no and distance yourself” in a gradual fashion. “Getting away from someone toxic is like stopping eating something that’s toxic to you – you start to feel better right away. No longer seeing the person is the best decision,” he recommends. The problem, then, is how this distancing affects the functioning of the rest of the group.

“When it loses a piece, the group will have to readjust, as if it’s a gear system. It may change shape, dissolve, or become several smaller groups. But only if it adapts will it continue to work; if not, the system is stuck… although that doesn’t really matter. In the end, we get together with the people who fit our values – that’s what makes us feel comfortable with some people and not with others,” the expert explains.

Another gesture that Nicole hates is that her toxic friend is constantly on her phone when they’re together. However, the solution to the problem may lie precisely on that device, according to García. “[A phone] is a very good tool to set limits. There are people who find it difficult to do it face-to-face, but in writing, they feel more courageous to explain themselves,” he emphasizes.

For psychologist Victoria Sánchez, while virtual connections facilitate communication in certain contexts, in complex situations, they can also harm them, giving rise to misunderstandings.

“The connection through looks and gestures minimizes errors when another person captures the tone of what we want to express… this makes it easier for us to understand what someone wants to convey to us,” she says.

Congost notes that, if the final decision is to distance yourself from someone, it must be done in all contexts. “You can’t really cut off the relationship if you continue to see everything that [your former friend] is posting on Instagram – the distressing effect will continue to be the same.”

What the experts do agree on is that it’s always best to talk about a problem in a friendship – it’s best to be upfront. “Whether it’s an individual or group decision, the ideal would be to find a careful way to do it, so that the person in question doesn’t feel attacked,” Sánchez proposes. Otherwise, discomfort accumulates and explodes, both outwards – in the form of arguments – and inwards, turning into anxiety.

Confronting the situation at hand helped Lucía change things. “The conclusion was that we had to take better care of ourselves and accept that we have different needs,” she explains.

Nicole still has a toxic friend, but at least she feels “so much better” since she put limits on her. “Before, I swallowed what bothered me and felt stupid,” she admits.

Both women prefer to remain anonymous so as not to worsen the situation within their friend groups, but it’s normal to see yourself reflected in Lucía or Nicole… and not in the people they describe.

“If you ask someone if they have a toxic person in their life, they’ll say yes and probably be right,” Nicole notes. “But it’s much easier to see [this problem] in someone else.” It’s much tougher to see it in ourselves.

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