7 Psychological Signs You're Trapped in a Toxic Friendship


And a three-step guide on how to get out, according to clinical psychologists.


Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash

saw the masked gangster dig the knife into my friend's leg. Blood was splurging on the street as we got chased three blocks away from the party.

This was the moment I knew I was trapped in a toxic friendship group. Bad friends attract bad things, I learned this the hard way. In London, knife crime is a huge issue, especially amongst teenagers. After constantly being convinced to crash house parties by my destructive and ignorant friends, karma caught up with them.

Rudely barging into people’s homes uninvited was my old friend's specialty, their carte blanche. Despite the fact this went against all my moral standards, because I was trapped in a toxic friendship, I went along with it. 

After the stabbing, I made the well overdue decision to cut my toxic group of 6 friends out of my life. For perspective, these were my best friends, we spent every day together during our summer breaks. I also had known a lot of them since I was 5 years old. But being put into a life-threatening situation (more than once) due to their reckless decisions was the final straw for me.

Disclaimer: My friend was fine. He did need surgery in his knee to repair the ligaments though. I visited him in hospital until he recovered.

Making the decision to leave the friendship was tough, lonely, yet forcefully empowering. This is one of the life experiences that yielded the most valuable character-building lessons. 

Here are seven signs you were in the same position I was, and how to get out, ASAP.

1. You Keep Getting Entangled in Their Psychodrama

A major sign you are trapped in a toxic friendship is when you keep getting dragged into unnecessary drama. For me, this was in the form of a near-death experience, but for you, it can be something like constantly being pressured into participating in arguments or performing dirty work on behalf of your friend.

Being involved in such situations leads to a feeling of entrapment like we are stuffed into a box with no emotional breathing room. 

“One of the characteristics of a toxic friendship is that the good friend feels she can’t extricate herself from the relationship,” —  Charles Figley, Ph.D., professor and director of the Psychological Stress Research Program at FSU

We all know friendships can sometimes entail sticky situations, it’s normal. But there comes a point where these situations are draining more of your energy than you are able to put into the friendship. This results in a toxic friendship.

Why be involved in psychotic drama when you can choose to be in peace?

2. They Make You Shatter Your Own Moral Boundaries

One thing that makes us unique as individuals, is standing by what we believe in. As soon as this crucial aspect of human nature goes out the window, it can leave us feeling lost, purposeless, and repulsive inside.

Some people’s identities are formed around their moral beliefs. For example, there are certain people who promise not to have sex until marriage, to preserve the magical and romantic first time for the person they will spend the rest of their life with. How would such a person feel if their friends forced them into having one-night stands to keep the friendship alive? The said person would be shattered.

Similarly, if your ‘friends’ put you into uncomfortable situations that you would never put yourself in alone, you need to reevaluate if these friends are worth keeping around. 

If they make you feel like you have to compromise on things that are important to you, subsequently bringing out the worst in you, there is a serious issue.

“The most important human endeavour is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life. ” — Albert Einstein

3. They Sabotage Your Self-Improvement Efforts

If you are reading this, there is a good chance you are a self-improvement nut and make constant efforts to become the best version of yourself. If this is the case, congratulations, you are doing your duty as a human being. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.

However, do you know who does take that away from you? Lowlife ‘friends’ that constantly sabotage your self-improvement efforts with belittling comments. Imagine this, my old friends would laugh at me and mock me for reading books. On a platform of book lovers and writers, this will seem ludicrous, almost blasphemous.

“The phrase ‘toxic friend’ is pop psychology,” says Jenn Berman, PhD, a psychologist in private practice in California. One of the principal catalysts for this pop psychology term is the fact that these toxic friends prevent you from improving yourself and try to keep you below them. Maybe this is due to jealousy, arrogance, or selfishness, I don't know. But it is a massive problem.

If I even mentioned to my old friends that I was an avid practitioner of meditation, I’d get mocked so hard my sense of pride would diminish into a speck of dirt. 

To determine if belittling comments are an issue, experts suggest observing how you feel after seeing them. If you are radiating happiness and satisfaction, the comments are probably nothing to worry about, but if you feel emotionally undermined, toxicity is playing a huge role in your friendship.

4. You Can’t Talk About Your Passions and Dreams

One of my all-time favorite books is ‘The Alchemist’ by Paulo Coelho. The reason why is because it’s a book about chasing dreams and pursuing passions. Here is my favorite quote from it.

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” — Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist 

Like we mentioned with moral standards, your passions and dreams make who you are. If the people around you make you feel out of place, uncomfortable, or you get laughed at for having dreams and aspirations, you are setting yourself up for miserable failure.

“You are the average of the five people you spend your most time with” — Jim Rohn

This is one of the most important parts about selecting your friends. If they don’t encourage you to chase these dreams, you will stay in the place you are at or even go backward.

Florence Isaacs, author of ‘Toxic Friends/True Friends’, says “You want the right amount of reciprocity of affection and assistance in a friendship…overall there should be some kind of balance in which you feel you are getting your needs met, and so is she.” A true friendship entails a two-way encouragement system. You motivate them to chase their dreams, and they do the same to you.

Don’t expect anything less than this from a true friend.

5. Avoid Friends With a Herd Mentality

My old group of friends acted like lions in a field full of gazelle and zebra. They grouped together, like a herd of lions, and attacked anyone weaker than them with their sharp teeth of pure judgment. 

I can’t even begin to express how much overly-judgemental people get on my nerves. How can you hate on someone for minding their own business or appearing less ‘alpha’ than you? It was so common for me to be with my friends and for them to start mocking girls for the clothes they were wearing. It wasn't a one-off comment either, it was a whole discussion that involved every individual, almost like a competition to see who could be the most judgemental.

If you ever find yourself in a discussion with your friend(s) that is super hateful and judgemental towards an individual, get the f*** out of there, seriously. These negative vibes are like parasites. They grip onto your brain with their infectious teeth and slowly but surely permeate through your entire body.

We should encourage our fellow humans, not belittle them and judge them for being who they are.

6. The Friendship Is Full of Empty Promises and Letdowns

“Hey man! I’m so excited about tomorrow, I always love going into central London. What time shall I swing by yours?”

“Erm, I’ll let you know in a few hours, I’m not 100% sure I can come yet”

Six hours later, no response. The next day, they’ve ghosted me. We’ve all been in this position when that deep-seated feeling of disappointment glooms over you like a grey cloud. Something I know I did all too often was accept these moments of disappointment and empty promises like they were normal, convincing myself they’d make it up next time. But that never happens…

Ph.D. granted psychologist, Jill Squyres, says a common toxic behavioral pattern is that some people break promises occasionally. However, if you are constantly let down, it’s going to be difficult to recognize the value in the relationship enough to keep them as a friend.

If you value yourself intrinsically for the Queen/King that you are, you won’t keep people around that leave you with that dark cloud of disappointment looming over your head.

7. You Leave in a Worse Mood Than When You Arrived

Friendships are about fun and memorable experiences that leave you in a happy-go-lucky mood afterwards. No rational friendship has the principal goal of making you feel bad. That isn’t what friendship is about, it’s as simple as that. We often accept these negative emotions because we want to be people-pleasers and avoid confrontation at every cost.

The number one red flag that we are often the blindest to see is feeling in a worse mood than when you arrived to see your friend, due to something they’ve said or just how they make you feel.

“I would say it’s someone who, after spending time with them, makes you feel bad about yourself instead of good; someone who tends to be critical of you — sometimes in a subtle way and sometimes not so subtle; a friend who drains you emotionally, financially, or mentally, and they’re not very good for you.” — Jenn Berman, PhD, psychologist

I remember getting home from a day out with my mates and just feeling like I was in a slump. I couldn’t figure out why until I cut them out. I proceeded to feel a sense of liberation and freedom to be who I wanted to be.

The Three-Step Guide on How To Get Out of a Toxic Friendship

Acknowledging you are in a toxic friendship is one thing, but getting out is the hard part. This is a stage people often leave out, continuing to tolerate their subpar friends and subsequently not living up to their full potential.

Step 1: Get comfortable being alone

If you know you have a serious problem with your circle of friends and know you want out, it’s important to become self-reliant beforehand. In my previous article about cutting out friends, I talked about picking up hobbies that necessitate solitude. For me this was hiking, long walks, working out, and conditioning myself mentally through meditation. This vital step makes a friend break-up way easier.

Step 2: Recognise the qualities that got you into the toxic friendship

“You have to take some degree of responsibility for the situation,” says Figley, a spokesman for the American Psychological Association. “It’s a pleaser personality — you want people to like you, you want to get along, and it’s hard to say no. But you can pay the price in one way by having toxic friends.”

Often, accepting responsibility for negative situations will help you prevent the same things from happening. The truth is that there are certain qualities people have that get them in toxic situations in the first place.

“Typically, the non-toxic person possesses deeper capacities such as remorse, conscientiousness, accountability, empathy, and self-awareness. These qualities are valiant, yet they make a person vulnerable to a toxic friend because the toxic friend takes advantage of the person’s tendency to look at themselves first.” — Erin Leonard, Ph.D. Practicing psychotherapist

The root of the problem is what makes you vulnerable to toxicity. Knowing the root cause can break patterns of getting into bad friendships.

Step 3: Be diplomatic

Use diplomatic communications skills. This means being able to control a difficult situation without upsetting anyone. Don’t make it obvious you need emotional space. Just say things like “I can’t meet up this weekend, I’m super busy with work.” This makes you put up a protective barrier that enables you to slowly but surely fade and drift further away from the friendship.

My favorite way to cut someone out is just a gradual drifting. Allow yourself to grow apart, this way it’s less painful.

Final Thoughts

Who we surround ourselves with and spend the majority of our time with plays such a pivotal role in the type of person you grow into, the success you achieve, and your general emotional wellbeing.

There is nothing better than having a close group of friends who motivate you to chase goals and improve every day. I can’t express the gratitude I have for my current friends who do this and much more. If you find yourself in a situation where you aren't happy with your friends, like where I was this time last year, just know that you will find your crowd.

“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.” — Paul Coelho: The Alchemist

Perhaps the most important lesson I learned was that no matter who you are, you will attract the people who you need into your life. Don’t worry, just keep doing you.

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I am an entrepreneur from London with a passion for reading and writing about self-improvement, productivity, fitness, history, philosophy, and happiness.


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