There is no friendship counselling nowadays. No therapies, no workshops, not much expert advice on how to successfully navigate our non-romantic relationships.
Friendships are crucial to our happiness, and yet so many of us end up surrounding ourselves with people who don’t bring out the best in us. We create toxic patterns and get stuck in mindsets that aren’t beneficial to our personal growth.
There’s a famous quote by Jim Rohn that people often use when talking about self-improvement:
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
I’ve recently separated from my best friend of ten whole years, and as I’ve been dissecting our former friendship to pieces in my head, I’ve noticed there had been many signs that pointed to the toxicity of our relationship, and I either completely missed them or decided to ignore them.
When I read advice online on how to spot a toxic friendship, it often talked about a toxic friend. I don’t think it’s that simple, though. It’s not like your friend is a monster, and you’re the sheer representation of perfection. Not everything that went sour between my friend and I was her fault – I’m no angel, and I had my part to play.
Relationships are complex. You can get stuck in a toxic friendship, and still admit that your friend isn’t all that bad – sometimes it’s the dynamics itself that poisons the connection you have.
These are the six signs that you might be finding yourself in a toxic friendship as well.
It feels bittersweet
It just does. And you have no clue why. You only start to discover the reasons once you decide to analyze the relationship a little.
I once wrote a poem that starts like this:
we are/ always in the shadow of one another/ telling each other everything; and nothing at all/ and there’s a slight flavor of hate to add the bittersweetness to it/ and we call it/ friendship
The thing is, I’ve never felt bittersweet with any of my other friends. My friendships with others are relaxed, light-hearted, supportive. There is no place for jealousy, competitiveness or stress.
When you feel slightly bitter about your friend, stop and think to yourself, “Why? What bothers me? What isn’t working? Why is this person making me feel this way?” You might soon find out that if you dig a bit deeper underneath the surface, plenty of problems emerge.
Feeling bittersweet about your friendship is the first sign something’s off. The rest ensues.
You constantly compete
My friend and I had many shared hobbies and aspirations. Instead of simply supporting each other while working on our own thing, there was often this invisible competition happening behind the scenes.
We didn’t talk about this much, however, I often felt like if I ended up achieving some sort of success faster than her, she wouldn’t be actually happy for me because she wouldn’t be able to stop comparing my achievement to her own lack of it. In basically every single aspect of our lives, I felt like we were competing.
And as much as I didn’t want it to keep happening, it did. It happened each time I got a grade for an essay I wrote, constantly comparing it with her own grades. It happened each time we decided to work on a new project or wrote a piece of poetry or read a certain number of books per year or even did basic daily tasks.
Every time one of us shared an aspect of her life with the other, there it was: Is she better than me? Is she thinking about me being better than her? Is she genuinely happy for me, or is my success letting her down?
Competition is never good for any relationship. It forces you to perceive your friend as an enemy rather than a partner in crime. It makes you want to prove your worth to them, time and again, when the only person you should focus on racing is yourself.
The expectations are too high
Ever since I was thirteen years old, we planned our future together. As we grew older, some of our plans changed, but we were still set on the fact that we would stay friends for the rest of our lives.
But then I realized that while I counted on having a husband, a family that needed me the most, and potentially living in a different city than my friend because of our different life aspirations, she still wanted us to do things her way. We would live in an apartment together in London, we would do this and that and be that and this.
Every single time I thought about my future and the various paths I might take, I thought, “What about my friend? Would she get upset at me for not following through with our original plan?” Honestly, this put a lot of pressure on me because I knew she still wanted me to appear in her specific plans, while I was slowly forming into a person who had a very different idea of the life I wanted to live.
If your friendship doesn’t provide you with enough space to grow and change your mind, it might be very toxic for you because you’re forced to stay the same person for years and years. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized things such as 1) London is too freaking expensive for what it offers to me 2) I know my family will be the most important thing in the world to me one day, and as much as I cherish my friendships, I’m ready to build something with my partner without my friends constantly restricting me.
My friendship wasn’t very accommodating to these realizations, to say the least. My friend’s expectations of me were simply too high, and I knew I couldn’t meet them – one day, it would all crumble underneath us. The pressure would crush us.
And it did.
You’re fixed on long-buried grudges
“Remember how you forced me to get out at that bus stop when we were thirteen? Remember how you ditched me for your boyfriend at fifteen? Remember how you were mean to me because I didn’t want to buy a sandwich at the same time you did?”
Holding grudges against each other for your past behavior is extremely damaging to every relationship. However, it’s even worse when you feel bitter about actions that happened a very long time ago when you were both still teenagers.
A teenager can be a real pain in the ass, okay. Being a young adult is a time of tremendous change, emotional turmoil and mistakes that you eventually learn from and move on. If your friendship survives this stage, it’s essential that you focus on who you have become rather than who you used to be.
Since our friendship was built at such an early age, we still held lots of grudges for things that were long gone. We weren’t able to fully tap into the power of forgiveness, and this also destroyed our relationship in the end.
What’s more, we constantly had assumptions about each other based on what happened in the past. The perception of each other’s personalities was too rigid and narrow – we couldn’t juggle the idea of seeing one another in a brand-new light.
“This is so typical of you,” ended up being a phrase that made me feel like I was still that sixteen-year-old girl who had no clue what she was doing. It was supposed to serve as comic relief, but it only brought out feelings of self-doubt and shame.
People change. People evolve. Your friendship must evolve accordingly, or else it’s doomed.
You walk on eggshells
Tiptoeing around difficult conversations became a habit. I always wondered if my friend would approve of my actions, my opinions, my decisions.
Even when she was overall very supportive, I was still scared she would on some level think I was a horrible person. I always feared criticizing her actions because I was horrified of any conflict whatsoever.
A part of me felt extremely insecure in the friendship because I was constantly afraid that if I pushed for what I wanted without taking her into account, our friendship would fall apart.
If there’s one thing I can’t stress enough, it’s that you should feel safe and supported in your friendship. You should be able to handle arguments together and you shouldn’t bottle little frustrations inside of yourself out of fear of confrontation because that can eventually lead to silent contempt.
And let me tell you something – contempt is the killer of any relationship.
You need to take a break
After my friendship got a little too much – we lived together for eight months, and it did some serious damage to our dynamics –, I felt like I needed to take some time off.
My friend irritated me more often than she made me happy, and the more I withdrew, the more she got on my nerves. Thinking of her didn’t make me content, quite the opposite – I was annoyed solely when a thought of her crossed my mind. I was patiently waiting for these feelings to go away, yet they never did.
Honestly, sincere adult friendships shouldn’t be hard work. Of course you make time for each other. Of course you support one another and you drive to each other’s houses in times of a crisis. Your friend has a special place in your heart, no matter how busy you are with your career or family.
At its core, though, friends are there to make your life a better one. An easier one. They make you laugh, they give you a space to be your authentic relaxed self, they’re understanding and forgiving. They know your world doesn’t revolve around them, and they’re okay with it.
If your friendship puts so much pressure on you that you feel like it’s hard work to keep it alive, maybe it’s time to reconsider why you’re keeping this kind of relationship in your life.
Adult friendships are quite different from the ones we form as children and teenagers – they’re more care-free, humbler and less intense. They give you the freedom to be true to yourself, to pursue your dreams, to care for your family, to get busy.
In its essence, though, it doesn’t matter if you’re a teenager or an adult – toxic friendships are never good for you. They prevent you from becoming the best possible version of yourself and they represent a huge source of stress in your life.
Ever since I broke up with my best friend, I’ve felt lighter. More like myself. More like someone who can finally grow again without worrying. We might reunite one day, when we’re at different places in our lives, however, we need to go our separate ways for now.
If you’ve been nodding along to some of the six signs I mentioned above, it might be time for you to end your friendship too.
The day you do it is the day you can finally breathe.