Relationships, in general, aren’t always easy. It’s normal to experience a bit of conflict with friends or colleagues, and the occasional tiff doesn’t necessarily mean the relationship is doomed to fail. You have a disagreement, you talk about it, and you move on with the knowledge of how to better relate going forward. That’s the difference between healthy relationships and toxic ones.
In toxic relationships, conflict isn’t something that gets resolved – it’s a constant theme. Over time, the constant drama can get under your skin, affecting not just your friendship but your mental health and well-being. Logically, it makes sense that these types of relationships can be draining. But for some reason, they’re easy to fall into and hard to leave — especially as adults, when friendships are so hard to come by.
“Preserving the few friends you might have, whether they are toxic or not, could just be a self-preservation mechanism that leads to overlooking toxic qualities and characteristics for the sake of maintaining any bond or connection,” says Javier Moreira, a psychotherapist at Humantold.
According to Seattle-based therapist Gina Handley-Schmitt, logistics can also make it tough to end toxic relationships. Often, these people are intimately intertwined with your life in various ways, from sharing the same friend group to sending their kids to the same preschool.
“We fear that ending a toxic friendship might make other parts of our life more difficult, and so we just acquiesce to the dysfunction of the friendship, deciding that’s the better alternative,” Handley-Schmitt says. “But there is a mental and emotional price to be paid when we ignore our need for boundaries.”
Here are some of the most common signs a person is harmful to your mental health (and some advice for how to distance yourself from them).
1. The Person Blame-Shifts
The first thing to know: Toxic people are self-centered, and that usually becomes obvious in conflicts. For example, Dan Auerbach, director and clinical counselor with Associated Counsellors & Psychologists Sydney, says toxic people commonly blame others for hiccups in relationships that actually aren’t the other person’s fault. So in a toxic friendship, you might find yourself feeling unnecessary shame or guilt, and consequently finding ways to “make it up to” the person out of fear of conflict.
For example, say your friend suddenly stops replying to your calls and texts — and when you bring it up, they say you’re too needy. “If this behavior is repeated, it’s likely that person has difficulty with intimacy and turns around on others by blaming those who try to get close to them,” Auerbach says.
2. They’re Somehow Always Right
Along the same lines, Megan Harrison, a Tampa-based therapist, says toxic people typically like to be right, even about things they did wrong. “This person will find a way to justify every action and has no guilt or remorse for anything that happens,” she says. That means you might walk away from interactions with a toxic person feeling unheard, misunderstood, and manipulated.
3. They’re Hyper-Critical
Toxic people are also really good at putting others down. The reason? While it may seem toxic folks are prideful, that’s just a front to hide behind — they’re actually quite insecure. “A person with low self-esteem is likely to try to bring you down, too, so they feel better about their own issues, and this can have a grave effect on your mental health because of the negativity in their words and actions,” Harrison says.
4. The Relationship Is a One-Way Street
In general, toxic people don’t respect people they’re in a relationship with. Instead, they treat others as a means to an end — usually, a way to make themselves feel good. A friendship that feels constantly off balance is a major sign of someone’s toxic. “Yes, it’s normal to fluctuate at times with one person needing more support than the other, but there should be an ebb and flow between the two of you, not always one person giving and the other taking,” says Lisa Seid, a therapist in Ft. Lauderdale.
5. What You Do Is Never Enough
Even if you bend over backwards to show you care, Harrison says toxic people usually want more from the relationship — and always without giving back. “Often, this person will use guilt or shame on you for not meeting their needs,” she says. “You may start to go against your own morals and values in order to please them.”
6. You Don’t Feel Yourself Around Them
Do you sometimes feel out of control when you’re around this person? Toxic friendships, Seid says, have a way of pushing our buttons to behave in ways we normally wouldn’t. “Whether it’s losing our cool, completely pulling away in isolation, or not saying things we know we need to say, not feeling fully in control of how we react is another common sign it may be toxic,” she says.
7. You Feel Constantly Drained
According to therapist Allison Gomez, one of the most common signs someone is toxic to your mental health is feeling constantly drained — and bad about yourself — after spending time with that person. “This isn’t about occasionally having a conflict and working through it, but feeling bad about yourself more frequently than not,” she says.
Maybe constant criticism is draining you. Maybe you’re exhausted that the relationship seems to feel like a one-way street. Either way, if the problem is severe enough, you may even find yourself avoiding that person to avoid the negative feelings that come from the interactions.
8. You’re Nervous to End the Relationship
It’s always hard to set boundaries, but if someone is particularly toxic, you may feel worried about the fallout or even guilty about your own motives. That’s because according to Gomez, gaslighting — the act of systematically discounting your feelings to the extent that you feel wrong for having them — is common in toxic friendships. As a result, you may second guess yourself or feel like you’re abandoning the other person when you’re trying to end an emotionally abusive relationship.
How to End a Toxic Relationship with a Friend or Colleague
The first step, according to Seid: Recognizing this person is a major damper on your mental health. “It may sound cheesy, but knowledge really is power,” she says. “Seeing something is an issue gives us the ability to change it.”
When the time comes to cut ties with a toxic person, Handley-Schmitt says it’s best to be assertive. Clearly communicate the issues that have led to your decision to step back from the relationship, along with the specific boundaries you’re implementing. If the person doesn’t respect your boundaries, Seid recommends considering whether the person can be in your life at all.
As you step away from high-drama friendships, make an effort to focus on people who make you feel good. “It’s a good idea to speak to friends and family about what you’re experiencing so you can be reminded of the sort of treatment you should expect in a good relationship,” Auerbach says.