How to Tell If a Friend Is Toxic (and What to Do About It)

Two friends sitting separately having a serious conversation in cafeOur relationships are important. The people we spend our time with set the tone for whether we end up being authentically who we are made to be.

Friends are there to support us when we go through tough times, hold us accountable to our goals, and challenge us to think about our values and beliefs. The ones we surround ourselves with can play a part in either helping us grow or keeping us stagnant.

A healthy friendship is give-and-take. It can feel lopsided at times, as when you are going through something and your friend puts their own things aside to help (or vice versa). But it doesn’t continue that way for long, and it balances out over the years.

So what is a toxic friendship, how do we recognize it, and why do we stick with toxic friends for so long?

What Does It Mean to Be a Toxic Person?

Clinically, there is no definition that applies to “toxic” people. Generally speaking, toxic people are recognized by personality traits that put them in what is known as the “dark triad” in psychological circles. The dark triad includes those who have traits of narcissism, psychopathy, or Machiavellianism.

According to Delroy Paulhus, a researcher in the dark triad, narcissism describes “grandiose self-promoters who continually crave attention.” So-called psychopaths are those who can (and often do) cause serious harm with their callousness, but lack the grandiosity of a person with narcissism. And Machiavellians are considered everyday manipulators. Most of us run into someone from all three of these areas often in our lives.

Based on those descriptions, it may be uncomfortable to put our friends into those categories. However, many people who fit into them can also be described as charming, ambitious, productive, and confident.

How Can We Recognize Toxic People?

Toxic people are the ones who are hard to be friends with. We often feel loyal to them for one reason or another—the length of time we’ve known them, the difficulty they’ve experienced in their life, or some guilt they have put upon us at the notion of setting a boundary with them.

We can usually recognize toxic people when we examine our feelings about them when they aren’t around. Does being around this person make us feel good about ourselves? Do we leave conversations with them feeling heard and supported? Are we able to be ourselves around them, or do we feel as if we constantly have a guard up? Have we seen them be manipulative or gossip about others?

When you are around people who are toxic, you may feel drained after interacting with them. This is because it is usually about them and their lives or problems, requiring you to give more than you receive.

Why Do We Keep Toxic Friends Around?

There are many reasons we stick it out with toxic friends. Fear is usually high on the list.

We fear cutting off toxic people because we have seen how they respond when others do not behave in the way the toxic person would like.

Toxic people often toe the line between being unhealthy friends and being downright bullies. It can be difficult to set boundaries with someone like this, knowing the consequences will likely take a heavy emotional toll.

We may have seen them become resentful, mean-spirited, or gossip and spread lies about others who didn’t comply with their expectations, and we worry that this may happen to us.

Toxic people often toe the line between being unhealthy friends and being downright bullies. It can be difficult to set boundaries with someone like this, knowing the consequences will likely take a heavy emotional toll.

Often, there are other fears involved. When someone has been in your life for a long time, there can be an underlying fear that you won’t find healthier friends. Ironically, these negative feelings about yourself can stem from having toxic people in your life who reinforce them.

In thinking through a relationship, you may also want to examine whether you are fulfilling a need to “save” this person from their negativity or their problems. This could be a huge red flag for you within not only your friendships, but also intimate relationships. If you see a pattern, it may be wise to do some further exploration with a counselor.

What Can We Do When We Identify a Toxic Person?

Toxic people don’t necessarily need to be cut from your life, especially if you are able to set good boundaries. Of course, this is dependent on your circumstances. If someone causes physical, emotional, or even financial harm to you, take steps to remove them from your life.

However, if you recognize a toxic person but decide to continue your friendship, you can take steps to improve your relationship with them. Again, setting good boundaries—being able to say “no” when you are asked to do something, or if something makes you uncomfortable—is important. This can help keep you from being manipulated or coerced into something you don’t want to do.

Direct communication is always a good idea. If your friend hurts you in some way, or if their behavior is unacceptable, you have the right to tell them so. You can also provide feedback to them when you feel they are unkind or unfair to others. If someone isn’t willing to treat you respectfully or listen to your views, you may want to reevaluate why you are in the relationship.

Finally, if you notice you are surrounded by unhealthy relationships, or see a pattern within your relationships that leads them to becoming toxic, you may want to reach out for support. This can help in recognizing and building healthier relationships, or with setting healthy boundaries.

Friendships are for those who bring value to our lives with support, trust, understanding, and authenticity. When our relationships don’t reflect these traits, it may be time to consider why.


Paulhus, D. (2014). Toward a taxonomy of dark personalities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23. 421-426. 10.1177/0963721414547737.

© Copyright 2018 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Brooke Williams, MA, LPC, Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Chet

    June 27th, 2018 at 8:47 AM

    In this hyper partisan era, who isn’t a toxic friend. There is no tolerance anymore for alternative beliefs. Everyone is a narcissist.

  • Brooke Williams, MA, LPC

    June 27th, 2018 at 12:42 PM

    Hey Chet! I think you have a great point – our technology/society do encourage us towards narcisissism, especially considering social media leans so heavily towards self-promotion. But I also believe that there’s often a big difference between how we act online, and how we interact with others in person. I think that social media can create toxic interactions, but I think that if we lead in (in off-screen life) towards conversation about alternative beliefs, then there is lots of room for growth and understanding. But that line is much more easily drawn outside of our technological connections and in person.

  • Jon S.

    June 27th, 2018 at 2:01 PM

    I guess that really cuts to the heart of it – the lessening gap between our behavior online and in-person. I would like to hope that it is possible to break down these barriers to understanding, but when someone has several echo-chambers to fall back to how much of that understanding will persevere? For many people today, the bulk of their social interactions with their friend-groups takes places in a digital space. Be it through group texts, social media, or what have you, many people today seem to view in-person interaction as their secondary (or even tertiary) form of communication, rather than primary.

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