Toxic friendships: How to recognise and avoid them

Friendships are a fundamental aspect of our lives, offering support, companionship, and shared experiences. However, sometimes, friendships can become toxic, causing harm to our mental and emotional well-being. Toxic friendships can be challenging to recognise, but identifying the signs and knowing how to avoid them is crucial for our mental health.


Signs of a toxic friendship

Toxic friendships are characterised by patterns of negative behaviour that cause harm to one or both individuals. The following are signs that a friendship may be toxic:

Constant criticism

A toxic friend may frequently criticise your decisions, opinions, and behaviours. They may belittle your accomplishments or make you feel inadequate.

Lack of support

A toxic friend may be unsupportive when you need them the most. They may dismiss your feelings or fail to offer help when you need it.


A toxic friend may manipulate you to get what they want. They may use guilt or emotional blackmail to make you feel obligated to do things for them.

Controlling behaviour

A toxic friend may try to control your actions or decisions. They may make you feel guilty for spending time with other friends or try to isolate you from your other relationships.

Unhealthy competition

A toxic friend may constantly compare themselves to you or be competitive in a way that feels unhealthy. They may try to one-up you or put you down to boost their own ego.

Gossiping and betrayal

A toxic friend may frequently gossip about you or share your personal information without your consent. They may betray your trust or spread rumours about you.

Toxic friendships can have a significant impact on mental health. The negative behaviour of a toxic friend can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and stress. According to a study by the Mental Health Foundation, 68% of people who experienced a toxic friendship reported that it affected their mental health. Additionally, 52% reported that it affected their physical health.

One of the main reasons toxic friendships can be so detrimental to mental health is that they can create feelings of insecurity and self-doubt.

When a friend is constantly criticising or belittling you, it can be difficult to feel confident in your abilities or make decisions. Additionally, the manipulation and controlling behaviour of a toxic friend can create feelings of powerlessness and a lack of control over one's own life.

Case study: Emma's toxic friendship

Emma had been friends with Rachel since high school but, as they grew older, Rachel became more critical and controlling. Rachel would often belittle Emma's decisions and criticise her appearance. Rachel also made Emma feel guilty for spending time with her other friends, making her feel isolated.

Despite the negative behaviour, Emma continued to make excuses for Rachel's behaviour, feeling that she had invested too much time in the friendship to let it go. Emma noticed that she was becoming more anxious and less confident, and she realised that Rachel's toxic behaviour was impacting her mental health.

Emma began to set boundaries with Rachel, letting her know that she did not appreciate the criticism and controlling behaviour. However, Rachel did not respond well and continued to be critical and manipulative. Emma eventually realised that the friendship was not worth the toll it was taking on her mental health, and she ended the relationship.

How to avoid toxic friendships

Avoiding toxic friendships can be challenging, but the following tips can help:

  • Set boundaries: Be clear about what you are willing to tolerate and communicate those boundaries to your friend.
  • Take time for self-reflection: Reflect on how your friendship makes you feel and whether it is bringing positivity or negativity into your life.
  • Seek support: Talk to a trusted friend or family member about your concerns or seek professional support.
  • Be honest: If you have decided to end a toxic friendship, be honest with your friend about why you are ending the relationship. It may be uncomfortable, but it can help both parties move on.
  • Surround yourself with positivity: Cultivate positive relationships with people who uplift and support you.

In conclusion, toxic friendships can have a significant impact on mental health, and it is essential to recognise the signs and know how to avoid them. Negative behaviour, such as constant criticism, lack of support, manipulation, controlling behaviour, unhealthy competition, and gossiping and betrayal, are all indicators of a toxic friendship.

The negative effects of toxic friendships can lead to feelings of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and stress. Therefore, setting boundaries, seeking support, and cultivating positive relationships are essential steps to maintaining good mental health and avoiding toxic friendships.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, 62% of adults in the UK reported feeling lonely in 2020, and friendships are an essential aspect of combatting loneliness. However, it is crucial to prioritise quality over quantity and avoid toxic relationships that can do more harm than good. Being aware of the signs and taking steps to protect your mental health can lead to positive and fulfilling friendships.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Wantage OX12 & Rickmansworth WD3
Written by Hope Therapy & Counselling Services, Offering Counselling, CBT, Hypnotherapy, EMDR & Mindfulness.
Wantage OX12 & Rickmansworth WD3

Ian Stockbridge is the founder and lead counsellor at Hope Therapy and Counselling Services. 

As an experienced Counsellor, Ian recognised a huge societal need for therapeutic services that were often not being met. As such the 'Hope Agency'was born and its counselling team now offers counselling and therapeutic support throughout the UK.

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