An Expert Explains the Psychology Behind Toxic Friendships

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Here's a startling statistic: Only half of your friends consider you a friend, too, according to a study published in the peer-reviewed, scientific journal PLOS One. Of course, not all friendships require an equal level of admiration—but how do you know when one crosses over into toxic territory? To gain an expert's perspective on toxic friendships, we asked Dr. Kelly Campbell, an associate professor of psychology and human development at California State University, San Bernardino, to weigh in on the topic.

According to Campbell, "A toxic friendship is one that violates the norms and expectations of friendship." Your "friends should have your best interest at heart, stand up for you in your absence, keep your secrets, treat you with respect, be trustworthy and supportive, and be happy for your successes," Campbell explains. "When these norms are not upheld, the friendship may be toxic," she cautions.

You set the example for how others should treat you, so be kind to yourself and treat yourself well.

Ahead, Campbell breaks down the psychology behind this unhealthy relationship dynamic, including the red flags to watch for, the psychological impact, and the necessary steps to take for ending a toxic friendship once and for all.

Group hugs on a beach at sunset.
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Signs You May Be in a Toxic Friendship

Look for these warning signs to determine if your friendship is on the rocks:

You seem to care more about the friendship than they do. For example, "You are the one always initiating plans, or you're always available to help when needed, but they never reciprocate," describes Campbell of this type of behavior.

They aren't trustworthy. A telltale sign of a toxic friend is that they share your secrets with others, explains Campbell.

You feel bad about yourself after you've spent time with them. According to Campbell, a toxic friend criticizes you or expresses jealousy, rather than support, of your accomplishments. Instead of feeling energized and uplifted after being around them, your self-esteem takes a hit.

They don't treat you with respect. This could include behavior such as flirting with your significant other, notes Campbell. 

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The Psychological Impact of Toxic Friendship

Being in a toxic friendship can wear on your self-esteem, says Campbell. "When you accept poor treatment from someone, it is usually because you don't value yourself or have high self-esteem to begin with," she explains. "But keeping those people in your life can further decrease an already fragile sense of self."

"These relationships can also impact your mental and physical well-being," Campbell adds. "When we experience stress (from various sources, including friendships), we put ourselves at risk for mental illness, disease, and even an early death. By contrast, having close, supportive friendships is beneficial for our health and well-being."

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What to Do if You're in a Toxic Friendship

If you're in a toxic friendship and want to end it, Campbell's best advice is to work on yourself. "The more you work on excelling in valued domains and achieving personal goals, the better you'll feel about yourself," she explains. "By bolstering your self-esteem, you'll start weeding toxic people out of your life because their treatment will no longer fit with how you see yourself."

Campbell suggests identifying areas in your life that you want to excel in and setting concrete goals for yourself; for example, earning your degree, working out regularly, or meditating daily. "Make sure your life is balanced, allowing time to devote to working, learning, attending social events, and engaging in self-care," she recommends. "You set the example for how others should treat you so be kind to yourself and treat yourself well."

For further reading on the topic, shop books on toxic friendships:

Irene S. Levine Best Friends Forever $10
Adam Galinsky and Maurice Schweitzer Friend & Foe $7
Jan Yager Ph.D. When Friendship Hurts $11
Suzanne Degges-White and Judy Pochel Van Tieghem Toxic Friendships $40
Albert Bernstein Emotional Vampires $14
Article Sources
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  1. Almaatouq A, Radaelli L, Pentland A, et al. Are You Your Friends’ Friend? Poor Perception of Friendship Ties Limits the Ability to Promote Behavioral Change. PlosOne. 2016. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0151588

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