I’ll admit the topic is not original. Similarly titled listicles to this one are not in short supply, but I thought I’d add to the conversation with some reflections from personal experience.
A simple Google search surfaces various definitions of the toxic friend, with many focussing on behaviours like over-dependency (emotional and financial), jealousy, passive aggressive and just plain aggressive behaviour, and even bullying. These are clearly undesirable traits, but perhaps not exactly toxic. I think that toxic people are more than just bad friends. While your archenemy will swoop in for the kill with a catty comment, and is thus easily dealt with out in the open, the toxic friend is like a deceptively peachy but poisoned fruit. In other words, they appear to be a friend, while their noxious effect acts on you insidiously without you noticing. It is entirely possible to experience the dawning realisation that you are now a changed or worse person due to the influence of a toxic friend, that your better judgement has been bent out of shape and your ideas twisted or replaced.
In my role as gossip-sponge and confidante to my (largely non-toxic) friends, I have catalogued some of the behaviours whose creeping effect, if left unchecked, can result in one of those unpleasant lightbulb moments somewhere down the line.
Toxic sample 1: Peer pressure
I’m sure we’ve all felt this to some degree; it probably began at school when we begged our mothers to buy us the same model of iPod all our friends had. Even as an adult, it’s easy to be drawn into habits or lifestyles that we would prefer not to be involved in, such as binge-drinking, doping, or over-spending. While you may experience a sensation of social awkwardness if attempts at resistance are made, you need to get some willpower! Some situations are really worth resisting for a higher purpose, such as combating the daily trickle out of your bank account in order to see the world or buy a house (I’m arguing from prudential grounds but this chimes with the common ethical position of refusing immediate pleasures in favour of deferred goods). Just resist with tact. If you refuse your friend’s invitation to Boujis, don’t show up to your next meeting in a £300 coat and boast about your trip to the Caribbean. You can still see your friends (providing they are non-toxic and cease and desist on the peer-pressure front) without expensive restaurants and cocktails. “The best things in life are free”.
So far, so cliché. Let’s move to another example.
Toxic sample 2: Flakey and unreliable
Flakey friends will eventually, one by one, peel their way off the scalp of your everyday life. Until they do, you have to deal with the trauma of making plans on a group chat that get cancelled when one person bails at the last minute because their boyfriend got a new guinea pig (or other pathetic excuse). One flake generates another like a disastrous game of corn-cereal dominos, and suddenly everyone else’s semi-reasons not to see you start to surface. Before you know it, your plans are out the window and you’re deleting entries in your diary yet again. Other symptoms of unreliability may also occur, such as not replying to your message even though:
- you can see they’ve read it
- it clearly contained a question
- they are ‘active now’ on the messaging platform of choice
- they may even be responding to group chats that feature you both
While flakes are in your life, you’ll continue to wonder whether they actually like you, or whether you may in fact not be worthy of friendship and companionship, and various self-worth crises can ensue.
Another group of people capable of calling into question your worth and capabilities are those friends who you, well, don’t quite consider friends…
Toxic sample 3: ambiguity
You laugh when other people assume you’re together, ask when you’re getting together, or say you should get together. You’re positive you’re not well-matched with this other person, but still feel a stab in the heart if they date someone else. They behave in ways that could reasonably be interpreted romantically, such as over-sharing, flirting, or getting with you when drunk (but never in the cold light of day). Since we don’t all ruthlessly shoehorn every interaction into socially acceptable brackets (acquaintance; date; fling; concubine; boyfriend; friendzone; wife; mistress), it’s hard to avoid ambiguous friendships. As with any demi-crush, you may experience an increased interest in their pursuits and desperate dependence on their good opinion, but you need to bear in mind that ambiguity will only ever mess with your head. Common thought patterns like the following …
- They know you so well, why don’t they ACTUALLY like you? You must be deficient in some way
- If THEY don’t like you, what hope do you have with someone else you like and know less well?
- If you can be so apparently wrong about this person’s feelings for you, then what else in your life might you be missing or misjudging?
… will propel you into a spiral of doubt that leaves you questioning your grasp on reality and ability to make judgements about everyday life.
I think we’ve all encountered the next category of toxic friend. There’s at least one of them in every community, from the kid with all the sweets in kindergarten, to the high school ‘Plastics’, all the way, I’m sure, to the board of the latest startup, the Large Hadron Collider research lab, and your village bake-off team.
Toxic sample 4: The Cool Friend
How and why some people are considered ‘cool’ has always fascinated me. There’s no becoming cool, you simply are or are not. Your reputation in a community is established in the blink of an eye and seemingly without foundation. Does the popular group at school actually have more friends than you? Did that kid actually make the bizarre remark that has branded them as a weirdo forever? Do our high standards, set out early on, actually reflect wider societal perceptions reaching in through the school gates via television and the internet as to what is acceptable and to be emulated? Or are the popular kids at school just louder, prettier and in fact nastier, acting out evolutionary principles in order to survive (cf. Mean Girls)?
In the adult world, ‘cool’ is less resistant to definition; according to an earlier meaning of the word, it meant an attitude of calm stoicism in facing the horrors of this world. Nowadays its exponents are worshipped for their hilarity, nonchalance and derring-do. They drink excessively, bungee jump off their Ibiza balcony using only the elastic from their pants, ski naked and perform other feats of crazy spontaneity. These people seem to exert magic power over everyone around them. I suspect it’s part envy, part hero-worship, part genuine interest in their next anecdote – from which you’re never more than 30 seconds away – that impels their continued popularity. Yet eventually you may find the spell operating on you too – especially when coolness is accompanied with a dose of peer pressure (see above) or manipulation (see below). So when the cool profess opinions that you think suck, but that other people seem to respect – or at any rate do not challenge – you initially think the lot of them stupid. By and by, you end up coming round to their opinion too. Just when you feel ready to nod along with the rest of the herd, the opinion’s original sponsor decides instead that (for example) eating fried chicken every night was damaging their digestion and they’d rather get hench in the gym; or they don’t actually need a weekly manicure; or they regretted getting their Marbella fling’s name emblazoned indelibly across their lower back. Like those shoals of fish that seem to move as one, the nodding pack gives equal respect to the u-turn, no matter how much they agreed with the contrary opinion before. You then wonder why you thought that no one would listen, or would think you square, had you previously expressed said opinion.
The above types of toxicity intensify tenfold when combined with manipulation. So far, the friends exhibiting symptoms of toxicity may well be unintentionally exerting their influence. But combine any of the above with an intention to bend you to their will, because they’re controlling, want something from you, or maliciously actually want to mess with your life, and you get the kind of toxic that should come with a ‘nuclear waste – environmental hazard’ warning.
Toxic sample 5: manipulation
It’s a real psychological symptom! “The manipulator deliberately creates an imbalance of power, and exploits the victim to serve his or her agenda”. Manipulative people convince you to do what they want at the expense of what you want, or what is good for you. Strong beliefs and self-worth can bolster you against undue influence, but the grey areas and slow creep can catch you out. Roald Dahl’s ‘The Twits’ is a classic tale of the toxic manipulative friend (in this case, spouse): Mr Twit wants to convince Mrs Twit she is slowly shrinking, so every day sticks pieces of wood to the bottom of the chair legs so that, without her noticing, the size of the furniture gradually increases. Now a friend who persuades you into signing up for the charity fun-run with her when she knows you hate running is probably not emotionally blackmailing you. Ceding to persuasion is a healthy part of normal friendship, and not necessarily a sign that you are being manipulated. However, there is a balance to be struck between the natural and praiseworthy impulse to compromise and make sacrifices for someone you love, and acting to your detriment at their behest. A good sacrifice is offered, not demanded or presumed.
My disagreement with some ‘toxic friend’ articles is the blithe injunction to simply excise certain people from our lives: stop all contact immediately; block their number and social media profiles; take out a preventative restraining order. We are told we don’t need negativity, that we should cut ties with anyone who holds us back. It’s the same doctrine of self-esteem-bolstering, choice and control over every aspect of our lives, and personal independence and empowerment that we find in so much ‘self-help’, but which needs to be far more nuanced than the simple approach of ‘I must get what I can for myself out of every human interaction’. This is, after all, the manipulator’s mentality. For example, the Debbie Downer-type friend often decried in these articles may be genuinely unhappy or depressed, and in need of support. I still think that even the worst, most psyche-damaging people in our lives deserve our love, at the very least in the form of courtesy. But the situations I’ve described, in which, blinded to your best interests, you are duped into altering your behaviour in accordance with another person’s opinion, or to gain their approval, go beyond the healthy influence your friends should exert for your good.
To end on a positive note, while clearly no one is perfect, you know you’re onto a winner with:
- Encouragers, who raise your self-worth and make you believe you are better than you think you are
- Inspirers, who open up new avenues of possibility
- Salt of the earth, milk and honey friends. Their ‘love is patient and kind’, they have your best interests at heart and are not too afraid of injuring your sensibilities to speak the truth to you. They’re more interested in listening to you than in games of one-upmanship around which of you had the worst rush-hour tube experience. Incidentally, the best advice one of these friends has ever given me is to point out how noxious another toxic friend really was.
This may be something you can only learn the hard way, but my main gist is as follows. Revise your opinions if you will, but only if you hear a better argument. Very few people in your life will be worth revisiting behaviours or lifestyle for. Cultivate strong will and self-belief, and be mentally emancipated from unworthy influences. Vive la liberté!