Do you know why it’s often difficult to spot toxic friends?
As Robert Greene wrote in The Laws of Human Nature,
“When people overtly display some trait, such as confidence or hypermasculinity, they are most often concealing the contrary reality.”
Humans are by nature consummate actors. We already know what’s socially acceptable. We know that openly displaying a bitter attitude towards someone we don’t like doesn’t make us look good to others.
No wonder the ancient German philosopher Arthur Schopenheur once wrote in his Counsels and Maxims, “You will always be the prey or the plaything of the devils and fools in this world if you expect to see them going about with horns or jingling their bells.”
Toxic friends (or relationships) won’t come to you with a sign on their foreheads saying “I’m toxic.” They’ll often start out sweet. This is how they draw you in and prevent you from seeing their toxicity.
But you can learn to spot toxic behaviors before they cause emotional turmoil to you. These are the best signs a friend is toxic, according to psychologists.
1. They subtly exploit your insecurities
Their comments will often catch you off guard. But they’ll quickly make it look like they were just messing around, making you unable to respond to what they just said — because now you’ll look like an overreacting child if you do.
Imagine this scenario. You can probably relate:
A toxic friend has good news, and she quickly calls you to rant to you about how everything is so great with her.
But when you have something good to tell her, like getting a good job, she might subtly refer to how long it took you to finally get it right. Then she’ll laugh it off with a half-hearted “I’m happy for you.”
If you have a friend that is skilled at making you feel down every time you interact, you need to watch out. This is why experts recommend that you pay attention when you feel strange or drained after spending time with a “friend”.
Something is motivating their behavior, and it’s nothing good. They have an innate urge to not see you happy. Every time you have something good going for you, they’ll pick on something delicate and use it against you.
2. They see your success as their failure
Some people understand that they have habits that are doing them no good. But they don’t mind leading someone else down that same road.
Here’s a major difference between a toxic friend and a good friend:
When you succeed, a good friend is happy for you. And they will be happy to learn from you and grow with you.
A toxic friend, on the other hand, is envious of your success. And instead of learning from you and growing with you, they’ll prefer to drag you down to their level. This is why toxic friends begin to treat you like an outsider when you start outgrowing them.
As Jordan Peterson explained in 12 Rules For Life,
“When you dare aspire upward, you reveal the inadequacy of the present and the promise of the future. Then you disturb others, in the depths of their souls, where they understand that their cynicism and immobility are unjustifiable. You play Abel to their Cain.”
This is perhaps the best test of true friendship. Good friends are happy when you succeed. They want to rise with you.
But a toxic friend is threatened by the best in you, and is always motivated to bring you back to your worst.
3. They’ll rather let you go astray than show you tough love
When someone truly cares about you, there’s an innate motivation to see you at your best.
For instance, if you’re an athlete with good potential, a good friend will encourage you to work out regularly, eat rightly, and stay in shape. They won’t even mind having to do these things with you just to get you started.
But a bad friend wouldn’t care less. Instead, they’ll be the ones encouraging you to feel free to drink, party, and eat whatever you want.
In the short term, they may seem like they are fun and even supportive. But in the long run, you’ll see that they’ve done nothing but make you exactly like them — no skills, no dreams, no aspirations, no direction.
As studies have also shown, good friends don’t mind inducing negative emotions in the short term to ensure your well-being in the long run.
In other words, they are capable of showing TOUGH LOVE.
Also read: 5 Defining Traits of Highly Toxic People
4. They enjoy disrespecting your boundaries
One of the best ways to spot a toxic friend is how much enjoyment they have on their face when you’re miserable.
Of course, they won’t tell you that they enjoy seeing you miserable. But if you’re willing to pay attention, the signs are unmistakable. You’ll see the microexpression of joy when they see you frustrated, confused, or anxious. This is precisely why a toxic friend likes to toil with your boundaries.
For instance, you tell them you don’t like loud parties; you like your me-time because it helps you relax and think. But instead of a toxic friend understanding and respecting your decisions, they’ll use your confession to make subtle digs at you in the presence of others, implying that you’re a nerd (or antisocial).
When a “friend” is constantly taking your boundaries for granted, making you feel like your boundaries aren’t important, you might be dealing with a toxic friend.
A good friend empathizes with you. They won’t try to mess with anything important to you. They want to see you happy. They have your best interest at heart.
5. They always want to take from you
The way someone behaves when they need something from you says a lot about who they are — both as a friend and as a person.
Toxic friends have different behavior toward you when they need something from you. They become overly sweet, gentle, and kind. But here’s a test you can carry out:
Watch how they quickly change their aura when they see you won’t be able to give them what they want.
A toxic friend will quickly become touchy, making you feel like your mere inability to give them what they want is a sin against them. As Dr. Tracey Marks, a psychiatrist explained,
“Toxic people may even go as far as using guilt to make you do things for them… They won’t take no for an answer.”
But ask them for a little favor. Notice how they quickly reject just a little act of service that will require them to inconvenience themselves for the sake of your friendship.
Friends like these are not interested in building a relationship with you. They are only interested in the benefits your friendship with them can give. As Dr. Tracey further explained, even when toxic friends give to you, there’s usually a price to pay on the back end.
Think back, and you’ll probably realize that there’s something they are already getting from being friends with you. It could be status, money, power, self-esteem, etc. And once that benefit disappears, their friendships will also disappear with it.
In a toxic friendship, you’ll always feel there’s an imbalance between what you’re getting and what you’re giving.
6. You feel pressured to always prove yourself
The right company makes you feel at home.
True friends help you embrace yourself. And even though you’re not perfect, they don’t make you feel alone in your imperfections. With the right people, you can freely talk about the kind of music, movies, your best foods, and the books you love, without being afraid of judgment.
But with toxic friends, you’re always working on eggshells. Just saying you like the wrong things could trigger humiliating laughter, and even make you lose your place in the group.
Well, toxic friendship isn’t about genuine acceptance. It’s built on the benefits people get from each other. Everyone is expected to be cool, act a certain way, or date certain types of people. And if you deviate from this toxic ideal, you’re out of the group.
This is why celebrities can be surrounded by so many people and still feel alone. Almost everyone around them is there because of what they can get, not what they can give.
Sometimes the major thing preventing you from seeing toxic friends is just accepting their toxic behaviors. As Robert Greene explained in Mastery,
“If we feel like we know something, our minds close off to other possibilities. We see reflections of the truth we have already assumed.”
Don’t get so attached to someone that you explain their toxic behavior away as nothing. Always be willing to see people for what they are, not what you wish they were.