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How Toxic Friendships Can Affect Your Mental Health

Good friendships are something that we all want. If we don’t already have them, we’re usually looking for them, and if we do have them, we’re trying to maintain them. According to the Mayo Clinic, friendship can boost your happiness and sense of belonging and lower levels of stress and the likelihood of having a destructive lifestyle. In short, having good friends makes us feel like we have good lives. Simple.

What’s not so simple are the friendships that aren’t so good, the ones that confuse us and make us feel worse about ourselves. These friendships are what psychologists identify as toxic and can have negative consequences on our mental health. 

Identifying and purging toxic relationships can be challenging, especially in situations that give mixed signals. People who create toxic friendships are often good manipulators, meaning it can be easy to get wrapped up in unhealthy friendship without realizing it. In this article, we’ll look at the signs of a toxic friendship and how they can negatively affect your mental health.  

Spotting a toxic friendship: Here are some warning signs to look out for

Four friends standing with their arms wrapped around each other. Three of them are looking at the mountains and one is looking behind them.
Having a friend who gossips or talks behind your back is a strong indicator that your relationship may be toxic. Image courtesy of Cosmopolitan.

Criticizing others or putting them down

Everyone has their flaws, and in any friendship these will inevitably come to the surface. While these can be things that good friends might address on occasion and when appropriate, toxic friends will often focus on a person’s flaws, making them feel bad about themselves. Usually their comments may not even be true or have any justification to them, rather they are said to make someone else feel inferior and create self-doubt.


Not only do toxic friends talk about others behind their backs, they seem to derive pleasure in doing so. Mistakes do happen, but consistently spreading rumors or divulging secrets means that your friend likely doesn’t have good intentions and doesn’t care about treating you with the respect you deserve.

Turning on their nice side, when need be

A graphic showing what appears to be two friends walking side by side. Their shadows show that one friend is actually a monster.
Just because someone has a nice side doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of being a toxic friend. Often toxic friends can put on a nice so they don’t appear like the problem in a friendship. Image courtesy of Arre.

Part of the difficulty in recognizing a toxic friendship is that someone might not seem to be a detriment to you mental health all of the time. Toxic friends have a way of appearing nice on the outside, especially when around other people, so they don’t come across as a toxic or harmful individual. They’ll also appear charming upon meeting them, so you’ll be likely to gain their trust and pursue their friendship.

Drawing attention to themselves

Playing the victim

Even in situations where they are not the victim, toxic friends like to gain others’ sympathy by talking about how they have been wronged. It can also be used as a way to make it seem like you are the one putting strain on your friendship, if arguments are to arise.

Making themselves the center of conversations and situations

Another way to spot a toxic friend is if they are always finding ways to make themselves the center of attention. Are they always talking about themselves? Do they find a way to steer the conversation back to them after you say something? These can be indicators that a friend isn’t really interested in being there for you and more focused on themselves, a character trait that does not make for a good friend.

Patterns keep repeating themselves

It is crucial to note that doing some of the things listed above some of the time does not necessarily equate to a toxic friendship. Having good friends is different from having perfect friends. Over time, you’re bound to notice the flaws your friends may have. Toxic friends are those who don’t change their actions after you tell them how they negatively affect you. They also have bad intentions and don’t genuinely care about being a good friend.

Recognizing how these friendships might be impacting your mental health

A disappointed man sitting at a dining room table with his head down.
Toxic friendships will often leave you stressed or with a negative self-image. Ultimately, they make you feel worse than you did before you spent time with them.

Negative self image

A toxic friend’s constant criticism will likely make you feel worse about yourself than you would if you didn’t hang out with them at all. Someone questioning your abilities or constantly pointing out your flaws can lead to self-doubt, and after hearing a friend’s negativity enough, you will start to believe them. This can make you complacent in the friendship and resistant to end it, as it can make you question your self worth, therefore perpetuating a cycle of toxicity.

Increased stress levels

A toxic friend’s consistent gossiping and need to be the victim can be very draining, making you feel overwhelmed when you spend time with them. Additionally, someone who only talks about themselves can make your head spin. Good friends are supposed to be a solid support system for you. While it is understandable that there will be times that you need to be there for your friend, being inundated with drama and gossip can create unnecessary stress that is detrimental to your mental health. 

Mostly it’s a feeling

Overall, toxic friends will ultimately leave you feeling worse about yourself and your life after spending time with them. Take some time to reflect about what goes on in your mind when you hang out with your friend and the feelings you often associate with them. 

  • Do you laugh around them?
  • Do you feel like you can be yourself?
  • After spending time with them, do you feel uneasy, uncertain or anxious?

It may be difficult to admit if you’re in a toxic friendship, especially if it is one that you’ve pursued for a long period of time. It can feel frustrating to know that you’ve invested so much time and energy into a friendship that has given you little in return, not to mention likely caused significant frustration. But be honest with yourself and think about how this friendship makes you feel. If it makes you feel bad about yourself or your life, you’ll know.

Good friends help us get through life’s difficult moments and can be a huge asset when it comes to maintaining our mental health—anyone who has a good friend knows this. But  similarly to how having good friends can be good for our lives, having toxic friends can be toxic for our lives. It’s important to be able to distinguish the good friends from the toxic ones, otherwise you may be investing time in a friendship that is causing more harm to your mental health than it is good.