Toxic friends — dump the word, not the people

toxic1‘Toxic friends’ has become a familiar phrase, sneaking into our vocabulary and blunting our awareness of the subtleties and the ebb and flow of relationships.

With words such as ‘cull’ and ‘dump’, we are encouraged to take stock of the people we call friends, work down the checklist of warning signs, and ruthlessly remove from our lives those who just aren’t making the grade.

If someone is truly ‘toxic’, that is poisonous, destructive, harmful, malignant, then, of course you don’t want them in your life. The question arises why you were ever friends in the first place.

But the reasons given for putting friends in this category include complaints that they are never on time, they don’t return calls and texts promptly, they are not always supportive, they are self-centred, they are too demanding — oops, all of us, to some extent, at one time or another?

True toxicity is of a different nature altogether.

Take Iago in Shakespeare’s Othello — while claiming to act in the cause of friendship, he manipulates Othello into believing that his wife is cheating on him, which [SPOILER ALERT] leads Othello to kill the innocent Desdemona. Now that’s what I call toxic.

The language of friendship can be vague and self-defeating.

Sorry, Ross, Rachel, Monica, Chandler, Phoebe, Joey, but the phrase ‘I’ll be there for you’ is basically meaningless. What, you promise to be to instantly available at all times? You will offer total support, no matter what? You will be sensitive and responsive to your friend’s needs, even if they conflict with yours or you don’t actually know what to say or how to help?

Yet these words have become a benchmark of friendship. Fall below this ideal — culling time!

Be realistic

Don’t expect too much of others — or of yourself. No individual is going to give you everything you need from a friendship, and not every friendship has the same degree of significance.

Accept with gratitude what people offer, and accept their and your limitations.

Be empathic

Try to understand what is going on with the other person.

Their behaviour might be caused by their own pressures and needs, particularly if they are going through stressful periods.

They might be behaving in a way you find tiresome or intolerable because they don’t know that at this point you want to be left alone/want to talk about your problems/need to be taken out of yourself.

They might want to reach out to you, but feel awkward, inadequate, embarrassed.


Irritations and dissatisfactions can be nipped in the bud if you come out with what’s on your mind. Try reflecting back to your friend what you gather from their words or behaviour:

  • You sound as if you’re not happy that I’m seeing Jack again

  • You seem to be annoyed about my text

  • I feel that you would like more attention from me at the moment

  • You haven’t asked me how the interview went

This is a gentle way of bringing things into the open.

Celebrate differences

We tend to gravitate towards people who are at the same lifestage and going through the same experiences as ourselves.

There is no need to let this natural process exclude those who don’t share these aspects. It can be enjoyable and invigorating to have friends who are older or younger than yourself.

It can be refreshing to talk to someone who doesn’t mention the words ‘potty training’ or ‘career move’ or ‘housing ladder’ or ‘elderly parents’ or ‘school choice’ or ‘designer club wear’.

Be self-aware

Accept your negative feelings.

You’re jealous when your friend gets engaged, or gets a promotion, or becomes pregnant, or becomes a grandparent, or loses 20lbs in weight (oh, we feel your pain there)? Of course you are.

We all have an inner Gore Vidal, who said, ‘Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.’ But it’s your problem, and you can deal with it if you want to and if you want to preserve your friendship.

Depending on the intensity of the circumstances, you might need to say something like

  • I’m very pleased for you

  • I do need a bit of time to process this/get used to the idea

  • I have to say I feel a little bit envious, but I’ll get over it

The reverse of this is feeling a little bit, well, not quite pleased, but, you know, when a friend has some bad luck.

Silently acknowledge the feeling. Don’t share it. Give your friend the support they need.

Keep doors open

Friends drop off each other’s radar now and again, sometimes for a short while, sometimes for longer periods. Our lives take different routes, we move on from jobs, we move away from areas. Sometimes we have mild or significant fallings-out or differences.

There is actually no need to ‘dump’ our friends. There is no need to close all channels of communication with a cut-off text or email or letter.

Just let things evolve with time. The odd text or card of a ‘saw this and thought of you’ nature (not in a stalking way) can revive a good memory and make it easy to reconnect in the future.