Dealing with a toxic friendship

So, you’ve realised that there are some parts of a particular friendship that are toxic and make you feel like crap. But none of us like the idea of losing a friend, and some people deserve a second chance, so it’s worth trying to talk it out with them.

Remember that you don’t deserve to be treated badly, especially by a friend, and that it’s not okay for them to act like this. If you’re unsure whether your friendship is toxic, check out this quiz to help you figure it out.

This can help if:

  • you’re having trouble with friends

  • you're not sure how to deal a toxic friendship

  • you want to know what to do about a bad friendship.

young guy in group with neutral expression

Get your head around the situation

How do you feel and what do you want?

Getting your head around what’s going on will help you to identify what you want and decide what to do next. Try writing your thoughts down to help make things clearer.

  • What don’t you like about how your friend treats you? How does it make you feel?

  • Do you like being friends with this person?

  • Would you just like the behaviour to stop, or would you like an apology, too?

Do you think your friend will change if you tell them how you’re feeling?

It’s possible that your friend actually doesn’t know that the way they’re treating you is hurtful. For example, if they’re not replying to your messages and it seems like they’re ignoring you, they could just be busy or may have just forgotten to reply.

Do you think your friend is intentionally trying to hurt you or put you down? Do you think they would stop or change what they’re doing if you let them know that it’s hurting you?

You could try talking to a family member or trusted adult to get another perspective.

Think about your own behaviour

Figure out what you can and can’t control

When it feels like someone is intentionally being hurtful, it’s easy to get caught up in focusing on them. You might spend a lot of time flipping through your memories of them, scrolling through their social media, or asking other friends and family about them.

It takes a lot of energy to think so much about someone whose actions you can’t change. Read more about learning to accept things that are out of your control.

Instead of honing in on your friend’s actions (focusing on the other person), you could think about how you want to respond to specific behaviours (focusing on yourself). It might look like this:

  • Focusing on the other person: She’s a crap friend because she sends me mean texts.

  • Focusing on yourself: I’ll set boundaries when others say rude things to me. I don’t deserve to be treated like that.

Having these principles and boundaries for yourself about how you act in your relationships is a helpful way to shift your focus back to what you can do, rather than what you can’t.

Are you being respectful?

Something to be mindful of is that when standing up to your friend about their behaviour, it’s possible that you could be showing some toxic behaviours yourself. Watching out for this can help you to avoid it. For example:

  • DO: ignore mean texts from your friend.

DON’T: intentionally leave your friend out of group chats.

  • DO: avoid or reduce contact with someone who isn’t treating you well.

DON’T: encourage mutual friends to leave them out.

  • DO: talk about friendship issues with other friends, if you need to get another opinion.

DON’T: spread rumours about them.

  • DO: stand up to someone who isn’t treating you well.

DON’T: insult them or call them names.

Handle things when they happen

It can feel pretty hard to call someone out for their behaviour. However, if you do it politely and respectfully, this can be a super-effective way to establish boundaries and maybe even improve your friendship. For example, if they:

  • send you a hurtful text or post – tell them: ‘That was uncalled-for.’

  • talk about you behind your back or spread rumours – say: ‘You don’t have to like me all the time, but it’s not nice to talk about me behind my back.’

  • ask you to do something you don’t want to – say: ‘No, I’m not comfortable with that.’

  • post a photo/video of you without your permission or tag you in something rude – DM them and ask them to remove it.

  • call you names, insult you or shut you down – say: ‘Do you mind not doing that?’

  • ignore you – ask them: ‘Is everything okay?’

If you’re nervous about saying something right away, you could send them a text later.

Have a conversation

If speaking up when specific things happen doesn’t work, or you think that there’s a bigger issue, try having a conversation with your friend. While it can be scary, having a direct and open discussion can let you air things out with your friend and express your thoughts. Being open and honest will also help to avoid involving other people and escalating things.

Learn how to talk to your friend about friendship issues here.

Set new boundaries

After talking to your friend, you might consider setting some boundaries. They could be specific ones or left vague, depending on what you need.

Reduce contact

If some of the negative behaviour is happening over text, an easy boundary to set is to let your friend know that you can’t text them as much as you used to because it’s affecting your performance at school, uni or work.

If you just want to take a step back in general, then you might not have a specific boundary in mind, and that’s okay. You could let your friend know that while you still want to hang out, you can’t do it as much as you used to because other stuff in your life is taking up more of your time.

Take a break

You might also ask to have a break from the friendship. Try saying, ‘I’ve got a lot going on at the moment and won’t be able to stay in touch for a few weeks.’ This will give you time to figure things out.

If you go to the same school, don’t feel pressured to stop and chat to them when you see them. You don’t have to be hostile or create drama, but you don’t have to buddy up either – a smile-and-nod approach might work. It’s bound to be awkward at first – let yourself feel those feelings. Try to make peace with the situation and know that it will be okay soon.

What next?

It takes a lot of strength to stand up for yourself and approach your mate to talk about how their behaviour makes you feel. If these strategies don’t work, don’t think you have failed. Check back in with the person if they don’t stop. If they still aren’t respecting what you’ve told them, or they refuse to have a direct conversation, then it could be time to think about ending this toxic friendship.

While this is all happening, remember that you don’t deserve any of it. 5 ways to look after yourself by spending time with trusted friends and family members, and put some time aside to do things you love.

What can I do now?

  • Get personalised support options for relationships with the ReachOut NextStep tool.

  • Want to chat with a peer worker who can listen to you and support you? Book a free, text-based session with ReachOut PeerChat.