Friendships; our empirical family, our support beams, our flesh-and-blood beacons. Brothers and sisters. The silent cheerleaders, our backup singers. There is such unconditionality in a single friendship. – Or, there should be. Why do human beings put friendships on a pedestal? Unlike our intricate and exquisitely delicate biological bonds, friendships signify an act of free will. We decide who is worthy enough of our attention, love, support, and time. A single friendship exceeds intrinsic familial expectations; the “I am your mother, you shall abide.” rule does not apply. Friendship is about freedom and unconditional mutualism. A thing of wonder, an encounter of two idiosyncratic micro cosmoi resulting in cognitive nods and effortless boundary expansion. Coalescence waltz, as some would call it. Exhilaration and rejoicing. – But not all friendships are fairytales, are they? Let’s talk about how serious the impact of toxic friendships on mental health can actually be.
Defining a “toxic” relationship
So, this is where we usually slip up. Toxic relationships are seldom used when referring to friendships. We tend to associate the term with romantic partnerships or family dynamics: a selfish partner, a negligent parent, an abusive sister or stepfather. Yet, when it comes to our friends, we’re more than quick to justify their unsound behavior: “Oh, you know them, they’re just quick-tempered. “Oh, I wouldn’t call them pessimists; they just had a rough time growing up.” So, what is a toxic friendship? Like any other malignant connection, a toxic friendship is an unhealthy relationship that robs us of satisfaction and peace. Instead, we live in constant fear of disappointing and exasperating them, and we also can’t help but question ourselves daily. When one’s on the receiving end of another’s wrath, guilt is the only possible leitmotif.
If someone says: “add some spice to your life“, they probably don’t mean, “Befriend as many toxic people as possible. Race you!” No. They were talking about skydiving or visiting the North Pole.
Impact on mental health
Toxic friendships aren’t easy to spot. Identifying them can be quite a challenge since the nature of the relationship can be highly ambivalent and riddled with mixed signals. The hot-and-cold climate gives little to no room for pinpointing the exact culprit. Slippery as a gold medal gymnast eel, the proof only seems to taunt and elude us perpetually. Unfortunately, getting wrapped up in unhealthy friendships without cognizing the potential dangers has become almost commonplace. Toxic friends are known to be extraordinary manipulators, making it that much harder to grasp and see through the grand machination. At the end of the day, we’re the crazy ones.
There are very few positive aspects of unhealthy friendships. Can you name one? Other than “I love their piercing sarcasm.”? Yes. So, moving on. Toxic people can leave tremendous consequences, detrimental to our mental and potentially physical health. Unhealthy friendships force us to:
(1) experience perpetual self-doubt
(2) feel abused
(3) endure anxiety
(4) cope with depression
(5) get familiar with the loss of trust
(6) struggle with chronic stress
(7) lose touch with the inner self
(8) feel shame
(9) feel guilt
Sculpting a negative self-image
We learn from difficult experiences; 1 point for toxic friendships. Besides providing us with quantum leap growth opportunities, there’s not much to go on. The negative spectrum, though, is an entirely different story. So, what are toxic friends good at? – They’re good at making us feel bad about ourselves. Not only that, but they are also superior when it comes to “letting us down easy.” Their narrative doesn’t necessarily come off as something malicious; it can be veiled in pseudo-benevolence; their constant criticism, their mockery disguised in humor, the all-seeing eyes, the righteous ones who point out our flaws, but only as an act of service. As a result, our self-worth starts crumbling away, shriveled, depleted, and wearied. Is it true? Am I just a void, a desolate silhouette? The impact of toxic friendships on mental health is more than impressive simply because we believe them.
How do we know for sure? Are we imagining or perhaps projecting our own fears, frustrations, and resentment? Good question. Let’s find out. Here are some red flags.
Toxic friendships rob us of precious energy. In any unhealthy relationship scenario, there’s a looming dread. The “something’s off” sensation. A feeling of monumental heaviness. The cycle seems impenetrable, as we’re constantly bombarded with heaps of guilt and conditioning. So, not agreeing to see them is not an option. (emotional blackmail) Once we do meet, we immediately start to experience emotional fatigue. The conversation usually revolves around them and their problems, or, even worse – slews of criticism directed towards us. Volunteer sitting ducks. Stockholm syndrome. The sense of obligation is usually what gives a toxic friendship away.
You’re the needy one
Unhealthy friendships are usually pretty one-sided. The toxic friend will wholeheartedly indulge in our compassionate ear (logorrhoea style), but if we, for once, express the need for their presence and support, things suddenly go awry. Our voice, expectations, wants, and needs get sidelined, and we end up being called needy, selfish, or even inconsiderate. – because, of course, something really terrible happened at work today, and they’re in distress. Victim mode. – The tried and failed episodes become more frequent.
They’re always right. So, when conflict arises, there are no constructive dialogues. Only radio silence. Instead of resolving it head-on, the toxic friend will try to rewrite the scenario and gift us the role of the beloved antagonist. We’re the problem, not them. These situations are carefully crafted so as to elevate our guilt-sea levels. They will theatrically withdraw from any communication and gaslight us, all just to make us experience excruciating guilt. – It has worked before. It will work now. Before we know it, we’re questioning our sanity.
The impact of toxic friendships on mental health is difficult to foresee, especially due to their rollercoaster nature. Toxic people are not a detriment to our mental health at all times; they can be pleasant around other people, funny, and unfathomably charming. All the same, we mustn’t overlook the red flags.
Written by: Olivier Campbell
Olivier Campbell is a full-time blogger, currently working under Big Man’s Moving Company’s wing. He enjoys psychology, archery, and vintage motorcycles.