It’s likely everyone has that one friend who’s always complaining… or who only calls when they need something… or who talks behind other people’s backs. But when do we cut off contact with them altogether? According to experts, it’s important to surround yourself with the best types of friends, who in turn bring out the best in you. Although friendships come in all shapes and sizes — from mere acquaintances to tried-and-true connections to best friends for life — some can be unhealthy or downright toxic.
“Healthy friendships can be refreshing, complementary, and an amazing experience,” Keischa Pruden, therapist and owner of Pruden Counseling Concepts, tells TZR. “Conversely, unhealthy friendships can leave you emotionally — and even physically — drained. Knowing when to let go of unhealthy relationships is important because of the potential biopsychosocial crises that may arise if you don’t.” In other words, the interconnection between biology, psychology, and socio-environmental factors. “Every part of our lives is related,” she continues. “So if you have a relationship that is unhealthy, chances are, there are other areas in your life that will be unhealthy, as well.”
Irene S. Levine, PhD, psychologist, friendship expert, and producer of The Friendship Blog, agrees. “Good friendships provide nurturance and support — they help us grow and enhance our happiness,” she tells TZR. “Unhealthy friendships can drain our energy, and have a negative impact on our physical and emotional health.” She points out that friendships are voluntary relationships. “If they aren’t mutually satisfying, there is no rationale for sustaining them,” she says. “People grow and change over time, so a friendship that was once satisfying may no longer be so, for one or both friends.” Ahead, Pruden, Levine, and another friendship expert share how you can determine the “right” type of friend from the “wrong” type.
How To Recognize If You’re In An Unhealthy Friendship
Friendship experts say there are a few ways to determine if you’re in an unhealthy friendship. “One way is if there is no reciprocation between both parties,” Pruden says. “You seem to be putting forth most of the effort to keep the relationship going — your friend only calls you when they’re in distress, or cannot support you in your time of need.” Another sign? Pay attention to how you feel when you interact with your friend, Pruden explains. “Some people can be verbally or emotionally abusive or abrasive,” she says. “That often leaves the person they interact with feeling negative emotions, like anxiety, sadness, depression, or self-doubt.”
And yet another way to know you may be in an unhealthy friendship is if there seems to be an imbalance of power, whether perceived or implied. “For example, if one person feels the other is somehow ‘better’ than them or more accomplished, this perception can cause a relational shift that may not be revealed until an emotional outburst,” says Pruden. Levine adds that when a friendship is unhealthy, it depletes you of energy. “You may not really want to get together with the other person, and it may feel stressful and uncomfortable when you’re together,” she explains. “There may even be visceral clues that it is unhealthy — you may have a headache or stomachache when you’re together. In addition, your friend may be undermining and draining you of self-confidence. They may disappoint you, act judgmental, and be unpredictable.”
Kyler Shumway, a licensed psychologist, the CEO of Deep Eddy Psychotherapy, and author of The Friendship Formula (among other friendship-themed books), agrees and says there are telltale signs to watch for. “Unhealthy friendships can manifest in many different ways, but most include some key red flags,” he tells TZR in an email. “First, your friend might act in Machiavellian ways — frequently lying to you, using you, or treating you like you don’t matter. Or, they might be a bit too narcissistic, full of themselves, and ignorant of your needs. And lastly, they might do things that are damaging, harmful, or cold.” He says all of these are surefire signs of a toxic friendship. “Not only should you try to pay attention to these things in your own relationships, but you should also try to notice when you are the one acting in these ways,” he adds.
Defining The ‘Right’ Type Of Friend(s)
OK, so maybe you’ve been known to cut people some slack when it comes to your friendships and how they act. But there are certain characteristics the “right” types of friends will have, Pruden says. “Characteristics of a good friend include: the ability to genuinely love another person and have empathy; the ability to be supportive and have fun; and the ability to be honest, as well as encouraging through the rough times (we all have those rough times, right?).” Pruden adds that her mom always quoted her mom when talking about friends: “It’s better to have two or three good friends than 100 ‘fair-weather’ friends.’” Point taken.
Levine adds that when she interviewed more than 1000 women from ages 17-70+ for her book, Best Friends Forever, Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, she was struck by how many respondents said “We just clicked” when they talked about their best friends. “What they were referring to was the ease of communication and the ability to feel understood,” Levine explains. “But good friendships take time to develop. As two people get to know each other, they learn to trust one another and are able to show (and be) their true selves, warts and all.”
To that end, the “right” friend is someone who is honest, trustworthy, and reliable. “It is someone whose interests, availability, life circumstances, etc., mesh with ours,” she says. “The right friend for one person may not be the right friend for another, and a right friend today may not be the right person for us months or years down the line.” And Shumway sums it up well, saying, “The best kinds of friends learn from their mistakes. As long as a person is willing to admit fault, make changes, and work to improve, they can be a good friend to almost anyone.”
Why The ‘Right’ Types Of Friends Are Important
“Having the right people in our lives is like the cherry on top of a sundae, the perfect addition to an already tasty treat,” says Pruden. “The right people in our lives encourage and inspire us to be the best versions of ourselves, and we can be vulnerable with them without fear of judgment.” Levine seconds that. “The right type of friends can enhance our lives,” she says. “Friends can serve as role models who help us achieve our personal best. They can provide support, encourage us, and discourage us from engaging in unhealthy behaviors.” She points out that although no one friend can fulfill all our needs for friendship, having a small circle of friends allows us to find friends with different interests and personality traits who complement different parts of ourselves.” And Shulman adds that friendships should act as bulwarks against the badness, cruelty, and pain of the world. “When our friendships thrive and we surround ourselves with folks that make us feel loved, important, and included, we can survive some pretty horrific stuff,” he says.
Make More Of The ‘Right’ Friends
Even though you may be cutting ties with certain friendships, that doesn’t mean you should not make new ones. In fact, loneliness is an ongoing epidemic in America these days. “While you may be seeking connection for yourself, know that most people are incredibly lonely and isolated — a recent study found that 61% of American adults feel left out, alone, and isolated,” says Shulman. “So while you may be lonely, you are not alone in your loneliness. My challenge for you is to take an opportunity to reach out to someone — anyone — in some small way, today.” He says you can do this in several ways: send an old contact a text message or an email to say “Hello”; smile at a stranger in the grocery store; talk to someone new. “Whatever reaching out might look like, give it a try,” he says. “Maybe nothing will come of it, but maybe you'll reach out to someone who really needed a friend today.”