3 Ways to Avoid Toxic Friendships

05/14/2015 07:56 am ET | Updated May 14, 2016


While hibernating this past frigid winter, I made peace with the realization that middle school politics lay the foundation for navigating adult friendships. We tell our teens to surround themselves with true friends who promote positivity and healthy self-esteem. Shouldn't we practice what we preach? Spring is here, and it's the perfect time for taking emotional stock and ridding ourselves of winter's cobwebs. Easier said than done, I know. And while we've heard it all before, sometimes hearing it one more time with a fresh perspective does the trick. I've been fortunate to always have special women in my life (some for over three decades) and share deep friendships. But every so often a new or existing relationship can cross the line. Here are three recurrent themes that can help identify toxic friendships:

1. Rid yourself of emotional vampires.

Recently I came across several articles about emotional vampires, and a light bulb went off. I realized that as blessed as I am with incredible close friends, I've enabled others to set up shop in my soul and milk me dry. (I take full responsibility, right here in writing, for allowing it to happen.) These "friends" suck the energy right out of us with their incessant talk, emails and texts about their all-consuming problems, and leave us completely drained.

Emotional vampires cleverly insert themselves into our daily lives, suddenly relying on us in ways that far surpass a normal give and take relationship. There is a difference between an emotional vampire and a friend who is having a bad day. The emotional vampire consistently brings us down, plays the victim and manipulates. And there's no reciprocity when the tables are turned. In contrast, the friend-in-need is going through a rough patch -- the entire relationship is not built on her struggles and what you can do to help. Here's a simple test I've adopted: If I feel perpetually drained and negative rather than energized and boosted by our connection, I set limits or pull away.

2. Identify the people who let you be yourself.

A friend recently told me that she advises her teenage daughter to only surround herself with friends who make her happy. I agree with this concept to some degree, but I think it falls short of the bigger picture. Nobody is happy all the time, and true friends share good times and bad. I think a better goal is to surround ourselves with friends who are positive AND let us be ourselves.

Consistently pessimistic people cause us to inevitably commiserate and engage in negativity. Often that means changing who we really are. Should we dump a friend when she's struggling because she's unable to make us happy? Obviously not. But what happens when the friend is always dragging us down? I recently found myself never sharing good things about my own life and changing the way I communicated and behaved in order to avoid upsetting my always struggling friend. When I questioned the basis for the relationship and realized that I had compromised my true self, I knew I had to move on. I was flooded with an immediate and palpable sense of relief rather than regret, which validated that although difficult the decision was right for me.

3. Avoid becoming your friend's therapist.

There is a fine balance between being a supportive friend and becoming someone's therapist. While becoming a friend's therapist is unhealthy for both sides, the concept through thick and thin rings true provided that there is an underlying healthy give and take. Avoiding the fair-weather friend as well as avoiding becoming one is a lesson we hopefully learned way back on the playground. Often, the hard times sift out the good friends from the bad. The true keepers allow us to cry our eyes out and laugh our asses off -- but with each of us bringing equitable doses of good vibes to the table.

There is a difference between "let me run this by you" and dreading every single phone call because we know it will invariably end up as a therapy session. Years ago I made the mistake (or heartfelt plea, depending upon your angle) of suggesting to a friend that she seek professional counsel for her valid, deep-seated and ongoing issues. Her response? "I'd rather just talk to you." I'm not a professional therapist, and even therapists do not treat their friends.

I hope that these identifiers can help us pack up at least a little bit of the emotional baggage brought on by toxic relationships and put it out on the curb where it belongs. I recently attended a lecture by a former principal on empowerment of middle school girls. Her message was simple and resonates with adults as well as middle schoolers: Surround yourself with Tiggers instead of Eeyores. I'm no expert on this topic and wish there was an obvious red warning flag to help us avoid toxic friendships in the first place. But I suspect that if it feels wrong in our gut, it's probably not a productive friendship. What are your warning signs?