The real differences between a toxic friend and a good friend

Good friends can be like members of your family. When you find friends like that, hold on tight. Unfortunately, not all are. Some are toxic — not good for you and, honestly, probably not great for the other person either. Toxic relationships can take a serious toll on you: your physical health, your emotional health, your feelings of self-worth, and even your other relationships. Knowing what a toxic relationship looks like — and how it's different than a real friendship — can help you determine if it's time to reevaluate a friendship or two, and save you a lot of heartache in the process.

How they support you

In a toxic relationship, the toxic friend pulls the attention and spotlight onto them, rather than it being a reciprocal back and forth. "Say, there's an issue going on and they really need you, but when you have an issue going on, they don't give you the time of day," said Nicole Zangara, a licensed clinical social worker and the author of Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It shouldn't be all about them and their needs anymore than it should be all about you and yours. 

In a good friendship, however, your friend will be supportive — the focus isn't always on one person or the other. "In a friendship, you put in, and you hope that [friend] puts in, maybe not 50/50, but 60/40 even," Zangara told me. "And if it's not — you're not getting what you're giving — that's kind of a sign of an unhealthy friendship." Good relationships focus on both friends when needed.

Who makes the plans

If your friend constantly needs something from you — and that's really the only time they're focused on you — that can be a sign that your relationship is less than solid. "I think that every relationship requires work and when there's only one person putting in the work and the other person is not putting in any work, that can start feeling really bad," said Clinical Therapist Lynn Zakeri. "I'm always initiating, I'm always asking, I'm always giving, listening, whatever it is, when you don't get anything back in return, that can feel really bad. And then you can start internalizing those feelings that 'they don't care about me; they don't like me; I give, they're taking advantage of me.'" If they're always requiring your time and effort to help them out with things, that can really take a toll on the relationship and also make you feel like you're just a means to an end to them.

A good friend helps you when you need help and asks for reasonable favors when they need help instead of demanding that you always be there for them, but otherwise act like you don't exist. "The relationship [feels] reciprocal in a lot of different ways, so you help your friend and your friend helps you," Psychologist Dr. Pei-Han Cheng told me.

How they respond to disappointment or rejection

True friends are capable of acknowledging when something is their fault, but also recognizing that it's not fair or reasonable to blame you for anything and everything that goes wrong in their lives. If your friend makes you feel like it's your fault they didn't get a big promotion or their partner broke up with them, it can start to make you doubt your own self-worth and just generally make you feel really down. No one wants to feel like they're the cause of everything bad. 

"That is the moment you know that this relationship is toxic or even abusive," Cheng explained. "They don't insert their agenda into your life and they appreciate you for who you are and they're nonjudgemental."

It's important that your friends are responsible for their own lives. What happens to them is not all your fault and good friends know that and would never make you feel like it was. 

How they react to good news

Part of the great part of having a good group of friends around you is that you can all celebrate each other's successes and big moments together. Toxic friends, however, look at life and friendships as a competition. If you're doing well, they focus on the fact that they're not doing as well. They get jealous and let their jealousy interfere with their ability to be a supportive friend. 

"A good friend is one that is genuinely happy for you when things go your way and you experience success or happy times," said Deborah Olson, a licensed professional counselor currently writing a book on female friendship. "A toxic friend tends to be envious of your good fortune, struggles to share in your happiness, and may pull away from the friendship as a result."

The emotional stability of the relationship

Friendship shouldn't be an emotional rollercoaster. Good friends don't make everything a crisis. With toxic friends, however, you never really feel like you're on stable ground. "People will [come] to me and say they hit it off really great, they had tons of good [times], but then the friend started to get into one crisis after another and [needed] a lot of support from you, sometimes support and time that you cannot provide," Cheng said. "So I think one thing I often teach my clients to really be mindful of is really [trusting] their gut feeling. If they feel like this relationship is consuming a lot of time and energy and [starting] to create some stress and pressure — they can feel it in their mind and body — then it is a moment for you to realize that this relationship may not be so healthy for you."

With good friends, however, things ebb and flow much more — there aren't the wild ups and downs that make you feel like you're on a rollercoaster. You don't have to worry about constantly putting out fires (which can be exhausting), there's more of an ease. "You have to have that chemistry where it just feels good," Zakeri said. "There's maybe a banter or a comfort level [with a good friend]."

How you feel after spending time with them

Good friends energize you, they inspire you, they lift you up. Toxic friends weigh you down. Zangara told me that "some toxic people just suck the life out of you," which can take a toll on your emotions. "And I always tell clients this, 'when you're with a friend, if you leave a coffee, lunch, dinner date, whatever, and you feel exhausted or you feel down or negative, that, in a way, is another red flag of the friendship with the person,'" Zangara said. "Do you feel uplifted or do you feel completely just exhausted?" If they're making you feel exhausted, it probably means they're not putting as much into the relationship as they're getting out of it.

"Good friends are those people who want to see us enjoy the best of life, experience success, be happy, healthy, and full of joy," Olson said. "They have our back and love us unconditionally. If we are going through struggles and feeling down, a good friend will offer support and encouragement and help us see the light at the end of the tunnel again. They will meet us where we are in our misery, and walk along side of us to get out of the darkness and into the light again." True friends help you keep going even when you feel like you don't have the energy to do so on your own.

How they deal with boundaries

Cheng told me that she worked with a college student whose friend would regularly drink too much on the weekends and then always require that student to take care of her. The student felt uncomfortable and frustrated. "She started to kind of establish some boundaries with this friend," Cheng said. The friend refused to respect the boundaries that the student tried to set, which wore on their friendship and made it difficult. While, of course, the situation can sometimes be more complicated than just the fact that a friend is drinking (there can be other issues at play), good friends respect the boundaries that you express. 

"Boundaries, whether physical or emotional, [define] the parameter[s] of our sense of safety and integrity," Cheng explained. "The basis of every relationship is a sense of trust and safety. Therefore, someone who can respect our boundaries and have our best interest in mind is [a] good [friend]. We need people who can nourish us with love, care, and respect but not someone who violate our physical, emotional, and mental space because of their own needs."

A good friend doesn't take advantage of how much you care about them, what you are or aren't willing to do, or what it takes for you to feel safe and secure.

How they handle conflict

Good friends can work out conflict and vocally disagree with one another without the friendship suffering too much or ending altogether. If you and your friend cannot do that, the relationship might be more toxic than you thought. 

"If you're able to work through it and tell each other how you really feel, and even if you disagree with each other, at least people are able to say, 'I disagree with you, but because I care about you, I'm willing to look at what I did or take responsibility or apologize,' or whatever it may be… I think that is a sign of a healthy friendship," Zangara shared. "Versus somebody saying, 'Nope, I'm not going to take responsibility or apologize or take any ownership of what happened.' I think that's that toxic piece of putting the blame on you or making you take 100 percent of what happened." 

The blame in a disagreement is never entirely any one person's fault. You should also be able to respectfully disagree with the other person, but still be friends. Yes, shared interests and opinions can be important in relationships, but so is being able to share differing opinions without fighting unfairly.

If you can trust them

You know that a friendship is true if you can always trust that that friend is looking out for you. "A true friend will have your back and be your advocate even when you may not be present," Olson said. "Toxic friends tend to lack that trait of loyalty and commitment, and they may engage in 'back stabbing' and being competitive in the friendship, for their own gain." If a friend is talking about you behind your back for their own benefit, that relationship is toxic, not true. 

Not only that, but things that you tell a good friend should stay between the two of you, especially if the information is sensitive or personal. "Friends that are true keep our trusted and confidential 'secrets' and are honest and loyal to their role as our confidant," Olson explained. "This is not always the case with toxic friends, and the result is a feeling of betrayal." Feeling like someone's spreading rumors about you or doesn't have your best interests at heart is hardly a vote of confidence in the friendship. You want to believe that your friends are on your team, and good friends — true friends — actually are.