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Toxic friendship: What A Mistake!

You do not need to apply the scientific method to a group of college freshman to know that having friends is extremely beneficial.  Besides the developmental benefits of building socialization skills and modeling appropriate behaviors, having friends opens the pathway for exchanging emotional support, from making each other laugh to consoling each other through hard times.

Emotional exchange is the foundation of a good friendship.  However, not all friendships practice equivalent emotion exchange.  In other words, there are some friendships where one person gives while the other person takes instead of a bidirectional exchange of emotions between two people.

Not surprisingly, bad friendships are quite common.  A simple Google search using the term “Bad friends” quickly generates approximately 324,000,000 results.  From published articles to sporty t-shirts, the acknowledgment and ubiquity of bad friendships are palpable.  Some articles tout that there are 7 signs for you to recognize when you are in a bad friendship while other websites believe that there are only 3 warning signs of bad friends.  No matter which site you decide to read, there are some commonalities regarding the traits of bad friends.  Here are three of the most common themes of bad friends that surface across numerous resources:

The Unaware– Sometimes people say or do things without “thinking.”  Other times, people treat people badly not because they are malicious, but rather they grew up in a household that taught them misinformed ways of treating people.  As a result, some people are unaware that they are bad friends, simply because they do not know any better.  For example, some people feel that because they are your friend, they are also entitled to be your “therapist.”  These people have an opinion about every part of your life, from whom you should date to what college courses you should take.  The unaware believes that they are being a good friend because they have taken the time to analyze your life for you.  However, this type of behavior could be completely annoying and off-putting when all you want to do is have a friendly conversation about the guy or girl you just started dating.  The unaware will cross boundaries very often, even after you reinforce that you do not want them to cross certain boundaries.  Unfortunately, the unaware has a strong compulsion to inject themselves into every part of your life, believing that they have a better perspective of your life than you do.

The Users– Although every person technically “uses” someone else, especially during a time of need (e.g., financial downfall), the user has a strong tendency to gravitate toward people who are, more than often, willing help them.  To clarify, people can be used in different ways, not just for monetary or material gains.  In fact, most of the time, users will dominate conversations or will only contact you when it is convenient (e.g., the only time they can hang out with you is if you travel to a location close to where they live).  The user has very little boundaries and is very in tuned to certain people who 1) love to help or 2) have a hard time saying no.  As a result, the user exploits their friend’s loyalty and desire to be needed.

The Fakers– Fakers are the most toxic friends you can have, simply because the entire friendship is contingent on personal gain.  Fakers have a tendency of having an overly inflated ego with a fragile sense of self.  As such, fakers garner friendships with people who they deem less than.  For example, a faker will befriend someone who they deem to be less attractive than them only to garner more attention from others when they go out in public.  Or, fakers will befriend a person who is dating someone, with the motive of stealing that person’s significant other.  Fakers have no boundaries and will become defensive if you “call them out” on their malicious behavior.  In the end, befriending a faker is toxic and can result in negative emotional turmoil.

Of the three types of bad friends mentioned, the unaware friends are the only friends that you may want to consider keeping as friends, of course, with the understanding that you must continuously reinforce your boundaries.  The users and fakers are, however, both emotionally toxic relationships that probably need to be severed.

Severing a friendship can sometimes be arduous, especially when you sever a relationship with someone who has been the one primarily benefiting from the friendship.  Similar to a break-up with a significant other, severing a friendship requires one to be direct.  If at all possible, try to meet face-to-face in a neutral location.  For people who dislike confrontation, this could be a daunting task.  As previously noted, the unaware friends are the only friends that you may want to consider keeping as friends.  With that being said, having a face-to-face meeting with your unaware friend may give you the opportunity to set or reinforce your boundaries, so that you two can remain friends.  For your friend who is either a user or a faker, this is your opportunity to let them know that you no longer see them as a friend and that this meeting is last time you two will be spending time together.  Remember, this meeting is not the time to bash them in order to make yourself better.  You, of course, can tell them how you have been hurt by certain situations, but do not be surprised if the user or the faker does not respond sympathetically or with remorse.  Further, avoid any unnecessary arguments with the user or the faker: this is just a trap so they can justify how nasty they have been treating you.  Basically, it is one final chance for them to use you to make themselves feel better.

In sum, building a friendship is tough, but maintaining a friendship is far more difficult.  Anytime you involve time, energy, and emotion into anything, there is bound to be fluctuation from good times to bad times to good times—you want more good times than bad times.  Although being in a friendship puts you in a vulnerable position, sometimes being in these vulnerable positions teach us more about life and about ourselves.  However, if you are going to take the chance of being vulnerable with another human being, please make sure that that person respects and reciprocates that vulnerability.

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Written by Adolph

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Previously, Adolph was a Research Consultant for Pearson’s Research & Innovations Network, spearheading research projects regarding the effects of rapid feedback on standardized testing. His current research focuses primarily on evaluating moderating factors that reduce the behaviors associated with the acquisition and transmission of STIs and HIV among at-risk populations.

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Toxic friendship: What A Mistake!