Not all toxic friends are obvious Regina Georges who bully you nonstop. Some toxic BFFs talk exclusively about their problems when you hang out, or gossip about literally everyone in your friend group (a good indicator that yeah, they have absolutely said some awful things about you too).
Even if you know a friend is toxic, it can still be hard to distance yourself or fully cut ties, no matter how weird your stomach feels every time you make plans with them. I talked to Dr. Irene S. Levine, psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, and Denver psychologist Dr. Susan Heitler about why it’s so difficult to leave friends you know deep down don’t make you happy.
1. You go waaaaaay back.
“The memories that are integral to any friendship are irreplaceable,” says Dr. Levine. “If it’s a childhood friend, you may have shared many firsts together: first day at school, first date, etc. She may have known your parents and siblings.”
Breaking up with a childhood BFF and then stumbling upon photos of you as kids in your mom’s house or via an automated Facebook “Friendversary” video (because, I swear, those are always of you and people you’re not actually friends with) can be jarring. But the same thing will happen with you and tagged photos of your terrible ex. It sucks, but cute pics and select nice memories are never good enough reasons to keep someone in your life.
2. When they’re good, they’re the best.
If your friend is a miserable, manipulative monster 24/7, it’s a lot harder to imagine such a struggle to ditch them. Your toxic friend who makes subtle digs at your clothes “may [also] be someone who does cheer you up when you feel down, or someone who is almost always available if you want to see a movie and have no one else to go with,” says Dr. Heitler.
Toxicity can be tough to spot on someone who is occasionally a fun person to hang out with. You just have to ask yourself if it’s worth staying friends with an excellent wingwoman if she also hinted that you didn’t deserve your promotion at work and made you feel icky the rest of the night.
3. Quitting them feels like a personal failure.
There is absolutely a rush of pride that comes with posting a “#tbt! This girl’s been my best friend for 15 years!” Insta caption. And that makes it so much harder if that same friend of 15 years feels like an emotional leech every time you meet up and you want out so, so bad.
“When [you] become close friends with another person, [you] suspend the possibility that the friendship will ever end,” says Dr. Levine. “That’s what allows us to develop intimate and trusting relationships.”
And because you were in it for the long haul, it’s easy to feel like the friendship dissolving is all your fault. This is how most people approach romantic breakups, but if you can date someone understanding that you might not be together forever, you’re strong enough to do the same with your friends.
4. You think you deserve their meanness.
It’s not hard to understand that when you feel your lowest, you might be more prone to holding onto people who are the last people you need in your life. “If someone has extremely low self-esteem, she may not be able to distinguish good from bad advice, or she may be reluctant of questioning or challenging the other person for fear of alienating the friend,” says Dr. Levine. Even if their harsh critiques are tinged with cruelty and don’t feel productive at all, it’s easy to think that you’re just being too soft and your friend is just “telling it like it is.”
“Another [reason] may be that your family members when you were growing up were toxic, so toxic feels normal,” says Dr. Heitler. While distancing yourself from family members can be a complicated and painful process, friends are choices, and, if picked well, can be your best allies instead of just another person who puts you down.
5. You’re terrified of losing your mutual friends.
As someone who expressed a problem with one girl in a college clique and immediately became the mortal enemy of the other two friends, I GET IT. Even with more mature friend groups, this can be tricky terrain to navigate. “It’s natural for your friends to ask questions about what happened,” says Dr. Levine. “They may try to foster reconciliation. They may see it as a threat to the bonds of the group. You may worry that they’ll question whether you are a good friend.”
There’s no easy way to do it, but Dr. Levine recommends avoiding one-on-one hangouts with the ex-friend, being cordial when you’re with your mutual friends, and definitely avoiding bad-mouthing them or getting the other friends too involved in your grievances.
And if you lose them all anyway? Honestly, being abandoned by that clique opened me up to so many legitimately fulfilling friendships I wouldn’t have had time for otherwise. My college experience sucked for a little bit, but it would’ve been so much worse had I actually stayed in a group where I couldn’t be honest with my friends.
6. Suddenly spending more time on your own scares you.
“Fear of being alone is one of many reasons that someone might keep a toxic friend around,” says Dr. Heitler. If it wasn’t, ghosting on someone you only see once every few months anyway wouldn’t require so much thought.
“You’ll have to deal with a chunk of free time on your hands, time that you once spent with your friend,” says Dr. Levine. It’s true: if the person in question is your designated Friday night friend and you’re worried your weekend plans will dwindle, that can be a hard thing to give up. But having more space to yourself just means you might join new clubs or reach out to people who are actually pleasant to hang out with. Dumping a toxic friend can be scary and briefly sad, but knowing that you can always make new BFFs and don’t need to depend on people who do nothing for you is an empowering thing. Embrace it.