Identifying Toxic Narcissist Friends, Plus How to Deal

Written by Angela Atkinson

Have you ever been friends with someone who made you feel terrible after spending time with them? Have you found yourself wondering if they were toxic, or whether they might be a narcissist? Well, that’s exactly what we’re talking about today: narcissistic and toxic friends – how to identify them and what to do if you have one. (See video on YouTube)

A few months after I left my ex-husband and became a single mom, I got a job working in healthcare billing. The hours were good for a single mom, I got health insurance for my son and me, and the pay was better than I could do elsewhere at that time. After a couple of weeks on the job, I met a fellow single mom working in my department. Let’s call her Brenda.

I was so happy to meet Brenda because I really didn’t know anyone in the area (because my narcissist ex had isolated me quite thoroughly, and because I’d moved to be closer to my family when I left him). Plus, our kids were similar ages and we could hang out and have playdates outside of work. It seemed perfect.

At work, we started having lunch together every day. I was thrilled to have someone to hang out with and fully embraced the friendship. But after a few months, I noticed that every time I spent time with Brenda, I felt super-stressed and like I needed to calm down. I couldn’t figure out why at first, which I know sounds odd, but I wasn’t as self-aware back then as I am now.

I wrote about it in my journal a few times, and I realized that I must be missing something. There didn’t seem to be a logical reason that I’d feel the way I did – Brenda was a good friend, right?

Well, after that, I started to watch our conversations a little closer, and pretty soon, I realized that Brenda was a very negative person. If I had an idea or talked about trying something new, she’d instantly go into all the reasons I shouldn’t bother doing it, or why it wouldn’t work. If I bought my lunch, she’d make subtle jabs at me for not being more frugal – and if I brought my lunch, she’d pick it apart for any given reason. If I talked about a guy I was interested in, she’d do everything in her power to tear him down and divert my attention. And she NEVER liked it if I tried to bring another friend along to hang out – she’d tear that person apart verbally and refuse to participate in whatever we were doing.

She was SO negative! In fact, I struggled to find a time where she said anything positive. But when we’d first met, I had taken her negativity as sort of commiseration between two single moms – you know how it is.

Once I realized what was going on, I wondered if I should end the friendship. I mean, it wasn’t like I had a million friends at that point in my life, but should I really maintain a relationship with someone who was bringing me down so much?

After a few days, I realized that I wanted to still be her friend, and so I started trying to subtly turn our conversations toward the positive. I’d counter all of her negativity with phrases like “but on the plus side” and “now here’s the silver lining…”

But Brenda didn’t respond much to those things – except to occasionally roll her eyes and continue with her negativity.

Then, one day, I got moved to a new team within the department, and they all invited me to lunch. Brenda was annoyed when I invited her to go along. She refused and told me she’d rather eat lunch in her car than to put up with those people, and that we’d just resume our lunches the following day.

After spending my lunch break with this group, I felt a bit of an uplift in my spirits. And the next day, they invited me to join them again. Once again, I invited Brenda, and this time, she begrudgingly accepted. With all of these more positive people around, I felt better. Brenda’s negativity couldn’t quite infect me the way it usually did, and it was harder for her to dominate the conversation with so many of us at the table, But after a few days, she told me she was done with them. It was too much for her. And she gave me an ultimatum: her or the group.

Whether it was right or wrong, I chose the group. And while I told Brenda that it didn’t need to be this way, that we could all be friends – or at least that I could be friends with them and her as well, she disagreed and she gave me the silent treatment for the remainder of the time we worked together. I felt really bad about it, but I knew I’d made the right choice. Negativity is so difficult to deal with – and Brenda’s especially toxic version of it was infecting me like a disease. I knew that if I wanted to feel better, I had to move on.

Now, I can’t say for sure if Brenda was a narcissist or just a very broken woman. But either way, she had become toxic for me. So let me ask you – does any of this sound familiar to you?

Have you ever had an experience like that?

Have you had a toxic friend?

Before we dig into our discussion on narcissists and toxic people as friends, let’s talk about true friends. What is a true friend, in your opinion?

Everyone has a slightly different definition–but bottom line, a true friend is someone who is there for you when you need him or her, someone you trust, someone who makes you feel good.

Probably you have great conversations, share interests, and support one another in your every day lives. You help each other out. You have each other’s backs. You know.

But what happens when a friend turns out to be “not so good” for you – if the friendship becomes toxic? Worse, what if your friend is a toxic narcissist?

What is a toxic narcissist?

In case you’re new around here, let me quickly define the term “toxic narcissist.” Officially, this refers to a toxic, verbally abusive person who may have narcissistic personality disorder.

To avoid the whole “pop psychology” thing, let’s just put it this way. If we’re talking about a toxic narcissist, on the most basic level, we’re talking about someone who lacks empathy and who acts from that perspective. It’s someone who demonstrates toxic narcissism – as opposed to healthy narcissism, this is excessive self-focus that involves a marked lack of empathy for others.

So what does a toxic or narcissist friend look like?

In layman’s terms, that means someone who, after spending time with them, makes you feel bad about yourself instead of good. This person might have a tendency to be critical of you — sometimes subtly, and other times, not so subtly. They may also make you feel drained – emotionally, financially, and/or mentally. Ultimately, this is someone who you might recognize as not very good for you.

How do you truly identify a toxic friendship?

It can be difficult, especially if you have been close to a friend for a long time. If you suspect that a friend is (or has become) toxic, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How do you feel after spending time with or speaking to this person? Do you feel good and positive (for the most part) or do you find yourself worrying, stressing or obsessing about some aspect of the visit or call?
  • Are you afraid to tell your friend about some aspect of your life for fear of how they’ll react or fear of being judged harshly?
  • Do you sometimes find yourself avoiding contact with the person or ignoring their calls?
  • Does your friend consistently “forget” about your plans or cancel at the last minute?
  • Does your friend actively insult or offend you on a consistent basis?
  • Do you find yourself feeling uncomfortable or bothered by your friend’s life choices, behavior or moral conduct?
  • Do you feel comfortable bringing up concerns about your friendship with this friend?
  • Does this friendship benefit you?
  • Do you trust this friend, really trust him or her?

These are just a few questions to get you started. In general, your friends should be an asset to your life, not a detriment.

How do you deal with a toxic friendship?

Does someone in your life seem to be more of a hindrance than a help in your life? If so, it may be time to reevaluate your choices. So, once we’ve figured out that a friend IS toxic, what can we do about it? How do we deal with a toxic friendship?

1. Recognize the Problem

When we start feeling bad about spending time with or talking to our friends, it’s time to take a look at the relationship. Identifying the friendship as a toxic one is the first step to dealing with the problem.

2. Own Up to It, People Pleaser

Friends of toxic types often have something in common. According to Charles Figley, a spokesman for the American Psychological Association, “It’s a pleaser personality — you want people to like you, you want to get along, and it’s hard to say no. But you can pay the price in one way by having toxic friends.”

The fact is that, whether you can see it or not, you’ve got some responsibility in this relationship too. Maybe you’ve allowed your friend to treat you negatively or to make you feel bad about yourself because you want them to like you, or because you don’t like confrontation.

3. Develop Strong Boundaries

Often, people pleasers aren’t good at setting boundaries. When your friendships become toxic, it’s time to stand up for yourself and let friends know what isn’t acceptable.

For example, I used to have a close friend in college who always did the “one-up” thing when I’d tell her about my problems or my accomplishments.

For example, when I told her about a promotion I had received at work, and she was like ‘oh yeah, I heard I might be getting a promotion at my job, too.’ Then she went on to tell me how much better her promotion would be than mine, and how much more money she’d be making than me. Another time, I told her about a problem I was having with a guy I was dating, and wouldn’t you know it? She launched into a big monologue about her problem with her boyfriend, which was, of course, far more serious and difficult than mine.

So, in that case, I could’ve set boundaries by explaining my concerns to my friend and asking her to avoid the “one-up-manship.” I never did, unfortunately. But hindsight is always 2020, right? Anyhoo…

4. Talk It Out

Talk to a trusted (non-toxic) friend or family member about your concerns if you can. Many times, it’s easier to figure out the problem when you’re “outside looking in”–that is, when you’re not the one with the problem, the solution to it can seem crystal clear.

If you can’t find an “objective” third party, it’s a good idea to seek outside counseling. By employing the skills of a trained coach or therapist, not only do you get the objectivity you need, but you may also get answers or learn coping techniques you wouldn’t on your own. If not, talk to a support group like my SPANily group on Facebook.

You could also journal or blog about the problem. Personally, I have worked through almost literally every problem in my life this way – including toxic friendships. Sometimes, just putting our thoughts into words and getting them out of our heads can be enough to help us figure out our issues.

5. If All Else Fails, Walk Away and Go No Contact

If you’ve tried setting boundaries and discussing the problem with your toxic friend and have not been able to resolve the issues, it may be time to consider limiting contact or ending the friendship. It’s not an easy choice and certainly shouldn’t be taken lightly, but when it comes down to it, your sanity and mental health are more important than any toxic friendship. Take care of yourself first, and then you can take care of others. People pleasers often forget this little piece of wisdom.

  • There are many ways you can do this: email, phone call – you can just stop talking to the person. But in an ideal world, you’d do it in person. Maybe you’d invite the person to coffee or lunch. Before meeting them think about why it is you don’t want them in your life anymore and figure out how to phrase it in non-judgmental ways.
  • Try using “I Statements” – meaning, make an assertive statement without putting your friend on the defensive.
  • Explain clearly (but kindly) how their behavior makes you feel. Say something like ‘Brenda, I feel upset when you ask me for advice and then tell me that I don’t know what I’m talking about.’ Or “Brenda, I feel stressed out after having lunch with you each day because it feels like you rarely have anything positive to say.”
  • Be clear and assertive. Let your friend know that you do care about them; but that you don’t feel like you can be involved in a friendship with them any longer. Give the person a chance to respond, they may not even be aware of their behavior and the idea of losing a friend might give them a good reason to think about their own behavior. If the conversation turns towards the negative, you can just end it there and walk away.

Of course, this is always much easier said than done. But I promise you, when you have the weight of a toxic friend lifted off your shoulders, you’ll feel so much better and be able to heal that much faster.

Question of the Day

Have you ever had a toxic friend, and if so, how’d you deal with it? Share your thoughts, ideas and experiences in the comments section, below this video.

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