Is Your Friend an 'Emotional Vampire'? Here's How to Deal with a Toxic Friendship
When it comes to jobs and habits, it's relatively easy to tell when something isn't doing your mental or physical health any good. Love interests, a little less so. But for some reason, when a friendship is sucking the life out of us, it's hard to even think that dirty little question: Is my friend toxic?
"We can easily be blind to the other's behavior and to the emotional and energetic impact it has on us, particularly if the person has been in our life for a long time, like a partner, best friend from school days, or a relative," says Megan Dalla-Camina, Ph.D., a women's mentor and author of Lead Like a Woman.
Let's be real: We've all had periods of unintentional selfishness and lack of self-awareness. Sometimes, you're just going through shit. But if someone in your life is taking all your emotional space and robbing your positive energy to make themselves feel better, that's a toxic friend, says Dalla-Camina—or, as she likes to call it, an emotional vampire. (Related: These Three Little Words Are Making You a Negative Person)
Who's Most Likely to Have Toxic Friendships
Women in general are more likely to put up with toxic friendships than men. "Men are more often able to distance themselves either emotionally or physically from people they don't want to be around. Women, meanwhile, are typically more emotionally available so more prone to these type of negative attacks," explains Dalla-Camina.
People with high self-esteem and clear boundaries won't experience this much—a toxic person can't hook their claws in, so to speak, so they'll quickly move on to someone else once they realize they can't get the emotional or energetic response they're after. (Related: 4 All-Too-Real Reasons Friends Break Up—and How to Deal)
But for those who experience more insecurity, have lower self-esteem, are codependent, or who are just more sensitive and empathetic, and/or are more of a people-pleaser? Well, these personality traits increase the chances you may put up with toxic relationships in your life, says Dalla-Camina.
And the repercussion is also greater: "The toll among these types of people can be felt more deeply—ranging from feeling flat and depleted, feeling a lack of confidence or emotionally sensitive to other relationships, to questioning yourself and feeling undermined," she adds.
Why Keeping Toxic Friendships Around Is Actually a Big Deal
It's easy to minimize the effect a negative person can have on your life. "We swallow our feelings, make excuses for their actions, and convince ourselves to just 'be nice.' Some of us feel guilty for being annoyed, feel pity because we know how much they need us, or feel shame because we don't think we're worth better," explains relationship expert Shasta Nelson, M.Div., author of Friendships Don't Just Happen! The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends.
And this reaction is understandable—it's human nature to hope people will change. A 2018 study in Nature Human Behaviour found that among 1500 volunteers, the vast majority were predisposed to give others, even strangers, who have proven themselves to be untrustworthy and "bad" the benefit of the doubt that they could eventually be better and more moral.
But negative relationships take a toll: A 2016 study on college students in Journal of Health Psychology found that people who were holding onto resentment from harmful relationships were also more likely to experience depression and anxiety. Meanwhile, researchers at UCLA found stressful friendships can actually increase levels of an inflammatory protein in the body that, over time, can contribute to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
FWIW: It's true that having a close circle of friends is super, super important for our health—loneliness has been shown to be just as, if not more, damaging to one's health and mortality risk than smoking, obesity, alcohol abuse, and a sedentary life. But keeping relationships in your life who make you feel less than, depleted, and run down doesn't actually counteract loneliness, Nelson points out. (Related: How to Make Friends As an Adult—and Why It's So Important for Your Health)
How to Tell If Your Friend Is Toxic
We all get annoyed with our friends at one point or another. But, overall, Nelson says a healthy relationship should have three things: positivity (actions that leave both people feeling good, like laughter, affirmation, and empathy), consistency (actions that leave you both feeling like you can trust the relationship, like following through with plans and spending quality time together), and vulnerability (actions that leave you both feeling seen, like asking questions and sharing thoughts and feelings).
"When someone feels they are in a toxic friendship, it's because at least one of these three requirements is lacking," she says.
Dalla-Camina offers a few direct signs your friendship is toxic:
You go into an interaction feeling good and positive but leave feeling negative and even a bit down.
You feel like your energy is robbed most times you're with that person.
You feel like they want less than what's best for you.
You sometimes avoid being with this person, even though they are your "friend."
You feel "less than" as a result of comments he or she makes, regardless of whether that's what they meant or not.
Your gut tells you that this relationship isn't good for you on an emotional, mental, or spiritual level.
So, Should You Just Cut a Toxic Person Out?
Actually, not so fast. Even though most of us deal with sub-par relationships by putting up with the B.S. and then eventually getting fed up, frustrated, and walking away, there's actually another option for how to deal, Nelson says: Be open and honest, look for ways to repair and strengthen the friendship, and/or realize you can pull back and interact less while still maintaining some level of friendship.
Which brings us to one super important clarification: Just because you have a toxic friendship with someone doesn't mean that person themself is toxic. "Someone I used to be friends with immediately comes to mind—yet, she has a huge group of other girlfriends who apparently aren't dying in her presence," says Nelson.
It's about your dynamics together. More important than finger-pointing is simply acknowledging that a relationship doesn't feel good, then looking for what you both can do to shift your dynamics.
Her rule: The closer your friendship has been, the more you owe it to that relationship to try and repair it before ending it.
Now, not all friendships can be saved, and not all people are open to hearing your pain. "People who are prone to this behavior [of being an emotional vampire] are often lacking self-awareness and accountability so it may fall on deaf ears, or cause more issues in the relationship," explains Dalla-Camina,
And it's important to realize you can't change the other person. You can, however, change how you show up and respond to them, which in turn changes the relationship, explains Nelson.
And doing so is a win/win, she points out: You either deepen the friendship as you begin to hear each other more, or you go separate ways and begin to value the healthy relationships in your life for the rare gems that they are.