Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

Friends Can Be Wonderful or Toxic Assets

With friends like these who needs enemies?

As the old adage goes, “You can’t pick your relatives but you can pick your friends.” That’s good news because too often friends reveal themselves over time to not be friends at all. Friends can be wonderful assets in life but they can also be toxic assets too.

Relationships such as friendships typically unfold like a flower in the various stages of bloom. As the flower blooms sun, rain, wind, and pests can greatly alter the outcome of the flowering bloom. Initial impressions and social context such as shared activities and experiences might contribute to the start of a hopeful friendship but the nature of the friendship can change significantly as you get to know each other better as well as due to the many changes in the social context and life experiences of the friendship journey.

For example, often toxic friends have personality disturbances (in DSM-IV diagnostic terms, Axis II Cluster B pathology) such as narcissistic, borderline, antisocial, and/or histrionic characterological styles. Typically, these disturbances aren’t recognizable during initial impressions and the early stages of friendship. Rather they are revealed over time and especially when under stress and when the fortunes rise and fall among the parties involved.

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Toxic friends also emerge due to social comparisons. Social comparison theory basically states that we are constantly making judgments about ourselves and others by watching those around us. If we are surrounded by people of great wealth, we’ll feel poor. If we are surrounded by those in poverty, we’ll feel rich. Thus, as we and our friends go through life with various successes and failures, we all make judgments and comparisons based on the fortunes (or lack of fortunes) of others. Toxic friends typically can’t accept or support your successes. Their insecurities manifest by sabotaging your efforts for success and happiness in life. While on the surface they may say all the right things supporting you, they are really hoping and praying for your failure.  As they say, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Protecting yourself from toxic friends isn’t easy especially if you have shared activities, living arrangements, commutes, many other friends in common, and so forth. Yet, sometimes you really do need to remind yourself that you can pick your friends and thus unpick them too.

Think of your life as a long walk. During the course of your life’s walk you are accompanied by fellow travelers who sometimes spend a great deal of time with you and sometimes not so much. Your companions are sometimes welcomed and sometimes not. Some turn out to be wonderful fellow travelers and sometimes they don’t. If you are thoughtful, savvy, and mindful of how friends can be wonderful assets or toxic assets you might make better decisions about who to befriend and who not to befriend. Additionally, when dealing with toxic friends who really don’t have your best interests in mind you might say goodbye to them as you continue and complete your walk through life.

So, what do you think? 


Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.


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