Do the Right Thing

Spirit, science, and health

How You Make Frenemies, and How to Get Rid of Them

Expert advice on what to do when a friendship turns sour.

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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 become toxic.

Friendships typically unfold like a flower. As a flower blooms, sun, rain, wind, and pests can greatly alter its progress. Similarly, positive first impressions and social context such as shared activities and experiences might contribute to the launch of a hopeful friendship, but the nature of that friendship can change significantly as you get to know each other better due to the many changes in social context and life experience typical of the friendship journey.

The Roots of Toxicity

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

Toxic friends can also emerge due to social comparisons. Social comparison theory basically states that we constantly make 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 people in poverty, we’ll feel rich. Thus, as we and our friends go through life, with all of our various successes and failures, we all make judgments and comparisons based on the fortunes (or setbacks) of others in our circles. Toxic friends typically can’t accept or support your successes. Their insecurities may manifest in efforts to sabotage your efforts for success and happiness in life. While on the surface, these friends they may say all the right, supportive things, they are really hoping and praying for your failure. As they say, “With friends like these, who needs enemies?

What Can You Do?

Protecting yourself from toxic friends isn’t easy, especially if you share living arrangements, work together, have activities in common, commute together, or have other friends in common. Yet sometimes you really do need to remind yourself that you can pick your friends—and unpick them, too.

Think of your life as a long walk. During its course, you will be accompanied by fellow travelers who sometimes spend a great deal of time with you, and sometimes not so much. These companions are sometimes welcome, and sometimes not. Some turn out to be wonderful fellow travelers, and some don’t. But if you are thoughtful, savvy, and mindful of how friends can be wonderful assets or toxic ones, you can make better decisions about who to befriend and who not to.

When dealing with toxic friends who really don’t have your best interests in mind, you might need to say goodbye as you continue and complete your walk of life.

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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