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Are You a Toxic Friend? A Therapist Explains How to Tell

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April 24, 2024
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Aaron Gilbert
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It’s a term clinicians struggle to define but everyone loves to toss around: Toxic.

There are tons of articles out there to help us determine what toxicity looks like in relationships and how to know if you have a toxic person in your life.

But what do you do if you read those articles and, instead of seeing your friend or partner or boss, you see yourself?

First, know that seeing yourself in descriptions of toxic behaviors does not make you toxic. In fact, it’s actually a good indicator that you aren’t toxic. Self-awareness, or a lack thereof, is a big part of what differentiates truly toxic behavior from mere mortal imperfections. We’ll get into why that’s the case in just a moment, but for now, take comfort in the fact that recognizing your faults (I prefer to frame them as ‘growing edges’) already frees you from a toxic label in my view.

As a therapist, I work with people every day who come to me because they want to work on themselves. Whether they want to adjust their own behaviors they’ve realized aren’t ideal, or they want to work on healing from the consequences they’ve endured due to others’ problematic behaviors, therapy helps people discover their own power and agency in their lives to make positive and impactful change.

When it comes to our own problematic behaviors, the truth is it’s far more beneficial to focus on personal growth and healing instead of worrying about whether or not to slap a toxic label on yourself.

That being said, let’s take a closer look at what toxicity really is and how to identify it in yourself.

How to Tell if You’re Toxic

First things first. We all have problematic tendencies in our behaviors. It’s simply part of being human. Living an imperfect life in an imperfect world will inevitably create imperfect ways of dealing with human experiences like fear, loss, and pain. These survival techniques often turn into imperfect traits as they are reinforced mechanisms for helping us feel safe and secure.

Being imperfect is not the same as being toxic, though it can be tempting to confuse the two. It doesn’t help that there is not currently an official clinical definition or diagnosis of what constitutes toxic behavior or a toxic person. This leaves the toxic label open to interpretation, and pop psychology can convince you that any imperfect behavior is toxic and should be met with swift and severe consequences. We are encouraged to cut out toxic people from our lives, leaving us in a conundrum of what to do about our own problematic traits.

Imperfect Traits vs. Toxic Red Flags

To help tease out the difference between toxic and imperfect traits, it’s important to evaluate the frequency of the behaviors as well as the intention behind them. Let’s look at a few imperfect behaviors to get an idea of how they differ from toxic red flags:

Imperfect Behavior: Desiring attention from loved ones or in a group and interrupting or oversharing to focus the conversation on yourself.
Toxic Red Flag: Feeling the need to dominate every conversation, turning every topic back to yourself, constantly talking over others, or exaggerating your stories to steal focus.

Imperfect Behavior: Not making enough time for friends during busy seasons of life, leaving some texts unanswered, and coming across as disinterested or neglectful.
Toxic Red Flag: Only reaching out to friends when you need something, never thinking to ask them about what is going on in their life or reaching out just to see how they’re doing.

Imperfect Behavior: Acting out of a momentary feeling of insecurity, trying to manipulate someone into doing what you feel you require in order to meet your needs.
Toxic Red Flag: A pattern of manipulative behavior where the primary concern is always getting what you want and making yourself look as good as possible at the expense of others.

Imperfect Behavior: Occasionally stepping over someone’s boundaries in an effort to get what you need out of your relationship with them.
Toxic Red Flag: A total disregard for others’ boundaries and always seeing your own needs as paramount.

Imperfect Behavior: Acting out of defensiveness in the heat of a disagreement or conflict, saying or doing something regretful.
Toxic Red Flag: Acting out of defensiveness as the default. Never being willing to consider another point of view and being unable to have an authentic and open discussion that focuses on a different perspective.

Are you seeing the pattern? Toxic red flags are predictable patterns of behavior, not infrequent lapses in judgment. Their intentions are always self-serving at the expense of others. If you respond to your imperfect behaviors with remorse and a desire to do better, they are just growing edges. They aren’t poisonous.

This is where self-awareness plays a big role. Research shows that when we can self-evaluate, we are better able to consider other perspectives, have more self-control, and act from a place of healthy self-esteem and even creativity.

So if you’re asking, “Am I the toxic friend?” you are already on a promising path.

Know Your ‘Whys’

If you have a toxic behavioral pattern in your life, it’s important to explore the underlying causes behind the patterns so you can change them. This 2017 study shows that when we engage in self-reflection on our decisions, we can gain more self-awareness and make choices toward meaningful outcomes.

So when it comes to your own problematic behaviors, evaluate what might have led you to develop those behaviors in the first place. This is often best done in a therapy setting where a skilled professional can help uncover these causes. But here are a few helpful questions to start with:

  • Can you recall when you started utilizing this behavior, or have you been doing it for as long as you can remember?
  • When you act this way, what are you feeling? (Defensive, neglected, scared, insecure, etc.)
  • What are you trying to gain through this behavior? (Security, safety, attention, comfort, control, etc.)
  • What has led you to feel as though those things are missing in your life?

It’s important to validate your authentic answers to these questions. Remember, living in an imperfect world has led to imperfect experiences in your life, and big or small, they deserve to be recognized. Painful past experiences or unmet needs throughout your life may have led to imperfect behaviors, but they don’t have to define who you are or label you as hopelessly toxic. Instead, you can find healing in detoxing techniques that get at the root cause and replace imperfect behaviors with productive self-care strategies.

Detoxing from Toxic Behaviors

Healing from the underlying causes of your imperfect or even toxic behaviors is possible. My first suggestion is to seek out therapy because having the nonjudgmental, encouraging, and knowledgeable support of a trained therapist can expedite your healing and provide proven strategies for growth. If we think of the underlying causes of toxic behavior as the true toxin, then it makes sense to get the help of a professional who understands the root cause (attachment woundsanxiety, etc.) to help bring true healing.

Freeing yourself from toxic behaviors takes time. Taking responsibility for your actions and how they have harmed others, making amends where you can, and being proactive in developing better strategies and behavioral habits are all part of the equation. But first and foremost, the greatest antidote for toxic behavior is self-compassion.

Key Detox Remedy: Self-Compassion

Whether you recognize toxic patterns in your behaviors or acknowledge that you have imperfect traits you’d like to work on, a prescription of self-compassion is warranted. Western culture especially has clung to the idea that white-knuckling our way to improvement is the only way, when in fact it’s proven to be among the least effective means of change. As an alternative course of treatment, researcher Kristin Neff outlines a prescription of self-compassion which includes three elements:

  1. Self-kindness instead of self-judgment for the suffering we experience.
  2. Understanding that the struggles we’ve experienced are not isolated to ourselves as individuals, but rather they are part of the common experience of humanity. In other words, you are not the only person to struggle with imperfect or even toxic behaviors, it is a common experience across humankind.
  3. Embracing our struggles with mindfulness. Instead of over-identifying with our faults, Neff suggests accepting their existence and treating ourselves like we would treat a good friend, offering encouraging support instead of harsh criticism.

Remember, someone is only as toxic as they are unwilling to accept their faults and work on their problematic behaviors. Your willingness to examine your behaviors and work on healing and improving makes you a friend, partner, parent, and colleague worth having.

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