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The Subtly Toxic Friend: 6 Reasons to Cut Them Off


As a neuroscientist, I am fascinated by mental health, consciousness and perception, as well as the psychology behind human relationships.

The Dilemma: A Friend That You Secretly Dislike


If you are emotionally astute and empathetic, you probably judge where you stand with people accurately; you can clearly judge who likes/dislikes you and pick up on hints easily.

Due to your disposition, you'd never outstay your welcome at a party or talk about yourself excessively in a grandiose manner. These behaviors just aren't something you fall into, as your ability to judge the perception of you that others hold is heightened. You also genuinely care for those close to you and would never want to interfere with their happiness.

Your friend:

However, the above isn't the case for everyone (or, as a matter of fact, for a large proportion of the population). You may be dealing with a friend who is unpleasant, rude and self-centered, yet also strangely resistant to your efforts to distance yourself. They may throw digs at you and enjoy belittling you, but then appear offended when you're slow to reply to texts. Unfortunately, unpleasant people rarely have many friends so tend to cling to the people that they feel they can manipulate; nothing is worse than someone who is not only nasty but also very clingy.

In this article, I will bring to your awareness 6 reasons why your narcissistic (yet needy) friend is problematic and toxic beyond repair. Ending the friendship may be a wise idea.

1. They Never Ask You Questions About Yourself

If you've been friends with someone for a significant period of time and they rarely ask you anything about yourself, this is truly a warning sign that they are a narcissist. Someone who is complacent enough to never bother fully getting to know you is not only egotistical but also demeaning.

Unless they are oblivious to the fact that they answer all your thought-provoking questions but never ask you anything back, they enjoy sitting in a position of power. They are probably aware that there is a difference between the way that you speak to them and the way that they speak to you; instead of making the effort to balance things out, they find it amusing to see you acting subserviently.

It goes without saying that you should cut ties with someone like this, since they clearly hold no respect for you and are disinterested in you as a person. If you want to go further and give them a taste of their own medicine, slowly start detaching and asking them less and less. When they update you on things, give generic affirmative responses and pretend to be hardly listening. Seeing you drifting away from their hold an no longer acting compliantly will fill them with rage.

2. You Wouldn't Trust Them In All Situations

1. Imagine: leaving this friend alone with five of your other friends

If this idea fills you with discomfort and apprehension, the chances are that you subconsciously know that they are sneaky, unpleasant and either likely to lie about you or reveal a secret of yours. While all of your friends will have unique personalities, everyone close to you should speak nicely about you to others in your absence.

Furthermore, this shows that the friendship is probably built on an illusory foundation, as is often the case when one person is mentally unstable and toxic. The fact that you wouldn't trust them in your absence indicates that you feel that they neither truly know you nor have a positive portrayal of you in their head.

2. Imagine: this friend having to describe you to people who had never met you

Again, if this idea fills you with unease, you are probably aware (consciously or not) that they would describe you unfairly and negatively, or simply inaccurately. The former suggests that they are inherently malicious and toxic, and the latter that they are too self-centered to even bother getting to know you.

3. They Have A Unique Hold Over You

Since they're treating you badly, you may fantasize about confronting this person and eventually ending the friendship. While you are probably bright, lively and outspoken with other people, this individual clearly possesses a strange hold over you. Have you ever wondered why you tolerate them and their irritating antics, when you'd never let anyone else treat you in this way?

The answer isn't always obvious or hard to pin down. Perhaps you put up with them because you've never had another friend and are insecure and unstable yourself. Maybe they're so inward-focused that they're unaware of their personality flaws, so you realize that arguing with them would get you nowhere. Other possibilities are that you've tolerated a power imbalance dynamic in the friendship for so many years that it's become your norm.

Only you can work out why your friend has this mysterious power over you; the answer depends on your personality and theirs. Sometimes it's an unhealthy friendship where they are domineering, pushing you into a corner, but other times it's a more subtle and awkward state of affairs. Perhaps you don't take the plunge and distance yourself because you feel sorry for them: you know that you're the only friend of theirs who has stuck around, so ditching them feels immoral.


4. They Seem To Oddly Lack Emotional Intelligence

Some people are genetically wired in a way that makes them unempathetic and emotionally unintelligent. These people are often nightmares to deal with, and to add insult to injury, the very fact that they are unaware of how they appear and affect others can make them overtly self-centered and clingy. You may find yourself desperate to remove them from your life, but incapable of doing so since they always manage to slither back in.

A common mistake is to assume that everyone in your life is as aware of how they are behaving and impacting other people as you are. It's time to accept that neurodiversity is a real phenomenon, putting us all somewhere on a spectrum when it comes to:

  • the ability to self-reflect (i.e. go home at night and think "oops, I shouldn't have said that to her. What if she's sensitive about that topic"?)
  • the ability to read and understand emotions: certain genes predispose people to lack the ability to read facial expressions and to empathize. Nothing can really help them as this is how they function.

I'm trying to dispell the myth that you can "change" people who treat you badly and impinge on your life. The difficult, awkward truth is that this isn't the case: your friend has a different brain to you and doesn't even notice that they're irking you intensely when they invite themselves over to your house every week.

To make things worse, a natural consequence of these cognitive deficiencies is a stubborn lack of desire to become a better friend/empathizer. Someone who is naturally poor at understanding people and how their actions affect their close friends is also very unlikely to possess the psychological capacity to improve themselves (if improvement is even possible).

What should you do, then?

You must realize that the most up-to-date neuroscience and psychology support the idea that some people are born unempathetic and emotionally-lacking. You need to consciously realize that this friend won't change or suddenly be able to connect with you. The very fact that you're unhappy with their behavior suggests that you're a deep-thinking, socially aware person who simply shouldn't be friends with a person like them. It's time to stop feeling guilty about phasing them out and find some sensitive, likeminded friends.


5. They Are Needy and Constantly Intrude On Your Life

Certain people not only impose themselves on your life, constantly wanting to hang out, but are also actively unpleasant to be around when you do see them. This follows on neatly from the idea that some people simply lack the ability to be tactful and judge the situation: your friend may be unaware that they are intruding and getting on your nerves.

This behavior can take many different forms, depending on the situation. Your friend may insist on phoning you every single day, or expect you to go to the gym with them and sulk when you go on your own.

If you are both in college, this person might demand that you invite them over regularly just so that they can sit in your room with you and then be irritating and rude. You will probably find yourself developing a strong aversion to having them in your personal space. To your dismay, they'll appear oblivious that they're overstepping the line, despite your frequent efforts to hint that you're busy etc.

Friends like this are extremely tricky to deal with, since often it appears that they just have no clue that they are behaving in such a maddening way. Does this mean you should tolerate them, since it's "not their fault they're socially-unaware and clingy?". No, because you do not owe your friendship to someone who is fundamentally incompatible with you.

If you have an overly-obsessive friend and find yourself constantly having to concoct new excuses to keep them at arm's length, that is a good enough reason to phase out the friendship. Boundaries are important and it is intensely aggravating when someone doesn't get the message and routinely invades your personal space/life.

6. You Feel Like A Background Character In Their Life

Do you ever feel like your friend's sidekick at times, nothing more than a backup dancer in the performance of their life?

Maybe you've tolerated a power dynamic in the friendship for a while, and your friend thinks they can get away with dehumanizing you. They are probably holding onto a mental "image" of you, that is misaligned with your real personality but that fits what they want to get from you.

Of course, this friendship trope can find itself in many different scenarios; here is an example of my own, involving my selfish and domineering ex-friend. In short, he failed to create his own social life at university (in a different city to me) and leaned on me heavily during my time studying. I initially responded with kindness and let him come and stay with me regularly, but as my workload intensified, I found myself uninterested in drinking and partying.

Now, my friend had always been a keen party-goer could not accept my transition away from the activity we used to do together. Instead of appearing sad that our foolish teenage days were over, he reacted in an incredibly hostile manner and proceeded to mock me regularly over "being boring", all because I no longer fitted the "friend mold" that he had created for me.

It those moments, it became apparent to me that he truly was a bad egg; he only stayed friends with me to visit me at university and party in my city, all while encroaching on my student life. It angered him to know that he wouldn't be able to use me or my social circle anymore. I had sussed out his game; our friendship ended shortly after, as happier, healthier, sober me was no longer of use to him!

When you and this "friend" naturally grow in different directions and suddenly don't want to do the same things, their baleful nature will be evident. They'll sulk and appear insolent like a child, completely unable to accept that they can no longer use you for whatever role you previously filled.

A selfish person like this may be malevolent, intentionally using you to carry out their plans while devaluing you and dismissing your emotions, but they may be so self-absorbed that they don't even see you as a person worthy of any focus.

Your Difficult Friend

© 2018 Lucy


Kate on July 05, 2020:

I dumped a friend in May of 2020 because she lacked empathy and was full of toxic positivity. She always kept reminding me that if a person cannot be happy all the time she did not want to be around them. Long story short I told her that she had toxic positivity and that I felt like I could not be myself. I told her that I was going to move on. We’re no longer friends.

Mlssufan01 on April 08, 2020:

dumpee here...I have to argue one thing especially here: it is likely they'll never change." I can tell you right now, I've been the clingy person before; I've also been the side on the one-sided...I've been the self-centered. I can look back now and see it...but at the time...it's hard to see it. Now, for some, it's a nightmare to deal with, like they won't listen..I get it...but for the majority of us...we truly just don't know what our problem is. But most of us actually care enough about you to want to do better...its just our outward doesn't show it in a healthy way. Sometimes we just weren't raised right. But if you gave us a chance...and taught us how you need to be loved...I guarantee you, a lot of us would try. Maybe not all...but don't let one bad experience ruin your hope for those who remind you of the bad experience. Trust me when I say...many of us desperately want to be a better person for you, we just don't know how.

Rae on October 06, 2019:

I have a friend who I've known since grade 2 (12 years) but she's always valued her boyfriends over me. She doesn't tell me anything and if she does I don't know if it's the truth or the whole truth as she exaggerates everything. Like if I can't hang out with her she immediately thinks I hate her. She doesn't care about me at all, she never asks about me. It's obvious she only cares about herself and her problems. She only comes to me when I'm slipping away from her. I'm so tired of trying to help her with her problems that it becomes my problems even though it's completely useless cause she won't take my advice anyways. I feel bad breaking up with her cause I've known her for so long and she keeps telling me she's going to change. Also she has multiple mental illnesses making me feel even worse

Rick Deville on August 31, 2019:

I have been through a friendship where 1) I’m not sure it was a real friendship, 2) my awareness and expectations of who this person really was was entirely wrong, 3) I’m not sure if I did anything to bring about her rapid change in tone with me, and 4) I’m sure I was dealing with a person with one or more personality and mood disorders.

Let’s call this friend (or should I say “friend”?) Tara. Tara works with me in the same company. She’s a couple years older than me, now in her mid-40s, and has been in this company a couple more years as well, not a supervisor, more of a senior colleague. Tara was divorced/single when we met, and I am married.

Some background: Tara had married young, she married her husband when they were classmates in grad school, and then were classmates during an arduous 5-year training program, and then another year in practice working together until they had - what I heard to be - an ugly divorce (he had taken money from her, I heard). She never spoke much about him, occasionally mentioned she thought he was an alcoholic, but said they probably would have stayed together if they had had kids (they never did, she didn’t talk about that).

So she had been in her early thirties, divorced and single. She proceeded to go through several relationships, none lasting more than two years (one man she mentioned she had been “almost engaged” to, not sure what that means). She had also been through several jobs in the same field, with different companies.

At our company, she worked two floors above me for the first couple years after I joined. She was always friendly and cordial with me, I only saw her occasionally. But I began to hear that there was some rift between her and our other staff on her floor. I never heard what exactly had happened, but know Tara to sometimes be defensive, irritable, and territorial about her work - which she occasionally expressed in angry emails to the team!

The chiefs of the department had to switch her office for other purposes, so they transferred her downstairs to my floor, a quieter floor.

Our friendship started pretty quickly then. I had been one of the few coworkers who she had been casually friendly with even before she came downstairs and I felt sorry for her about how the others were treating her upstairs. Although I didn’t know the details about what happened up there, I felt that she was a good worker who was being unfairly maligned.

We hit it off quickly. Mornings and afternoons chatting in each others’ offices, lunch together in the team breakroom, went to conferences together, walks to the company store together. We began emailing and texting quite frequently. Text conversations almost every day. Book and movie ideas, political discussions, you name it, fun chats. Her mother passed away and I spent several long phone conversations with Tara, although she later told me she generally did not like to talk on the phone. Tara describes herself as an introvert, she certainly is, and when she had her door closed and needed to just get her work done on her own, alone, I let her be. Some days she wouldn’t show up to work and I’d text to see if she was ok, she’d tell me she was having “a really bad time” and just needed to be alone.

We saw each other at concerts, where she hung out at intermission with me and my wife. Went to a few company excursions with her, she was friendly with my wife too.

Occasionally, I now realize more clearly, she didn’t treat me as a friend, though. Couple times going out with others from work, she drove me to the venue, and then just left me there without a ride at the end of the evening (once some boyfriend she was all nuts about came and took her away from our group, once she said she just needed to leave, and left me standing there alone in the parking lot calling Uber!). I asked her a couple times if she wanted to join me and my wife for dinner before a concert, and she always said she “didn’t want to be a third wheel.” When my wife and I went on a double-date with her and her then-boyfriend (later fiancee), to a festival (an excessively PDA-filled showing on their part), they just suddenly declared in the middle of the day they were leaving since he didn’t feel well. Another time we went on another double-date with them to dinner and a concert, at the end of the music, they just left without staying a minute to say goodnight. Except for one evening when I invited her (single at the time) to join me and my wife and my parents for a Christmas garden festival and nice dinner, I realize now she never wanted to go out with us unless it was to serve as a double-date for her and a guy! She never invited me out or over to her house.

She shared with me here and there some relatively private details about her life and family (although I now realize she left a lot of details about prior work and relationship life to herself). I used to ask about how she was doing all the time. I really felt more and more that I cared about her. In a purely platonic way, I’m happily married! But I cared and felt sorry for hardships she was going through and wanted (and offered) to help in any way I could.

One notable time I offered her advice I now realize may have been a major mistake. Thing is with Tara, she is very self-assured and confident that whatever she is doing is the right and smart thing to do, no matter what common wisdom says. She had embarked on her newest relationship and after only a few weeks of dating, he had moved into her house, she was planning to buy a baby grand piano to convert her home office into a music room for him, they went ring shopping, and she was planning on quitting her job and moving with him across the country in about a year to live closer to his parents. I only suggested to her that this relationship was moving very fast and she should keep her head on her shoulders - if she was sure it was the right thing, fine, but I was just hoping she wasn’t making rash decisions. (of note, I have kind of made the “instant relationship” mistake myself, and it didn’t turn out well!!). She became quiet - noticeably perturbed at my suggestion to merely think carefully about what she was doing - and tersely told me she had been through many relationships and could easily see that she had found the right man. After just over a month of dating, she knew everything that was bad about him and could live with those things.

On the other hand, I told her about some private health issues I had. And a few months into our “friendship” my wife had a baby, my new son. And she never once asked me about how those things were going, about how I was doing or the baby or my postpartum wife! Not once!

It’s remarkable to think now, but in the months before my son was born, I asked her (at first casually, then with a heartfelt written letter) if she wanted to be the Godmother to my son. She said yes, she was honored.

The major rift happened about a week before my son was born. She had been dating a guy for about 2.5 months and was very content and excited to be in a relationship (the same boyfriend from the double-dates I mentioned). On Monday she was friendly, joking around with me, had a nice chat and walked to the store with me ....

Tuesday morning ... not a word. No good morning, no nothing. She shut her office door all morning, seemed very angry when I saw her come out of office in afternoon, I tried to talk to her and she abruptly and rudely cut me off in mid-sentence, closed her door in my face. And she remained like that the next week until I had to leave work for the birth.

I texted her a few times, I was concerned about her very sudden change in behavior. After my son was born, she never texted back. I was reading about depression and noticed her symptoms seemed to match almost entirely (at least from an external view). She finally wrote me a text saying she was overwhelmed and needed some space. Although she said she knew I was trying to be a good friend to her, my periodic checks on how she was doing were increasing her stress, she needed space. I understood. I sent her an emoticon text every week or so to let her know I was there if she needed to ta

Lucy (author) from Leeds, UK on July 14, 2019:

@Madeleine Thank you for sharing your experience with a particularly difficult person. I completely agree that boundaries are essential in adult friendships, and that some people are incapable of realising this. While distancing yourself feels uncomfortable and steel-cold, it is the kindest thing to do in the long run. Better to nip a toxic connection in the bud once you have identified it to be draining, rather than lead someone on before inevitably breaking down.

Madeleine Clays on July 14, 2019:

I had a friend I chose to cut out of my life because she was constantly disrespecting my personal boundaries, even after I had kindly spoken to her about it. It was as if she didn't hear it. I found her husband to be the same way towards me. I felt so taken for granted, and finally decided to just walk away from the relationship. I know that some people will say that you can't just ghost a friend. Call it ghosting or whatever you want, but in the end, you're really just walking away from a selfish person and a toxic relationship. Thanks for affirming that there is certainly a time to walk away.

Lauren on June 23, 2019:

No I don't thing so because if I was I'd have stuck with him as a friend but I didn't do it's not the case I just hate his girlfriend because she was possessive and controlling I hate her for what she did and he didn't do anything to stop her so I guess the reality of it is it's his fault mostly I can't be his friend not after everything it's not possible I've cut contact and haven't spoken to him in months he has tried to talk to me though but it didn't happen and when it did once it was very brief

Idk on June 17, 2019:

What if I'm that annoying, unpleasant friend no one wants to be around?

Lucy (author) from Leeds, UK on May 20, 2019:

@Lauren It seems that you're very emotionally-invested in your connection with this friend, and that he means a lot to you. Have you considered the possibility that you might be in love or infatuated with him?

And, thanks for coming back to check in again!

Lauren on March 25, 2019:

Okay Lucy now I see where you're going with this I think he might be a little overly obsessed with his girlfriend he probably just needs the friends he has now to stop supporting his relationship

Lauren on August 31, 2018:

I didn't drift away from him I ended the friendship with him because I wasn't truly happy in the friendship because it was so one sided I don't want to be friends with him as long as he's dating his girlfriend I'm 32 by the way and that means I do need deeper friendships because I lost my father five years ago he passed away that's why I've got high standards

Lucy (author) from Leeds, UK on August 29, 2018:

@Lauren Unfortunately, it is extremely common for people to lose friends in their late teens/20s in this way. A new romance is always going to temporarily seem more exciting and appealing than your old friendships, but the trick is to not act as if this is the case. It's essential to remain in touch with your friends and check that they're doing well.

The initial infatuation stage with a new partner IS temporary, so your friend is biting off his nose to spite his face if he's appearing bored of your longterm friendship. He will most likely come running to you in a year or so, when he either has broken up with his girlfriend OR the initial feelings have calmed down a bit and he's less interested in spending all his time with her.

One thing is for sure - he will, at some point, realise that he needs his friends and that spending all his time with this girl isn't what he truly wants. Romance is great, but nothing beats laughing and joking around with friends who have known us for years!

Having said this, some guys DO get a girlfriend and cut off all their female friends. These guys tend to be secret misogynists who don't really want non-sexual relationships with girls. They may seem like great, supportive friends for years, but the second they get a girlfriend and start acting rudely and dismissively to you, it becomes obvious that they were only friends with you because *some small part* of them thought that they might be able to hook up with you.

I hope this isn't the case with your friend. From what you've said, it doesn't seem to be - I would be inclined to think that he is a nice guy who is just temporarily distracted by "love". You will know the situation in a year - either you'll be close again (he'll have broken up with his GF or will still be with her but realise he misses friendship) or you will have permanently drifted.

Lauren on August 27, 2018:

I had a friend like that for almost fifteen years but I didn't hate him I actually loved him very much because he wasn't always that way until he started dating his girlfriend then Dominic because selfish he started spending all his free time with his girlfriend and he wasn't putting any effort into the friendship sure he checked in every now and then but he never asked me how I was doing well not since April when I was sick he's only there for me when it suits him he just isn't the guy I used to know

Deborah Reno from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD on August 26, 2018:

Great article! I've had friendships and romantic relationships with these types of people. They can be charming and interesting but only for a while. In the end, they only care about themselves.


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