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The Subtly Toxic Friend: 6 Reasons to Cut Them Off

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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.

6 Reasons to Ditch That Selfish, Toxic "Friend"

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

The Subtly Toxic Friend: 6 Reasons to Cut Them Off

The Subtly Toxic Friend: 6 Reasons to Cut Them Off

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 and no longer acting compliantly will fill them with rage.

2. You Wouldn't Trust Them In All Situations

Can you 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.

Can you imagine this friend having to describe you to people who have 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 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, like-minded 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