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7 Helpful Things to Consider If You’re in an Unhealthy Friendship

Two Friends Talking

“Letting go gives us freedom and freedom is the only condition for happiness.” ~Thich Nhat Hanh

For much of my life, I lived for approval and acceptance from family members, friends, and co-workers.  I can’t recall not considering what one thought about my actions or what I had said, wondering if I could have done them better. I was always thinking of others and their feelings toward me.

It was a constant battle in my head, and it was starting to drain me of my peace.

No matter what they had done to me in the past, no matter how much pain they’d caused me, I thought it was only right that I give it another try. After all, friendships take a lot work.

You see, for me, gaining a sense of acceptance from the people I cared about was a life source that I sought after, again and again, because it meant I was important, that I mattered.

But at what cost?

When the relationships we’ve worked hard to build for many years aren’t giving us the joy they once did or a sense of community and energy anymore, what do we do? What if, in fact, it feels downright toxic and negative to be around them?

This happened to me. All the signs were there, but I didn’t see it for what it was. I thought maybe I was just too sensitive. I would often tell myself, “Get over it, you’re thinking too much again.”

Then one dreary day I got a call from my mom. My dad was in a horrific accident and he passed an hour later. My family was grieving from loss and shock, and the one person I thought would be there by my side suddenly disappeared.

This person was my cousin, and a good friend I had known my entire life. I looked up to her as a young girl, and even thought of her as a big sister I never had.

My cousin proceeded to go on with her life as if nothing had happened. Not one single word was exchanged between us. It was as if I were a stranger to her.

It hurt me deeply and I was utterly pained by her actions.

Looking back, I understand why she made the choice to stay away. Facing death and pain isn’t easy; in fact, it takes great courage to face it head on and ride the storm.

While I had been hurt and resentful about how she avoided me during the most painful time of my life, I had the gift of time to reflect and to reevaluate my relationships, and the other issues that made this particular one unhealthy.

As painful as it is, there comes a time when we need to “break up” with a friend in order to live authentically and to be free.

Life is short, and we have to consciously make the choice to not tolerate the negativity and emotional abuse of being in a relationship that isn’t working.

We break up with our significant others when we’ve exhausted every avenue and know in our hearts the relationship isn’t working and it’s time to let go. Just because we are not in a romantic relationship that does not mean we have to tolerate negative behaviors or what isn’t working.

You don’t have to wait for a life tragedy and loss to realize this. Take the time to reflect on what kind of people you want to bring into your life and what you deserve to have—a friend who is honest, who will cry and laugh with you so you can grow together.

Here are 7 things to consider if you feel you are in a similar situation:

1. What does friendship mean to you?

The definition you may have on what makes a good friend may be different from your friend’s. This may sound silly, but this is the platform on which you build a relationship that may one day flourish and develop into a fruitful friendship.

The relationship I desperately wanted to have with my cousin was but a mirage. I had deluded myself into thinking that we had a strong bond. Reflecting back, it wasn’t a very healthy relationship.

Be honest. Tell your friend what you need. Your friend may see things differently and it may solve any misunderstanding between the two of you. But if your friend chooses not to reciprocate, you’ll be able to gauge if this is a relationshipyou want to keep.

2. Is the friendship just too exhausting and negative most of the time?

I used to wonder why it was so hard being around her. It drained me of my energy and left me feeling very negative about who I was as a person.

I resented that I couldn’t express my authentic self to her. Often she would reply to me with, “You think too much,” as if my feeling, values, and beliefs were not valid.

A friend who cares about your well-being will discuss any concerns you may have and not dismiss them as trivial. If you don’t communicate your feelings, resentment can build, and you may harbor negative feelings toward this person.

3. Is the relationship balanced?

To me, a friendship is like a seesaw. It takes two people, and each needs to give and take a little to balance out the ride.

Like any close relationship, both parties need to make the effort and choose to grow together as friends, or it can be a very painful process.

Thinking back, our relationship was very much one sided. I always felt I was the second choice, a person to call when she needed company, or to vent. I don’t recall her ever asking me how I was doing, especially after my dad was killed. There was no depth in our relationship.

4. It’s okay to let go.

Relationships are complicated, and it’s never an easy choice to let go of a friendship. It was painful for me to accept that our friendship was over, but in order to live authentically and to be free, I had to let it go.

It didn’t happen overnight. As our relationship deteriorated, we saw less and less of each other. When she called to invite me over, I deliberately chose to decline the invitation. I knew that I would regret going, and that it would leave me feeling of resentful, with old, painful memories haunting me.

It can be a long, emotional, and unpleasant process when we are deciding whether we should continue on with a friendship or to let it go. All these feelings are normal. Any transition in life comes with some form of discomfort. It means we are growing and evolving.

5. Know that it’s nobody’s fault.

Sometimes relationships end, despite every effort to make it work. Just because we have made the choice to let go of the friendship, that doesn’t mean it has to end it a negative way. We can say farewell with well wishes and make the choice to remember the happier times in our hearts.

I think every relationship is unique and the way you choose the end the relationship depend on the situation you are in. Listen to your inner voice and honor it.

You may choose to tell your friend that you need some space. Or you may choose to write a personal letter to express your feelings and concerns if you think it will be too confrontational. At times I still miss the friendship I had once shared with my friend, but I keep the good memories with me in my heart.

6. Stay open.

Stay open to new friendships and to your present moment. Staying open allows for new opportunities and new relationships to come into your life when you are ready.

Editor’s Note: Clearly, there are only 6 tips in this post and the title was a mistake. Feel free to add a 7th to the comments if you’d like!

Photo by Ed Yourdon

Avatar of Jinhee Junis

About Jinhee Junis

Jinhee Junis a teacher and a novelist. She seeks to bring some meaning into her daily life while embracing the unpredictable storm with loving kindness. Find out more at: www.jinheejun.wordpress.com and www.tutor-for-kids.com.

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  • Scudsterr

    While it is clearly hard to explain a friendship in a short essay, I cant help but think that you were maybe too quick too drop the ball on her. This is a very close relative, someone who you knew your whole life, but someone who was also clearly suffering herself.

    Did you ever think of how to truly help her get better, or were you just thinking about your own suffering? Looking back we can see things one-sided, did you ever smile, laugh, have fun with this person? You mention that she never asked about how you were doing, sometimes people suffer so much all they can do is think about their own problems, you advise to be honest with your friend and tell that friend what you need, but did you ever do that? >>”Friend, you are clearly suffering, and it is hurting me also, we cannot continue our relationship in this way because it hurts me to much.”

    Were you deluded your entire life? Lifelong friendship is a big word. Was it always one-sided? If you told her that when she always complains to you, it wears you out, maybe she would be able to gripe for 5 minutes, then you could actually have quality time.

    “I resented that I couldn’t express my authentic self to her. Often she would reply to me with, “You think too much,” as if my feeling, values, and beliefs were not valid.”

    Did you ever say, “You don’t take me seriously, this hurts me, why do you do this?”

    I’m sorry if I am coming to the wrong conclusions, I may have made wrong assumptions, but especially with family, it is better to heal wounds, then to sever the connection for the rest of your life. People change, your friend could change, did you truly give her a clear chance? If she ever knew she would lose you completely, don’t you think she would have to evaluate what went wrong with herself?

    Anyways, thanks for your story.

  • Activista

    Had two similar experiences, one a friendship that had run its course, and one a family member who it was no longer healthy for me to have a relationship with-in both instances ending contact was the right thing to do-after much thought and reflection. Over time, seeing how much healthier I am out without these relationships has only affirmed that it was the right decision. I respectfully disagree with the other poster, maintaining family relationships simply because they are family should not be done at any and all costs. Can also relate to putting your own needs second, and having unrealistic expectations for the relationships that cause you to stick with them and try harder to “make them work.” Really appreciate your tips-particularly the description of friendship as a seesaw with each person being the giver/receiver at different times.

  • Elle

    Scudsterr, everyone has different experiences and values. Each of us is autonomous is that we have the right to come to our own conclusions and make our own decisions about what’s right for us. The author clearly had reflected at that time, and obviously continues to do so, on her experience and her decision; your phrases like “It is better to…,” “did you *truly*…” and “don’t you think…” undermine this and presuppose an awful lot on your part. As such, your post can only come across as judgmental and out-of-line. Luckily, it appears from the gist of the rest of the piece that the author has moved beyond looking for strangers’ approval as a reflection of her self-worth. Still, there will never be any shortage of people looking to impose their sense of the world on others, I suppose.

  • Elle

    Thanks for adding your voice, Activista. I agree with you whole-heartedly and have had what sounds like similar experiences to yours. You simply get to a point where your sense of self and self-worth have been so drained, and the resentment so great, that the healthiest thing to do is often the hardest for those of us drawn into relationships of that nature: Cut ties. To imply criticism of someone as being too hasty in doing so–an individual who has not only agonized over their personal decisions but unhealthily over-invested themselves in the first place–seems to seriously miss the mark.

  • LC

    Where is #4?

  • jinhee

    Thank you for the comment. I understand the point you are trying to make. There were many times in our relationship where I tried to communicate to her regarding the issues we were having, face to face and with personal letters. Despite my efforts, nothing has really changed. She is family and she will alwasy be family. I do see her at family functions and we do chat; however, I set my boundaries with her and know that the relationship we had can’t continue on the way it had before. I hope this clears up some questions you had. Thanks again for the comment.

  • Evelyn Navarre

    I don’t know about the rest of this author’s relationship, but maybe her cousin was staying away after the father’s death out of respect for the family’s enormity of the experience. Maybe the cousin’s own parent was grieving intensely for a lost brother — if that was the relation. Did the author communicate her desires and needs to the cousin? And the “you think too much” — sometimes, it’s true. Sometimes, we are too much in our heads, and a good friend is the one to point it out. It gives me the creeps when people try to use Buddhism — or anything else — as a line of defense in their heads for dropping some one they’re disappointed in/frustrated with. Too bad. :(

  • jinhee

    Sorry for that, it was a typo. Thanks for commenting.

  • Jinhee

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Yes, ending any long term relationship is hard, no matter who it is, but it is nessary if it becomes emtionally unhealthy and if the other party isn’t willing to put in the effort to evolve together. I am glad my post was helpful and thanks for sharing your story as well.

  • Jinhee

    I appreciate your comment and understanding. Yes, my self worth was suffering a lot becuase of the relationship and it was time to let go.

  • jinhee

    thanks for the comment

  • Lina Romanova

    Never seen such a beauty, I love them !!!
    http://youtu.be/UW233Z8BKk8

  • reedeedamee

    Thank you for your story. I completely understand it and appreciate
    the tips. I also have/had a friend who became a family member through
    marriage. When the friendship was severed through her actions, I was
    hurt and very angry. I am working hard to move on. Especially to move on
    without the anger and bitterness I feel over what happened. Your tip
    about letting go but holding the good times and memories in your heart
    is very helpful. Maybe someday I can be comfortable chatting with her at
    a family gathering – whether there is ever an apology or not. That
    would be nice.
    May you continue to surround yourself with those that bring light to your world.

  • Demeanour

    i can totally relate to this article.. and i agree to each word written in it.. i feel that no friendship/relationship is worthy if it drains away your peace of mind… how hard it might be to let go… it must be done…
    life is full of surpirses.. and the most unimaginable things will happen to you… but its important to let go of things which bring negative energy around you.. sometimes these may come from people you have loved the most and who have been the world to you… but it is never gonna be worth it.. let go… let them free… and accept yourself for who you are… you will find that you are much better off them…

  • jinhee

    Thanks for sharing your story and for your thoughtful comment. I think forgiviness can be a powerful thing. Not to dismiss any wrong doing or emotional abuse, but so that you can move forward and let go of the pain. I hope one day you will be able to chat with this person at family function without too much pain.

  • jinhee

    Thank you for sharing!!!

  • Claire de Lune

    My life ended up being pretty strange in terms of friendships
    because of this need of approval. I’ve been friends with suppressive people at
    times who didn’t really like me much. Now I can see that, but I couldn’t at the
    time. Looking back now, I can see I was deluded, expecting them to be the
    people I needed them to be instead of seeing who they really were.

    When I realized what was going on, I ran. I moved to a different city because I wanted a change of scenery and I never contacted them again. (I used to talk two hours per day on the phone with this particular friend whom I left behind).

    I had to do it, it was unhealthy to be so available and so nice to
    someone who wouldn’t think twice before walking all over me. She was the
    “spoilt princess”, type. So, I “broke up”.

    In the beginning it was terribly difficult. I would miss her friendship so much, but them I realized that I was projecting myself onto her.

    I know it sounds wrong to say this, but now I know: I am nice; she wasn’t.
    There was no point sticking around because she was never going to be nice. Not in the way I needed.

    Although I consider this an improvement, I still have bitter memories about the times I let her make fun of me or maliciously put me down, thinking that she was infact looking out for me and trying to be a friend and a ‘counselor’.

    I used to say to myself things like “you have to accept people as they are, no one is perfect, everyone has got good things about them”, and all of these clichés, but, over time, the way she ‘saw me’ just started hurting me more and more, because I knew she saw me as someone inferior to her. She made no mystery of that and that was mainly because of our racial and social backgrounds.

    Now I know that if you need a counselor, you have to find a
    professional, and if your friend proposes to be that shoulder for you
    to cry or that person who will pull your ears when you need it, you better make
    sure that this friend really holds you in high esteem, and is not just giving
    you advise that “coincidently” always makes you feel as an ‘incapable/ugly/inadequate’ person, just so they can feel better about their own crap.

    And then…I vowed that at the first sign of racism when dealing with a potential friend, I am going to turn my back and walk….miles…and never look back.
    (sorry about my broken English).

  • Gabriella West

    Thank you for the article. I just want to point out that there is one paragraph missing (skips from 3-5).

  • jinhee

    I am sorry you had to go through such horrible experiences and now that you realize you deserve a friend who is your equal and appreciate you. Thanks for sharing your story and comment.

  • jinhee

    thank you for letting me know ~ it was a type.

  • Stephanie

    I ended a friendship about 6 months ago. It was a very difficult decision and even as I made it, I wasn’t 100% sure I did the right thing. While I really didn’t want to be in the friendship anymore (it was very toxic and stressful), I harbored a lot of guilt for walking away. It’s never pleasant when a once-valued relationship ends, but I think we all have to carve out a life that feels good to us and surround ourselves with people that respect us, value our well-bring, and lift us higher. Thank you for your words of encouragement and reassurance.

  • jinhee

    I understand about the guilt. I felt that way for a long time, but I realized that guilt only prevented me from healing and moving forward in a healthy way. Forgive and give yourself the premission to grieve the loss of your friendship. I wish you all the best.

  • Scudsterr

    No problem, you have clarified any confusion I had, I’m glad you made the best decision for your well being. Take care.

  • Scudsterr

    Agreed, only trying to bring across a second opinion. I didn’t mean for it to be too judgemental, but I can see how it ends up that way. I will try to be less assuming in spouting my ideas in the future.

  • Lola

    I’ve had friendship problems my whole life. I, too, constantly sought acceptance and approval. I only recently realized that I was doing this, and that it was at my own peril. That was a big a-ha moment for me, and I can’t say that things are now easier. I have had to let go of a lot. I am listening to and caring for me now, and working towards healthy, mutually satisfying friend relationships. I wish you well – here’s hoping for me!

  • Meg Lee

    What if the said toxic relationship is with my parents. There is no possibilities to ‘break up’ from them. Even when I live far away and have my own family now I still have to deal with the negativity. I realized it is unhealthy and have tried to talk to them about it but nothing have changed.

  • peacefulatlast

    Yes, you can break up with them. My entire life my parents were toxic to me, they influenced the toxicity that was learned behavior as a young adult and I spent 6 years in therapy learning about myself and how to be the person I wanted to be. I continued to be the subject of my parents poor treatment for years. There were many sit down conversations with them and my own husband, who had been such a source of comfort for me. Eventually I came to value myself and the family in my home as the most important relationships and that the toxicity of my parents, by their own choice, was impacting our happiness in both short and long term ways. My husband and I cut off all contact with them and it was the best decision I could make for my own happiness and the growth of soul.

  • jennifer- divine-yoga

    thanks, i have lived through this. Letting go of a friendship is puzzling, painful and bittersweet. but ultimately honours both and our freedom to move towards ever increasing meaning and fulfilment

  • Alexey Sunly

    Breaking off a relationship and letting go of someone are two different concepts in my mind. You can let go of someone who needs to change their current path because the direction of your relationship is not serving them, and that, of course, changes the nature of your relationship but does not stop it. Or you can try to break contact with someone in hopes of severing relationship completely. Only the latter option is an illusion. Your relationship has not ended, nor it ever will, but your attempt to bury it will cause you a significant amount of frustration and a mental disorder.

  • jinhee

    Sometimes you need to give yourself emotional distance and heal first before any chang can happen. I had years to think about the relationship I had with my friend and many times I had family members guilt me into changing my mind and having to reevaluate my boundaries. I think maybe setting your emotional boundary may help with your parents. I wish you all the best.

  • jinhee

    I wish you well on your journey. Thanks for sharing.

  • Eli

    Don’t mean to be snarky, but this looks like 6 things.

  • Chars

    Thank you for writing this article! It helps to get a clearer picture on what i was going through with a friend whom i used to consider as a soul sister. What happens when there is unresolved issues on letting go and there is no way we can keep our distance because we are bonded by work daily and we have the same circle of friends? How do i stop the emotional reactions i am feeling and practice detachment with the said friend?

  • jinhee

    Yes, it is painful, and often times, for both parties involved. I wish you well Jennifer.

  • jinhee

    I am glad my article was helpful. It helped me a lot to share it with everyone as well. I mentioned in my comment that I do see my cousin at family funcions and we do chat.
    I think physical distance doesn’t necessary give you peace from those that cause you emotionally suffering. While I think sometimes it is needed in order to heal, it isn’t the
    case for most. Over time, I was able to set an emotional boundary through reflection and being honest with myself, time, and forgiveness. I have no ill feeling for her any longer and I do wish her well, but it took me a decade to get here. I wish you well.

  • Kt

    I’ve let several very toxic friendships go over the last year, and while it is a difficult situation, it always turns out for the best. Now my benchmark for friendship is so high, I only let amazingly awesome fun friendly people into my circle and don’t give anyone else the time of day.

  • Guest

    Great article….question: Should I share this article with the Friend I just let go?

    He does not see the relationship as one-sided, he is a dad like me except I have 4 kids he has 2….but can’t take or make a call……..or make time to meet.

  • blubegonia

    i don’t see anything about putting people on the back burner so they can date that cute co-worker . . .evidently, i know a person who did this and is continuing her life as if nothing is wrong. makes me perplexed – should i have been putting people on the back burner all these years?!

  • Freespirit76

    This article has perfectly described the constant feelings I am up against through the lack of support I have recently had from 1 or 2 friends I have put trust in that have since pushed me away when I needed them the most.

    I too feel that I am looking for constant understanding to feel like I fit in and am accepted.

  • Guest

    I really enjoyed this article. I’ve had a similar experience with someone who I thought was very close to me and valued our friendship as much as I did. It was very hard to accept that our friendship was not working out in the beginning and I desperately wanted that person to move far away from me so I would not have to deal with them anymore. However, it got a little bit easier with time, as most things typically do. I still don’t quite understand why things happened the way it did and I still hurt a little thinking about it but I know it’s for the best. It does take two people to work at a friendship and if one person really doesn’t want to, then you can only let go. The longer you hold on, the more painful the process. I used to (and still sometimes do) put myself down, thinking what did I do wrong? why is it me? But looking back, I realize now, that it’s not me. Sometimes friendships just don’t work out and you have to learn that is okay. You’re not always going to be friends with everyone you meet.

  • Chloe B

    This article really hits close to the heart. I’m going through a similar situation, only with my sister maybe one day our relationship will be what it once was, but until changes are made, I choose to not be affected by the self destructive decisions.

  • ambika

    My best friend for over 8 years accused me of abusing her on FB. She wanted me to swear on my nephews to convince her that I had not abused her. It was the most painful thing to hear. I still feel pain when I think about her accusation. She thought I have no self respect or may be I can go down to those levels of calling her names. The anger has subsided but the pain is still there. She has moved on. And I have too.

    There is another friend who I helped get back into her broken relationship. All 3 of us go back 8 years. Now that her love is back into her life, she broke off with me and asked me not to connect with her else this will hamper her relationship with her lover.

    IS this fair… ???? come what may…I guess I may not want to reconcile ever with such friends… I can’t even recall any good memory of them now..this is so hurtful and depressive…but then life goes on…

  • Lyla McLean

    Ambika, sometimes people change and are no longer what they were in the beginning or we grow and leave them behind. It’s OK to walk on and find new friends who share your values. This has been a recent experience of mine. I tried to change the dynamic of a friendship by suggesting to my friend that we study a spiritual discipline together. She walked away. Since then other people have moved closer to me and I find that I’m drawn to women who are much gentler than my former friend. May lovely, nurturing people also come your way.

  • Lyla McLean

    Your own innate wisdom has given you the answer. Practice detachment. I hope you won’t mind suggestions that have worked for me. If you are a praying person pray that you may both be peaceful with this new situation. If you are courteous and professional at work that will make things easier for you. Go along with your friends, say nothing about your former soul sister, sit with someone with whom you are comfortable and allow time to pass. It will get easier.

  • Lyla McLean

    Forgiving isn’t condoning. For me it means that I accept that I can’t change what was, I forgive myself for any part I played, I try to learn as much out of the experience as possible and am grateful for the lesson, eventually. It’s important to allow ourselves all the feelings that come with loss. The end of anything is still a loss in the moment.

  • Emma

    I’ve recently found myself in a difficult situation with a few, but in particular one uni friend. Put simply, there was a disagreement in the group, not involving her, and she came over to tell me that I was wrong without listening to my side of the story. I didn’t really understand the point she was trying to make. My boyfriend witnessed the whole argument and reassured me that I wasn’t in anyway in the wrong, it was ‘girl politics’ and really rather primary school-ish. This is not the first time I’ve noted this aspect in her, and I really want to distance myself from her especially. She enjoys gossip and taking the moral high-ground, yet has really had a very sheltered upbringing and doesn’t understand the problems some folks have. I can see that this isn’t essentially her fault, but I am sick of being preached at by someone unwilling to listen and understand. It’s a shame, because I know she cares quite a lot about her friends, but doesn’t realise that she’s being rude, hurtful, intrusive and condescending without any grounds. This post and the comments has reassured me that I’m not wrong in wanting to step back from this friendship that is turning quite toxic very quickly.

    I am really sympathetic to the author for managing to step away from a family member. It’s so much harder, especially if your family is close knit like mine is! I cut-out my cousin from my life at 16 after getting tired of his nit-picking and arguing (he has Aspergers, but thinks that everyone else should allow for him being rude rather than learning to control it. I have several Aspergers friends who ask for clarification instead when they are finding a social situation difficult.) I am still civil to him at family events, but any other connection is gone. I think this is important – there’s no sense causing more arguments by being mean back to a toxic friend. I’m hoping I can achieve a similarly peaceful and civil distancing from the girl causing my current problems so I can breathe a bit more freely!

    Thanks for posting, great article!

  • Guest

    I’m with you on this. To my surprise, different aspects of my life improved once I let go of toxic friendships. I felt better as a person and I became prudent about who I hang out with. Friends affect our lives far more than we can imagine!

  • Riley

    It seems like its time for me to let go of a friend of mine. She dismisses my worries and keeps on hoping that our friendship will be like it once was. Sadly for her it will never be like that for me again. I put all the effort in that friendship to get nothing from her. Now its time to close my eyes, clear my mind and let go. Hopefully the next thing i do is a bit better for me