When we think of abusive relationships romantic partners and family members may come to mind. However, friendships have the capability of being emotionally abusive that can cause overwhelming anxiety. Intimate friends provide support, love, and experiences that are critical for connection. Friends play an important role in how we feel about ourselves and the world. Abusive friendships can make you feel unloved, worthless, and not good enough. Here are some red flags to recognize potential unhealthy friendship behavior.
Do you feel as though you give and give to your friends, but get nothing in return? You may be expected to meet their needs and provide support to them, but will not see responsibility to do the same. You may feel insecure in the friendship and feel as though your needs are not important.
Healthy relationships require balance. If one person gives more than they receive in a relationship, than it becomes emotionally draining. Abusive friends take advantage of your generosity. Do you feel as though you give and give to your friends, but get nothing in return? You may be expected to meet their needs and provide support to them, but will not see responsibility to do the same. You may feel insecure in the friendship and feel as though your needs are not important. Of course, context and frequency are important here. For example, if your friend’s parent is dying or you just had a baby, the friendship may be imbalanced for a certain period of time but not unhealthy.
Additionally, you can look into your expectations for what friendship looks like. Maybe you expect more effort than your friend is able to provide. It can be helpful to set boundaries to balance out the friendship. For example, match their effort. How often do they reach out to you for a favor? How often do you reach out to them? How unbalanced is the effort? If your friends constantly ask you for support but are not there for you than this may be an unhealthy imbalance.
Gaslighting is a form of manipulation and psychological abuse used to gain power and make the other person question their perception. A classic example is when the person tells a lie, then blatantly denies it ever being said and turns the blame toward the other person. Gaslighting aims to sow seeds of doubt that may lead to questioning one’s memory or sanity. Gaslighting will make you feel as though your feelings are not valid. Using denial, misdirection, lying, contradiction, and manipulation are used in attempts to delegitimize ones beliefs. For example, an abusive friend may deny something they said or tell blatant lies, such as “You take everything so literally, stop being so sensitive.” You may constantly feel the need to apologize all the time and may feel threatened and confused. Gaslighting is a big sign that your friendship may be unhealthy.
Do you constantly walk on eggshells and fear being yourself around your friends? Ask yourself “is this a personal insecurity? Or is it your friends behavior?” You may constantly feel anxiety, fear, or worry that your friends will abandon you or treat you badly. You may fear that being honest with them would result in repercussions like spiraling guilt, shame, and anger. For example, if your friend is talking badly about the cash register employee and you express disagreement, your friend might shut you down and say that you don’t know anything. Responses like these aims to tear someone down by attacking their self-esteem and confidence. If you confront your friend about your hurt feelings and their response was to attack you instead of apologizing, then this might be a red flag. Remember again that context and frequency is important. Even healthy relationships will experience unhealthy behaviors from time to time. The frequency at which these incidents occur is important to be aware of. Additionally, it might be useful to see if your friend behaves like this with everyone or just you. If it’s just you, what makes them behave in this way? How can you resist it?
It might be helpful to keep a journal to track all of the incidents where you feel triggered by your friend. Discuss what happened, what was said, and how it made you feel. This activity could help you become aware of the patterns, which can help you set future boundaries for yourself. Make a mental note: do you get this feeling from other people in your life or is it just with this person?
Does your friend always make the decisions? Does your friend always make the plan based on what they want to do regardless of your opinion? A controlling friend makes decisions on their terms. Controlling people feel a desire to be in charge and prove themselves by manipulating the environment and people around them. For example, they may plan a night out to an expensive restaurant even though you may not be comfortable or able to spend that much money on food. Your friend may also make you feel guilty for hanging out with other friends or having plans without them. This may result in them trying to isolate you from other friendships.
5. Lack of trust
Do you fear that your secrets are not safe with them? Have there been times when they betrayed your trust? You may notice that they talk behind the backs of other friends. This could be an indication that they are doing the same to you. You may fear telling them something in confidence because you think that they cannot be trusted. This may show up in racing thoughts and anxiety about their betrayal. Your friend may cancel plans on you constantly, but they will make you feel guilty if you cancel plans with them. Trust is a critical aspect of friendships and should be held in the highest regard. You should not worry about your friend betraying you. Friends are supposed to be trustworthy and reliable.
While there are behaviors that your friend might be doing, you may also play a role in this relationship. What makes you put up with these behaviors? Your role in the friendship may be giving your friend permission to treat you in such a way. You may be placing their opinions on a pedestal. You may worry about what they think of you because of your own insecurities. Therefore, when they blame you or try to put you down, you believe they are right. Notice what happens when you pull back from the friendship. Do they show vulnerability and tell you how they feel or do they place the blame on you? For example, if you start to hang out with them less do they tell you that their feelings are hurt because they miss you or do they gaslight you by saying how could you not make time for us?
If these signs resonated with you, then your friendships may be unhealthy. These are warning signs that you should be aware of, but does not necessarily mean that you are in an abusive friendship. Reaching out and gaining support by talking with other friends, family, or attending individual therapy sessions, can be a helpful way to process thoughts, feelings, and explore potential solutions.