Sarah May Bates
July 28, 2014 5:00 am

How to tell if you are stuck in a negative friendship and ways to help yourself out of one.

If you prefer to listen, you can find the Podcast version here.

A friend is a person we trust and rely on: someone who brings out our best self and inspires us to grow. It can be hard to know when you’re in a negative relationship, especially if it began as a friendship but has evolved into something that hurts. So how to know if your friendships are harming your life? If you are questioning it, here’s a bit of food for thought.

All relationships are about a give and take: they should be balanced between both parties, and mutually beneficial. Everyone has good days and bad. The difference is when a relationship takes a toll on your life, forcing you to feel worse about yourself rather than thrive. It can be confusing to decipher how to feel, especially when our relationships are layered and so embedded. The first step to getting clarity on your friendship is get a bit of distance and perspective. Focus inward and be honest with yourself: does this person improve your life or hurt it?

I’m not suggesting you must abandon friends who are going through a rough patch. What it comes down to is the relationship in total: what is your reason for remaining in it if it’s something that hurts you? Think about it and ask yourself, “Is it worth it?” The answer might be a resounding, “Yes!” If so, stay the course, and make sure to maintain enough distance so you can take care of yourself. We all go through changes in life and some of them compromise our ability to be loving and supportive, to ourselves and to our friends. Which is why the most important relationship we have – at all times – is our relationship with ourselves. This relationship cannot be compromised because it degrades our sense of self-worth. When we don’t feel worth taking care of, we are no good to anyone — including the friends we attempt to help. What you might think is helpful or loving to someone incapable of giving back, can be unhealthy for both of you: the yin to a yang of dysfunction. Regardless of how much someone else might need you, your allegiance must be first, to yourself.

There are many different kinds of frenemies and varying degrees of tolerance you might have to them. If you’re confused about how to feel about someone in your life, here are a few general groups, from mild to extra spicy.

In everyday situations, when someone is rude to you or you find what they say offensive, it’s likely because they simply have a different language than you. When you grow up with specific dynamics in your household, you adopt those experiences as a value system for “normal behavior.” Even if you share a lot with someone culturally, you do not share a life experience. You can never truly “know” what they are thinking, so as a rule of thumb, assume the best. Some people are just more extroverted and free with their language. If someone’s words are not landing right with you but they have no reason to be rude to you, it’s likely a misunderstood exchange. Just remember: everyone speaks a different language. We are all from our own mini-planets that consist of our individual life-experiences.

When it comes to casual friends at work or at school, assume they mean well. It can be difficult to navigate and often, more stress than it’s worth to confront. If you find yourself getting stuck with the anger you feel from someone’s rudeness, try to focus on feeling sympathy. People cannot objectively see what they are like to others. They can’t tell that they are being rude and petty. Instead of being angry, try to feel sympathy that they are so abrasive and cannot tell.

If you are sure that this person is no doubt trying to hurt you, stay away from them as much as possible, and as a defense, again use sympathy. When people intentionally hurt others it’s because they feel terrible about themselves. When they act out toward you, they are showing you their cards. Imagine instead that they are saying, “I am a bad person, inside.” When people are happy and feel good about themselves, they will never intentionally inflict pain on another person. It would sicken them to do so. If you’re being hurt by an unhappy person, instead try to feel bad for them and mentally send them love.

Casual bullying

If you are the brunt of verbal poking from a frenemy, or perhaps someone in your friend group seems to target you and get under your skin, firstly, avoid that person. Take steps to protect yourself and preempt their behavior. Second, take comfort in knowing where it’s coming from. Socially cutting down others is usually what people do to level the playing field when they feel extremely vulnerable and insecure. When they try to bring someone else to a vulnerable insecure position and direct attention toward them, it’s so they don’t feel as exposed and scared. Picture a tiny rat that’s surrounded by cats: it’s nipping at them to keep them at bay. You cannot rationalize with people like this, as they are coming from a confusing place, one motivated by fear. What they are doing is not rational. The best thing you can do for yourself is build your confidence and self-love. Fill your cup so that no one can affect you, even a bully who is spitting mean words.


When you have friends who are insecure and unhappy, it can be the most dangerous kind of relationship because misery is extremely contagious. If you allow a person to feed off your energy and kindness and they are not making efforts to self-improve, the relationship can be extremely damaging to both of you if left unchecked. Think of it as a cycle of dysfunction: if you are rewarding the sick behavior by accommodating them, in other words if they are getting what they want out of you, you are actively allowing the dysfunction to exist and thrive. Not helpful to them and not helpful to you. I know it’s confusing when you’re in a position like this because it can feel great to be needed by someone. What you should examine in yourself is whether or not this friendship is one-sided. If you are the one who constantly builds them up, again and again, accepting and tolerating whatever they throw at you, you are likely enabling an unhealthy relationship. When tolerate negative behavior from others, explaining it away as “It’s okay, I’m strong, I don’t mind it…” you are likely disconnected from what you feel inside and not being self-protective.

Your friends create who you are. You should not keep any friend who is not bringing out the best in you and helping you to grow. What is it that you are getting out of this friendship? Are you staying in it out of fear or obligation? If so, do not freak out about the future, just start simple. Get a little bit of distance so you can evaluate this relationship from a more objective vantage point. Make a conscious effort to treat yourself well and better yourself in any and all directions. Focus on self-love.

Do not accept bad behavior from others. If you are in a situation like this currently, detach with love. It is always okay to take care of yourself.

A good friend will never intentionally make you feel bad about yourself. If they were to hurt you, they would feel terrible for doing so. Think about that for a moment and examine your friendships. Do your friends say things as though they are kind but they instead sting you a bit? For example, “Are you sure you want to do that? I think you might not like it, it’s really complicated, you know.” “That is so good for you.” Though roundabout, they are all ways of trying to make you feel insecure. If you are confused if this is happening to you – as a rule, if something stings, listen. Trust your feelings. If you felt it, it’s real. React only to what you objectively experience and stay away from trying to read their thoughts.

Hostage friendships

One of the most dangerous kinds of frenemies is one who manipulates, because they have the ability to get inside of your head and make you think and feel things you don’t want to feel. The longer you stay in a relationship like this, the more disoriented you will be about the truth. A person who is extremely self-loathing deep down inside will see everything in their life as a reflection of that value. So if you have a friend who reacts to you with extreme and severe criticism of your actions and intentions, it’s a result of their toxic self-image. For example, if you don’t call them back in a timely manner, they interpret that as a reflection of unlovable they feel as a person. In short, everything they see is a mirror of that self-hate. So the more severe and critical they are of you, the more pain and damage they have inside.

What is most important to remember in all of these cases is it’s not about you. It’s not your fault they are upset and it’s not your job to fix them, nor could you. That work must be done by that person alone. Know that you did not cause their pain as no one can make anyone feel anything they don’t decide to feel. If you care about this person, do not accommodate their criticism of you as it’s just rewarding the sick behavior. Try not to let threats tip you off-balance and take their behavior at face value: it’s crazy making, stressful and not what you want in your life. Do not let pity get to you: do not explain away their behavior and your ability to deal with it. Start slow and detach with love.

If you feel bad for this person and are sticking around out of guilt, then know that you are abusing yourself and that reflects a lack of self-love. If you don’t think that’s true, ask yourself these questions:

Why are you subjecting yourself to that treatment?

Why do you not expect great treatment of yourself – from yourself and others?

What has this person done to earn your love?

If you are still on the fence about getting out of a relationship, I invite you to examine your own feelings – separate from obligation. Do you like this behavior? Does your life have time for it? Does it make you scared and confused? Life is too short to keep relationships that do not deserve you— plus, the effect of keeping an abusive relationship is exponential when it comes to your personal growth. When you surround yourself with people who support and reward you, your life quickly shoots to the stars.

The Solution

People who are happy and confident live happy and confident lives – what they see is full of love. If they see someone filled with hate and anger, they feel for them because it is so clear how low that person feels inside. That’s what you want for your life: happiness and confidence, and friends who are happy and confident, too. It’s vital to your growth as a person and will change the trajectory of your life.

To fix negative relationships of all kinds, the best solution is to build confidence and self-love. Focus inward and remind yourself who you are: kind and loving. Build yourself up in any direction and treat yourself well. Another thing I like to do in reaction to really mean people is send them love. If you can see they are suffering, instead feel for them and send them thoughts of love and relief.

I hope this was helpful to you in some way, and just in case it helps to see it simplified, here are a few of the main bullets:
• Everyone wears their own special pair of glasses and the lenses are designed by our experiences.
• If someone reacts to you with extreme negativity, it’s not about you.
• You are allowed to take care of yourself.
• No one can force you to feel anything you don’t decide to feel.
• Stay out of other people’s heads. Do not interpret their motives and only react to objective information. Your decisions should be based only on how you feel.

Surround yourself with people who make you feel good about yourself and inspire your best qualities. Your job first and foremost is to take care of yourself and help yourself to grow. Wishing you much happiness and confidence, and as always, Happy Monday.

xoxox Sarah May B.

Featured image via Flickr