Your group of friends should make you feel supported—not stressed, experts say.
In the penultimate episode of HBO's Girls, the four main characters squeeze into a bathroom for a group meeting that's meant to be healing, but instead serves the final nail in the coffin of their friendship. "I have come to realize how exhausting and narcissistic and ultimately boring this whole dynamic is," says Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), defending her decision not to invite Hannah (Lena Dunham) to her engagement party. "I finally feel brave enough to create some distance for myself."
In this moment, Shoshanna says what many of the show's viewers have known for years: these people are awful together. They're a textbook (fictional) example of a toxic friend group.
Investing time and emotional energy into just one toxic friend can have negative effects on your physical and mental health. Unsurprisingly, dealing with a group of toxic people is even worse. "When one friend is toxic, it can influence you, but you also have the ability to take some time away and interact with other friends," says Elizabeth Lombardo, PhD, author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. In a bigger setting, people are more likely to succumb to "group act," which intensifies these unhealthy behaviors.
"People in a toxic group are more likely to act in toxic ways, even if that is not consistent with how they would act on their own," Lombardo says. "In a sense, there is greater toxicity in the group."
Here, seven signs you're part of a toxic friend group—and what you can do to repair the dynamic.
You always feel bad about yourself
Conflict is normal, and it's okay if you aren't completely thrilled with your group of friends all the time. But in general, healthy friendships leave you feeling positive and supported in your individuality, while a toxic friend group makes you feel the opposite way. "Your 'friends' may overtly put you down or be more passive aggressive in their criticism," says Lombardo.
You're never sure where you stand
Always wondering about your current status with the group? Not sure how your friends are going to react to you on any given day? The feeling of walking on eggshells is a clear sign that your social circle has an unhealthy dynamic, Lombardo says. (Think: sometimes they're happy for your successes, other times they're jealous and bitter.) This uncertainty can leave you seriously stressed-out: "You feel anxious when you're going to be with them, or when you are with them," says Lombardo.
Gossip is par for the course
Toxic groups often talk about individual members behind their backs, says Ben Michaelis, PhD, clinical psychologist and creator of oneminutediagnosis.com. The result: One or more people are ganged up on, and there's a feeling that nothing said within the group is sacred. You should be able to feel confident that conversations with a friend will be kept private, Lombardo adds: "Healthy friend groups do not judge you, and will keep secret what you ask them not to share with others."
The effort is one-sided
"Toxic relationships are often one-sided," says Lombardo. This may mean you're always the one reaching out to the bigger group to make plans, or you're frequently ignored in group conversations, except when you have something specific to offer someone. Or perhaps you're always the "giver" to needy friends. "They need you to talk to them for hours when they are going through a tough time," says Lombardo. "You are constantly helping them out, but they do not reciprocate."
You feel pressured to do things you don't want to do
A big red flag: "Your friend group is pressuring you or someone else in ways that make you (or them) uncomfortable, or even against the law," says Michaelis. Social pressure can lead to unhealthy group norms, so you should be wary if you feel like you can't freely speak your mind or even become shamed into doing something that goes against your conscience. "You feel guilty about what you do, or they shame you into doing things you don't want to," says Lombardo.
Competition is rampant
You get a big promotion, and your friend's first response is to brag about her own recent successes at work. "Rather than being happy for your wins, they feel threatened," says Lombardo. "They try to out-do you, or make passive comments like 'Must be nice to get the best sales award.'" Friends undermine their support when they constantly one-up each other, and this can extend to personal belongings (who has the nicest bag or shoes, for example), grades if you're in school, even romantic relationships.
They're always negative
Are your friends always focused on the negative, such as what's wrong or not going well in their life? Or maybe they're always victims—other people can be wrong, but they never are. "Their unhappiness, lack of success, and problems are all a result of other people," says Lombardo. "No matter how much data to show the contrary, they are right."
How to heal a toxic friend group
It's possible to repair a toxic friend group, but it usually takes two. "If at least two members agree that the behavior is toxic, then [they] can bring this to the larger group," says Michaelis. "If the group is open to the feedback, then change is possible."
Lombardo recommends trying to have a conversation with one of the members of your group in a non-accusatory way. "Instead of 'You all always put me down,' you could try something like, 'It feels like sometimes in this group we are not as supportive as we could be to each other. I think it would be great if we focused more on how amazing each person in this group is,'" she says.
But you should be prepared that people have to want to change in order to do so, and it's entirely possible that your group of friends is content with the way things are. "A change, or suggestion of change, can feel like a threat to their self-worth, which often causes them to lash out with greater toxic behaviors," says Lombardo. If that happens, Lombardo says, "It might be time to look for other, more supportive friendships."