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How to Walk Away from a Toxic Friendship

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Having a friendship with someone you know is no good for you can be a tricky situation to extricate yourself from. You want to make the best choices for yourself, but don’t want to hurt anyone. We turned to three experts, including Christiane Northrup, M.D, and author of Dodging Energy Vampires ($17.69, Amazon), Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D., and professor and chair of the Department of Counseling and Higher Education at Northern Illinois University, and Alison Cook, Ph.D., and coauthor of Boundaries for Your Soul ($12.27, Amazon), to find out the best way to walk away from a toxic friendship and embrace the loving ones you deserve. 

Identifying a Toxic Friend 

Toxic people tend to target those with “super traits,” such as empathy, loyalty and compassion, because they know they can take advantage of our big hearts, says women’s health expert Northrup. “Listen to your body,” she urges. “You’ll know someone is toxic when you’re exhausted after being with them, because they drain you — I’ve actually had this happen where I almost fell asleep in my soup! Or they leave you feeling guilty: A friend will never make you feel bad for taking time for yourself.

Dr. Northup also urges us to trust our intuition. So many of us have that “friend” who zeroes in on our insecurities like a heat-seeking missile and says things she knows will hurt. That sixth sense you feel about his or her sinister nature is what Dr. Northrup calls “malignant intuition.” 

To defuse it, trust your benign intuition: “Instead of telling yourself this person will change, ask yourself if that’s really true,” she recommends. Reminding yourself that you deserve better will give you the clarity you need to move on.

How to Free Yourself From a Toxic Friendship

Now that you know how to identify which friends to let go of, it’s time to focus on how. Read on for our experts’ top four tips on cutting the cord for good. 

1. Figure out what’s holding you back: It’s natural to be scared to move on, says Cook. “Take some time to notice what may be keeping you from stepping back,” she encourages. “For example, a common fear is, ‘If I lose them, I’ll lose everyone,’ especially if the person is a relative.” Show yourself compassion by telling yourself that you can handle this. “You’ll soon realize your circle is stronger than the one weak link this person represents. Your value is in your status as a beautiful soul, not in this relationship.”

2. Consult your trusted tribe: When you’re too close to a situation, it’s hard to see the big picture, which is why Cook recommends recruiting people you trust for support. “Gather your ‘boundaries committee,’” she says. For example, a friend may suggest you take a baby step by communicating with a toxic person only via email, or she may come with you if you have to see the person. “Letting positive people lift you up keeps negative people from bringing you down.”

3. Draw symbolic lines: The most empowering way to step back? Literally do just that, advises Dr. Northrup. When she decided to bar toxic people from her life, she picked up a garden hoe and drew a line around her home to symbolize the border “no energy vampire would cross.” Physically taking such steps, she explains, convinces your mind and spirit that you’re making a real change. While a garden hoe adds a ceremonial touch, even strolling can have the same effect. “Take a ‘walking meditation’ repeating, ‘I am safe; I am protected.’” The result? Reveals Dr. Northrup, “I now have boundaries like Fort Knox!”

4. Give friends who deserve it a second chance: Friendships fall on a spectrum, and while some are beyond repair, others may be salvageable, says Degges-White. To determine if yours belongs to the latter category, “decide which boundary was crossed,” she says. “Be specific. If [your friend] is always borrowing money, you might say, ‘I can’t pay every time we go out.’ Someone worth having in your life will respect that, but a toxic person won’t change. Some friendships aren’t meant to last, and that’s OK — we need to break free of the relationships that stifle us.”

This story originally appeared in our print magazine.

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