Watch it, pal

8 Friendship Red Flags You Really Shouldn’t Ignore

Beware of a “bestie” who keeps one-upping you.
Graphic of two people standing backtoback in frustration
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By now many of us are probably pretty good at spotting red flags in romantic relationships (or so we’d like to think)—you know, those behaviors that trigger a gut feeling that something is off about this person. You might be on high alert for gaslighting, for example, or know to avoid love bombers at all costs. But even though these dealbreakers regularly come up in conversations about dating, people usually don’t apply the same red-flag mindset to their friends.

“As a society, we often don’t acknowledge unhealthy friendships in the same way that we do romances and family dynamics,” Hope Kelaher, LCSW, author of Here to Make Friends: How to Make Friends as an Adult, tells SELF. And yet our pals matter just as much for our well-being, both emotionally and physically. Not only can they lift our spirits and make us laugh, but one 2023 study found that having good, healthy friendships was associated with better emotional coping skills, lower stress, and fewer spikes in blood pressure. 

Unhealthy ones, on the other hand, can drag you down—but red flags in friendships may appear a bit differently and be harder to detect compared to romantic or sexual relationships, Kelaher says. Of course, she’s not talking about abusive behavior (which is inexcusable in any context), but it can be difficult to differentiate between a friend giving you a little shit because they know you better than anyone, for example, and nasty ‘joking’ comments that are just straight-up mean.

To make it easier for you to recognize a problematic pal sooner, SELF asked a couple of experts for some of the biggest red flags that signal someone may not be a real friend after all. 

They only talk about themselves (and never ask about you).

Do you have that one friend who goes on and on about their day, their job, their problems—but never asks about your life? And when the spotlight is finally on you, they interrupt with an, “Oh, that reminds me of when I…” In some unhealthy friendship dynamics, it may seem like it’s their world, and you’re just the supportive character living in it, but everyone, including you, deserves to be seen and heard, Gabrielle Applebury, LMFT, a Los Angeles–based therapist who specializes in relationship communication, tells SELF.  

To be fair, your friend’s tendency to dominate the conversation could also be a sign of poor communication skills, which is why Applebury says you should use your best judgment and consider bringing up the issue before you decide a breakup is warranted. But keep in mind: A true friend should want to hear all of your successes and struggles, even if your life update is something as mundane as how your day went, Applebury says. And they’ll also be receptive (and apologetic) if you tell them you feel like they aren’t interested in what you have to say. 

The friendship seems one-sided in general.

Speaking of one-sidedness…. Raise your hand if you’re the friend in charge of making the plans. Or if you know that one person in your circle who conveniently hits you up only when their life is falling apart. (And once it’s your turn to vent, poof—they’re nowhere to be found.) “We have all had a friend like this at one point or another, the one who will call or text without even asking how you’re doing, and an hour later they’re suddenly too busy to talk about your life,” Kelaher says. 

Of course, we all have hectic weeks when we’re slammed with work or dealing with personal matters that distract us from time to time. But if you find yourself always doing the emotional heavy lifting, it could be a sign that your friend doesn’t value the relationship as much as you do, Applebury cautions.

You feel obligated to maintain the friendship.

It can be draining to force yourself to maintain a relationship that just isn’t clicking, and oftentimes, people will stay in older friendships that they’ve outgrown due to an underlying sense of obligation, Applebury says. (For example, think of that childhood or family friend that you’ve kept around for ol’ times’ sake, even though you have nothing in common anymore). 

This isn’t the brightest of red flags, and it isn’t necessarily indicative of a toxic dynamic. “But if you’re feeling more obligated to be friends versus actually wanting to have a genuine relationship, it’s okay to reevaluate that person in your life,” Kelaher says. Because at the end of the day, spending time with your friends should leave you feeling refreshed and content, not empty or exhausted.

They’re secretly (or not so secretly) competing with you.

Consider this scenario: You tell that friend (you know the one) that you got a raise at work. Instead of giving you a supportive hug or sending a celebratory text, they one-up you with, “Well, I actually got a promotion last week!” Or perhaps the two of you just got back from an intense yoga workout that’s left you shaking and they say something like, “Oh, that class was way too easy for me.” 

Sound familiar? It’s one thing to feel an occasional moment of envy, but the person who turns everything into a game of “who has it better” likely doesn’t have your best interests at heart, Kelaher says. You can try telling them how you feel (maybe they don’t realize what they’re doing) but again, if they’re not receptive, that’s another warning sign, she adds. 

They’re unable to truly, sincerely apologize.

In even the healthiest of friendships, you’re bound to fight. Maybe it’s a silly little argument about how you’re constantly late to everything, or perhaps the violation is something more serious, like one of you accidentally revealed something the other wasn’t cool with. Either way, it’s important for both of you to communicate effectively and recognize when you messed up.

“It’s okay to make mistakes in friendships, and obviously that is going to happen with someone you’ve known for long enough,” Applebury says. “But if your friend is unable to apologize or be held accountable for their behaviors, it’s going to become difficult to depend on and trust them down the line,” she explains. This lack of accountability may look like someone who starts off an apology with “I’m sorry that you’re offended,” or “I’m sorry, but I didn’t think it’d hurt you.” As SELF has previously reported, a genuine apology shouldn’t be a debate; it’s a conversation that involves putting someone else’s feelings first, instead of focusing on your own.

They don’t respect the boundaries you set.

“In healthy friendships, people understand that sometimes they will be told no and this is okay,” according to Kelaher. Maybe you don’t want to share what’s bothering you right this second. Or they keep bringing up your ex—even though you asked them a hundred times to stop. Or they’re trying to tell you who you should (or shouldn’t) hang out with. “Every once and again, we may buff up against someone’s boundaries, but if you notice yours are consistently not being respected, then this may be a sign of a toxic relationship,” she says. 

You can’t tell where you end and they begin anymore.

Honestly, most of us love our best friends so much that we’d spend every waking moment with them if we could. We tell them our secrets, we share our best (and absolute worst) moments with them, and sometimes, we even find ourselves unintentionally adopting some of their quirky mannerisms. That’s how influential friends can be.

It’s all fun and games until you can’t function on your own, though. If friends rely on each other too much, the relationship can sometimes become codependent, Kelaher and Applebury say. Codependency, which also happens in romantic partnerships, involves one or both people losing their individual identity (their opinions or ability to think for themselves, say) to the relationship. Some common examples include needing the other person’s approval before you make any decisions, or realizing you can’t spend time with others for fear of making the other person jealous.

“For a healthy friendship to work, both parties need to maintain their sense of self while also being able to grow together in the relationship,” Kelaher says. You should be able to have hobbies and interests of your own, for example, and support your friend’s independence, too. Otherwise, the relationship can become emotionally exhausting: In one small UK-based study, participants in codependent relationships reported more frustration and dysfunction, partly because they felt they lacked a clear sense of self. Nothing good comes from ignoring your own needs, Applebury says—and it’s not fair to expect one person to meet all of them, either. 

Your friendship shifts from feeling really good—to really bad.

Like romantic relationships, friendships ebb and flow. It’s normal to experience moments when you can’t get enough of each other, and others when every little thing they do gets on your last nerve. But there’s a difference between occasional bickering and an unstable relationship with extreme highs and lows, which can cause a lot of emotional distress, Applebury says. (The 2023 study mentioned above suggests that in tumultuous relationships, people are actually more likely to dwell on negative experiences, such as arguments and conflict, than positive ones, like supportive moments.) 

If you’re constantly feeling on edge around them or the friendship feels too unpredictable, it probably isn’t right for either of you, Kelaher says. Because at the end of the day, a friend shouldn’t stress you out or make you anxious; the people you choose to surround yourself with should lift you up and push you to be the best version of yourself.