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Health & Safety

Why It's Important to Let Go of Toxic Friendships

Ianni Le

When I was a freshman, an older friend mentioned that it was unlikely I'd retain my first-year friendships all through college. He told me that he barely spoke to a lot of his own freshman friend group after the first year.

At the time, I was shocked and rather offended that he would judge the strength of my friendships without having met most of my friends. I don't think he understood how scared I'd been to come to college alone and build friendships from the ground up again. I put a lot of energy into it because I wanted to fit in and stop feeling lonely in a big new school. To be honest, I wasn’t really thinking about the quality of my friendships at the time, just that we got along and had some similar interests.

In the end, he was only about halfway correct — I consider several of my freshman year friends as my extended family (I even continued to live with my best friend I met freshman year after we graduated). But several people from my first-year friend group have long since moved on with their lives and we no longer keep in contact.

Having graduated in the middle of the pandemic, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about the quality of those lost friendships and the reasons we grew apart. The friendships that didn't last taught me a lot about the importance of boundaries and why it’s important to take a step back from unhealthy relationships.

This might be an important topic to talk about with your student when they return for the summer. Though it can be a difficult conversation, helping your student build a strong and healthy support system during college is crucial to their emotional well-being.

My friend group has gotten smaller even within the last year (all of us are recent grads and many have moved away for work). It's been difficult to meet new people during the pandemic, so we're excited that life is starting to return to normal. I am, however, incredibly grateful to still have all of my friends in my life. After five years together, we’ve worked hard to build our friendships on a foundation of mutual respect and I know these relationships will be with me for the rest of my life.

In the meantime, I’m continuing to try and figure out what healthy boundaries in a friendship look like, as well as recognizing the signs of an emotionally harmful friend.

Learning to Recognize Unhealthy Behavior

I used to mourn and fight every friendship that slipped away from me, always assuming I'd done something wrong to cause them to leave. I realize now that sometimes it’s as simple as the fact that college is an important time of growth and sometimes as you grow, you will also grow apart.

One lesson I’m still trying to learn is that you have control over who you choose to be friends with, and don’t have to stay with a toxic friend just because you’ve been friends for a long time. A few times during college, I found myself having to sit down and carefully consider whether or not some of my friendships were healthy, as well as grapple with the fact that some of them really weren’t.

Maintaining healthy boundaries within relationships didn't necessarily come naturally to me. But I learned the hard way how quickly unhealthy friendships can take a toll. The biggest red flag was when I made a habit of putting my friends’ needs far above my own. What’s worse is that some friends actually urged me on until I was taking care of others to the detriment of my schoolwork and my own well-being.

A Toxic Friendship Is the Opposite of a Healthy One

How do you spot the warning signs of an unhealthy friendship? I only just learned to do this, but it's simpler than you might think. All I do is compare how I feel talking to a healthy friend versus how I feel when I’m talking to a friend I’m not completely sure about.

Each person will decide the baseline standard for their friendships, but remember that true friends make you feel happy and supported. I’m a big believer in your friend group being your support system, and this is especially important when you’re away at college.

I use my relationship with my roommate as a baseline. When I’m talking to my roommate, I’m never worried about how she’ll react or if she’ll judge me. I trust her, knowing she’ll never purposefully lead me astray nor does she have any ulterior motives when she gives me advice. She’s a wonderful listener, letting me vent my frustrations even when there’s nothing either of us can do to change a difficult situation.

It took me a while to recognize this as a hallmark of a healthy friendship (which is not to say we never disagree!).

Help Your Student Recognize Toxic Friendships

Your student deserves to be surrounded by people who love and support them. Healthy friendships look different from person to person, but it’s important that your student knows what their values are in a friendship and can recognize when those values are not being met or respected.

Unhealthy relationships will take an immense toll on your student and it can be difficult for them to recognize signs of toxicity for themselves. It's crucial, however, that your student be the one to make the decision to part ways with unhealthy friends. Outside pressure to end a friendship may cause resentment and deprive your student of an important learning opportunity. Learning to draw boundaries in relationships is a skill that will serve them well as they move through life. 

You can't pick and choose your student's friends, but you can remind them that you're there to support them no matter what even if they just need someone to listen as they work through their feelings.

Learn more about subtle warning signs of a toxic friendship here >

Ianni Le is a freelance writer and content creator. She attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, graduating with a degree in Media Design and English Literature. Ianni grew up in Shanghai, China and enjoys her dogs, books and food equally.
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