15 March 2014

When Friends Turn Toxic 當好友變毒友

I have known Thomas since we sat next to each other in third grade. Last month during dinner, I shared a piece of good news with my friend of 30 years.

“Guess what? I finally put a downpayment on this flat I told you about!”

Rather than hearty congratulations, I got a look of displeasure, or a “black face” as the Cantonese people would put it.

“They say the property market is about to crash, you know,” Thomas hissed, suddenly a macroeconomist. “I, for one, am not in a rush to buy.”

For the rest of that evening, a single thought kept playing over and over in my head: Thomas has gone toxic.

*                    *                   *

Toxic friendships are a new urban epidemic

Toxic friends are friends who have grown bitter, unsupportive and downright unbearable over the years. They undermine our achievements but secretly compete with us. They may sneer at our career advancements, make cynical remarks about our love lives or call us names behind our back. It is their passive-aggressive way of reminding us that we are no better than them. They bring so much negativity to the relationship that spending time with them often leaves us mentally drained and physically exhausted. We call them “frenemy” because the line between friend and foe has become so blurred we have a hard time telling them apart.

Among the many manifestations of a toxic friendship, none is more common than the cardinal sin of envy. To our toxic friends, success is a zero-sum game and every achievement we make in life is a personal affront. As envy turns into jealousy and jealousy into resentment, it becomes increasingly difficult for us to share anything without first worrying about how they would react. Jealous people have a knack for making everything about themselves, as did Thomas when he took my home ownership as a jab at his renter’s status. While some people see that as narcissism, I think it is insecurity in poor disguise. Sadly, what happened with my friend that night was not an isolated incident but part of a pattern of growing bitterness I have observed over the years.

Sounds familiar?

They say a friend in need is a friend indeed. Though having seen friends like Thomas gone toxic over the years, I am starting to think if the contrary is true. I believe that it is far easier to find friends who would stick around when we are in trouble, than friends who would cheer us on when we succeed. The former is what I call “foul weather friends” – people who are there for us only when we are down on our luck – perhaps it makes them feel superior – but turn bitter the moment we start to do well. Foul weather friends lack the most basic ingredient in any human relationship: the capacity to be happy for one other. Thomas is a case in point.

But I can’t pin it all on him. In the age of oversharing and instant posting, peer comparison is intense and endless. Keeping up with the Joneses no longer means having a greener lawn or a bigger garage, but who gets more “likes” on a vacation selfie or restaurant check-in. If life is but a collection of happy moments, then our Facebook walls, where only the good is flaunted and the bad is conveniently left out, would be public chronicles of our fabulous existence. Even though Facebook has only been around for ten years, it has inflicted enough damage on our self-esteem that psychiatrists are advising us to stay off it from time to time for fear of social media depression. The pressure to outdo each other in the virtual world is beginning to poison friendships in the real life.

Objects on Facebook are less perfect than they appear

Hong Kong is a hotbed for toxic friendships, not least because the lack of personal space is constantly pitting us against each other in a cage match of one-upmanship. That’s why wearable wealth like Rolex watches and Chanel handbags is being rubbed in our faces on a daily basis. But in our concrete jungle, a falling tree doesn’t actually make a sound if there is no one around to hear it. That means neither a new BMW nor a two-karat engagement ring is real unless there is an audience to show off to. That, contrary to what Dionne Warwick has led us to believe, is what friends are for.

What’s more, the city’s rampant materialism is compounded by a peculiar cultural phenomenon: our insistence to hang out with our high school buddies well into our adulthood. Despite all the people who have come in and out of our lives, they are the ones we choose to be our BFFs. Over the years, however, the sharp edges of our childhood images are worn down and sweet memories of time past give way to meaningless competition. Even if we don’t have much in common with our school friends any more, we continue to keep tabs on each other’s successes and failures. Every time we get a news update from an old schoolmate, whether it is the class clown making partner at a law firm or the homecoming queen filing for divorce, we make a mental note to work harder to stay ahead of the curve. 

We love hanging out with high school friends

A toxic social environment breeds toxic friends. While not everyone will turn out like Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie, bad friendships are a reality with which many urbanites must wrestle. So what do we do when a friend turns toxic? The most common response is to suck it up and write it off as c’est la vie. Calling a toxic friend out will invariably get ugly, for someone who begrudges us for our achievements will unlikely take a constructive criticism well, much less do something about it. He will invariably turn the tables around and accuse us of doing the same to him. And we will most certainly be caught off guard and start wondering if he has a point, for who among us is without sin – or an occasional black face?

Another reason why we tend not to confront a toxic friend is that doing so will likely put an end to the friendship. It is an outcome most of us try to avoid, not only because we believe it is better to have a frenemy than an outright enemy, but also because we develop a certain level of emotional attachment to our friends no matter how draining the relationship has become. Criminal psychologists call it the “Stockholm syndrome.” It is another term to describe the fear of loneliness. After all, no one enjoys scrambling for company to go to the movies when the weekend rolls around. And so we choose to stay in a hurtful friendship even if it makes us unhappy.

Some friends are mutually toxic

But not me. After careful deliberation, I came to the conclusion that my friendship with Thomas was beyond repair. I decided to stop reaching out to him and, as if acting on cue, he too stopped reaching out to me. We haven’t seen each other for nearly a year now. Last November, I missed his birthday for the first time in 30 years. Breaking up with anyone – especially a friend I have known and cared about since I was nine years old – is hard, but sometimes it has to be done.

We make friends in different ways, but almost always by serendipity. Friends tend to fall into our laps, like the kid who happens to live next door or the co-worker we run into at the pantry by chance. Just like that, we become friends and start hanging out, bound only by thin threads of common interests and shared experiences. While a few of them will blossom into something rewarding and enduring, others will fail the test of time, not for the lack of a good heart, but because we advance in life at a different pace. In some instances, letting go is the only way to prevent a soured relationship from festering, as it is the case for Thomas and me. Even though the two of us are no longer friends, I will always consider him a good teacher.

You've got to do what you've got to do


This article previously appeared in the March 2014 issue of MANIFESTO magazine under Jason Y. Ng's column "The Urban Confessional."

As printed in MANIFESTO


  1. Perhaps poor Thomas thinks of you as a toxic friend too? I mean all this boasting and posturing I see on your blog clearly indicates you fall into the category of A Narcissist.

  2. Thomas, is that you? Sorry I missed your birthday! ;-)

    It was poet Sylvia Plath who once said: "Writers are the most narcissistic people." American movie reviewer Judith Christ also said, “To be a critic, you have to first be an egomaniac.” As a writer and a movie/food critic, I am most definitely a narcissist!

  3. I did enjoy the article on Toxic Friends. Well done sir.


  4. I unfortunately also had some Thomases in my life. It's better to ignore them and keep on living!

  5. Is The Economist then a toxic friend for continuously harping that the HK property is totally overvalued? I think I can tell the subtle distinction that Jason is aiming for here but as people grow older, a lot of them too are looking for cheerleaders as opposed to friends. What is a friend anyways?

    1. Thanks for picking up my point so astutely. Indeed, we urbanites are much more in need of cheerleaders than "friends" in the traditional sense, precisely because -- as you pointed out -- we already have the Economist to tell us the brutal truth and our families to burst our bubble. That's what friends are for: to fill the gap and to cheer us on whether we are on the up or otherwise.

  6. "What is a friend anyways?"
    My answer, a friend is someone who will tell you right in your face what's problem with you, and then you will argue with him; after a few days, one of you will call up the other, like nothing happened and asked to go out for a dinner.

    I love the honesty in this article!

  7. Very proud of a Chinese standing up and writing what he/she thinks. In this case, it's a he, of course. It takes all kinds to make up the world. Break up of any kind is not easy to take. Time will heal. I know, I have been there with a few friends.

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  9. True and real friends indeed are becomimg like a character in a fiction nowadays, extremely difficult to come by in reality. Oversharing and hidden non-stopped competition between people, not only between friends, has become an everlasting contest of a personal pursuit of conspicuous success leading to ultimate glory. It is not an overstatement of a chronic mental and psychological disorder if it were not for a healthy competition with sound reasons.

  10. Sadly, I've been there. Don't let the naysayers put you down; if you sense that a friend is toxic just break the ties already.

    It seemed to resolve itself well enough. Breaking up with friends is sad indeed (it's interesting that in popular media there is often that gay joke trope about breaking up with friends, but it really is sad), but one good thing about breaking up with friends versus lovers is that you can un-awkwardly fade away... Nothin wrong with that. As your story, if you mutually sense it's not working out and both don't reach out then the relationship dies a natural painless death.

    As opposed to another sort of toxic friend, who breeds negativity yet always reaches out seemingly only in order to suck you down to their level! Some of the worst awkwardness ever is having to tell people outright to leave you alone.

    Well that's life sometimes, with both HK-characteristics versions and worldwide universals~

  11. Yeesh. So many types of Toxicity.

    I hear you & I join you in recognising who & ,when it is time to, let go