Updated 25 July 2013

Who is your poisonous friend?

She always seems nice, but she makes you feel bad about yourself. Here's how to spot the poison pal in your circle of friends.


She always appears to be nice when you see her, but somehow after your get-togethers you’ve noticed you don’t feel very good about yourself, your car, your life, your relationship or marriage, your outfit or your education.

Even your cat looks a bit ragged and yes, those curtains really do need a wash.

And yet, you haven’t really noticed any of this behaviour before. She has been a friend for years, but now that you look back, you can see a pattern forming. Whenever something vaguely unpleasant happens, she’s there, but being Miss Teflon, she always emerges with nothing sticking to her, and someone else being cast into the role of the villain of the piece.

But what’s in it for people who do this?

“Quite a lot,” says Ilse Pauw, Cape Town psychologist. “Firstly, she probably has a low self-image, and subtly putting others down, gives her an enhanced sense of self-esteem. Secondly, being the bearer of bad tidings concerning other people, puts her in a position of power temporarily. It makes her appear to be a close confidante of the person being discussed and gives her an opportunity to spread a story, often under the guise of being a concerned friend. Thirdly, proclaimed innocence and apparent concern make her appear kind and helpful, which is socially advantageous to her.”

Recognising your poison pal

 Ouch, that hurt.
Subtle comments are made to you that point to the fact that she thinks that you just never quite get it right.
“Nice outfit, but shoes have never been your strong point, have they?”
“That’s not a bad salary for the field you’re in, is it?”
“Are you sure this new boyfriend is really serious about you? Look what happened last time.”
“I thought you would be at Mark’s party on Saturday.”

All of these comments are vitriolic barbs disguised as compliments. She is being very clever, because should you react negatively to any of these, you look like you are oversensitive and the one with the problem.

Did you hear?
Things that are told to her in confidence seem to get winged feet and to gain weight in the retelling. It is not long before the story gets back to you, usually via someone you bump into in the supermarket, whom you would not regard as a friend, such as the wife of your tennis coach. It is difficult to respond appropriately to a comparative stranger commiserating with you about your husband’s affair or your financial problems.

Pulling up her nose.
She is the one who sounds pleasant enough on the telephone, but pulls faces indicating her irritation with the caller, while you are in the room with her.

I only have your interests at heart.
Whenever she is confronted, she uses the excuse of only wanting to be there for you or that she is merely concerned about you. That’s why she had to tell your mother you were having marriage problems.

Do you know what I heard?
She says nasty things about other people to you. Chances are, the minute you turn your back, she does the same to you. “Don’t you think she’s picked up weight?” or “Why on earth are they sending their kids to that school? Do you think they have financial problems?” And the next thing you know, the rumour hits you that you are on the verge of bankruptcy and that you have an eating disorder.

Just shout if you need me.
She always offers help, but is somewhat taken aback if you take her up on it. Excuses are quickly proffered and you feel really bad for asking in the first place. “I really would come and rescue you from where your car has broken down, but my Ikebana class starts in half an hour.

Are you sure he's the right one for you?
She tells you can do better than your present boyfriend, but flirts with him whenever she sees him.

From my point of view.
She twists things to suit her interpretation of events. So much so, that you start wondering about your perceptions of things, or even about what you really said.

Glad to hear things are (not) going well.
She appears supportive when things go wrong in your life, but you get the idea that on some level she relishes in your misfortune. She does not phone to congratulate you when you get the wonderful job or pass your exams very well.

 Once you have recognised what your friend is up to, confronting her will be about as useless as patenting solar torches or aluminium steering wheel covers. Think seriously about ditching this friendship, as you get very little out of it besides heartache and a low self-image. But retreat carefully – be careful exactly how you turn your back on this one – you might get stabbed in it.

(Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated August 2011)

Dealing with difficult people

Ask CyberShrink a question


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Exercise benefits for seniors »

Working out in the concrete jungle Even a little exercise may help prevent dementia Here’s an unexpected way to boost your memory: running

Seniors who exercise recover more quickly from injury or illness

When sedentary older adults got into an exercise routine, it curbed their risk of suffering a disabling injury or illness and helped them recover if anything did happen to them.