4 friendship boundaries you need to have in your life

By Hannah Korrel

4 friendship boundaries you need to have in your life
Friendships - at times, that can be even more complicated than our romantic relationships. So, how can you get rid of toxic friendships and build healthier relationships with your friends? Neuropsychologist Hannah Korrel explains. 

The brain is an amazing mess of squish wet tissue that is remarkably simple at times. Input in equals input out. If there is a threat, your vagus nerve will fire up your sympathetic nervous system to help you protect yourself via the flight and fight response.

If there is a friend, our vagus buddy will tell the parasympathetic system to relax, go to ‘off-guard’ mode and enable you to form loving kind relationships.

But what the heck happens to the old melon when faced with a friend who acts more like a foe?

We’re talking the bullying, passive aggressive, aggressive-aggressive ‘I can’t believe you wore that dress again’ friend. You know, the toxic one we’ve all had at least once in our lives, if not, right now.

Boundary 1: People who deliberately cause emotional pain need to go

Toxic friends is an oxymoron (as are they, for treating you so badly!) – how can you be toxic and a friend at the same time?

Well this contradiction actually confuses your brain. When you perform altruistic things – like showing kindness to a friend – your brain actually feels less pain! (it’s true! Researchers have literally found on MRI the brain is less responsive to a physical pain jab after altruistic behaviour!)1

Similarly, the brain experiences emotional pain as acutely and as intensely as if it were physical pain! In the anterior cingulate gyrus to be exac.2

So we have a double whammy here. Not only do these ‘friends’ take away that beautiful benefit of ‘less physical’ pain we are supposed to get when in their blessed presence. But they actually add pain to your poor tired soul through their emotional jabs – which your poor noggin feels as acutely as if they kicked you in the emotional shin.

So. If you feel WORSE in the lead-up to, during, or after an interaction with a friend because of the toxic way they treat you, this is a sign they are no good for you on an emotional, mental health, and neurobiological level – and it is time to reconsider how much exposure you have to this person.

Boundary 2: Have expectations of your friends – that they be a friend

At some point in our history someone once got the idea trending that ‘a friend is a friend is a friend’. As in, once a friend, always a friend no matter what.

That sets a really low bar for how one expects to be treated. Can you imagine if we had the same low standard for partners? People do not get a hall pass to treat you poorly just because they are a ‘friend’.

We can and should have expectations of our friends – that they behave like a friend! Not like a bully or a child.

This means zero tolerance on overt bullying behaviour – Teasing, mockery, degrading comments, emotional or physical abuse is not okay between adults. Even children know this! (in the golden words of my old primary school teachers, its ok to say ‘Stop it, I don’t like it’).

Boundary 3: Respect yourself by putting your mental health first

The issue of poor behaviour friendship is actually way more common than society wants to admit. In Australia only about 25% of Australians report having a close friend they can talk to every month – 1-in-2 report that they do not have any close friends.3

If you’ve felt lonely, left out, or hurt by someone you thought was a ‘friend’, you are not alone dear soul. The new friendship revolution has arrived and it is here to tell you that it is okay to put your mental health first. It is okay to say something was not okay.

If you are not being uplifted by these people, if they are doing the opposite and leaving you questioning your self-worth, asking if something is wrong with you, or feeling unlikable – then it is time to put your mental health first.

It is okay to politely decline the invite, say no to the request, and perhaps even, break up with a friend who is toxic.

Boundary 4: Cherish good friendship

Hold friendship in high esteem. Respect it. Feed it. Show it love and kindness. Be a good friend yourself, be trusting, kind, supportive and respectful.

Cherish good friendship by not allowing toxic behaviour to masquerade like it is true friendship. Because it’s not – it’s hurtful and it’s heartbreaking to be on the receiving end of toxic behaviour.

And a good friend dear soul, deserves good friendship in return. Are you a good friend dear soul? Valuing good friendship means valuing yourself.

Neuropsychologist Hannah Korrel is the author of How to Break Up With Friends (Impact Press $24.99) and has spent over a decade becoming an expert in why the brain makes us do the things we do. Hear more from Hannah at www.hannahkorrel.com

  1. Wang, Y., Ge, J., Zhang, H., Wang, H., & Xie, X. (2020). Altruistic behaviors relieve physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 117(2), 950-958.
  2. DeWall, C. N., MacDonald, G., Webster, G. D., Masten, C. L., Baumeister, R. F., Powell, C., … & Eisenberger, N. I. (2010). Acetaminophen reduces social pain: Behavioral and neural evidence. Psychological science, 21(7), 931-937.
  3. Swinburne University Lim, M. H., Eres, R. & Peck, M. C., The young Australian loneliness survey (2019)


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