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friends are dropping out of my life like flies
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to your problems and existential questions. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
dear mixed feelings,
It seems like my friends are dropping out of my life like flies. While some can be chalked up to simply outgrowing each other, I’m afraid I’ve inadvertently caused a few core friendships to fail. I recently graduated university, and with that came a lot of other staggering changes. A (never-ending) job search, new romantic relationships…and a rapidly changing family dynamic. There is one long-term, super-close friend that I am particularly afraid of losing. I literally was unable to look myself in the mirror for a time because of the shame I felt about the emotional harm I caused them.
They told me that I hurt their feelings on a few occasions by not stepping up in acts of service when times get rough. For example, when vacationing together, they felt the burden of responsibility fell more heavily on their lap than mine, which is true. When things are generally going well in my life (and in my mental health), they feel I’m more adept at meeting their needs in the friendship…I’ve heard this repeated by a couple other friends in the past few months: When times get tough, I get selfish. Selfish in that I am [so] consumed with relieving my own hurt…that I don't put my grievances aside to help a friend in need…
Now I’m faced with this unhealthy behavioral pattern after 23 years of believing I am as self-aware and as good a friend as they come. It hurts like hell because they feel as though they’re “talking to a brick wall” while I feel I have been receptive and working to improve my consistency in acts of service and awareness through talk therapy. Part of me feels like I should crawl into a ditch until I'm fully healed and can never hurt a friend's feelings again. I have taken accountability for my actions in the friendship, and am committed to changing…But bad habits don't go away in a few months. How do I do the lifelong work of healing an unhealthy behavioral pattern while still positively contributing to fruitful friendships? —ms. accountability, they/them
hi ms. accountability,
Heartbroken. For a word that aims to capture one of the most defining and desperate features of the human experience, its framework is remarkably skewed—too often associated with the loss of a romantic partner. But what of the fault lines that inevitably exist within friendships? Where and who do we turn to when the platonic loves of our lives distance themselves or leave us altogether? Or we choose to leave them? There’s sparse language for expressing these intimate fractures. But they can shatter our sense of self just as much as their romantic counterparts.
Let’s be clear: a relationship will rarely be a simple and steady endeavor. We will fall short of expectations, both other peoples’ and those we thrust upon ourselves. “There’s a myth around relationships that it’s got to be easy, that’s just not the case in life,” says psychotherapist Jade Thomas. “[A friendship has] to be worked on. A healthy relationship doesn’t mean it’s free of conflict or difficulties. So, someone has called you out on something—acknowledge that. All our behavior has meaning. First, ask yourself the why? Look inwardly.”
is it so bad to be selfish?
Selfish is an ugly word. We throw it around to warn people all the time (don’t be so selfish!), but rarely do we question why someone might be acting selfishly. We’ve been so busy waging a war on the symptom, the root cause just sits there, limply untended to. “Selfishness gets such a bad rep,” says Thomas. “When sometimes [selfishness] can be an act of self-protection.” We all have the capacity to think of ourselves, at some point, as the center of the universe. It sounds glamorous but it’s often just a manifestation of control.
What is perhaps the biggest pressure point here, is a crippling fear that the person that means the most to you will surely disappear if you do or don’t do X or Y. When we operate from this place of fear, one response to safeguard us from hypothetical future pain—our anxious thoughts tell us—is to get there first. Isolate. Almost as a form of self-punishment until we are well and truly ‘fixed.’ No. Healing is never a singular action. It requires compassionate conversation, patience, with yourself and others. Accepting our weak spots and examining its original source.
Selfishness is what makes protagonists on screen, from Hannah in Girls to, more recently, Julie in The Worst Person in The World, both compelling and, at times, uncomfortable to watch. Yes, there’s endless self-mythologizing and impulsive behavior, but we also see a slice of ourselves in them. These flashes of self-centeredness are also interlaced with warmth, humor, insecurities, and a desire for something impossibly hard to grasp.
This is not to say we should idolize these characters, or that they exonerate us of our own misgivings. In some ways their pitfalls can provide sobering lessons in our own interactions. And what we see in shows and films like these, is a fuller story—the heartbreak fueling the selfishness. Look inwardly, as Thomas suggests, and question yourself. What factors in your life might be contributing to your “selfish” actions and what—if any—capacity do you have to be present for other people in your life? This might be something your friends don’t see or comprehend if you don’t let them know. Even if you don’t have it in you to meet your friends’ needs now, telling them how much you value their friendship could be just enough to show that no matter how it may look on the outside, that you care.
it’s a two-way street
No friend, lover, parent can—or should—take care of all our needs; nor is it helpful to totally alienate ourselves when we are feeling bruised. “The most common breakdown of a relationship, whether a friendship or romantic one, always comes down to miscommunication or lack of communication,” says Thomas. You don’t need to pick between your relationship with yourself and your relationship with your friends. “Try and utilize your friendships to help with internal growth,” Thomas adds. “Think of it like working on the self helps your relationships but working on your relationships helps the self. It’s a two-way street. If they are healthy relationships, adding value to your life, that open conversation is only going to develop the relationship further. Being vulnerable can be discomforting but it will get easier.”
Taking accountability, as you’ve done, is a crucial step, but opening up about your feelings and the work you have done in talk therapy can give your friends essential context into your story. For instance, I hate planning anything. My boyfriend by comparison is An Organizer. Still, my selfishness here wasn’t going to slip under the radar. “Maybe just throw some options out there…” he said, when we were planning to meet up recently. It wasn’t some serious intervention, but he could see that there was something deeper lurking behind my aversion to planning anything. When I really thought about it, this outsourcing on my part soothed me on some level—or rather, protected me. From what? From fear. Fear of rejection. Fear that my idea wouldn’t be perfect. Am I perfect now when it comes to the arrangements of a date? Perhaps not (you’re right, habits cannot be erased instantly, it’s a muscle that needs stretching). But I want to try, for the both of us, to continue to push past that sense of panic. To take accountability, as you have, while acknowledging that change isn’t linear. “Open communication is key,” Thomas stresses. The salve is managing those spinning plates of expectation—and communicating to yourself and your friends that you will not always meet them.
We’re all a bit broken and there’s beauty in acknowledging that the act of living is mostly fumbling around, failing sometimes to live up to the best versions of ourselves. Trying to scratch below the surface of bad behavioral patterns, to shed greater light and communicate the darker sides of our character, is only going to add greater depth to the fuller picture of you. I frequently return to this question. “Do you love me enough that I may be weak with you,” as the philosopher and author Alain de Botton once wrote. “Everyone loves strength, but do you love me for my weakness? That is the real test.”