do I keep my friends just for instagram photos?
mixed feelings is a weekly advice column dedicated to self-understanding—not necessarily self-betterment. Every Wednesday, 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,
I have surface level friends: we hangout for a good times and Instagram photos. We don’t have deep talks or even text/call during the week. I know all relationships aren’t meant to be deep, but I hangout with these people a lot so they see me when I’m happy and sad. I deal with depression and when I’m mentally exhausted and need someone, they won’t be there for me. I could be crying and they won’t comfort me. At the most they just give me a hug and tell me they love me, then leave me alone for the rest of the night. They are privileged so they have a very different life experience than I do. Do I keep them as my friends? I’ve finally realized that they aren’t my close friends, so I’ve stopped expecting that of them. Do I keep these people around me for good times? Not for deep conversations, but to take Instagram photos? What would you do if you were me? — p@nd@, she/her
We have best friends and we have “barely friends.” We have our party friends and we have the people we exchange 🔥emojis🔥 with on Instagram. Friendships don’t have to be as binary as we typically treat things like romantic relationships—we can have low-dose friends, whom we enjoy in small amounts both for their sake and ours. That distinction is important, because the beauty of friendship lies in its fluidity.
I’ll give you a personal example: I have a friend who’s an intellectual powerhouse. Whenever we talk, it feels like she’s cranking my mind open with a can opener. But when we have a difference of opinion, she’s a bulldozer—she’ll do anything to convince me that she’s right and I’m wrong. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that when we hang out once a week, I’m grasping for my escape hatch, but when we hang out once a month, we’re copacetic. We don’t have to be close friends but we can still be friends. When you said you and your crew “hang out for good times and Instagram photos,” I sensed you may have low-dose friends while you want high-dose friends. I’ll talk you through how to find them.
when to go there
It’s helpful to discern the optimal level of intimacy in each of our friendships, rather than applying a one-size-fits-all approach. You’ve done well to notice the ways your friends qualify as low-dose friends: there’s low vulnerability, not enough support, and their privilege may impede them from getting you. As you assess your existing friendships and venture into new ones, here are some green flags that signal you’ve found high-dose friends:
They root for you to succeed
They follow through with what they say
They support you in times of need
They engage in mutuality (equally weighing your needs and theirs) while navigating the friendship
You mention you deal with depression and I don’t want to gloss over how that can influence so many aspects of your life, including how you interpret friends’ behavior. Depression makes us more likely to recognize how our friends fail us and to ignore how they show up. It can lead to a cycle wherein we interpret our friends’ behaviors in ways that communicate they don’t care, which then makes us withdraw and reinforces our depression. You mentioned your friends didn’t comfort you but they did give you hugs and told you they loved you. It’s helpful to take a step back and acknowledge what they do provide. You may have expectations that your friends don’t meet, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t providing you with something meaningful.
When you ask yourself, what are my friends’ strengths?, you can align your expectations with what each friend offers. Instead of deeming friendships where you share “good times and Instagram photos” as shallow, you can see these friendships as fulfilling you in one way and find other friends who fulfill you in the remaining ways. This is the secret to enjoying low-dose friends.
how to go deep
It seems you already have enough evidence that these friends won’t become high-dose ones. But, as you set out to find your high-dose friends, I’d encourage you to embrace the “go first” principle of friendship: if you want a friendship to go deeper, go first and lead the change. Wish you and your friends texted more? Text first. Wish they offered you more support? Offer them more support. Then, see if they reciprocate.
Often, we aren’t vulnerable not because we don’t have the capacity to be but because we don’t know if it’s safe to be. When you go first in plunging into the ocean of intimacy, you reassure friends that if they want to plunge, too, they’ll be welcomed. In science terms, this principle is known as “risk regulation theory”—we first assess how likely we are to get rejected before deciding how much to invest in a relationship. We invest more, then, when we’re reassured we won’t be. In other words, the best way to belong is to make others feel like they belong first.
Inauthenticity is a form of loneliness that impedes intimacy. You stated your friends are privileged and differences in privilege often impede us from being authentic. When we befriend more privileged people, we may shrink our marginalized identity and end up feeling disconnected. People with privilege may not understand our life experiences and may be invalidating or microaggressive. If you want high-dose friends who are privileged, you have to find those you don’t have to shrink around. You have to be willing to share who you are and they have to be willing to hear it. Alternatively, some people with marginalized identities opt to befriend people who have similar identities so they can avoid these risks.
If you value the types of relationships you do have with your friends, you don’t need to drop them entirely. But I do suggest you identify the optimal level of closeness you’d like to have with them. If these friends can’t give you what you need, invest in other friends, too, ones who can. Not everyone has to be your best friend. I know from experience how leveling down a friendship from high-dose to low can change things for the better. Distance can breed intimacy—sometimes we feel closer to people when at a greater distance.
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