what if my friend group likes my new friend more than they like me?
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to most pressing existential conundrums. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
dear mixed feelings,
Have you ever introduced a friend into another friend group and then felt paranoid that they were gonna like them more than you?
I have the most amazing friends in multiple friend groups…I like that each group is made up of slightly different friends who know me in different contexts and from different points in my life. I'm kind of an obsessive and organized person so this compartmentalization gives me ease and comfort. However, there's always those big events or hangouts where I invite everyone…I want all of my friends to get along, but I'm finding myself becoming possessive over my individual relationships.
On multiple occasions, I've invited a friend to hang out with another friend group. After seeing them get along really well, I get insanely jealous…I get so insecure about my friendships and then I get so in my head about how I'm acting that I can't be myself anymore. I either feel like I'm trying too hard to hold onto them and end up coming off needy or insecure, or like I'm trying too hard to make it seem like I don't care and start pulling away. It's destructive and not at all who I want to be but I don't know how to cope with it…Deep down I know my friends would never drop me and that I should feel more self-assured in my friendships, but I can't help it. Is it selfish of me to gatekeep my friends from my other friends? — thefriendgatekeeper, she/her
I was in 3rd grade when I introduced my best friend of five years to a group of kids with whom I’d recently joined ranks. This group was known for coming up with elaborate fantasy worlds in which you could play during recess. Galaxies, pet shops, in-flight buffet restaurants…And then one day, with no notice, and a pettiness that only grade school kids can possess, they appointed my best friend their “leader” and left me in the dust. For weeks (that felt like months), they would tell me to “get lost” at recess. I’d wander over to the playground gymnastics bar to fold myself over it, let the blood rush to my head, and cry tears. A core memory!
What I’m getting at is this, though: Jealousy and fear of abandonment within friendships can feel almost foundational. They’re the product of one or two (or ten) bad experiences in our lives where we have internalized the feeling that the people we love will leave us for something they find superior. Or for no reason at all. If there’s one thing I can acknowledge immediately, it’s this: those fears and insecurities are wrenching. But it doesn’t mean they’re feelings we have to carry with us into all of our relationships.
comparison, the thief of joy
You seem to be extremely self-aware (which is a gift that you should acknowledge as such!) so you will already know this, but for all of us experiencing feelings of jealousy about our friends, we ultimately become our own worst enemies. There’s science – science! – that says that jealousy activates primal dependency issues and creates competition. The tendency to compare ourselves to others, despite actually being in our DNA, casts a daunting shadow over being able to bring our best selves to our friendships.
This isn’t new information, but it’s worth reminding: Each relationship in our lives is going to look different. The depth of connection, the unique timbre of conversation, the balance of give and take. The best we can do for the connections we deem most important is to show up as authentically as possible.
And let me not diminish – even that can be challenging, as we’re also comparing ourselves, as you mentioned, to the friends we feel we should be. “When we feel inadequate, we overcompensate — we might work too hard to be entertaining, outgoing or fun. Or we might try to keep our friends separate under the cover of ‘setting boundaries’” says Dr. Ellen Hendriken, clinical psychologist and author of How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety. “Such a high level of impression management is exhausting, plus it will likely backfire because it's contrived and non-authentic. Better to be gracious and welcoming and, yes, vulnerable by bringing your friends together.”
Preoccupying ourselves with our relative positioning to our friends – and the person we want to be – distracts us from our ultimate goal, which is to bring strength to our friendships. “We cannot expect to be the sole source of [our friends’] joy and companionship,” warns Danielle Bayard Jackson, says Friendship Expert and host of the podcast Friend Forward. Nor can our friends fill our every possible need. Pour into those cups what you can, and they will pour back into you.
put your cards on the table
As someone who gains more clarity of thought by putting pen to paper, I recommend setting aside some time to journal. (And if journaling isn’t your scene, then do some mindful meditation.) Ask yourself: Can you name these “not yourself” feelings that you’re experiencing? Where does insecurity first start to come through with your friends? What would be the worst-case scenario if friends of yours had a stronger connection than you did to them? What do you think that would mean about you?
Then do some fact checking. Are those insecurities perhaps long-standing and coming from something else? Is the worst-case scenario bearable to you? Would it truly diminish the connection you have with those individuals? What do those respective friendships mean to you? And do you really believe that it could be a fault of yours that two wonderful people you care about enjoy each other’s company, too?
Now here’s the most challenging step: Share what you wrote with your friends. I’m not saying you need to do a candlelit reading, but think about distilling down what you wrote to be able to convey to your friend what you’re feeling. There’s no need to come up with an action plan or put any onus on your friend, but being honest in this way will show you value the friendship. The payoff for this kind of vulnerability is usually pretty meaningful.
In the best case, your friend will appreciate that you initiated the conversation and it will, in fact, bring you closer. In virtually any other case, your friend will listen, receive, and have important context for what you’re going through in the future. But if you’re not ready to reveal all your cards just yet, there are many ways to forge connections with your friends. I love the energy of group settings, but personally, hanging with my friends individually allows us to connect in a unique way. Offset the anxiety of a group session with a 1:1 plan. You may, in turn, realize your negative feelings in larger gatherings subside the more you remind yourself that your friendships are not in jeopardy.
Seeing as you’re not channeling Joe Goldberg from “You” and intending to lock your best friends up in a room somewhere, learning to be patient and flexible is crucial. Radical Acceptance is a skill from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy that I use frequently: Essentially it says that when we learn to accept the facts of a situation with our mind, body and spirit, we can prevent ourselves from feeling stuck in bad feelings.
When I’ve found myself in your shoes in the past year and I’ve gone through the exercise above – and know that I have – I’ve said to myself: If these two friends of mine forge a stronger connection with each other than they have with me, and their investment in each other impacts my friendships with them, then it is what it is. “True platonic intimacy makes room for each person to make his or her own decisions,” Jackson adds. “It is inevitable that your friend will make connections with other people. Find a way to not only accept that, but celebrate that. Because when they have a variety of people in their social network, they become a fuller version of themself.”
Your particular brand of friendship – the ways in which you shine, share, laugh, and engage – is extremely special. It will be received differently from person to person. The people that mean the most are the ones who will appreciate and understand your multitudes. Insecurities included.