Think you’re a bad friend? Maybe you just have bad boundaries.
I got dumped by a close friend recently. In addition to it totally sucking, it also confirmed my fear of failure as this friend opted out of being a part of my life, indefinitely, without really giving much of a reason. While it seems there was nothing I could do to change her mind, the loss of her friendship feels so cold, so personal, and it has me considering if our entire friendship was fake all along.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve long suspected I’m failing at keeping my end of the bargain when it comes to holding down friendships with other women. I get caught up in my work and forget to call, or I space on remembering birthdays, and sometimes I don’t return texts for weeks because I’m just not in the mood to talk. But despite these obvious defects of character, I still have a wide variety of friends who love me and appreciate my presence in their lives, including a handful of close friends who I’ve invited into my inner circle as trusted peers and confidants.
That circle lost a comrade last month. And I miss her. There was something I wanted to show her today: a photo appeared on my phone of a situation only she would understand. I typed out a text before I remembered that, real or fake, we aren’t friends anymore, and the pit of my stomach ached.
But is it true what the experts are saying? That, when presented with the worst possible circumstances (like a global pandemic), some friendships just won’t make it through?
Most of the women I know (myself included) are examining our lives as of late, rearranging our priorities to accommodate a newfound sense of urgency to look at how we are spending our time. Maybe that’s what this friend was doing, a little social spring cleaning.
Others I know are taking inventory of their relationships, checking in with themselves on how certain friends make them feel when they’re together, cutting ties with those toxic friends who make them feel like crap most of the time. The smartest people I know do this regularly, not just during a pandemic. But I’m way too nice to cut anyone out of my life, or so I tell myself; in reality, I’ve never been one to cut ties because I’d generally rather have people like me than not.
All of this is painfully familiar.
I have an embarrassing admission as the leader of a group that exists to unite women under the umbrella of female friendship: this is not the first time this has happened. While I host events where women can make friends, and in the process I’ve discovered many good friends of my own, I’ve also had several friendships fizzle or full-on explode over the course of the past few years. The patterns of their demise are almost formulaic, leaving emotional scars that refuse to fade from the forefront of my mind as I continue to live and breathe in the same city where there are women who simply don’t like me.
Dear reader, I ask: has there ever been anything worse?
It feels important to acknowledge what every one of my failed friendships has in common: mismatched personalities (according to my husband, some personalities just never mesh?), and a perpetually low bar for boundaries when it comes to making new friends.
I am prone to bending over backwards to try and win people over, ignoring all my own needs in the process…and this is not a good quality.
This quirky trait makes me quick to say yes when I really mean no, to “set myself on fire to keep others warm”, and to embody every single other annoying Instagram caption-worthy expression that means I try too hard to be what others want me to be. This typically codependent behavior pleases a plethora of fake friends, I’ve discovered.
As with the friend who dumped me, no matter how much time we spent together, I always felt the need to prove myself to her. My ego — who is the guardian of my inner people-pleaser — loved the challenge.
I’ve toned myself down to become more tolerable, muted my own self-expression to be more likeable, and “given til it hurts” as the religious upbringing of my youth instructed me to do.
And it did hurt, until the hurt turned into resentment once I’d let my feelings go unchecked for too long and then scrambled to build fences of defense ( de-fences??) when I’d reach a breaking point of unmet needs. These slap job boundaries were often met with cynicism, because they were constructed sans-permit so to speak: without intentionality behind them, boundaries that pop up all of a sudden seem exclusive or mean. I wasn’t setting them in place preventatively as boundaries ought to be set, but rather once things had already gotten too far out of alignment.
Noticing this is new for me.
I’ve had loosey goosey boundaries all my life, believing I was being nice in not setting firm ones. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, this has not served me well; not in business when I started and closed my first production company with a childhood friend in my early 20’s, and not in my romantic relationships where sometimes I’d date someone I wasn’t totally into, because i felt sorry for them or thought I could help them in some way become a better version of themselves (which is narcissism masquerading as niceness! I am not the hero of anyone’s story!).
And loose boundaries haven’t served me well in friendships, either, when I run to embrace a new pal who might be better kept as an arms-length acquaintance, solely because I desperately want to be liked.
The women I’ve befriended under these circumstances are not pathetic losers or anything of the sort. They are awesome people who deserve awesome friendships — just not with me. My bad boundaries have rushed me into intimacy in relationships with folks who I really never had that much in common with to begin with, forcing me to caresofuckingmuch about people who are not my people — and this is a disservice to everyone involved.
Maybe you’ve done this, too?
I miss the friend who dumped me, but as I considered how it actually felt to be around her, I don’t miss that friendship. It didn’t feel real. Despite four years of trying, I was still constantly disappointing her, but I never admitted this to anyone. I just…kept it inside, where all of my resentments live (aren’t I delightful?!).
Whenever we feel like we have to try too hard to win people’s approval or tone ourselves down in order to be liked, we will shy away from our inner self, our own vibrancy, the very thing that makes us so unique and interesting. We inevitably become someone we’re not.
But being someone you’re not and stringing others along for the ride is a form of lying. I’m currently writing a memoir about the experiences of my life, and an emerging theme is around alllllll the countless ways we as women trade the truths of our lives for a lie. This is a big one for me: having fake friends you can’t be real with is a way of living a lie, too.
When I’m truthful with myself, I don’t want friends who need me. I want friendships with mutual respect where we both feel seen, valued, and loved. In the midst of a pandemic I am finding, like so many others, that I no longer have time for friends who make me change for them. I no longer have capacity for conversation with people who make me feel like crap about who I really am — even if they don’t think that’s what they’re doing — and it doesn’t make me a bad person for saying so.
In fact, for any friendship to be authentic, both parties have to feel comfortable being themselves, or it’s not real.
No matter how much I changed myself for the friend who recently dumped me, I could not keep up the pretending act forever —all fakers eventually reach a breaking point. I reached mine a long time ago, but was too chicken to admit it out loud. She noticed; and while she wouldn’t give a reason for abruptly ending our friendship, I knew by her (limited) words on the matter it was because I could no longer be what she needed me to be.
So now I’m clinging to the five words that have gotten me through all of my failed life plans and breakups with romantic partners, pals, and creative collaborators alike:
Some things don’t work out.
And there is nothing wrong with admitting you tried, and failed.
After getting dumped by my friend (in an Instagram DM, in case you wondered), I spent a week licking my wounds and feeling sorry for the sad little people-pleasing girl inside me who just wants everyone to like her — she really has a lot of insecurities to work out, and thanks to the new normal we’re living through, there’s time to address them all!
I grieved the friend I lost like she was dead, and I wrote a little eulogy to our friendship:
She was an expert plant tender. She cared for all animals, including mine. I’d hire her to house sit because I trusted her nurturing ways, and every one of my cats loved her. She gave beautiful, just-because gifts. I always took photos of her in her studio so she could see how beautiful her work looked. I loved walking her dogs together and bumming around the conservatory and letting her show me around her garden, me learning like a little kid how all the living things grow. I will always want to text her about my orchids, because one of them is doing something weird and she always knows how to tend to them; I miss her dry humor and her jars of jam and sitting together at the park where you can see the entire city between the trees. I will miss the time I spent with her, knowing it will never come back to me.
Then I reached out to my other friends, the real ones who don’t hold my mistakes against me, who don’t mind if I’m a bad texter or that I get busy at work, the friends who love me too much to care if I forget their fall birthday only to remember them on a random Tuesday in December. The friends who don’t drop me for being a “bad friend” amidst a global pandemic.
I called up a friend in New Jersey and it’s like we’re kids again, picking up right where we left off for two glorious hours on the phone as if the many years and miles haven’t passed like grains of sand between us, so impossibly fast. I relished in the feeling of being loved, not for what I have to offer but for who I am as a person.
I walked the lake by my house with a different comrade from my inner circle every day for the next week, letting their presence nourish me step by step; I stretched my arms up and over my head, hands open to the sky, grateful to no longer be holding onto resentments, free to love my friends authentically, as me.
Resources that have helped me: