Dear Tiff: Am I a bad friend?
Updated: Jan 13, 2022
I spend a lot of time worrying about how much I've drifted apart from friends I used to be close to years ago
This article was originally posted in my newsletter - the Tiff Weekly.
I spend a lot of time worrying about how much I've drifted apart from friends I used to be close to years ago. I'm rubbish at keeping in touch by text and so we often go months without speaking and I feel awful about that. On the rare occasions that we do meet up (we live several hours away from each other and we're all busy and not made of money), we get on well and have a nice time, but I question if all we talk about is memories from back in the day? And if so, do we have a future?
The extra layer to this story is that my social anxiety has caused me to have a super patchy memory, and I feel so sad and embarrassed when I don't remember stories that I was involved in when these friends bring them up. I worry they'll think those memories of them aren't important to me when really my brain just couldn't store them because I was so anxious at the time. Thinking about this makes me nervous to try and make new plans with them, and so the cycle continues! Please help.
Dear bad friend,
I often dream that my friends and I all live in a row of houses in a place that’s always sunny and our gardens are connected at the back, so we can flow in and out of each other’s spaces and lives daily. This is my utopia.
When we’re young, our friends are people who we spend all day, every day with and it requires no effort to stay in each other’s lives as you gossip down school corridors on the way to class or share a parental lift to a house party. Then we grow up and people move all over the place and disconnect from us and we’re navigating life changes, location changes and shifting values and priorities. We no longer move to the same rhythm as our old and closest friends and it’s unbelievably hard and from what I can gather, it just gets harder as we age. It’s a loss and a form of grief.
I’ve come to realise that there are broadly two types of friendships: historic - the ones we grow up with, went to school or university with and together, we form young and stupid memories with each other as a pack. But over time, those historic pals can go off and do all sorts of different things in different places and you’re no longer stuck together in the same location and at the same life stage.
Then there’s the convenient friends, the ones who are living close to you or are at the same life stage, perhaps you’ve become closer because you’re both single and free to meet spontaneously on a Tuesday night, or you met at a bump and baby class or whatever that shared thing might be. Obviously, the ideal is someone who is both a historic and convenient friend and that does happen but, I’m 33 and finding that is increasingly rare.
The thing with the convenient friends is that you meet them as you are now and you have a shared current experience that bonds you together and to be blunt, hanging out with each other is easy and convenient and there’s a regularity to your interactions that make you feel close to each other. The convenient friendships, like all convenience, is easy. I find it’s the historic bucket of friends that causes more confusion and sometimes, sadly, pain for people.
Our historic friends can be our anchors, the ones who’ve been there through it all. The ones who’ve held our hair back after our first taste of alcohol or who’ve lied to our parents for us or who’ve gone and asked the boy out at a party on our behalf. They’ve watched us grow and change and supported us as we’ve supported them. The convenient friends can never truly compare to the ones who witnessed who we used to be first hand and being with historic friends can feel like coming home.
However, when all that binds you is history and the historic friendship hasn’t moved forward to the present, that’s where the trouble starts. Your body physically holds the love and closeness you had with these people and you don’t want to let it go, but then there’s a tension with your present. You haven’t grown and moved together both physically and spiritually and so there’s a tug of war happening between what you crave (connection, love and belonging) and the reality (distance and change). It is then that we drift apart or can be avoidant, not wanting to face up to this change.
For me, the problem I hear from you isn’t that you are bad at keeping in touch or that you meet up rarely, what worries me is that when you’re together you’re not bringing the present and your honest and vulnerable self to this group of people. The question isn’t ‘can you have a future if you only talk about memories?’, for me the question is - ‘how can you have a future if you can’t tell them why you can’t remember those memories?’ If you feel sad and embarrassed around them, then it doesn’t surprise me if you walk away from those interactions not wanting to put yourself back in that situation any time soon. That’s looking after yourself, not being a bad friend.
You’re berating yourself for being a bad friend, when the reality is, they’re either not providing the space for you to be honest with them or you’re not prepared to give them the chance to do so. It doesn’t matter who’s at fault and let’s not play the blame game here: the chemistry just isn’t working.
I get the sense that you don’t want to let go because of how it makes you feel as a person. You call yourself a ‘bad friend’ for not staying in touch and wanting to see them. Friends drift in and out of each other’s lives all the time and it’s not all on you, we hold equal responsibility when this happens. Friendships can also come back to each other when they’re ready and the timing aligns and ironically, this happens more easily if we don’t give too much weight of worry to them drifting off.
I also wonder if, with this group, they remind you of an anxious and difficult time so perhaps that’s why you struggle to be around them, too? Timing is everything with relationships and perhaps the time isn’t right for you to face them and what they represent and remind you of. Maybe you’re simply not ready to bring whole parts of yourself to them?
I know it’s hard to let go of shared history, especially if that’s tangled up in how you want to see yourself as a good and loyal friend, but we get a mirror reflected back to us, and for whatever reason, you can’t bring a self to them that works for now. It can change, but perhaps you’ll need to increase comfort and understanding and self-acceptance of who you are today. Social anxieties, forgotten memories and someone who does worry and care about people you share a past with are traits that make you human. Connection happens in the space where we share our messiness and vulnerabilities and insecurities, not in presenting perfection. No one wants to be around ‘perfect’ people anyway.
Do you hide parts of yourself with all friends or just this group? Do have friends who you can bring your true, honest and vulnerable self to? If so, spend more time with them. If not, then there’s some work to do to learn how to be vulnerable with people. Opening up to others is like going to the gym, start small and slowly, slowly up the weights over time. I recommend working with the convenient friends, who you see regularly and can build up your vulnerability practice with. You can even talk to them about this issue, they’ll be neutral as they’re not part of the historic group and everyone has friendship stories involving heartbreak and confusion. They’ll understand.
I worry about ‘the group’ which so often is the baggage of historic friendships. There’ll be people who you are more aligned to than others in ‘the group’ and often when we think about a group, there’s a couple of dominating personalities that set the tone. I encourage you to consider building more one on one relationships with some of your favourite members of the group. I can be romantic about friendships and if it’s meant to be and your spirits are aligned, you’ll find your way back to each other at the right time. And who knows, if you are connected to some friendly faces in the group, you might find yourself being able to show up as your true and present self. You can lead in creating the change where the group can be one that has a future and functions together in the present, rather than relying on shared memories to exist.
You’re not a bad friend. The fact you’ve written to me with this shows how much you care and value your friendships. You're experiencing the heart-wrenching tension and struggles that happen in friendships as we grow up. I’m holding out hope that one day, we’ll all be reunited in our row of houses at retirement. In the meantime, my hope for you is that you find the people you need for your life right now and those with whom you walk away feeling good about yourself and your friendship with them. You’re a good friend, you deserve to be supported by your friends and to have people in your life who you’re itching to see again. You’re a good friend, so just make sure to be a good friend to yourself, too.