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I’ve lost the closest friendship of my life, but I’m not going to ask you how to fix it. Rather, I want to understand why life diverges so sharply for the successful and for those of us who drift instead. I don’t know what to do with my sadness, and it’s been over a year.
I met my best friend in elementary school. She moved away a couple years later, but we kept in touch and got together frequently. We were constantly involved in each other’s lives until about a year ago, when I simply gave up. This person has been woven into my experience for nearly 30 years, and there are few things in my world that don’t have some association with her. There was no big blowup or falling out. I just let it lapse because I couldn’t stand it anymore.
Around the time my friend got married again, I started to feel like I was being excluded from her life intentionally. My initial happiness for her was overwhelmed by her ensuing smugness. I know of smug; I attended an Elite University as a young person, and I was a bit of a jackass about it. I thought it might be comeuppance or something, but her nasty edge just deepened over time. It got worse when she got pregnant with her first child. She became particularly mean and critical about just about everything, with an uncharacteristic lack of humor to leaven her criticism in any way.
About a year ago, after being ignored for a long time, I was upbraided for my wrongness in ways that suggested she wasn’t paying attention to a single word but was instead projecting some ill-informed ideas onto me. Everything derisive she’d ever said seemed to fall together into a big rejection. A few years ago, she ghosted a very close friend of hers without warning, and I assumed that she was doing the same to me. I wouldn’t allow myself to be fired, so I quit. I figured I needed to face up to her unconfessed dislike of me, and I lost a bunch of hair and cried in the bathroom a lot. I tried halfheartedly to get in touch last year when I was home, but she responded with poison iciness and excuses about being busy, and so I decided the thing was done and I had to give it up.
I can’t ignore the feeling that this loss of friendship is a reflection of some larger problem in me. I grew up in the middle of nowhere and I excelled at school. I followed a long career path that involved many years of technical schooling in order to get out and be somebody. I ended up traveling to the other side of the country to follow that path, and my hard work eventually led nowhere. I went from having a trajectory of purposeful busyness to, like most people, getting what I could. Very abruptly, a lot of people, including people I thought were friends, lost interest in my activities and questioned the legitimacy of the lesser things I did for a living.
In my last job in the U.S., I worked on behalf of the needy and acquired an everlasting outrage about the immense capriciousness that dictates most people’s lives. I then immigrated to another country to be with my spouse. I had to (and still do) struggle with foreign-language learning, which is enormously humbling and difficult in adulthood. I work at an office in one of these spreadsheet-intensive positions with vague objectives that so many of the modern educated seem to have. I have been given enormous opportunities and sometimes failed, and I have followed life where it has led.
When she was younger, my best friend traveled briefly in dangerous places, and she used to volunteer with refugees. She returned home, took on a solidly reliable job, and was established in a stable position before the economic shitstorm hit. As soon as she took on a modest mortgage and popped out a kid, she became committed to this I’ve-got-mine ethos that has ascended in our culture, which runs completely against my lived experiences. She posts nasty memes about the laziness of people on welfare and the dangers of undocumented immigration on social media. I recognize that what seems to be a radical change in values is partly an expression of anxiety about her position in life and partly compassion fatigue from her work, which is very crisis-oriented. Even so, the condescending nastiness is too much to bear. She seems to think she’s too together for me (and perhaps everyone).
I’ve tried to focus more on my other friends and interests. I work a lot. My spouse and I are building our lives together, and I’m frequently anxious about what, if anything, to do with the last of my childbearing years. In spite of these distractions, I’m still sad, to the point that it affects my ability to connect to other people. I’ve suffered romantic breakups before, but they eventually fade. This despair is not going away and wakes me up at night. I’m afraid of not being enough for the few friends I have here, and of not being interesting to new people.
I don’t know how to explain what happened to this friendship or to my friend, and I don’t know how to snap to attention or accept this loss as a casualty of life. I don’t know if you have ever seen the paths that lead away from this sort of sadness, but I would certainly appreciate directions, if you have them.
Dear Lost Connections,
The end of your friendship is haunting you because both its dissolution and the imagined differences between you and your friend hold a lot of meaning in your life. Even though it sounds like your friendship has been difficult for a long time, and you don’t believe in your friend anymore, the friendship symbolizes something bigger for you. This breakup is a verdict, as far as you’re concerned. It says something important about who you are.
So instead of going around in circles in your head about how her smugness is right in line with the overall callousness of global culture and how your victimization at the hands of that culture is right in line with your victimization at the hands of your bitter, unfair friend, you have to stop. Put down all of those tangled arguments. Drop them in the middle of the floor. Then just stand there and imagine her. Maybe she’s exhausted by her job and her kid and her marriage, and maybe she’s also extremely selfish and deluded. Who knows? But it’s time to see her as a regular human being and then let her go. For whatever reason, she is no longer open to understanding you or supporting you. Maybe she never was. As important as it feels for you to see her as a bad person, you are simply two flawed, separate people who no longer connect. You cannot proceed with this friendship because it feels completely wrong, you can’t be honest with her, and you hate the direction she’s taken in life.
Even as you leave the friendship behind, though, I want you to imagine how your friend would criticize you if someone asked her to explain why she was no longer friends with you.
Write it down.
Now read what you wrote. These are your fears about yourself. Sure, maybe she would agree with you on some of these points. But these are YOUR fears. You fear that you haven’t done enough to put yourself in a successful position. You fear that she’s made better choices than you have. You fear that she knows the truth about what an incompetent, lost mess you are. You fear that you are lesser than, an embarrassment, and she’s the one person who sees this clearly. Even though you know that you’re not the only one who notices how attacking and smug and weird she can be, you can’t let go of the notion that SHE IS THE ONE PERSON WHO KNOWS THAT YOU ARE BAD AND ISN’T AFRAID TO SAY IT.
You suspect that you fucked up your life, and somehow she is the one person who knows this.
I’ve had some friendship troubles over the past few years, and in most cases the details were less revealing than my inability to shut up about them. I’d find myself painting an elaborate portrait of the forces in play, supposedly in order to work things out — but mostly it was just me trying to face my fears and anxieties about myself and the world around me. I probably should’ve noticed this. It would’ve been obvious to anyone else that my friend was never really showing up and listening. I was dancing with a ghost.
I was trying to fix everything all alone, in my mind. Instead of noticing that I wasn’t being met or seen or heard, instead of noticing that anything I said or felt or wanted was entirely beside the point, I kept going back to that dance with a ghost. Every now and then I was called upon to listen for hours at a time. But the second I had a puzzle of my own that I needed help with, I was ignored and forgotten. But this seemed normal to me, somehow.
Why did that feel so familiar, for my complicated desires to be entirely beside the point? Why did that feel like such a clear verdict on what was wrong with me? Why did I keep looking for clues, hoping to piece together something I was doing wrong, something that made me the real culprit, something that meant I was doomed and ridiculous and unworthy of love?
The answer to those questions goes to the heart of how I see myself, on some level: as someone who can only serve other people, either by listening or by making jokes. This is a form that my more difficult friendships take — they mimic the call-and-response of my early years with two very preoccupied, intelligent, intense, somewhat narcissistic parents. I was loved deeply but I was also beside the point. I was incredibly important when I listened and less important when I talked and completely invisible when I talked about emotional things that had no easy answer or solution. My parents were never wrong. They admitted that they made generic mistakes, but in the intimate space between two people, they were not capable of admitting any culpability. The message I received was crystal clear, and repeated often: IF THERE IS A PROBLEM BETWEEN US, THE PROBLEM MUST BE YOU.
But even as you and I both look at the very complicated messages we get from our broken friendships, and how we process (or don’t process) those messages, all of that complexity disappears the second we ask ourselves, “What do I want from this friendship?” and then ask for it. When you ask for what you want directly and the other person doesn’t give it to you, that tells you all you need to know. There’s no more need for complex analysis. And maybe in some cases, you’re even told that WANTING SIMPLE THINGS MEANS THAT YOU ARE BAD. The situation couldn’t be clearer, right? So why are you still here?
Because you think that wanting simple things makes you bad. You believe that disliking her and still missing her makes you bad. You believe that wanting more from someone who doesn’t want anything more from you makes you less than that person.
Did you just hear that part? You are stuck here. You still want more from her, but she doesn’t seem to care. That might have been true from the very beginning of your friendship. You are fixated on being inferior. You also believe that wanting some of the things that she HAS makes you bad.
This is the thinking of a small child. When it comes to her, you sound like a small child, and you are wrong for judging yourself badly just for wanting some of the things that she has or wants. There are ways that your friend moves through the world that you admire, but instead of looking closely at those things, you are reacting against them, like a little sister who HATES SOCCER just because her big sister likes it.
Your feelings need to come to the forefront, and your thoughts need to get pushed to the side for once. You need to properly mourn this loss, and you need to forgive yourself for feeling the way you feel. You have to loosen your tight clamp on what you should and shouldn’t want, what you should and shouldn’t feel, and allow your true desires and feelings to flow freely for once.
Lately, instead of trying to “do” the “right” thing with friendships, I’m trying to feel my way through them. I’m trying to ask for what I want. And I’m trying very hard to tell the truth.
You struggle a lot to tell the SIMPLE, unadorned truth, Lost Connections. You write huge tomes with interconnected cultural themes and great big morals, complicated affairs that lead you far away from any feeling, from any truth, from anything simple and palpable. So here’s a stab at something simple: You feel rejected. You feel abandoned. You miss her. You want a real friend. You want to trust someone and share your life with that person. You want a smart woman to talk to, one you know cares, one who is messy like you and sees your flaws but loves you anyway.
You are sure that you are not good enough. You are sure that you made mistakes and that’s why your life is so hard now. You blame yourself. You think you’ll never have a good friend again.
There are things she has that you want, deep down inside, but that you can’t have or don’t have yet or feel conflicted about. Look closely at these things. Dare to put down all of this noise about cultural imperialism and think hard about WHAT YOU WANT. Not in a getting-mine way, just in a human way. What about just wanting something because your heart wants it? What about wanting something in an uncomplicated way, without worrying about how it all adds up and what it all means.
You won’t get what you truly want if you don’t ask for it.
In addition to all of this, it sounds like you’re shutting down and shutting out the world. Do you need to exercise more? Are you depressed? Do you need to talk to a therapist? Do you need to have an openhearted talk with your husband about feeling lonely and lost? Do you need to try hard to strengthen the good friendships you have left? Do you need more support? Do you want to have children? Do you want to move back to the States? Do you want to quit your job and do something else?
This breakup is a big arrow that points to some things that are much more important: your internal struggle, your unhappiness, your loneliness, your feelings of powerlessness. You have to drop your story about your friend. Drop it and don’t pick it up again. You’ve made her the symbol of everything bad in your life, and there’s no way to fix things with her, so that means there’s no way to fix everything bad in your life. She is a symbol that protects you from yourself. But you can’t live inside that puzzle anymore. It’s not interesting. What’s interesting is where you are right now.
Where are you?
Are you an unworthy person? Are you too needy to love? Did you make bad choices? Are you not good enough? Who says so? Is everything doomed now? You’re not dead yet, are you? You are free to make new choices. Forgive yourself. Stop following wherever life leads. Dare to reach for something that feels foolish. Dare to indulge some slice of what you once dreamed of. You have the right to a better, more satisfying life. That’s not capricious. Stop cutting off the things you want at the knees. Stop deciding that you aren’t good enough to live the exact life you want. Stop telling stories about how going for exactly what you want makes you a shallow, selfish person.
Make yourself vulnerable to your dreams again. In this humbling moment, some simple truth will reveal itself. You want to proceed the way your friend hasn’t: with open eyes, with an open heart, without bitterness or regret. But you have to decide that you’re not afraid to say what you want, out loud. You have to let go of other people’s views and judgments and tune in to what you truly desire. You can have everything you ever wanted, but you have to decide that you deserve it first.
You’re right to be haunted by this breakup, because it holds so many clues to what you need to move forward with your whole life. So stop solving puzzles and crying in the bathroom and make some space for your heart, some space out in the open, where everyone can see.
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