Ask Polly: My Ex-Friends Think I’m Selfish and Terrible!

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Photo: Manuel Breva Colmeiro/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I still feel traumatized by some things that occurred a few years ago now, in college. Without getting too specific, life suddenly happened to me very quickly: death and illness in the family, legal disputes, a restraining order, fallings-out, financial difficulties, disapproval of and threats over my relationship (I’m white) with a person of color. None of it was my fault, but I withdrew into myself while trying despite it all to maintain relationships with friends and family members. I attempted suicide a few times; no one knew except my partner.

Through the chain of gossip, I learned the story my friends developed to explain this withdrawal: I was caught up in my new (at the time, several-months-old) relationship and had decided to ditch them. No one asked for the real story and, not wanting to respond to hearsay relayed through a friend, I didn’t address it. Despite this, there were many nights when I stayed up to care for friends or talked them through difficult periods — but soon these same friends often screamed at me or scolded me for not being there enough for them. And when we were alone, they made offensive remarks (i.e., racist or disparaging my depression) about my partner and myself that I was afraid to address for fear they would hurt my partner’s feelings or send me over the edge. (I lived with these people and could not move.) Worse, I am fairly certain they had no idea that saying, for example, that they had a racial fetish “like I did” was offensive — though like many in post-Trump America, they now relay politically aware articles. I kept everything to myself and, years later, our mutual friends who are genuinely respectful and kind know nothing about any of this. Sometimes I want to tell them, but don’t know why. I ended college with my once-closest friends proclaiming that I was selfish, while — it felt to me — acting secretly cruel and unsupportive.

I know there are still hard feelings — when I’ve seen these past friends, they avoid me or leave the room, and I’m always afraid that they continue to gossip, as I still keep in touch with people they know. I don’t want to be friends with them any longer, but it troubles me both that those friends we have in common will hear a false story, and that I allowed people to mistreat me for so long while I dealt with the most difficult period of my life. Should I talk to people about it or keep it to myself? And how do I deal with being haunted by what was done and said — and the inexplicable feeling that it still matters?

Obsessive Ex-Friend

Dear Obsessive Ex-Friend,

When you’re navigating several traumatic experiences at once, it’s incredibly difficult to tell other people what’s going on with you. Withdrawing into yourself and relying only on your partner for support: These are completely understandable reactions to extreme darkness. My guess is that withdrawing into yourself was a survival tactic for you throughout your childhood. But the big pain in the ass about being a literal survivor of multiple high-stakes shitstorms is that other people often misinterpret your behavior. You’re grabbing for a rope to keep from drowning; they’re pointing at you and rolling their eyes and calling you “grabby.”

The loneliness and isolation must’ve been terrible. Of course your roommates didn’t see you clearly! They didn’t know the whole story. You don’t care about them now, but is it worth your energy to inform these other friends, who might hear that you’re selfish or bad from your former roommates?

Honestly, I’m torn. I understand your impulse to set the record straight. But I also believe that it’s more important to address these sorts of issues in one-on-one relationships with people who matter to you. You don’t need to hand out pamphlets to do that. I get that it feels like the whole thing is being judged and analyzed by a group, since these former roommates ice you out whenever you see them. The stress of that alone must be tough, and it must kick up waves of bad feeling about the past. But is this the moment to get everyone up to speed about what you’ve been through?

You still sound like a private person to me, someone who isn’t quite sure how much any given human being should know about her. I think you have to be gentle with yourself, and proceed with caution. If you want to be more open about what happened, that needs to play out in individual conversations with people you care about, people you want to see anyway, people you want to get to know even better and therefore would naturally end up telling more and more about yourself as you hang out.

Right now, it sounds like you’re in danger of overcorrecting a situation that’s lamentable but hard to erase or fix. And you’re putting all of this pressure on yourself to announce the truth, when really, why is it up to you?

I say this as someone who is often caught in the same binary tide, battered back and forth between hiding and oversharing, silently resenting and coming in hot, politely acquiescing and then fucking shit up, big time. The goal for people like you and me is not to TELL EVERYONE ALL OF THE THINGS. The goal is to slowly learn how to be okay with what happened, with how much shame we feel over just being ourselves, with how conflicted and confused we are, with how often we want to seize control and fix it all. The goal is to forgive ourselves for trying too hard and also for not opening our mouths often enough. The goal is to get right with ourselves first.

And alongside that goal, our goal is to be just another person in the room who is doing her best, who has her eyes wide open, who is attracted to people who understand and appreciate complexity. And when someone you can really trust approaches and asks, “What was going on with you back then, anyway?” or “Why do those women act that way around you?” or even “Have you had shitty friend breakups like the one I’m going through?,” then the truth has some room to show itself without any need to make grand proclamations.

Your former roommates quite frankly sound like garbage people, so good riddance to them — but I don’t know if you can refer to them as friends. You can’t be friends with someone if you never talk to them about who you are, what you believe, and what you need from them. No matter how awful people can be sometimes, it’s irrelevant as long as you consistently refuse to confront them about it. Your reasons for not telling these people what was up are crystal clear, and you should forgive yourself completely for it. But moving forward, the goal is to locate people you can trust, slowly get to know them, and slowly tell them the full truth about who you are.

I know this sounds obvious, but a friendship is two people sharing themselves with each other. When you enter into a friendship and then give the other person exactly what they want without really showing up, you’re engaging dishonestly with that person. You might feel like you have the higher ground because you treat them to the gift of cheerful compliance, but most people aren’t really interested in that kind of a friendship. Eventually, they figure out that you’re not telling them the full story, and it pisses them off. Then, if they’re deeply insecure themselves, they walk around talking shit about you until the sun falls from the sky. Even when you are perfectly kind and honest, you will run into this. Don’t even think about correcting the record with people who mostly just want a secret enemy. Try to forgive them, and let it go.

It’s a common blunder for young women to play along with friendships that don’t feel quite right, one that I’m more than a little familiar with myself. I would even say that I didn’t totally shake off this pattern until recently. I would fall into acquaintanceships with people who were very different from me, and I’d try to go with the flow in order to keep the peace. When I did try to address conflicts directly, there was sometimes pushback, so I’d bury everything and pretend it was all good. Maybe that’s how this policy of non-disclosure came up for you, too. Maybe you realized early on that your roommates weren’t going to take kindly to direct confrontation, so you would need to hold in your true feelings to avoid blowing everything up.

I played this chill role for decades, with boyfriends and with friends. It wasn’t good for me. I courted people who either were very chill or valued chill, but I was marketing myself dishonestly. When the truth came out that I was a highly emotional, opinionated, bossy, demanding neurotic who, yes, liked to go with the flow and live impulsively, but who also liked to make careful plans, avoid dangerous situations, analyze interpersonal dynamics forever and ever, and also deconstruct the sexist undertones of shaving-cream commercials, it wasn’t pretty. I would have a drink and, say, mention that a mutual friend’s verbal tics belied a preoccupation with dominance, and the world would stop spinning. “Friends don’t analyze friends,” the icy silence would tell me. And also “What do you even mean by that?” and also “Who let you in here, anyway?”

The Chill sometimes even mutinied against me! Once a particularly chill boyfriend sided with a group of chill types against me, because he was already suspicious of the whirring, grinding gears of my overworked brain, which couldn’t help but spit out detailed assessments when it had a little sweet, sweet tequila flowing through its thirsty gray corridors.

And maybe I was a secret asshole? That’s what happens to people who try to seem chill and surround themselves with chill when they aren’t actually capable of any degree of chillness. We are fucking Heat Misers, all orange and round with flame hair that we think we can disguise with keratin treatments! We have flames coming out of our goddamn fingertips, but instead of just saying, “Yes, um, I like burning shit DOWN TO THE GROUND for fun,” we wear icy-blue gloves and cover ourselves in cool-blue glittery cloaks and don festive ice-swan hats and practice saying breezy shit like “It’s all good!” and “No problem!” and “It is what it is!” But underneath that rapidly melting ice swan, the gears of our big mean brains are grinding and smoking and throwing off sparks!

The more we try to disguise our essential natures, as overthinking, opinionated hotheads who want to liquefy and incinerate everything we see with our fingertip flamethrowers, the more enraged and negative we become. When Heat Misers remain in the company of Cold Misers and don’t have adequate contact with other Heat Misers, they slowly start to believe that these icy, passive, happy-go-lucky-acting motherfuckers are deeply wrong and deeply shallow. Who walks around saying “It’s all good” when in truth IT IS ALL BAD and PROBLEMATIC and NOTHING IS WHAT IT IS? We Heat Misers are infernos waiting to happen. Hiding only makes it worse.

Let’s be honest, too: The Chill aren’t the most complex thinkers sometimes. When presented with an exploding inferno person with an ice swan on her head, the Chill tend to quickly come to the worst possible conclusions. “This Heat Miser must be insecure, she’s too negative, she’s selfish, she’s just jealous, she’s probably been secretly plotting to take us all down since forever.”

Hiding and pretending are always a losing proposition over the long haul. I understand why you weren’t into educating these people about their racism or showing them your true self or telling them about your suicide attempts. I don’t think walking around telling everyone everything is necessarily a solution for you. But I would pay close attention to situations where you don’t feel like you can speak up. Because I think you’re someone who WANTS to speak up. You need to be around people who can handle it. You need to be around people who will listen when you say, “I’m sure this isn’t what you meant, but it’s actually kind of offensive to believe that my relationship is somehow a ‘fetish’ simply because my partner’s skin color is different from mine.”

I get that it’s difficult. I consider myself a confrontational person, but I realized recently that once I decide someone is either very chill (or is trying very hard to be chill!), or (ironically) very quick to anger, I bite my tongue. I have trouble being honest with queen-bee types in particular. I am a natural worker bee, compulsively committed to serving the nearest queen.

Maybe these ex-friends fall into that category for you. Be aware of the dynamics that work on you. Be aware of what seduces you. Be aware when what draws you in also makes you clam up and behave inauthentically.

And even if you decide you want to tell everyone what really happened back then, you have to be realistic and assume those talks won’t go smoothly. You have to stay calm and accept that you didn’t represent yourself accurately before.

Here’s what will make you stronger: Not making a big speech, but tolerating the state of being imperfectly seen and heard. Because when you can tolerate being misunderstood or even iced out, you don’t waste your energy trying to correct things. That leaves you more energy to focus on people who naturally understand you, appreciate you, and want to know more about you. That leaves you more energy to be present and feel relaxed and good without controlling what’s happening around you.

When you’re neutral, respectful, and open, even when you hear bad things that people say about you secondhand, it feels forgivable. After all, you’ve said judgmental shit about people you don’t completely understand, haven’t you?

When you’re hiding yourself and viewing yourself as someone who’s always being judged badly, you have less compassion for other people. You have to be able to set boundaries and say, “This is who I am, and this is what I expect from my friends. These are my standards. I know they’re not shared by everyone, but that’s okay. This is me.” Once you’re clear about your needs and beliefs, that makes it easier to accept when other people have different needs and beliefs from yours.

Do Heat Misers have the luxury of delivering tough messages and confronting what they see as bad behavior and addressing people directly when their actions range from highly questionable to openly shitty? This Heat Miser has the extreme luxury of being able to do these things in writing every week, a luxury that she thanks her lucky overheated exploding stars for each and every day. But this is the dance of the natural-born Heat Miser: Figuring out a way to make fireworks without burning down the whole goddamn world along with them.

Because once we aren’t hiding or afraid anymore (which is good! You’re on your way there now!), we Heat Misers burn indiscriminately and impulsively (which is not always good!). We’re temperamental and it’s easy for us to feel misread (because we so often are!) and also we just can’t help ourselves. We burn things down because we want to stop acting cool and SHOW EVERYONE OUR GORGEOUS FLAMES! But we have to know ourselves, and know that we’re hurting ourselves the most when we burn shit down without thinking it through first. We know very well that we won’t be able to live with it, once the world is made of ash and smoke and it’s all our fault.

So we have to celebrate our power but we also have to be very cautious. For example, this Heat Miser (that’s me!) still needs to read and reread her stickier or more demanding emails very carefully, reforming and reshaping each one into a diplomatic, magnanimous work of art. This Heat Miser cares a lot about teensy-tiny things, and needs to tamp that shit down in order to avoid being seen as deeply unhinged by most regular humans. And this Heat Miser needs to be reminded, every day, to give people the benefit of the doubt, even when, at first glance, they are clearly selfish fucks with no brains in their sad skulls.

You never really felt at home with your roommates, so you hid yourself. That’s okay. Maybe they’re ignorant, racist dummies. So many people are, after all. But at least half of those people really do need someone to say, “Hey, that’s not really how it works.” It doesn’t have to be accusatory. You can take the tack of, “Look, I know your intentions are good, but what you just said is problematic and I need to slow down and explain why, and I need you to really hear me, even if you totally disagree.”

Some people won’t like that at all. They’ll say, “Yuck, I hate this, let’s drop it.” And then the friendship might have to end. That’s okay, too.

If I’m hearing you correctly, this is really less about your old group of friends and acquaintances, and more about how you want to move forward. You’re tired of biting your tongue. You want to be more honest and stop apologizing or backpedaling just to fit in. You don’t want to lean on your partner all the time, and no one else. You want to try to cultivate real intimacy with more people. That’s smart. Confiding in more than one person will make you feel so much less isolated.

Just be gentle with yourself and take your time. Try to occupy a new kind of space: respectful, neutral, open, present. You don’t have to fix anything or disprove anyone. You can just be, and people will see you more clearly than they ever have before. SERIOUSLY, IT’S MAGICAL. When you show up and embrace forgiveness while tolerating the fact that you might be misunderstood or rejected, you not only invite real, lasting connections into your life, but you also feel more gratitude and joy deep down in your Heat Misery bones.

Likewise, when you hide, you snuff out your own brilliance and passion in the process. No wonder it haunts you! You have these smoldering embers inside of you, but they need more oxygen to burst into flames. But don’t try to go from ashes to flamethrower fingertips overnight. For now, be a candle that burns slowly but still lights up the whole room. It doesn’t take that much. Just take a deep breath, and let it burn.

Polly

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Ask Polly: My Ex-Friends Think I’m Selfish and Terrible!