‘I Wish I Had Old Friends!’

By
Photo-Illustration: Stevie Remsberg

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Hi Polly,

Having no childhood or college friends is a special kind of loneliness.

I just turned 30, and I’ve created a pretty incredible life for myself. I have a partner I love, a great job, and I’ve been making a lot of rewarding new friendships over the past few years. The problem is that I don’t have really close childhood friends. Or even college friends. I don’t have that best friend who’s been around for years or decades, and this bothers me more than I think it should.

The oldest friends I have pretty much all date back to the job I had after college. From childhood through college, I was going through a lot and struggling to find myself. I realize now that I had major anger and insecurity issues. I’ve been able to work most of them out since then, but in the process I grew apart from the people I was closest to when I was growing up. (This is largely because I was trying to be someone I’m not for many of those years. Coming into myself meant realizing we weren’t all that compatible.) In college I met a best friend who I truly thought was my platonic soul mate, but we fell out a few years ago. It wasn’t my choice to no longer be friends, but she sent signals that it was hers, so I respected that decision.

As happy as I am in life, I feel lonely without having an absolute best friend who remembers all the random people I’ve dated, who I pulled all nighters with in college, who I go on trips with every year. It’s not that I don’t have friends who date back that far — I do have some, but they’re not the BEST friends I feel like I’m supposed to have had for decades.

I also feel jealous because my friends who are getting married have maids of honor who they’ve been friends with since kindergarten. I worry I either won’t be important enough to make it into their bridal parties or that my bridal party will look weird with so many “recent” friends and not enough long-term ones. I generally feel like new friends really like me, but I’ll never compare to the friends who have been with them through it all. I keep telling myself not to expect to have a BEST friend ever again. Still, it’s hard to feel okay with having a bunch of great friends but no best friend who’s been there from the days I was learning how to use makeup, or who hopped around college bars with me years ago.

I’d really love some reassurance — or some tough love.

A Special Kind of Loneliness

Dear ASKOL,

The feeling you’re describing is loneliness, sure, but it’s also self-consciousness and shame. You’re not concerned merely with having actual, flesh-and-blood best friends in your life, people you’ve known since you were 5, who vacation with you, who are always there for you when you need them. (This is a fantasy that rarely exists in real life, but more on that later.) You also want to be seen as the kind of person who has amazing old friends.

You say, “I worry I either won’t be important enough to make it into their bridal parties, or that my bridal party will look weird with so many ‘recent’ friends and not enough long-term ones.” Also, among your new friends, you’ll “never compare to the friends who have been with them through it all.” The friends you do have are “not the BEST friends I feel like I’m supposed to have had for decades.”

You don’t seem to be talking about actual holes in your life right now that need to be filled. You have a partner, a great job, and plenty of friends. You’re not saying, “I’m alone a lot” or “I can’t relate to the friends I do have.” You’re saying that you want to know that you are valued. You don’t want to feel like you’re the same angry, insecure mess who couldn’t hold on to friendships years ago. You don’t want to look that way to other people. You don’t want to be haunted by the feeling that you’re always on the outside, always less important, always barely seen, or as Shirley Jackson put it once, “always just the teensiest bit in the way.”

So this is not just a matter of “INSERT BEST FRIEND HERE AND FIX EVERYTHING.” Even if it were possible to travel back in time and have deeper, richer friendships that didn’t explode spectacularly once both people grew up, got pushier, fell in love, felt disappointed in each other, needed more, needed less, it wouldn’t change this overriding story you have about yourself. Even if a friend called you every day, traveled with you, was always available to you, looked pretty in the wedding photos, and was there for birthdays and weddings and the christening of your first kid, I can tell you right now that you’d still be haunted by this “I am not quite enough” feeling.

That feeling is shame. It’s a feeling that starts in your childhood home, typically. It’s formed by your earliest experiences, and it informs everything you do and think and feel, all day long, everywhere you go. Those of us who were too angry and insecure to negotiate friendships well when we were young weren’t taught to negotiate relationships in general, and didn’t have any working models of calm, sane communication under duress. In my family, if something you were feeling was important enough to say to someone else (you weren’t supposed to express most feelings), the only way you could do it was by yelling it, sandwiched in between the words ridiculous and son of a bitch.

This meant that when I started making friends, I never asked for what I wanted (I figured people only like you when you smile and play along; that’s how it was in my family, after all). I choked down my feelings and acted breezy and tough. And then, when I couldn’t play the Perfect Friend anymore, I lost my shit, usually by laying out a meticulous map of all the ways said friend had failed me. Once I decided someone was DISAPPOINTING, I had trouble backing up and reexamining the evidence against that person with a clear mind. I liked to think of myself as open-minded and self-aware, and maybe I was in some ways, but I was too insecure and guided by shame to stop and ask myself whether or not I was the cause of a lot of my problems.

My shame protected me from the truth, which was too much to bear. The truth was I was someone who had a lot of anger onboard and had never really learned how to use words correctly. I’m still like this sometimes. Occasionally I write confrontational emails, and just because I manage to sidestep the words ridiculous and son of a bitch, I believe that I am engaging in the highest level of self-sacrificing diplomacy.

It’s hard to admit that about myself. It’s embarrassing. But you can’t be ashamed of your shame! When you grow up with other people who are full of shame, shame is the air you breathe. Shame means you can’t have calm conversations about feelings and misunderstandings. Shame makes your angry reactions even angrier. But shame also makes it very hard to be completely present.

This is the part that I want you to notice the most right now. Say you’re hanging out, having an amazing afternoon lunch with two of your closest new friends. One friend turns to the other friend and they share a joke that you can’t quite hear. Instead of looking around at the brilliant blue sky and delighting in the joy of relaxing with your buddies, what do you do? I’ll bet you slip into a deep, dark hole, as some voice in your head tells you that you are not like these women, you are not good enough, you are broken somehow, you are always just the teensiest bit in the way, and there is nothing you can do to fix it.

I want you to listen to your shame. I want you to notice how often it interrupts otherwise-great moments. I want you to notice how it makes you anxious about your future wedding. I want you to pay special attention to times when you’re imagining seeming “weird” to other people. I’ll bet you assume that you seem weird to other people often. I’m guessing that you move through the world with a disastrously inaccurate view of how other people perceive you. You believe that you are small, almost invisible. You believe that you cannot possibly matter to any friend, not really. You like to imagine that this feeling would not exist with friends you had known since you were 5. But not only do siblings and parents and childhood friends often kick up even more shame than new friends (because old friends knew you when you were younger and more confused and angrier!), but this feeling is part of your onboard navigation system. It’s ruling your perceptions. And it’s preventing you from showing up for the people you know right now.

I’m not that concerned about your lack of old friendships, and you shouldn’t be, either. Few people have incredible old friendships. Friends might look great at a special event (“Gather your 12 besties and throw a bouquet into the air while they all laugh photogenically in unison!”). But taking that seriously is like believing that a male stripper is a cop because he’s wearing a badge. Many people don’t meet or aren’t capable of making great friends until they’re in their 30s. That’s not an aberration at all. And even when people have good friends, those friendships can change unexpectedly. None of these common aspects of life in the real world with real people should be cause for feeling like a lonely weirdo.

What I’m really trying to say is that nothing makes you feel lonelier in this world than the conviction that you’re a lonely weirdo whose life isn’t as amazing as other people’s lives. I want you to correct your perception on that front. That’s your shame talking. Shame makes everything terrible, and once you fight that shame, even bad experiences are more tolerable.

You have to learn how to accept who you are, right now, and trust yourself. But you also have to be alert for messages that seem to come from your heart but actually come from your shame. This past week, I sent two very wordy emails that I thought were just me taking a stand for justice in the world, in order to benefit all of humanity! But they were actually just me being a high-strung dick. Here’s how it started: I felt incredibly angry. My anger was legitimate and understandable! But my anger kicked up a ton of shame, as it did when I was younger. When I was younger, anger meant you were bad. So anger brought out my insecurity, and my insecurity said, “You feel angry, and the only way to stop feeling angry is by convincing someone else that your anger is completely understandable and reasonable and fair, ideally via a vehement, detailed, lengthy email!”

I’m telling you this because it’s embarrassing; I’m old and should know better. I want you to see how my sending angry emails and your worrying about seeming weird and friendless at your wedding are both by-products of our assuming that we’re smaller than we really are. I want you to see how shame can fuel all your worst impulses. I want you to notice how shame makes you anxious about all the good things in your life: A new friendship is just a new way to feel inferior; a wedding is just a chance to look pathetic and friendless. You need to turn a corner and be done with this very outdated way of experiencing yourself. You need to eradicate a lot of that shame from your life.

Sadly, that involves not only looking directly at how ashamed and insecure you still are but also maybe eating some crow. Are there old friendships you ended that you regret? Do you see ways in which you push people away out of self-protective pride or embarrassment? Do you notice how you sometimes hesitate to call your closest friends, because you figure they’re busier than you or have closer friends to lean on? You have to stop writing yourself a limited, compromised story, simply because daring to care a lot about what you have now, and what you might have in the future, makes you anxious and insecure. You have to be brave and make a commitment to showing up and allowing yourself to truly be seen and believing that you are enough.

Once you get your shame under control, you’ll be more open and your friendships will feel more real. You’ll trust in your connection to your friends partially because you’ll feel that connection in the moment. You’ll also be present enough to say things like “I’m glad we’re friends” and “I miss you” and really feel them instead of just trying to make the right sounds.

Right now you actually have enough, but you’re not satisfied with it because you can’t feel it enough. You want the reassurance and also the built-in approval of a very best friend. You feel like your past issues and your damage are the only reason you don’t have one. Let go of that. Forgive yourself for the years you were a mess. Celebrate who you are right now, in all your flaws. Be a better friend to yourself. Stop fixating on what you don’t have. Slow down and relish what you have, with all your heart. The more you do that, the more joy will pour into your life from every direction, like magic. Soon, you’ll be too satisfied to remember to ask yourself what’s still missing.

Polly

Order the Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘I Wish I Had Old Friends!’