ask polly

‘My Friendships Make Me Sad’

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Dear Polly,

I’m an introvert who works from home, so I don’t meet people often and it isn’t easy for me to make new friends. I’ve lived in the same city long enough that over many years I’ve developed a wonderful, diverse group of people I love. I most love my one-on-one interactions, but occasionally I consciously introduce two friends if I think they’ll hit it off (or even get married, which has happened!).

But there’s a problem lately. I don’t know if it’s something specific to my friends, or a societal shift, or just my issue, but my friends are befriending each other through social media, and they’re forming friendships independently of an introduction from me. It’s made me feel isolated and used.

Objectively, I know people sometimes make friends with each other’s friends. It’s natural! It’s part of why people go to book clubs and parties — they get out to meet people. But subjectively, the way this is happening feels abusive — I feel left behind as a friend in the process. I can’t help but notice how my friends put forth a lot of effort to find and befriend each other and find ways to meet up, while there’s simultaneously a lack of effort to maintain our friendship — the friendship of origin.

Many of these friends are new parents, and I sense they only want to socialize with other parents. I have a friend who frequently talks about being a mom as a blanket positive quality like, “And she’s great because she’s a mom.” That’s not wonderful to hear as someone without kids, because I don’t believe that’s a strike against me, but these friends maybe think it is. You’ve written about friendships shifting through parenthood, and I understand parenting is hard and requires a sense of community. I’m at that age where most of my friends have kids, and I don’t have them, so I don’t get invited to things like weekly playdates or mom nights now being organized among my friends. They justify their behavior as being about their families, but it hurts to be excluded consistently.

When these friends seem to “show up,” it feels like they come to group events only because they’ll get the opportunity to see my other friends. It doesn’t feel like they’re there to support me or be a part of my life. I try to be present for them. I reach out when it seems like they’re struggling, or just to check in and listen. I try to be the same friend I’ve always been, but they’re definitely not the friends they used to be. It feels uneven, and it’s exhausting. It’s also ubiquitous. I can’t log into Instagram anymore without seeing something that makes me feel awful.

I’ve tried bringing it up with the friends who I thought would be most concerned our friendship was suffering — the friends who I thought would care that I was hurting. But paraphrasing the response of one of my friends: She doesn’t think it’s an issue. She’s sorry I feel hurt she hangs out so much with my other friends, but that’s my problem not hers, basically. This past weekend, I got a text message from a different friend telling me she “might have a few friends over” to celebrate her birthday. I went to celebrate her, throwing together a gift on short notice. As I arrived at their house, I recognized the car of my oldest friend. Walking into the house, there were about 40 people there, presents, and cake — it was a party. A party I did not feel invited to. A party I felt included in only as an afterthought.

I feel terrible about my friendships, but I can’t seem to avoid the trigger. They still comment publicly on my social media, and post public Instagram stories about me (and 100x more about each other). They’re performing like we’re friends, without actually connecting with me or caring how they make me feel, even when told outright, and without trying to know anything about my life other than what’s on social media (which I use for business and therefore isn’t a foundation of a friendship).

I’ve stopped throwing parties, stopped socially celebrating my own good reasons to celebrate, essentially stopped posting to social media to the detriment of my self-employment, and I’ve gone into isolation because of how sad my friendships make me. I think I deserve better, but I don’t know what that even looks like at this point besides no friends. No friends might be better. Is adulthood just total loneliness and an inability to depend on others? Is it me? I can’t take it anymore, and I don’t know what to do about being cut out of a friend group I apparently created. What would you do, Polly?

P.S. Sorry this is long. Maybe my friends don’t give a shit about me because I’m long-winded.

Isolation Mode

Dear Isolation Mode,

Most of the advice I give is premised on the notion that our culture is broken, therefore the people in it are broken, so you can’t take your cues from the culture or even from many of the people around you. That doesn’t mean you should give up on human connection. It just means that in order to thrive, you have to understand exactly who you are, understand what you care about, and figure out your own unique road map for navigating this reductive, callous, punitive world of ours.

When you’re dating, you have to block out the world and its bad noises: Don’t ask people you just started dating for feedback, don’t use bad dates as proof that there’s something wrong with you, and know in your heart that you’re good the way you are. When you’re pursuing a career, you have to trust your instincts: Don’t take cues from people who aren’t happy with their careers, and don’t let anyone tell you which career path you should pursue. When you’re struggling in general, you have to ignore our culture’s fixation on crossing an imaginary finish line that will magically make you happy, and figure out what you enjoy in the present instead.

In all of these areas, drawing your own roadmap is usually the best approach. In fact, there are very few areas of my life where I haven’t gained a lot from shutting out the world and reinventing the wheel based on my own twisted desires, whims, grudges, and bursts of inspiration.

The only exception is friendship.

Friendship has always been my biggest challenge, compared to other people. I haven’t been able to admit this until recently, because it’s pretty embarrassing. I’ve always had lots of friends, but I’ve felt more conflicted and tortured by my friendships than most people I know. I’ve always had sky-high expectations of my friends, and I’m unnerved by situations where friends disappoint me. I’ve always had verrrrry strong feelings about How Friends Should Be. I’ve always been outspoken about those feelings. I’ve often confronted friends directly about my disappointments (notice I didn’t say “what I want from them”; more like “what I wanted from them, before they let me down”). I also have a long track record of talking massive amounts of shit about my friends to other friends, marveling at what self-centered motherfuckers they could be, marveling that anyone as calm and sane and kind as me could land such obviously dysfunctional lunatics. I spent years believing that I was someone who naturally catered to narcissists. And I spent a few years believing that lots of people were emotional vampires.

I don’t feel that way anymore. Even though I look back at my career and I think, “Whoa, trusting my gut and following my inspiration sure paid off,” even though I look back at my love life and think, “The second I decided to be more assertive about what I needed emotionally, even when it was out of step with How a Woman Should Be, everything got so much easier.” But with friendships it’s different. When I trusted my heart, my heart often steered me wrong. I was so oversensitive and so easily hurt and my expectations of friendships were so absurdly high that I did myself a disservice by not slowing my roll and listening to other people’s opinions about what I could and couldn’t expect from my friends.

I wanted too much. And the closer a friend was, the more I demanded. If I had been very direct about this from the beginning — “Hey, what if we plan a weekly Taco Night?” “What if we meet once a month for coffee?” “Listen, I’d love to come to some of your kids’ playdates with you at the park because I’m trying to get out of my apartment more often” — I don’t think I would’ve had as much trouble with friendships. But I never knew what I wanted until it was too late.

This was true because one of my core beliefs was that a good friend didn’t ask for things. A good friend didn’t need a lot. Being a good friend meant being totally self-sufficient, yet completely loyal and devoted. A good friend would drop everything for another friend whenever needed, but a good friend would never, ever expect another friend to do the same in return.

In other words, I had this nonsensical, subconscious belief that I deserved nothing and that everyone else deserved everything under the sun. And when I couldn’t meet these requirements, I WOULD HAVE ZERO FRIENDS. I didn’t believe this consciously, of course, but these were the unconscious feelings that guided my actions. And once the shit hit the fan with a friend? That friend was practically dead to me before we even had a chance to talk it over. I would feel so hurt and angry, so sure that I would’ve never treated anyone the way they treated me, that by the time we talked, there was nothing left to discuss. I would assassinate my friend’s character instead. “You always x. You never y. I’m honestly done with you.” I became the rejecting, abandoning friend of my own worst fears.

And if my friend talked the same way back to me — which often happens, since we tend to choose friends who are about as dysfunctional as we are — that friend was declared “crazy.” Then I’d talk shit to other friends about how crazy my friend was. I felt gaslit all the time by certain friends, without knowing that I was gaslighting them back.

I doubt that you’re nearly as disordered and blaming and intense as I’ve been with friends over the course of my life. I just want you to understand that it’s possible to be high-functioning in your career and in love, but with friendships, you never have a clear sense of what to think or how to feel. And it is EXCEEDINGLY DIFFICULT to figure it out when you’re bad at friendship. Because people don’t talk about friendship troubles enough, and you CAN’T just “trust your instincts” when your instincts aren’t good.

So listen. I don’t think you’re a mess of a person in general. But I do think that you have bad instincts when it comes to friendship.

Now why would I write those words, when you so clearly deserve my empathy in this moment? (And yes, I do empathize!) Because I want you to understand that friendship is absurdly complicated and taxing. It’s difficult in part because people usually disagree about what friends should expect from each other. You can ask someone, “Hey, is this workplace behavior okay?” or “Should my boyfriend act this way?” and most people will give you the same answer. But with friendship, there’s less consensus.

Nevertheless, when you talk about friendship troubles, the majority of people will mostly just tell you to chill the fuck out. When you’re hurting, that response sucks a lot, but that’s how we treat friendship in our culture: like it’s something that should never require any hard work. You’re not supposed to get upset about it. Is our culture’s perspective on friendship broken? Probably. Social media can break anything! Are your friends being insensitive shitheads? Sure, they are. A few of them have clearly decided that you’re too sensitive, and they don’t want to deal with you or talk to you about it. That’s seriously upsetting. But I don’t think ditching all of these friends and making new ones will feel good or solve your underlying problem.

To sum up your friends’ needs by saying that parenting “is hard and requires a sense of community” is to miss the dissatisfying social bubble they’re living in entirely. Generally speaking, parents of young kids can rarely go out and do fun shit at night like regular people. They can’t even be spontaneous, casually dropping everything to meet a friend for a sandwich on any given day. They have small, needy humans around constantly, so they need other adults who have small, needy humans attached to their bodies, because who else would tolerate them? They need these people to come to the park, or to the Gymboree, or to some other purgatorial location. Do you know how many good conversations unfold there or at these parties you are barely invited to? It is very hard to connect and have fun when you’re getting interrupted to wipe shit off someone’s butt every few minutes. Don’t underestimate how desperate these people are, no matter how they look from the outside.

That doesn’t mean they aren’t being sloppy and insensitive, and having kids doesn’t give them a license to act that way. But I still want you to trust me when I tell you that these parent friends don’t see it as a liability that you have no mini-me of your own. They’re just starving for a good time, and they figure you’re already having one, and even if you aren’t, you don’t necessarily want to sit around watching people wipe shit off small asses. If they’re wrong about that, you should tell them — just know that they’re in the middle of an unprecedented crisis that’s not going to stop anytime soon. They’re happier than you think and less happy than you think and more satisfied than you think and more desperate than you think. All of these things can be true at the same time.

I’m not saying never expect anything from friends with small children. Your one friend who invited you at the last minute seems pretty careless and callous. I would just think carefully about what’s best for you there, considering the other friends in the mix. Rather than making a sweeping pronouncement about your friendship, I would mute her on social media now and consider the bigger picture when you’re less upset later. I don’t care about protecting her feelings, I care about protecting yours: Cutting her out of your life in a dramatic way might only make you feel more isolated.

I would also avoid seeing her as an accurate indication of how your other friends feel about you. Most new-parent friends are going to be a wreck for a while even if they love you more than anyone. It’s not a function of how much they care. Right now, one of my best friends hasn’t been to my house in three years, and I only live a few miles away. I invite her over constantly. She has me over occasionally, but mostly we meet for lunch once in a blue moon. She has two kids under the age of 6. We’ve known each other for 36 years. Thirty. Six. Years. We had lunch for the first time in months about a week ago, and we both started with low-key but intense bickering, and then we advanced into sobbing. Both of us sobbing. We both felt misunderstood within the first five minutes of lunch.

I sat there thinking, for a solid half-hour, “This woman has lost her mind. She has flat out lost her fucking mind.” But I took deep breaths. She did, too. We talked it out. It took a long time. It was ROUGH. Like if you were there, you would think we were both losing it.

While we were having coffee after lunch, she told me she cared about our friendship a lot, but she sometimes felt like I didn’t believe that. I had to dig deep and admit that, when I’m under some stress, I sometimes revert to a state of not believing that anyone cares about me, outside of my family. I also have some core belief that people are disappointing. I probably inherited this from my parents. It was something they stated out loud, explicitly, over and over again: People will disappoint you. My parents didn’t mean to hand me this shitty belief. They weren’t trying to be dicks. That’s just how they saw the world.

But I’ve guided my friendships onto the rocks over and over because of that core philosophy that I inherited. And I have to guess, based on what you wrote, that you have something similar going on that’s bigger than just a series of disappointments with friends. I think you have a problem with trust and a core philosophy that people can’t be trusted to keep loving you and caring about you over time. Because some of the things you say about your friends feel out of proportion to their crimes and out of sync with how most people live. Only a person who feels undervalued in general would call casual slights “abusive” or use the term “friendship of origin.” Most people don’t keep track of the origins of their friendships on a big branching Friendship Tree. I think if you examined your own friendships, it would take you some effort to realize that you met some friends through other friends who you don’t know anymore. And no matter what you say about how chill you feel about friends meeting friends, you have a problem with it from the first minute they meet, because you immediately worry that they’ll drop you. You have to be honest with yourself and recognize that it doesn’t matter whether they meet at your party, or they meet on social media, or they meet without an introduction, or they’re incredibly polite about the whole thing every step of the way. You don’t like it no matter what.

I would also ask you to monitor how you feel when you’re hanging out with two or three other friends. Because I’m just going to guess that you feel left out and ignored a lot. I’m going to guess that this feeling started when you were very small. There’s a reigning story out there about how introverts often feel this way, but I’m here to tell you that I’m a card-carrying extrovert and I’ve always felt that way, too. I have been sure, from a young age, that I needed to be alone with a friend in order to really talk to them and trust that they cared. Groups would always abandon me or turn against me.

My theory is that this starts with dysfunctional family dynamics. In my family, the whole group always turned against an individual — to place blame, and also for fun. Oh my God, that’s brutal, but it’s true! You could only get support if you were alone with someone. When you were back in the group, that individual might turn on you, too, depending how the rest of the group felt. It was like being raised by a pack of wolves.

Personally, I’ll always prefer one-on-one interactions to groups for this reason and others. But it’s helped me a lot to understand my strange sensitivity to groups because it helps me to avoid taking bad social-media behaviors and bad text chains and other inherently pesky group dynamics personally.

The way you misconstrued your friend (who wants to meet other mothers) as viewing your lack of a child as “a strike against you” suggests that you take your friends’ words very personally, even when they’re not talking about you at all. You also feel that they go to your events just to see each other. I used to believe that about my friends, too, but as with you, it was just a feeling I had, a feeling that coincidentally matched other feelings I’d had about other friends since I was in preschool. You also say that Instagram makes you feel awful, further proof that your friends are unfair. But my feeling is that the people who are super, extra, hypersensitive to the built-in bragging and slights of Instagram are often people who grew up the way you and I did: It’s easy for us to feel left out. It’s easy for us to feel insecure about how supported and cared for we really are. These feelings are exacerbated by the isolation of working from home.

There are more layers to this, but let’s land here instead: Yes, the world is callous. Yes, friendships are these weirdly intimate, vital, deeply rewarding relationships that most people don’t treat with nearly enough care. Personally, I think that good, close, lifelong friends should either see a therapist together occasionally, or accept that with so much shared history and so many easy-to-reach triggers and projections, a very difficult and intense conversation will need to happen once in a while. And when you get older, most people do eventually give in and start handling their closest friends more like siblings: We are committed to each other, loyal to each other, and very tolerant of each other, in spite of a lot of rocky shared history.

Even talking about friendship in such serious terms is unusual in our culture. Like I said, I’m out of step and I care a lot about friends. Too much, maybe. But everything has shifted for me over the past few years, and now that I finally feel relaxed and happy about my friendships, I want to spare you some of my pain. I hear you and I empathize so much, but that’s not enough in this case. I want to strongly urge you to take some time to interrogate your assumptions — your deep, intensely painful assumptions — about how much of a misfit you are and how much you matter to other people. I want you to question the accuracy of what you feel when you’re around your friends. I want you to doubt your instincts. I almost never write those words. But I feel like you’re working with an outdated, incorrect map drawn by your shame right now, and it’s a map that’s going to lead you to even more pain if you keep using it.

Don’t cut yourself off. Don’t choose NO FRIENDS. Yes, I know it’s hard. But it’s harder to isolate yourself further. You’re going to have to work very assiduously to make new friends without kids, and you’re going to have to work even harder to accept and tolerate the “shitty” old friends who have kids. They’re not being fake by showing up on your social media. They’re playing it cool, refusing to take what you’re saying to them personally, and hoping that you’ll figure out how to let these things roll off your back more easily.

That probably feels unfair of them. And I know it’s impossibly hard to hear what I’m telling you. Back when I was struggling with my friendships, my response would’ve been FUCK OFF. I WANT REAL FRIENDS. A part of that feeling is good for you. You do deserve real friends, without a doubt. I’m not saying these friends aren’t disappointing and selfish, either. But I am saying that they aren’t necessarily toxic. They don’t sound like users or emotional vampires. And they might very well care about you a whole hell of a lot.

You’re sometimes hard to love, because you don’t believe that you deserve love. It makes me cry to write that, because I’ve heard it from other people before, too. I’m not trying to hurt you. I’m trying to make you examine your projections and fears and anxieties a little more. You work from home, like me. You handle a lot of big challenges by drawing a line in the sand and isolating yourself. That’s how you take control, and you probably did it as a kid, too. You follow your own compass. I applaud that. I do that, too. But this is one area where you need to learn how to compromise and reconnect and be vulnerable and admit that you’re scared and sad and desperate.

You will have friends who are more like you some day. I’m living proof that long-winded, oversensitive, intense people can thrive in the world by being exactly who they are. But honestly? You’re not ready for friends who are as intense and long-winded and sensitive as you are yet. Because friends like that are going to get hurt easily, too. They’re going to want a lot from you, too — more than your current friends do. And that’s going to be just as hard for you as it is for your friends right now. It might even be harder. I know you don’t believe that, but it’s true.

Lots of people in the comments section will tell you “Fuck that, ditch those selfish assholes and make better friends!” And I agree with that in cases where you truly feel like you’re treated with contempt or disdain. But I don’t see mean-spirited behavior in most of your examples, even from the friend who wasn’t that kind to you when you talked it over. There’s water under that bridge, and it’s going to take a much longer, more patient talk to get to the heart of what went wrong.

You have a lot to gain from opening your heart wider right now. You have some growing to do. You can be hard to love, but you deserve love. You have a big, sensitive, generous heart, and you deserve friends who care.

You might already have some, though. Put your anger aside and look a little closer.


Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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‘My Friendships Make Me Sad’