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Heavy Meddle: Is There A Right Way To Let Go Of Lifelong Friends?

(ruths138/flickr)
(ruths138/flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to email. Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,

Steve

Dear Steve,

I am currently getting treatment for depression, and it’s going really well. I'm 25-years-old, and I have a good job, a great therapist, and I have started maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

A lot of what I am learning in therapy is that I am "other-centered.” Not in a nice, oh-I'm-so-selfless way (though I am also that), but in a my-self-esteem-is-so-low-that-I'll-put-everyone-else-first way. Need an example? When my boyfriend cheated on me last summer, my first thought was, Oh my God! He must feel so bad and be so devastated! Now, I am on an incredible journey of feeling really unapologetic and taking good care of myself. I know this will be a life-long thing, but right now, I feel pretty good.

As I'm beginning to love and take care of myself, I'm realizing that a lot of my friends would probably love it if something bad happened to me, so that they could be better than me. When I got my current job, which I needed desperately, my friend who was also job hunting had absolutely nothing nice to say.

I grew up poor with parents who fought about money and their future together, so I was a poor and humble kid at a rich kid high school. I was and always have been very well-liked and funny. (A typical secretly depressed person.) My friends always let me come over when my parents fought. I honestly think some of them like me better when I'm broken, because it makes them feel less so. I have also loved them and supported them and put my own stuff on pause for them a thousand times and then some.

My therapist says that just acknowledging this — that there are people in my life who don't want what’s best for me, and that I am not catering to them anymore — is enough. I guess what I'm asking you is how to handle it. Do I need to say anything? Can I slowly drift apart from some people I considered lifelong friends? I find myself not even wanting to talk to them anymore. Does there need to be any kind of ceremonial cutting of the friendship-umbilical, or should I just carry on with my life and seek cooler folks to laugh and live with?

Sincerely,

My Friends Are [Expletive]

PHOTO

Dear MFA[E],

Let’s start with what is by far the most important development here: You are successfully treating your depression! You’re taking charge of your mental health in a way that sounds clear-eyed and humble. Bravo.

You seem quite insightful about the basic dynamics of your own life. When you were younger, you felt so bad about yourself and so eager to escape the strife of your home that you fell into a pattern of devaluing yourself. Unfortunately, as you’re learning, some of your friends liked you better in that unhappy and dependent state. Or, to put it more precisely, they disliked themselves a bit less.

I’ve been in this kind of friendship before — both as the strong and weak friend. They tend to be constructed on a foundation of mutual weaknesses: fear, self-doubt, loneliness. They can offer a certain kind of security. But the price is often psychological and emotional stasis. It’s not just that misery loves company; it's that it can morph into resentment when it feels abandoned.

To answer your question bluntly: You do not need to perform any sort of special ceremony to bid farewell to toxic friendships. Actions speak louder than words, anyway. Find friends who can celebrate your happiness and success rather than resenting it. That’s what you need to hold on to here — that your own feelings of self-worth are essential to your well-being.

It’s not just that misery loves company; it's that it can morph into resentment when it feels abandoned.

It’s also true, though, that patience and forgiveness will serve you better than acrimony. And who knows? Some of those old friends may be more compassionate than you realize. In time, they may come to respect the new, stronger you.

All we can say for sure is that this is not going to happen if you continue to allow them to treat you poorly.

Having said all this, it’s important to acknowledge that letting go of long-time friends is painful and scary. If you are going to perform any kind of ceremony, I’d focus on one that allows you to grieve a little bit for those friends you may have to leave behind. Make peace with the idea that your weakness, in some sense, helped them hide from their own.

There’s no reason to slam the door on these folks, or even to avoid their phone calls. But it does mean that you should devote your energies to pursuing new relationships — or rebuilding old ones so that they revolve around love and support.

Good luck!

Steve

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

Steve Almond is the author of the book "Against Football." He is the co-host, with Cheryl Strayed, of the WBUR podcast, Dear Sugar.

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