Friendships are a gold mine of paradox. Can you give selflessly while also protecting yourself from people who take advantage of you? Is a friendship in which every conversation and coffee date revolves around the other party a true friendship? Should there be a limit to the number of times you let your friend use you as a mule to carry her baggage at the expense of your own well-being before you set down the load and say Enough?
I’ve been thinking a lot about these questions thanks to an email from my best friend in which she asked me how I know when it is time to step back from or completely end a friendship. She needs to do some relationship-pruning, but being the self-sacrificing, chance-giving, reflective soul that she is, she wants to make sure that she is doing the best thing.
In the interest of authenticity, I must admit that I am by no means an expert in boundary-setting. I have been known to give fourth, fifth, and sixth chances to complete scoundrels. I have also been known to put my mental health and well-being at risk for people who, while not necessarily miscreants, are self-centered users who take advantage of me without remorse or true appreciation. And usually they get 10s of chances, too. The friendships involving those who make up the latter group are the ones I want to write about today. I’m saving the topic of scoundrels for Friday.
I believe in the general goodness of most humans, including the self-involved users that exhaust my precious resources of time and mental energy as I attempt to be the best friend I know how to be to them. For the most part, I chalk those narcissistic tendencies up to immaturity rather than a desire to actually cause harm to me. But friendships with people of this sort can be harmful nonetheless.
As I continue my attempts to let go of less-than-healthy relationships and focus instead on building up ones of mutual give-and-take, I realize my unhealthy friendships share some common attributes:
1) The relationship no longer brings joy to me. Rather, I feel dread and apprehension when I know I will have to engage with the person in question.
2) I feel stifled and unable to be myself. I feel as though I am on my guard all the time. When I do attempt to be honest, I feel disrespected and silenced.
3) The friendship is perpetually focused on them. While we all have times in our lives when we need to lean heavily on our friends and have nothing to give in return, there is little to no reciprocity in a friendship with a user.
4) My relationships with friendship-users leaves me exhausted, physically and mentally, and unable to focus on my time or energy on what is important in my own life.
5) I feel used. They appear in my life when they need something and disappear when I no longer can or will provide what they desire. When they find someone else to use, they move on from our relationship until that person tires of them and then they come back to me profusely apologetic (and thereby getting more chances) but ultimately unchanged.
I am learning to change the parameters of a relationship when these characteristics are consistently present. Sometimes this means stepping away from the friendship for the sake of my own well-being When I do have to step away from friendship-users, I often leave the door to my heart open a tiny crack and hope to hear their knock again someday when they have grown a bit more.
At the end of the day, I am just trying to navigate my way through relationships the best I currently know how. I am realizing that I truly do teach others how to treat me, and sometimes I need to change the lesson plan.
How do you know when it is time to distance yourself from a friendship?