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The Vine: May 2, 2012

Submitted by on May 2, 2012 – 12:47 PM21 Comments

This might be a "friendships have a lifespan" question, but it seems a little more complicated than that, and I could use some perspective.

"C" and I have been friends since college. She is a year younger than me, and we're both musicians, and we both play the same instrument. C has also been fighting an ongoing battle with cancer for years, even before I knew her. She is currently in remission, but it has been the type of disease that pops up again when she is least expecting it. I tried to be there for her as much as possible. She's a fighter, and has done remarkably well in all areas of her life in spite of major hurdles (the cancer is only one, and doesn't include family issues, religion/sexual-identity issues, etc).

C has been a wonderful friend to me in most ways. I went through some tough times: my mother got cancer three times (she is okay, thank heaven), my relationship of five years collapsed, I lost a job. She was there through it all, talking with me on the phone, knowing exactly the right things to say, visiting me, cheering me up. Sometimes I even thought we had some sort of weird psychic connection, because she'd always call uncannily soon after something major happened in my life. She, and many other close friends, even took a special trip to see me run my first marathon, flying hundreds of miles just to be there for me on the big day. I really love her a lot, and because of this closeness, it makes it much harder to address the things that are wrong.

The only way to describe my feelings after a visit with C, in spite of all the above, is this way: I feel worthless. Since we've met, she's always been one step ahead of me in every way. It might seem at first that my discomfort has to do with jealousy, or resentfulness that she's succeeded where I haven't yet, but I'm…not sure that's true in this case. For one thing, I am succeeding, though I'm taking a slightly different path (I specialize in a different musical field than she, though we play the same instrument). I also have many other very successful friends in the same field, and they don't make me feel this way at all.

Let me be more specific: whenever she visits, she talks about her current accomplishment or career issues CONSTANTLY. There was literally no point in 24 hours during her last visit during which she wasn't talking/asking advice about her new job. Then, when she met my friends and boyfriend, she proceeded to talk about it more, rehashing the same things she told me. She has a very magnetic personality, and most people are understandably awestruck by her. Somehow, during these group conversations — and I don't even know how to explain this in writing — I start to feel very small. She told my roommate about a very degrading name a boy called me in college that I hadn't thought about for years. My friends, who never act this way when she's not here, suddenly make little jokes at my expense, bringing up things from my past or poking at a part of my personality, all in a friendly, "nothing serious, just having fun," kind of way. Even my mother wrote an email to her friend saying how much less "picky" my friend C is than myself, and look at all the exciting things she has done while I have not!

Sars, when I re-read what I wrote, I look like a jealous, underachieving, over-sensitive little whiner. What I'd like to address is that I DO feel like that when I spend a lot of time with her. All the negative parts of my personality, all my insecurities, come out. I feel like a failure, and I feel like the worst version of myself.

Since that last visit 6 months ago, I distanced myself from her. I stopped looking at her Facebook page or following what she was doing. I haven't called her. There's been virtually no contact at all. I hadn't been feeling insecure, my career was going well, I didn't worry what other people thought about me…basically, I just felt like a normal person living life and enjoying it.

She emailed me the other day and asked if I wanted to catch up, maybe take a trip together with one of our mutual friends from college.

What do I do? Eventually she, or someone else, will ask what's wrong. Then I'll have to tell her what I'm telling you, which she might just perceive as, "L is too insecure to be my friend." But that's NOT me, at least it's not me in normal life. Maybe it's just me around her. Or would she be right? Is there something wrong with me, some issue I have to address that doesn't actually have to do with her? Should I suck it up and try to push down those feelings, because of all the other great things about her and the wonderful things she's done for me? Am I being immature? Oversensitive? Or could she really be subtly trying to compete with me and push my buttons, even subconsciously?

She's a good person. She's had a crazy difficult life. She deserves good things. I'm just not sure I can do this anymore.

Any insight would be wonderful.

Tired Of Analyzing It, Already

Dear Tired,

This is actually pretty simple, I think. C is a good person, as you say, who has had a crazy difficult life. She's also a self-absorbed conversation hog who isn't above passive-aggressive putdowns to get "in" with the group at your expense. She's also a loyal, helpful friend who's attuned to you in certain unique ways.

The friendship could in fact have reached the end of its natural lifespan, but it's more likely that it's your patience that's at an end — but you haven't pushed back on some of C's ickier behavior, because you feel guilty about thinking she's being an attention whore who should shut the fuck up with the hurtful-nickname dredging project. Because she had cancer! And you don't have the right to think she's acting a fool!

Well, of course you do. You can think whatever you want, and you do have the right to steer the subject to Not C after an hour or so; you should start doing that. You have the right to tell her that she may think that nickname is funny, but you found it hurtful then, and you find it hurtful that she'd bring it up at your expense now. You have the right to let her know that, while you love her and you appreciate her friendship, some of her behavior makes you feel like shit — because that's how it is with friends. People are complicated. Fiercely loyal, hypocritical, hardworking, tardy, brave, nurturing, snotty about feminism, hilarious, and a vulgarian: this is one person I know, and I keep knowing her, even though sometimes there's yelling, because she's awesome and I love her. That's the aw/argh beauty of friends, really; the mutual understanding of imperfection. You did the right thing taking a break, I'd say, but nothing really changed because nothing really happened, and what probably has to happen is that you have to get annoyed, out loud, and trust the friendship to survive it. And if it's worth keeping, it does. Comes out stronger, in fact.

What you do in the short term, vis-à-vis C's email: say you'd love to catch up; don't respond about the trip, but if it comes up, you don't think you can make work with your schedule. And when it's time to chat on the phone or whatever, mention the nickname thing, explain that it bothered you, resist the urge to apologize for getting annoyed, accept her apology, and try to move on.

If you want to move on, that is. You don't have to want that. But if you don't want to lose the friendship, you get into a headspace where you accept that 1) various interpersonal habits of hers ("dick tics," as we call them at Far Thill) give you an emotional blister from time to time, but it doesn't make her a bad friend overall, necessarily; and 2) not liking these habits and expressing that fact doesn't make you a bad friend either.

Nobody's perfect. Try to let that fact build trust within the friendship.

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  • MinglesMommy says:

    The one thing I didn't see in Tired's post (unless I missed it) was whether or not she's ever actually talked to C about the issue. You can come out and say, "I love you, but this is really bothering me," without coming across (or actually being!) the "person who is too insecure to be a friend."

    If she doesn't realize she's doing this, she doesn't know it's hurting you and doesn't know to stop. (Especially if she is on the self-centered side – although it sounds like she's made an effort to be there for you, which is positive!) If she really is a good friend, she may be hurt, but she'll be willing to step back and think about it and adjust herself. If not… well, as you said, sometimes friendships do have a life span!

  • Georgia says:

    What Sars said. Re: C hogging the conversation — if it's happening when you're out with friends, start a conversation with someone else in the group. I don't mean you should compete with C to see how many people are listening to you vs. her. I mean that there's probably at least one other person in the group who's tired of hearing all about C and would gladly talk to you about movies, TV, whatever.

  • Anlyn says:

    Sars is right on, as usual. This jumped out at me from her response:

    "what probably has to happen is that you have to get annoyed, out loud, and trust the friendship to survive it"

    My question to you, Tired, is–can you do this with other people fairly comfortably? I love my mom, but she is super-defensive when it comes to criticism, and I can't stand up for myself very well because she'll have her feelings hurt, and become all passive-aggressive. I deal with it because we have a good relationship otherwise. But I can stand up to some friends when they try to pull that kind of crap on me, because I know they'll listen and back off; I'm not afraid of their response.

    So if you haven't talked to her because you're afraid she'll be defensive, then that may be a pretty good indicator that the friendship has reached near the end.

  • Clover says:

    I can relate to this; I've had a few friends through the years who made me feel like Goofus to their Gallant. In some cases I've been able to suss out the source of the weird dynamic and deal with it, either by changing my own behavior or talking about it; in other cases, I've concluded that I didn't enjoy the friendship enough to try to address the problems with it, and I moved on.

    One possibility does occur to me here. There's something in human nature that wants to push back against behavior and demeanor that feels fake and/or calculated. Does your friend invent herself in a particular way to elicit a particular reaction from you and from the larger group? That's the vibe I get here.

    Maybe her whole Kick-Ass-Cancer-Survivor schtick raises your hackles for the simple reason that it's a schtick, and you prefer your interactions to feel a little more authentic. Maybe you sense that there are aspects of her behavior that feel designed to manipulate you, and you behave badly just to prove that you have some agency here and aren't subject to the same manipulations that "magnetize" your other mutual friends. (And, of course, you know that the manipulation is actually working because it's making you behave/feel badly, rather than drawing you in, but it's still having an effect, and THAT rankles, and that makes you resent her even more.)

    I like the idea of creating some distance, but I also wonder if you'd resent your friend less if you found ways to connect with her one-on-one in settings more likely to emphasize your authentic connection than the version of herself she's created for the larger crowd.

  • attica says:

    Might part of the dynamic be that because you are doing well, she's deprived of the 'taking care of Tired' thing she maybe enjoys? Maybe she puts you down so she can revisit that nurturing (and maybe not feel like such a patient)?

    It's important to speak up, though. You'll wonder why you didn't do it years ago.

  • Maria says:

    Sometimes good people do bad things. I don't think you should go no contact on her until you hold your own little Festivus and have the Airing of the Grievances. I think if she apologized to you it would go a long way…that is, if you think you still want her in your life. I can't really tell if you do or you don't. Would you be okay with her if she could stop with the putdowns? Regarding the self-aggrandizing, maybe she does that because she's the one who's insecure that her life isn't really all that. Sometimes successful people feel like a fraud and this is how they behave.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Woof. This is a tough one, and I think Sars is right on the money that a person can be loyal and annoying, tough and weak, inspiring and irritating. As much as we want people to just be one or the other so we can like them or not, humans, they are complicated.

    I think, should you decide that you want to continue the freindship, what needs to happen is a breaking of the negative feedback loop that C seems to form in your life and feelings. She doesn't come across as mean or narcissistic in your letter, just having a thoughtless, somewhat aggrandizing side in certain circumstances–but the particulars, like the nickname, have triggered a lot of pain in your psyche, and that builds on itself, and pretty soon C is the representative of the pain. It's like someone having a panic attack in a store, then developing a phobia of shopping because of it.

    Just because her health has been bad doesn't mean you can't treat her like a human being–in all ways. If she's hurt your feelings, tell her. If she really is a good friend, she'll be hurt to hear it, but also sorry she hurt you. I mean, I wouldn't rush to have a big emotional conversation right after her chemo treatment, but if she's going to participate in life, that means hearing about her missteps.

    Bring it up gently, but bring it up.

  • attica says:

    As an aside, I really heart how Sars used 'tardy' as one of the notable characteristics of her friend. Because I'd have that on my list as well, way way up high, even as I understand that others (I'm talking to you, SIL) don't value punctuality the same way I do.
    (Seriously: if you want to stop being my friend, the quickest way to do it is to show up late.)

  • Festivus reference! High five!

    (Sorry, just had to say that. Please return to your regularly scheduled Vine discussion.)

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @attica: Heh. But that's a perfect example. The lateness made me feel unimportant. I finally had a full-on all-caps fit about it, and she was really taken aback that that's how I was taking it — and she has tried heroically, ever since, to be on time for things we do together. It doesn't always work out, but what's important to me is that she's respecting how I feel about it (and I try in turn not to be such a fascist about it for her sake).

    And when she beats me to a dinner spot, she is SO PROUD of herself, it's really cute. "I was EARLY. See? How I'm already here? Before you?"

  • Jane says:

    Tired–I was caught by an offhand bit of this story. Your mother emailed you to tell you what your friend was doing better than you? Whoa. I'm wondering if that's a hint of a larger family dynamic for you that makes you feel particularly vulnerable to/compared with C. And maybe not, but it seems like you're very focused on who *she* is and what she does to you, but you don't offer much beyond your fear of being insecure as far as who *you* are in this dynamic. I mean, I grew up with a sibling relationship that's going to make certain friendship dynamics difficult for me; it's not a quality judgment of anybody, it's just about a pattern that I find hard to work benevolently. Just a thought to get you out of the "one of us must suck if there's a problem" mode.

  • Panface says:

    @Jane: I definitely think you're onto something there. My mom has a way of…not being unsupportive of me exactly, but of subtly comparing me to other people in a way that makes me feel slightly icky about myself. For the longest time I thought that feeling this way when she does this made me a "jealous, underachieving, over-sensitive little whiner," but I've since come to realize that I am in fact human and that it's okay to wish that my mom expressed approval/proudness of me sometimes too. And it has certainly effed up my relationships with non-family members.

  • Courtney says:

    I've had similar friendships…competitive but still delightful. The delightful part was great! The competitive part left me confused. Why do I feel like shit after spending time with someone who is so delightful?!

    For me, it was finding friends that repeat a past relationship, i.e., I tend to find withholding people and make them like me! (Therapy is awesome, by the way!)

    One way that helped me weed out the not so great ones, is to really look at my good relationships and figure out why they worked. And I learned that I cannot be friends with people who want to compete with me…because I jump right in, fully clothed, with my best backstroke and try to race them to the end. And when I lose, I leave the imaginary swim meet feeling worthless.

    I hope that helps! I have a tendency to cut off, and that might not work in this case. But knowing your triggers, for example, your similar careers, can help. Now you can just steer the conversation away, or at least listen knowing that it's an issue with you and then processing it in a happier part of your brain.

  • phineyj says:

    @Tired, I think you can certainly try to fix this and there are some great suggestions here, but you don't have to. I have a former friend who made me feel this way — we'd never been as close as it sounds like you've been with your friend, but I can relate to the whole sensation of feeling like an underachiever only with that one person. I just dropped her, and have never regretted it. Yes it has led to the odd bit of manoeuvering with mutual friends when they're all 'we must all meet up!' but it was worth it. If that's how you feel when you're with her, that's how you feel. It's not right or wrong, it's just a fact.

  • phineyj says:

    Oops, I meant to add, as a musician myself (not professional but with lots of music friends) I was interested to know if you feel this sensation when you play music with her (if you do) or not. Do you feel equal on a musical level? If you do, perhaps you could see her now and again in a musical context and let the personal relationship take a back seat.

  • Liz says:

    A lot of this reminds me of my relationship with my best friend. She is the sister I never had and I love her to pieces, but she was my boss before my best friend and awesome at the job we both do in a way that sometimes makes me feel inadequate. And a lot of the time when I call or email to rant about how sucky something is it turns into a game of "I can top that". Once or twice I've actually just said "hey, can you just admit that this is really, really sucky without comparing it to you?" And that helps. It helps me to assert myself and signals that I need a little comfort and focus on me sometimes. And it doesn't necessarily have to be a big "discussion", just maybe a gentle reminder that it isn't all about her.

  • bsl says:

    While I agree with everything Sars says, I do want to add that you might want to consider why she has the power to make you feel this way. Some people just always talk about themselves. Some people will always bring up embarrassing stories (my entire family and an incident involving trying to open a ketchup packet with my teeth when I was 10). A lot of people spend way too much time talking about themselves, myself included. But when C does it you feel defensive and like a failure. Why are you giving so much power to one person? And you are willing to give up what was a pretty great friendship over it, but without talking to her about it at all? That seems strange to me. And it doesn't seem fair to blame it all on C, when you have never tried to talk to her about it.

  • Amy says:

    I love Clover's reference of Goofus and Gallant.

  • Stephanie says:

    I'll argue in favor of a "talk to her" response. It is entirely possible, even probable, that she does not realize what she is doing. For example: bringing up the past nickname – does she realize how hurtful that was for you at the time? Does she realize how much the reminder also hurt you? I completely get your perspective. But if I did not know how hurtful the original experience was or if I thought that it was something about which you'd reached the point of "look back and laugh" (not that said point must or should be reached, it's 100% legit to still be hurt), I might have brought something like that up. Not to insult you. Not to make you feel bad. More to fit in with a new crowd. Her connection to the crowd is through you. They are *your* friends. So it's a way of legitimizing her presence via "I know Tired so well / look we have such a long history" type story telling. It may be more about her own insecurity than anything about you. Which doesn't excuse it, but does argue for the possibility that talking about it might help.

  • JenK says:

    Sars has excellent advice, as usual. I recently had an opportunity to tell an old, long-distance friend that some of her digs at me pissed me off, even though she meant them with no hard feelings. I'd been biting my tongue about it since middle school, and when the joke came up again recently on Facebook, I messaged her privately to tell her that I had always hated it when she made that joke–that I felt like she was laughing at me, not with me, because I didn't find it funny. It was the hardest email I've ever written–I actually felt a little queasy about it–and the whole thing was compounded by the fact that she's been really ill recently, so part of me felt like an ass for sending it. But I knew that if I didn't, I'd be sitting on my couch resenting her for her comments and intentionally lose touch with her again. She sincerely apologized and said she had no idea it made me feel that way, and now all is well. I feel like I can relax more with her and be myself without wondering whether she was going to pick on me for something. Sometimes, thinking about bringing these things up with friends is much worse than the reality.

    You might bring it up with C and patch things up nicely, or you might bring it up and watch her blow up at you and storm off. If the latter happens, well, at least you know that the friendship really has reached its lifespan.

  • Kathryn says:

    Just wanted to add a bit about the "Mom called to tell me how awesome my friend is. Compared to me." section. My sister and I had a best friend in middle school, and our mother was ALWAYS comparing us to her. "You know, Em gets straight A's. Em gets up early in the morning to practice her music before school." That sort of thing. Constantly. The day before Em moved to another state we spent the evening together, and shocked to find out that Em's mother did the exact same thing about us. "K and E do their homework every night right after dinner. K & E play in a community orchestra AND take ballet lessons." It doesn't really sound like Tired's mother wishes she had C for a daughter as much as it's just something mothers DO.

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