If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been told that I’m a terrible friend, I wouldn’t need a day job.
If I had a ten dollar bill for every time I’ve been told I am a terrible person, I would be debt-free.
Friendship has always been a tricky thing for me to negotiate. It’s something I’ve never really quite understood the rules for–like so many other aspects of life; it really needs, at least for me, a rulebook or a guide of some kind. I was a very sheltered child, and have–this always makes people laugh when I say this, but it’s true–a horrible degree of painful shyness. I never know how to start a conversation with someone I have just met, and social occasions where I don’t know anyone are excruciating, as I can never introduce myself to anyone and just start talking. Social events where I only know one person in attendance is excruciating for the person I know, as I literally glom onto them like a life preserver and refuse to let them out of my presence–and if they do manage to escape, I will find them like I’ve chipped them, tracking them down like an escaped pet.
I always feel bad about it later–wondering, as is my wont, if the poor person I glommed on to even likes me or enjoys my company in the first place. I also wonder if I should apologize.
I don’t understand the rules, you see.
So, as with everything, I have always taken my cues from books, television shows, and movies. Ah, those marvelous friendships that exist in fiction! Trixie Belden and the Bob-Whites; Nancy with Bess and George; Frank and Joe with Chet, and so on and so forth. I always wanted friends like the ones fictional characters had, wanted to be a friend like fictional characters actually were. But, as I grew older and life continuously proved to be much more difficult, as well as vastly different, from the fictional worlds I loved to escape into, I began to learn that I not only didn’t understand what friendships were like in the real world, but that there were rules I didn’t know about, and those rules were different with every person.
One of the maxims I began to swear by when I burned my life to the ground at thirty-three and started to building a life that was more in keeping to what I had wanted and dreamed of since I was a child was the common denominator in all of your problems is you. Neat, simple, and to the point; it’s also true. But there are, as I learned over the year, also corollaries to the theorems; other truths to be considered, proofs and postulates. At thirty-three, I very willingly took ownership that all the issues I had previously, either with friends or in romantic-type relationships, were mine and mine only–any blame for dysfunction or ruptures or bad behavior could only be laid at my own door. I was never able, for example, to understand or figure out where a relationship went wrong, turned sour, when knowing me and interacting with me became so problematic and difficult that it was easier for someone to just walk away rather than try to work it out (which I always believed was something that friends did; one of those rules that were never explained to me). I tried, believe me–so many hours and journal entries wasted on trying to understand what I did wrong, where I went wrong, what was wrong with me, why did this continue to happen?
I thought back to all the times I’d been ghosted by someone, or a friend had informed me that I was a terrible person and a bad friend; in retrospect, it was something that happened so regularly that there had to be some truth in it. I’d always thought, and taken pride in, being a good friend; for always being there with kind words and a shoulder to be cried upon whenever it was needed…and yet–
And yet, as I noted on my birthday blog, I found that I was also frequently disappointed by people. Whether it was my birthday, or being included in things, or whenever I needed someone to talk to when I was personally going through something difficult…inevitably, what I made myself available for with others wasn’t being made available to me. When I tried to talk to someone about problems, it was often dismissed–or I was told, “Jesus, you’re such a downer.” I have had friends tell me, through intermediaries, that “so-and-so doesn’t really want to talk to you anymore because they just can’t deal with you anymore.”
I learned this lesson: when you expect things from people you will inevitably be disappointed.
I’m not sure how old I was, or when I discovered an all-too-important corollary to my common-denominator theorem, but it was incredibly freeing. That corollary was certain personality types attract emotional predators, and that isn’t the fault of the person who attracts them.
Narcissists, for example, seek the personality types that will feed their self-obsession–and they aren’t interested in anyone else’s self-obsession unless it correlates with their own; in other words, if listening to your problems and offering comfort will soothe their own self-satisfaction; i.e. see what a good friend I am? I am such a wonderful person.
I know that I have narcissistic tendencies and that I have an ego; I don’t really think it’s possible for someone to become a creative artist without the odd mixture of complicated and complex and contradictory personality traits that inevitably drive so many of us to drink, drugs, and/or despair; the introversion and self-obsession and ego that drives us to create and believe that others will be interested in our creations, while at the same time being harshly self-critical, self-defeating, and utterly insecure about everything.
And while I’ve also come to realize that while friendship isn’t, and shouldn’t be, something where one needs to be constantly keeping score, a lot of people do that very thing.
I also learned to be suspicious of people doing nice things for me–because in the past, that nice thing inevitably would be used to bludgeon me as an example of how much better a friend that person was than I, and therefore I didn’t deserve to have friends.
When you’re told you’re terrible in some way, especially if it comes from more than one person, it becomes easy to believe that it’ s true. I’ve also been ghosted a lot; one day I would be close friends with someone and the next day the same person didn’t want to speak to me, say hello, or even acknowledge my existence. The first time that happened to me was in seventh grade, in junior high school (junior high was a horrible experience for me, but that’s not the point of this entry), and ever since then, I’ve had difficulty in trusting people completely; whenever I met someone new, befriended someone, there’s always been a wariness inside my mind, a little voice saying remember–you can’t trust people to not turn on you and that, coupled with my innate shyness and social awkwardness, has always made it difficult for me to ever get really close to people. It was in junior high, after all, that I learned there were names for what and who I was–unpleasant, insulting names, always said in a sneering, contemptuous manner–and so I kept my true self hidden from people.
Faggot. Sissy. Fag. Cocksucker.
Even before I was completely sure I knew what the words meant, I knew they were bad–they weren’t complimentary–and whatever they meant, it wasn’t anything I wanted to be.
God knows I’ve been told enough times by people that I’m a terrible friend and a terrible person; it used to always slash me to the quick and hurt my feelings. I was ghosted in junior high school by an entire group of friends who suddenly all stopped speaking to me or acknowledging my existence–to this day I don’t know why–and that early experience, combined with innate shyness, has always made it difficult for me to trust people. And as I’ve gotten older, my trust has gotten harder to earn.
But as I said, I wish there was a manual of some kind; instructions or something. I never know what is appropriate and what isn’t; I’ve also certainly been known to misjudge politeness for friendship before. Am I supposed to reach out to someone when they’re going through a rough time, or do I give them their space? Is it more annoying to have to answer emails and messages from friends who mean well when you’re going through something, or is it better to be left alone? I also have a tendency to withdraw into myself whenever things aren’t going so well; I don’t reach out to other people for support when I am going through something, and while I do appreciate well wishes and things like that…I don’t understand the rules.
I know lots of people at this point in my life; social media has made keeping up with people from my past much easier than it ever was before. I do notice there are gaps, though; I have reacquainted myself with people I went to high school with in Kansas, but no one from before that; after high school graduation the next big gap is people I met and knew from 1978-1985. There are people I know from when we first moved to New Orleans, and various writers and authors and editors and actors and actresses with whom I have crossed paths at one time or another, and people I’ve worked with. My friends’ list on Facebook is a curious mixture of people from all over the country with me as the primary common denominator.
But one thing I have definitely learned over the years is when someone abuses you–emotionally, mentally, verbally–they will do it again, and no matter how much you care about them , or how much time or energy you’ve put into the relationship, it will happen again. I’ve gotten much better about recognizing the difference between a disagreement and an abusive friendship, and my go-to has become If I won’t let my mother talk to me like this, well, you‘re not my mother.
But I still wish there was a guidebook, you know? It would make things so much easier.