WHY DON’T MY FRIENDS TAKE CARE OF ME? AM I BAD AT FRIENDSHIP?

Dear Bear,

I’m part of a friend group that’s pretty close and does a lot of things together even though we don’t all live in the same city anymore (we call ourselves The Breakfast Club though we’re really now more like The Big Chill without the suicide). We definitely show up for each other’s weddings and big birthdays and we just got our first baby so that’s fun. We all met as interns and totally bonded (think The Internship without Owen Wilson though we do kind of have our Vince Vaughan).

Anyway, people are super good about sending flowers when someone’s person dies or sending takeout when someone’s sick or sending birthday cards for birthdays and so on… except for me. I mean, I am good about it for others but I often feel overlooked or forgotten, especially when I’m having a hard thing. I wonder if it’s because I’m the only one without a real bestie in the group. But I’ve sent a ton of flowers and takeouts and birthday cards and edible arrangements and balloon bouquets and so on, and I’ve had a million phone calls when other people were in a hard place, and my grandfather just died and….not really. No flowers, very few check ins, one card. Especially weird because most of them had met him a few times (he used to let me invite whoever I wanted to his law firm’s fancy holiday party for all their clients and such).

I don’t know. I like them all a lot, and we have done a ton of things together. But right now it feels like I’m not really part of the group and I don’t know why not. Is this a sign? Should I just quietly ghost on this situation? Should I call it out? I am not really big on having my feelings on people, so it seems way easier to just drift away but I guess I also want to know if I’m doing something wrong. Am I bad at friendship?

***

Dear Brave Correspondent,

Well, I can start by saying that you are not “bad at” friendship. There are a ton of different ways to be a friend, and different people value different things and different times. Like being a partner, or an employee, being “a good friend” is often more a matter of finding a match than of absolute values of “good friend”-ness. T hough I generally like to validate people’s feelings – and I think your distress here is very reasonable and absolutely worth discussing – I think we need to let go of the idea of there being One True Way of being a good friend, and focus on this situation. Who are these friends? Why is this hurtful thing happening to you? Is there a better way? And so forth.

The first thing I want to talk about is your statement that you’re “not really big on having your feelings on people.” That statement strikes me as being particularly telling in relationship to this question. A thing that happens, for better or for worse, is that people who perform their distress in a more socially-recognizable fashion tend to get more help and support. One of my closest and most beloved friends is a brilliant and very self-sufficient woman who is capable of narrating her pain or upset dispassionately – she doesn’t fling herself on the ground and roll around and wail, she says, rather calmly, “this is excruciatingly painful.”

Doctors and other kinds of professionals don’t believe her. They think if it was REALLY awful, she would be writhing around and chewing the wallpaper. They might accept it from a man (because sexism and gender roles are EXHAUSTINGLY prevalent and affect everything; don’t let anybody tell you different) but they don’t from a woman. Consistently, her experience is that her concerns are overlooked or minimized because she doesn’t perform them in a culturally prescribed way for North American White Womanhood. And I am thinking: maybe this is familiar to you?

If you mostly keep your feelings and upsets to yourself, it may be that you’re not tripping the “care trigger” your friend group has set for rushing in with help and support. That benchmark will definitely be set differently for different genders of people, but if you’re typically the one to offer a lot of help but rarely signal that you need help, people may have just gotten used to the idea that you’re fine. It may require either a more vigorous performance of recognizable upset (like crying or similar) or – if it’s more your style, and I sense that it may be – an announcement to the effect of “Hi, hello, I am feeling terrible. I know I’m not “acting like” I feel terrible, but I am and I would really appreciate some comfort now. Also please note that I am not great at showing my upset feelings so please re-calibrate your settings for me to include “mild doldrums” as a sign that I am really not okay at all. Thank you for your attention to this matter.”

It is actually fine that you are more reserved, Brave Correspondent. You’re not doing “upset” incorrectly. You are 100% entitled to have and express your emotions at the pitch, tone and timbre that works for you. This is where the thing about finding a good match comes in. You might need better matches (have you outgrown these internship friends in other ways, too?). Or, your friend group might just need some translation assistance.

Another question: if you don’t have a bestie in the group, how are people finding out about what’s happening? I wonder if a portion of the problem is the bystander effect – the thing where everyone imagines “somebody: is doing something, but no one takes it on because there’s not one person who has you, in particular, your very own personal self top-of-mind. So if it’s all through Facebook, that may be a part of what’s happening as well – it’s called the “empathy to action gap.” Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg explains: “if you’re texting or talking to a friend about their upcoming surgery, you might feel moved to do something to help – to offer to come by, to collect money from friends to send her a Seamless gift card, something. But if you’re taking a break from work and scrolling through Facebook, notice about a friend’s new baby or family loss or surgery – for a lot of people, a lot of times, that doesn’t necessarily translate to reaching out. Whether it’s because conceptually you’re on break time, or because it’s too much, too many life events to address – often we wind up doing nothing.” And just from my own perspective, as someone with an absolute ton of social media contacts, Facebook and Twitter scroll by way, way too fast for me to see everyone’s news. Are your friends people who have a lot of friends on social media? If you’re not calling or texting them, they might not know what’s up?

And then, Brave Correspondent, there’s the possibility that if you stop and think about it you are actually the one who very often spearheads or manages these group gifts or condolences, and that what you’re experiencing is neither a failure of friendship nor a failure of empathy but really just a failure of leadership. Are you the one who starts all the whip-rounds? Are you the one who knows which deli and which florist everyone likes in each of the places they live? When you’re the one who needs something, your friend group might just be… unmoored. Which isn’t an excuse, but may be true that they can simultaneously adore you and not really be able to get off the stump when it comes to sending a nice platter of something. If you’re that person on your squad, it may also be the right moment to both do some knowledge transfer (a Google Doc with all of the info, names, addresses, phone numbers, and deli orders?). But also you might need to look around and consider – are there people who would be a nice complement to your friend group who are also the same kind of caretaker that you are?

Everyone deserves to be tended, fussed over, to feel like they are important and valued, to have their needs come first for a minute, but not everyone is good at fussing and tending – or sometimes, there’s a mismatch in the part about how. It may be, Brave Correspondent, that you need to make sure your people know you also like a bit of tending, and what it looks like when it’s time for that. I’d say, start with telling one of them this possibly-hidden truth and see how it feels. I wouldn’t ghost on the whole situation just yet, even though it’s very reasonable that you’re feeling crappy right now. Use your words and tell them so. I suspect (and hope) you’ll feel better about things soon.

love and courage,
Bear

 

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