‘Most of My Friendships Were Toxic, But Now I’m So Lonely!’
‘Most of My Friendships Were Toxic, But Now I’m So Lonely!’

Photo: Tim M Lanthier/Getty Images

Dear Polly,

I always feared not having enough friends, as I never had any friends as a child and was badly bullied. It got better during my adolescence and I was many people’s “best friend” up until a year ago, which now that I’m in my 30s sounds a bit ridiculous.

I started therapy two years ago and I’ve been doing so much better. I realize now that most of my friendships were very toxic, and my best friend of 20 years was a sociopath. My fiancé, friends, and family had warned me, but it only became obvious to me a few months into therapy (and his lying and stealing got completely out of control). When I told him I had been hurt by what he did and needed space, he didn’t apologize or even ask questions. He simply disappeared after 20 years of being in touch every single day. I haven’t seen him since, even though he lived a few blocks away from me. It was hard to swallow initially, but I felt much better as the months went by, and I never once regretted it.

But now I feel like I can’t “unsee” many toxic tendencies in other people. I lost a close friend because I felt my happiness always seemed to be hindering hers and I always felt bad after seeing her, even on my happiest days. When I told her this as kindly as I could, she didn’t take it well and she hasn’t wanted to speak to me since.

Another one of my closest friends is mentally ill and a drug addict. For years I have offered him my couch when he was homeless. I was always there for him when no one else was. We normally speak every day but when he’s on a bender, I don’t hear from him for weeks and I often don’t even know if he’s alive or dead. I have seen him in police stations and psychiatric hospitals way too many times. He has never once told me he wanted to get treatment or to get sober. He obviously has many wonderful qualities and is a great friend when he is stable. We’ve been friends for 15 years and he only has been acting this way in the past couple of years. I would miss him terribly if I decided to break this friendship up, but I cannot handle that state of constant anxiety anymore.

Another close friend is my business partner. We work well together but I’ve been feeling so suffocated by him on a personal level for almost a year. He’s very depressed and I have become his sole confidante during the pandemic and I just don’t feel strong enough to carry all that weight. Seeing his name pop up on my phone makes me feel so anxious, which makes it very hard to work together. I don’t even know how to explain that to him, as it would make him even more depressed.

Other friendships are breaking down, too. I have a couple of friends left in the city I live in, but many are moving abroad or aren’t “everyday” kinds of friendships.

It isn’t a coincidence that these bad friendships all started years ago when I was very lost and vulnerable. On top of that, I was supposed to get married this past June but had to postpone because of the pandemic. There’s nothing like a wedding to make you reevaluate your friendships. The guest list I have in my head now looks nothing like the initial one. It makes me realize that I have very few friends left. I always prided myself on having such close, strong friendships (even if they were toxic) and now I feel so lonely.

I believe I’ve done the right thing by walking away, but I also feel so sad because I can’t re-create the intimacy of a 20-year friendship. I have a great fiancé, who has great friends of his own whom I like and we see a lot, but it’s not the same. I miss having lots of friends to talk to every day. I miss having friends who know me by heart, and at the same time, I know I couldn’t keep these relationships going. What do I do with the remaining dwindling friendships? How do I cope with the loss? How can I make new friends during a pandemic?

Happy But Lonely

Dear HBL,

What you’re describing isn’t just a lack of healthy friendships. It’s a lack of agency. You don’t know how to say no to people. As a result, every single relationship you’ve ever had has become overwhelming, because you feel you have so few choices along the way. You’re a cork on the high seas of your friends’ experiences and moods.

You believed for years that your job was to serve your friends at any cost: tolerate stealing, show up at the police station, listen to digressive complaints in the middle of a work meeting. If a friend wants something, you often feel guilty if you can’t give it to them. You’re always focused on whether or not you’re letting them down. Because you’re not in touch with your own needs and don’t feel right asking for what you want, you let your friends behave badly for a long time before you assert any boundaries. And once you do finally say something, it’s likely to come out all wrong, with a tone and force that feels off-putting to friends who always assumed you were fine with everything, since that’s how you acted.

I understand because I also used to wait way too long to speak up. Often, even if you’re calm and compassionate and set clear boundaries when you finally say something, your friend will recoil at the thought of you privately disliking their behavior for so long. That’s what happened with your friend who was lying and stealing. When you confronted him directly and told him his behavior needed to change, he took off. That’s how people who can’t tolerate conflict or intimacy behave. You show up, they disappear.

Many people have very little capacity for intimacy. I don’t want to call that toxic because it’s so common. What you’re describing are avoidant friends who are looking for an escape from their overwhelming emotions. But you’re also an avoidant or you wouldn’t be so attracted to these people or tolerate their neglect for so long. Taking too much and giving too much are both avoidant tendencies. They’re both ways of not showing up.

Based on your feelings about your business partner, I’m going to guess that you sometimes have trouble showing up emotionally when other people need you, even when those people aren’t lying and stealing and going on benders. I’m telling you this without the slightest hint of condemnation, because I’m the same way. When you’re avoidant, that makes it difficult to separate the truly abusive friendships from the merely taxing ones. No matter how difficult someone is, you behave the same way: You give too much, don’t ask for what you want, and never say no. This is the behavior of someone who’s struggling with intimacy. Showing up and voicing your needs is very difficult for you. The more you examine that, the happier you’ll be in your old and new friendships and in your marriage.

Your friendship with your business partner has started to feel like a duty to you. His calls make you anxious, yet you keep behaving as if you’ll drop everything to support him through thick and thin. You claim that if you speak up and assert a boundary, he’ll become “even more depressed.” But listen: This is your business partner! The stakes are too high not to address this. You can’t be his therapist or his mom. And you need to notice that you don’t enjoy playing those roles. It makes you anxious that he expects too much from you.

In order to move forward with more clarity, you need to pay close attention to what feels bad and what feels good to you. I know that sounds so basic, but avoidant people like us move away from intimacy and conflict and feelings. We don’t notice how we feel and don’t know how to stand up for ourselves. We only know how to appear to serve other people well, repeatedly disappearing into our friends’ drama so we don’t have to grapple with ourselves and our own needs.

I know that’s hard to do. I spent years telling myself that there was no way I could speak openly and directly to my difficult friends about my needs and preferences. I couldn’t imagine telling a friend what I needed emotionally, outside of the context of a big fight. I was used to feeling alienated and lonely in most friendships. I didn’t know how to say no to anything without feeling guilty about it.

I used to think it was odd that friends would talk about getting off the phone abruptly when one of their friends was going on and on about some drama. I thought asserting strong boundaries meant that you were cold and controlling. But now, I realize that, considering the kinds of people I love — talkative artists, obsessive writers, intense workaholics, anxious, idea-focused weirdos at large — I have to have strong boundaries. HEALTHY BOUNDARIES MAKE IT POSSIBLE TO HAVE INTERESTING FRIENDS. Saying no makes it possible to say yes to wild, difficult, fascinating people.

So, now that you’ve expunged your lying, stealing friend from your life, I want you to try to expunge the word “toxic” from your life, too. Are you friends with a lot of difficult people? Yes. Should you cut some of them out of your life? Maybe. I mean, I would probably meet someone at the police station once and then I’d be done. But you still need to recognize that taking too much and giving too much are both ways of not showing up. As long as you’re managing other people instead of being present and engaging honestly, you’re going to struggle to have healthy, intimate relationships with them.

I’m going to guess that, as a child, you were asked to cater to other people’s needs while muffling your own. When you grow up that way, you end up believing that what feels good to you is utterly and entirely beside the point. So when you finally do try to dig into your emotional needs, it’s going to kick up a lot of shame for you. That shame is liable to cloud your stories about some of your broken friendships.

It’s good for you to notice that you’re someone who’s attracted to people with addiction issues. You can resolve to be more self-protective and decide you’re way too sensitive and anxious to be thrown into volatile situations with people who are actively struggling with addiction. That’s pragmatic. That’s you setting boundaries and standing up for what’s best for you.

But when you’re tempted to lump together depressed guys and insecure women and friends who’ve grown distant under the same “toxic” label, that’s a sign that your shame and insecurities are telling an overly reductive story about reality. When you globalize, stigmatize, blame, conflate, and distance yourself from others, you have to notice that. That’s you being avoidant: embracing extreme definitions and writing other people off entirely in order to sidestep your most vulnerable feelings. Your shame about how broken you feel, underneath all of your defenses, is creating a reductive story about reality, one where everyone else is bad and you’re good.

I know it’s hard to look at that. Intimacy is hard in general! For almost everyone! It’s humbling to realize that your damage probably matches your friends’ damage on some level, it just manifests itself in different ways. This is a good moment for you to really humble yourself. You need to feel this lesson. You need to notice how hard it is for you to show up. You’re about to get married! This is a crucial moment for you to figure out how to stand up for your needs.

Luckily, the path forward is pretty simple. You need to recognize that you’re a fallible human being like any other. You need to resolve not to encounter the world through a fog of shame and defensiveness. That means learning to feel your feelings without shame. That means asking for what you want without shame. And that means letting other people show up and take up space with their flawed selves, knowing that when you can’t show up for them, you can say so without guilt.

Boundaries give you freedom, in other words. Feelings are your guide. You have rights now. It’s a whole new world. You’ll feel that once you start feeling more present and standing up for yourself. It feels like getting into really good shape and suddenly being able to do things you couldn’t do before. You’ll find yourself boldly striking up new friendships, too, because you’ll be less afraid of becoming a cork on the high seas again.

So don’t just write off all of your oldest friends and disappear into your new marriage. Examine each old friendship without conflating it with the others. Keep looking around and opening your heart to new people. The healthiest people I know are always open to new friendships, because they recognize how that new energy can bring fresh ideas and experiences and fun into their lives.

It’s normal to face a major friendship reckoning in your early 30s. Don’t hide from this. Embrace this humbling moment as much as you can. Just remember that giving endlessly isn’t actually generous. It’s a way of disappearing in plain sight. You want more than that now. So ask for it, from yourself and others.

Polly

Ask Polly appears here the first three Wednesdays of every month. Additional columns and discussion threads are available on the Ask Polly newsletter, so sign up here. Polly’s evil twin Molly’s newsletter is here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here

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