I have been friends with a girl (let’s call her Sarah) since we joined secondary school. The first year or so of our friendship was completely fine, until we hit year eight (I think in American terms that’s ninth grade). Anyhow, in year eight she told me that she was suicidal and had been cutting herself. She was already in therapy because of her unstable relationship with her (borderline abusive) mother, so I told one of our school counsellors, and thought the issue was fixed.
Then we hit year nine, and things got out if hand. Sarah started talking to a boy we’ll call Joey. He is, in colloquial terms, a grade A jackass. He was always being a jerk to Sarah, but she is still convinced that they’re friends. Sometimes she’ll stand up to him, but that’s only when he makes homophobic comments in front of me. At first I thought that I just hated him because I had a massive crush on his girlfriend, but he has made Sarah cry on more than one occasion. The newfound discovery of her anorexia, her lingering depression, and her smuggling gin into school didn’t help the situation.
I ask the counsellors for help THREE TIMES that year! Nothing happened. Everything has climaxed this year, year ten. She smuggled wine into school and got plastered in the hallway of our languages department. I was away for the majority of that day on a theater workshop with my best mate (we’ll call him Danny). We found out about this through Joey making jokes about it to his mates. I was so stressed out when I heard I almost felt like crying during Biology.
Now, here comes the clincher. I recently discovered that she has slept with Joey in an alleyway, perfectly harmless until you remember that he is toxic, and we’re only 14! The age of consent is quite low in England, but that’s still too young.
We’ve broken up for our holidays, and Danny and I are sick to death if stressing out over her. I truly love Sarah, she’s one of my closest friends, but I cannot stand worrying about her all the time. Is there anything I can do to stop worrying so much?
Sure is, sweet pea… but I don’t think you’re going to like it. The truth is, the one and only solution to your problem is a single word: BOUNDARIES.
Boundaries are a good and important thing, Sparkler. They’re how you recognize the line between your life and another person’s, and how you stop worrying about all the stuff that’s not on your side. Unfortunately, they also mean disentangling yourself from your friend’s affairs and accepting that she has the right to self-determination, even when her choices are upsetting or dumb or rebellious or regrettable. Boundaries mean sitting on your hands and keeping your mouth shut when you just want to shake some sense into her.
And of course, that’s why boundaries are so very hard… even when you’re not madly crushing on the person whose life you’re trying to meddle in, which you very clearly are. Just take a sweep through the Auntie SparkNotes archives, and you’ll see countless letters from countless kids who are just as frustrated as you are by their friends’ stubborn insistence on living their own lives in stupid, self-destructive ways!
But as you have discovered yourself, the alternative to having healthy boundaries is an absolute pile of control-freaky overstepping that gets you nowhere at all. I mean, look at the current state of things: you’ve worried and cajoled and tattled to your school counselors about your friend’s private issues on four separate occasions, and what have you accomplished except to work yourself into a lather over your inability to influence her in any way? She’s still making choices you disagree with, still dating the guy you hate, and still getting into all kinds of sloppy trouble every time your back is turned. Nothing has changed at all…except, of course, that you’re more miserable than ever.
That’s why it’s time for you to step back—way back, all the way out of your friend’s business—and ask yourself how this relationship looks when you’re on the appropriate side of the line between your two lives. Yes, you love Sarah—but do you like her? Do you respect her? Can you enjoy her company and her friendship on its own merits, whatever they may be, without tearing your hair out every time she makes an unwise or undesirable decision? Do you even want this kind of relationship, when your feelings for her are so obviously rooted in something more than platonic fondness? Or is it time to stop making yourself an audience to her screw-ups, when watching them only brings you pain?
These are important questions that will determine the future of your friendship—but you won’t be able to answer them until you disentangle yourself. Please do. Give yourself the gift of some space in which you can focus on your own needs, where the noise of Sarah’s stumbling around can’t drown out the voice of your own heart. And if being in proximity to Sarah just fills you with despair, then maybe it’s time to step away, and fill the space you’ve created with something more rewarding.
Like a friendship with someone you trust and respect, whose choices don’t make you cringe.
Or both. You are your own master.
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