One of my closest friends—let’s call her Amy—has been through a lot. Amy lost a parent in high school, and since starting college, she’s been dealing with serious issues with bipolar disorder that have caused her to drop out of two schools so far. She was also sexually assaulted while traveling at one point, which was awful.
Even when we’re far apart, I have done my best to be there for her (with varying degrees of success) and have always supported her, no matter how much I was concerned about some of her crazier ideas (like recently getting engaged to her boyfriend in the military, or traveling around Europe alone). She’s doing well now, is on new medication, and got into a new college—the same one where I’m about to go into my junior year. I’m happy for her that she’s stabilizing again and giving education another shot, but I’m worried about how to deal with her new presence on my campus.
The truth is, Amy and I don’t have a lot in common anymore, though we’re close due to our long history. Our personalities are just very different at this point (she is extremely free-spirited, energetic, and outgoing, while I’m far more reserved and introverted), and I find it hard to relate to her. I want to help her make the transition smoothly, but I don’t want to make myself her only social outlet. I want her to make her own friends, ones she can really relate to.
I’m just concerned that if I don’t invite her to things frequently (I’ll still hang out with her regularly one-on-one), I’m being a bad friend, and neglectful of her precarious position. But, I’ve only really found my own footing socially within the last year, and I’m happy with my arrangement. I’ve always been that person who puts other people first and doesn’t get reciprocal attention from friends, but now I’m finally living the life I want. Any tips for how to navigate this situation? I really do love her, but I need my space. I’m worried that if she thinks I’m pushing her away, it will hurt her. Should I be subtle about it, or just blatantly tell her?
Let’s start with the good news, Sparkler: In all likelihood, you won’t have to do either. Because what’s to tell? Nothing, right? Nothing is changing! You and Amy have always had a one-to-one friendship that exists outside the framework of a group—and all you’re proposing here is to let that friendship stay the same as it ever was. You’ll keep seeing her regularly, just the two of you, just as you’ve always done. And unless she was hoping or expecting otherwise, that’ll be the end of it.
Of course, if Amy is expecting your relationship to change so that she not only retains your friendship but also gains friendships with everyone in your social circle, then it won’t end there—which is the bad news, but not just for the reasons you think. Because here’s the thing, darling: you say that you want Amy to be self-reliant, to have her own life, to avoid leaning on you for companionship for the sake of her own well-being—and I’m sure that’s true! But I’m not entirely sure that it’s the whole story— because while you haven’t said so explicitly, there’s a subtle but unmistakable undercurrent of worry peeking in between the lines of your letter: the worry that Amy will not just insert herself into your space, but insert herself in between you and your friends, siphoning away their attention and ruining the happiness you’d only barely begun to enjoy. And while you genuinely want to see her happy, and want her to have her own friends, there’s also an unspoken subtext there: you want her to make her own friends, and leave your friends alone.
Or at least, I think that’s what you want. It’s only a guess. I could be wrong. But if I’m not wrong—if, by some chance, you are feeling perhaps the teensiest bit jealous of the life you’ve worked so hard to settle into, and worried that your extroverted, free-spirited, world-traveling friend will be like the shiny new toy that everyone wants to play with while you gather dust in the corner—then let me be the first to tell you that it’s okay. The way you feel is normal, and depending on your history with Amy (i.e. if this wouldn’t be the first time she swanned into the center of your social circle and you got pushed to the fringes), you might even have a rational basis for being nervous.
But even if your anxiety makes total logical sense, that doesn’t mean you should succumb to it, which is what I want you to remember in the event that Amy ever ends up in the same room as your other friends. Because here is what also makes sense: you want your friends to be your friends because they like you, and not because you’ve studiously kept them from meeting a person they might like better.
And the only way to have that kind of confidence is to let things unfold, let the chips fall, and let Amy meet your friends if she asks to. (You don’t have to invite her to things; you just have to be prepared to roll with it if she hints at wanting to be invited.) It’s not just that she’d be hurt to realize you were pushing her away; it’s that pushing her away pushes you into a corner where you’re suddenly trying to manage a whole bunch of things you can’t possibly control. You can’t guard your social life against Amy’s influence (or anyone else’s!), and you can’t keep your friends from enjoying her company if they find it enjoyable. But what you can do, and what I hope you’ll do, is to realize that trying to bubble-wrap your friendships will only make you crazy—whereas allowing them to evolve will teach you to appreciate them for what they are, no matter what that is. It will teach you that living the life you want is easy if you strive to want the life you’re living. And it’ll bring you the kind of happiness that only a person who’s learned to let go and roll with the punches can enjoy.
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