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Old Habits Have A Way

I’ve done something wrong to a person I care about and it is eating me alive inside.  The plus side of this situation is that she likley doesn’t even know I did anything. But I know.  Worst of all, I know that my actions have probably caused irreparable damage to our friendship… And for that, I am sad and tortured.  

What I’ve done to this friend is not something hurtful, malicious, or even something that I did on purpose. It just kind of “happened” in the background of everything else that has been going on in my life. As I described in yesterday’s post, when I am faced with certain difficult and hurtful situations, I respond in reflexive and predictable ways. What I’ve done with this friend is one of those patterned responses that resulted from a visceral reaction to a deep seeded fear of inadequacy and rejection.

Like most deep, visceral, and uncontrollable reactions, this particular one is triggered by childhood trauma. From a young age I never received the unconditional love and acceptance from my mother that a child needs to grow and develop a proper sense of self worth. There was never a time that I can remember where what I did, how I looked, what I said, or how I acted was close to “good enough” for my mother. Even to this day it is still the case, but I am older and have spent many years in therapy attempting to understand this issue and I don’t let it affect me the way it used to.

In my early teens I began looking for replacements for this missing part of my life. It started with female teachers and role models whom I would spend more time with, confide in, and strive to impress. Inevitably, these women would come into and out of my life based on circumstances in mine or their lives. However, it is not unreasonable for a teacher to motivate, inspire, and support a young teenager trying to find a place in her world. When this behaviour became a problem, though, was when I “grew up” and started looking for a sense of acceptance, love, and support from a surrogate “mother type” person in my life – and this often ended up coming in the form of friends I would make. On the outside it might sound harmless, but from my perspective, I put an immense amount of value on how these friends made me feel. I was overly worried about their opinion of me, if they would accept me, and if there was any value to them in being my friend. As a result, I would obsess over every interaction we had and what it meant in terms of whether they liked me or not, if I had done something to upset them, and if they really wanted to be me friend or they were just being nice.

As you can imagine, this type of interaction would become exhausting for me and I would get frustrated, all of my own fault. I would have a friend who was just “being a friend” but there I was looking for someone to pick up, heal, and comfort that little girl that has been hurt for so long. When I wouldn’t get what I needed, I would sometimes lash out in hurtful or passive aggressive ways. In doing this, I would alienate these friends, which would make the cycle more intense. Thankfully, I have worked through these issues thoroughly and I recognize when I’m in a situation that this might happen. Whenever new girlfriends come into my life, I am careful and tread slowly and gauge my interactions to make sure I am setting up healthy relationships and not ones based on past pathology.

In this recent situation, however, an old casual friendship started to grow unexpectedly. We had intermittently been in touch over the years but recently we began talking and seeing each other more frequently. This intensification of our friendship coincided exactly with the unravelling of my life at work and with the stress of my exam. So, what started out as a normal, healthy, boundary filled friendship, slowly began to trainsform into me looking to her for comfort and support as I allowed my fear of inadequacy to take over. I didn’t recognize it at first, but soon I started realizing I was upset or hurt when I didn’t get the kind of response or support I was looking for from her. I found myself reacting in ways that are congruent with my old disordered habits. For example, if the conversation became too one sided, I would become defensive and decide to “back off and wait for her to contact me,” then wonder why she wasn’t talking to me, and then become more insecure. This is just one example of the ways I am able to characterize these relationships as unhealthy or abnormal.

The “healthy me” recognizes that if I need something from someone, I should tell them what I need or ask them for that something. And, the “healthy me” does that very well in many other relationships. Unfortunately, I have not been very healthy lately, I haven’t had strong supports or resources to deal with my current situations, and I have been much less vigilant about taking care to maintain appropriate boundaries in this new friendship.

The most important part here, I believe, is that I’ve recognized what’s happened. I’ve also realized that I don’t want it to continue, and I know what behaviours I need to change. I am just so upset with myself that it happened, and I worry that I’ve already done or said something uncomfortable that I can never take back (this, of course, is speculation and probably part of my insecurity). Worst of all is that I really do value this friend for all the real reasons people value friendships: she is a wonderful person, she is friendly and supportive, we have many things in common, and we really get along well. I am genuinely worried that I may have jeopardized what could have been a great lifelong friendship by letting my old habits run out of control.

So after this long explanation of what’s happened with this friend, I’ve decided that my anxiety over the friendship is the next thing I need to release and I’m not sure how to go about doing so. I would love some input into this situation and what you think I should do…

Should I release the whole friendship, knowing that as long as she’s there, I will be reminded of what I’ve done? This is feasible, because in the course of using her friendship to feed my unhealthy behaviours, I have very likley caused a one sided relationship: where her friendship means more to me than mine does to her. If I back away, especially as I move across the country, the friendship might just fade into the background again.

But maybe I don’t need to let her go entirely. Perhaps I can just let go of the unhealthy emphasis I have put on her friendship and what it has come to mean in the grand scheme of my current difficulties. This might work, because by releasing the unhealthy associations I have made, I will level the values in our relationship and perhaps we can eventually continue to grow from there. However, in order for that to work, I will have to accept that the damage might be too much to overcome and that if I let go of part of the friendship, it will eventually all fall away (back to option one above). I’m not happy with that possibility, though, because while I have become inappropriately reliant on her for personal validation, I truly do value her as a person and a friend and I want to take her with me into the next chapter of my life.

There is another option, which I know will give me the most personal satisfaction and relief. But it also involves the most amount of discomfort and vulnerability. I do recognize the irony in my words here: I am afraid of being vulnerable with a person who means a lot to me. I try hard to channel the words and advice of Brene Brown: “Shame is the opposite of vulnerability, and vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, courage, and empathy.” This third option would be for me to tell her what I’ve done and how I feel. If she is genuinely a true friend, she will meet me in my vulnerability and provide comfort and empathy Around the situation. But it might also be too much for her. This option has the most to gain in terms of providing personal healing and development of our friendship, but it also reveals the most to lose. I could lose an entire friendship… And, this has happened to me before.

I really feel like the best way to release this situation is to release the fear of losing a friendship. I need to forgive myself for falling back into my old habits, learn from this situation, and own any damage I may have done. In order for this release to work, I need to be able to wholeheartedly accept the outcome of being vulnerable with this friend and give our relationship a proper chance.

2 thoughts on “Old Habits Have A Way

  1. Sounds like your instinct is telling you to go with the third option of telling your friend everything. I’d be inclined to go with that option if I was in your situation (although I don’t know the full story). But at least, whatever happens, you can be sure you tried, and you did what you felt was right.

    Whenever I have fear about losing a friend, I think of this saying: “A bird in a tree is not afraid of the branch breaking because her trust is not in the tree, but in her own wings.”

    Good luck to you, whichever way you go!

    Liked by 1 person

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