lifestyle

I don’t have as many friends as I did a year ago and I’m fine with it


I can see my attitude towards friendships pre-lockdown was in desperate need of reform (Credits: Getty Images)

There was a time not long ago when I would measure my own success as a person by how busy my social calendar was. 

Like a lot of my child-free peers living in the nation’s capital, my life was a conveyor belt of different work, exercise and social commitments, rarely leaving any space to just be. 

I liked it like that; as someone who scores very highly on the extroversion scale, I get a great deal of energy from meeting people and often pick up friends in the unlikeliest of places. 

I’ve always been good at keeping in touch with people and often took on the responsibility of not letting the flames of friendship blow out, by remembering to check in with everyone and going out of my way to see them. 

But looking back now, I can see my attitude towards friendships pre-lockdown was in desperate need of reform. 

My inability to let go of friendships that had run their course meant that I was left with a lot of people in my life who didn’t put much effort into our relationships — because they didn’t have to.

I think it’s probably something a lot of people can relate to. 

I’ve always been someone that friends tend to come to for advice, I think because I’m not very judgemental and am naturally pretty emotionally intelligent. I don’t mind it and like helping people for the most part. 

But I started to notice that in a lot of cases this meant that I was left with a lot of pretty imbalanced and — in some cases — unhealthy relationships in my life. 

Sometimes, I found myself playing the role of ‘therapist’ to people who wouldn’t go to therapy and would often become overwhelmed by their emotions and a sense of responsibility to help them to feel better.

My resistance to disengaging from unequal relationships was a common subject that came up again and again in my own therapy. As an empath, the idea of walking away from someone who might need me felt impossible — and I think beyond that, I was simply afraid. 

For my whole life I had gleaned a sense of my own value from the willingness of others to remain in my orbit — who would I be without them? Without a large list of people I saw regularly that I could list to myself as evidence that I was a nice person to be around? That I was fun? I was scared of seeing who I was behind all of these layers of protective insulation that came in the form of external validation.

And then, like everyone else, last March I suddenly had to stay at home and spend a lot of time on my own. Staying sane while living alone in the first weeks of pandemic haze required every single inch of my emotional energy. Suddenly I didn’t have any spare resilience or support to offer out, because I needed it all myself. 

I started to notice the different emotional responses elicited by contact from different people in my life. Some messages, when landing in my inbox, felt like a warm hug — a balm for my frightened soul. And then there were others that would sit unread for days, because I knew the person sending them needed something from me I was no longer able to give. 

I also noticed who didn’t get in touch at all — that many of the people whose phone calls I had been picking up at 1am when they were in dire straits simply didn’t check in. 

I know that we all respond to chaos and crisis differently, but the absence felt painful. After years of loaning pieces of myself out to everyone around me that needed them, I had perhaps naively assumed they’d return the favour if our situations changed. 

But I was starting to understand that these loans were never going to be repaid. 

Over the past year, a lot of these people have drifted out of my life. In the end, it wasn’t as scary as I had thought it might be to let go. In fact, in many ways it has been good for me. 

I’m choosing to see this as a positive

Things in my life feel much more balanced, and I’m much more conscious of looking after myself and my own need to be supported by the people I surround myself with. I don’t blame any of these people for taking advantage of no-strings attached emotional support when it was offered. Who wouldn’t to be honest?

I’ve invested more in the friendships that are truly equal, and made some new ones beginning on a basis of equality. It would be disingenuous to say this was all a product of the pandemic, but lockdown certainly helped me to take stock of what I needed out of the people in my life, and feel confident enough to expect my friendships to flow in both directions.

None of this prepared me for how strange it would feel to come out of lockdown with a different line-up of friends, although I know this is a common experience based on conversations I’ve had over the past week or two. At times I have found myself struggling to remember who my friends are as pressure returns to make plans again.

The break has given us all a lot of perspective on how we’d like our lives to look moving forwards, and who we’d like to be part of them. What I’ve learned is there’s no shame in admitting to ourselves when we’ve outgrown a friendship.

It doesn’t mean we don’t cherish what we had, and we don’t have to leave things on bad terms. If you’re in a similar position and feel ready to let go, it can be exciting because doing so will also free up space for you to pursue new friendships that are perhaps more relevant to your life now.

The only advice I would give is to be transparent with the friend if necessary. In my case, simply letting go of the responsibility I felt to keep things going meant they eventually just faded, but if anyone were to get in touch and ask me about it, I’d be happy to explain why I needed to put some distance between us.

Ultimately, no one benefits from codependency, but I’ll always love and respect the people who have contributed to my past, and I’d never close any doors unless the friendship was truly damaging or brought out something negative in either of us.  

I’m choosing to see this as a positive. It’s not hard for me to admit that I had fallen into some bad habits before lockdown when it comes to the way I was running my social life and how I was valuing myself. 

And while I may not be regularly in touch with as many people as I was beforehand, the people who are still around are here for the right reasons and are genuinely contributing to my life. I know many of you feel the same, because you’ve told me in tweets, DMs and emails. 

As a society we still haven’t found a way to frame losing a friendship in anything but negative terms, but in my case, it isn’t a bad thing at all. It is still very possible to appreciate and love people without being in constant communication or wearing yourselves out to meet for a warm white wine every couple of months in the name of friendship.  

There are also many types of ways you can be in someone’s life without being an active participant — especially if you now find yourself in different phases, whether it’s because one of you has had a child or moved away. 

Being able to readjust our expectations of each other as our lives move and change, and being able to communicate these honestly and with care would save us all a lot of time and wasted energy — I feel certain of it. 

As we walk towards an increasingly uncertain future, I’m feeling happy about what the past year or so has taught me about friendships and the role I play in them. I feel excited to build a new life with people who are as in tune with my needs as I am with theirs. If this means I have fewer friends, then so be it!

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk.

Share your views in the comments below.


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