The Cumulative Damage of Being a Bad Friend…

As I’m trying to get myself out of my depression and build new routines toward a balanced, healthy, productive, inspired, revolutionary life, I’m also trying to openly face the obstacles in my way, and especially the obstacles that come from my own unhealthy patterns. That’s a lot. 38 years into anyone’s life, one accumulates many unhealthy patterns. 38 years of white middle-class American masculinity? Oh so many unhealthy patterns!

One of the patterns that I think is particularly destructive in my life is how bad I am at nurturing and sustaining my friendships. I am, on the whole, a bad friend. I have always been a bad friend, since my first memories of having friends. I would bet money that anyone who has been my friend, or who has tried to build a friendship with me would agree–or they would at least agree with the underlying behaviors and patterns I’m about to describe. The worst part is that I’ve kind of known this all my life, but it’s never been a big priority for me to fix. Friendships, as even a concept in the cosmology of my life and identity, have always been kind of take-it-or-leave it, and I know there are definitely at least a handful of people across my 38 years who have regularly felt the pain of that distant attitude toward my friendships with them.

Overall, I’m not a bad friend because I’m mean, or bossy, or judgmental, or selfish, though of course I’ve probably been all of these things in places and times. I’m not two-faced, or a social climber, or gossipy, or condescending. I think I’m a pretty good listener, I try to balance out talking time, I try to accommodate friends’ schedules, tastes, desires for activities, or where we want to share a meal. I think I’m pretty safe to share vulnerabilities and secrets with, and I think I’m generally helpful for processing ideas, pain, dilemmas with–and feminism and anti-racism have overall made me better about all this over the last 10-15 years. Altogether, what I’m saying is that I think I’m actually a pretty good friend…in the moment. The problem is that no one in my life who isn’t family gets any stability or predictability about how many of those moments they will get with me or for how long. I’m flaky. I’m undependable. I can be totally present with you one or two times,and then never reach out to you again. I can be texting you for hours over the course of a week or month, and then one day you don’t get a reply from me…ever again. No explanation. No sorry. I just disappear. And if I move, like I did in 2016? Well then I really disappear.

My best friends over the years have known that the only way to sustain anything with me is to constantly harass me and nag me. The only way to get me on the phone is to call me regularly, because I won’t call them. My political comrade type friends know that I’m terrible over email, and only slightly better via text. And so the people who have sustained multi-year friendships with me are some of the most persistent, loving, patient people in my life (actually far MORE than my family members, because I don’t make my family members work for my attention)–and yet through my distance and lack of follow-through I just keep treating them terribly. Like, why would they even keep coming back?

So, why am I like this, and what do I do about it?

The why is pretty easy to diagnose, I think. I’m an introvert down to my deepest being. I’m a clear-cut, Myers-Briggs introvert. I derive my strength and worldly energy from being alone. All growing up, my best play was talking to myself. I had dozens of elaborate characters and identities, and I would just pace around the backyard (or around this one big cedar tree in elementary school) and play out my fantasy worlds. I remember in 2nd grade when my first real friend, Lauritz, followed me home from school in Oak Harbor, Washington, and it felt so strange to me. Like why was this kid talking to me and trying to get into my game when it was better with me just playing all the characters myself? I sent him home after a while because I wanted to do just that, and I remember setting up ground-rules for our friendship–in 2nd grade!–that there would always be a point where I’d want to send him home so I could just play by myself. Even into high school, I only had maybe 3 or 4 friends ever over to my house, and most of my free hours would be spent walking barefoot around the neighborhood bouncing a tennis ball with my hands, talking to myself. A KEY reason I became a revolutionary leftist was because in 7th grade I invented a fantasy island called Hylia where there was no money and everyone lived in tune with nature, and that vision was so compelling to me that in 9th grade, when I saw there were people who fought for worlds like that, I knew that had to be me. Even into my 20s–hell, even like a few days ago, actually!–I was still walking around talking to myself sometimes, playing out revolutionary scenarios with characters and fantasy uprisings and social movements.

I am my own best friend. I have been since I can remember. It breaks even my wife’s heart, when I pout off for alone time when she most wants time together–she is NOT an introvert, and dreads being alone, as she was literally never alone in her family of 14+ in Guatemala. But it’s the truth. I am my own best friend. I mean, even getting back to writing here on this site isn’t about an audience so much as it is about getting past the distractions that keep me from making quality time for myself–I missed my best friend.

And mostly I’m okay with this all this. Actually, I LOVE parts of this about myself. The problem is, I don’t know how to keep this in balance with my relationships with other people, I don’t know how to set boundaries and expectations and I don’t know how to consistently meet others’ boundaries and expectations. More importantly, I woefully undervalue those relationships, and I don’t nurture them to make them even more valuable, and I end up losing out personally while simultaneously hurting people who really care about me.

Here, if any friends are reading, I might end up sounding harsh or cold, but I’m trying to be real about myself and I mean it all self-critically. I think my problem is that while I usually do enjoy my time with friends, and the human connection that those friendships give me, I don’t actually feel those friendships as a need, and I don’t often feel their absence as a loss. Like, actually feeling an emotion of missing a friend, like actually longing to reconnect vs just kind of being, “oh, it would be nice to spend time with them again” is a very rare thing for me. Even worse, when I’m in pain, and when I really could use someone to help me step out of my patterns, or check my self-doubts with, friends are the last people I reach for. I don’t like to ask for help. I don’t like to share my pain with friends. And not because I’m embarrassed or ashamed or anything that might be more typical; it’s more like I don’t usually give my friends the credit that they’ll actually be able to help as much as being alone would. And this is a big problem because, 1) it hurtfully devalues important and beautiful people in my life into essentially accessories to a mostly 1-person life instead of the fuller, more intimate partners in life that they could be, and 2) I actually DO need help from the people in my life, who know me, who value me, who see things in me that I just can’t, who keep me accountable, who motivate and inspire me. Despite my long-time aversion to feeling like I need my friends, I do need them. I know because a life time of making friendships and then letting them go has done real damage.

Something that Robin DiAngelo is good at writing about regarding whiteness is the damage that comes from White people not even experiencing the lack of relationships with people of color as a loss. This is the same for patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, ablism, and class divides. A key piece of privilege is not feeling the lack of presence, dignity, connection to marginalized people as a loss. But it really is! My relationship with Glendi and her family have embedded that knowledge in me, despite so many of my ingrained patterns making me want to reverse myself and distance myself back to safe 80’s white boy nerd consumer privilege when things get hard. My alone place might be nice. It might be comfortable. It might always be my favorite place and that can be okay, but to only be there does maintain privilege, it does keep me from learning and growing, it does hurt me and others. It does damage.

The list of damages to myself that my neglect of friendships has caused is long, spanning from deep and hard-to-talk-about emotions all the way to even superficial daily things. I am a worse husband because I don’t have anyone to check in with outside my relationship about fights or resentments or power dynamics (especially given the race/class/gender differences in our relationship!). I am a worse parent because my kids don’t have strong relationships with any extended networks of fellow parents or friends; I don’t have playdate partners; I’m not building a multi-generational, multi-racial political community for my kids. I’m a worse, and less successful, writer because I don’t have friends to help edit, question, cheerlead, push me through my lows. I’m a worse organizer because…well…organizing IS relationships. I’m even a worse gamer because I don’t have even a single friend to play either board games or video games with. And critically, when my own supposed best friendship with myself gets toxic–or always has been toxic in some ways because of any of the myriad social messages that I’ve taken on over the years–I don’t have anyone stable there to check myself with and make my behaviors healthier. I can go years alone where I’m actually hurting myself worse, like I have been these last years.

And damage to my friends? Oh god, where do I begin? I mean, I could–maybe should–write multi-page letters about all the times and ways that I haven’t been there, haven’t been reliable to the people who really could have used me…and who have put in the TIME and the WORK to the point where they should have been able to count on me being there. And worse, the ways that I’ve allowed the intensity of my personal circumstances since marrying Glendi–crises in Guatemala, big family, new move, etc.–to basically act as free passes to maintain the same patterns that actually come from way before? Not cool, Jeremy!

But I’m not writing about any of this from a place of self-hatred or even negativity. I’m actually writing from a place of aspiration. I want to say out loud that I know that I’ve been this way, that I’ve been this kind of bad friend, and that I’m not okay anymore with just accepting this as a quirk of little old flaky, introverted, on-again off-again, Jeremy. I want to say out loud that these patterns have cost me potentially thousands of meaningful shared experiences with dear people, they have catastrophically impacted my ability to be an effective organizer, they have sent unintended but powerful messages to others that I don’t value them, and they have undercut my own ability to have a sustained, positive impact on others. I want new patterns. I want to be a better friend, and I want to do it in a way that is balanced with still letting myself be my own best friend, still letting my big family get the time they need with me (because time is a legitimate factor, not just an excuse, in a lot of this), and still negotiating those tricky dilemmas of who gets more time with me than who. And that last point brings up a whole other piece of this: my ability to be a good friend in the moment has sometimes created situations where a number of people want to be my friend and I just can’t sustain it all and I get really messy about it, and sometimes give the extra time to the loudest or the most needy or the people who make me feel most guilty, but not the people that actually give me the most back as friends…ooh, there’s so much more to explore in all this.

But the big point is that I want to be a better friend. Maybe that starts with responding to the neglected texts on my phone. Maybe it means reaching out, calling, seeing old friends and at least apologizing? Maybe it also means getting real and open with some folks about how much time I have and don’t have for friendships? I don’t know the specifics yet, but thankfully I already have a trip planned to Seattle to see old friends this week, so I want to at least run it by them. At the very least, I want to be present and less flaky, even set some more quantitative, verifiable goals for reaching out, replying, following-up, checking in.

At the very least, I want to find those key friends I’ve had and say out loud to them what I love about them, and thank them for all the goddamn work they’ve put into me.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi