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How to be human: why do I keep blaming myself for bad friends?

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. How to be Human runs every other Sunday. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Hello Leah,

I have a big problem with friendships. I have very few long-term friendships. In fact, after my high school graduation this past June, my longest-running friendship since 3rd grade kinda just ended. My close friend and I had talked less throughout senior year and our interests changed. I guess you can say we had a falling out. I'm saddened by it, but I have made some effort to keep in touch. I told him he can feel free to hit me up for any help in subjects I took AP courses in like Calc. We never talk anymore.

Back in high school, apparently a lot of people didn't like me and found me annoying. I never found out who, which was the worst part. I wish they’d told me they saw me that way so I could work on not being unpleasant around others. I always want people to see me a positive light or at least not hate me. I always tried to help others, I want to bring people up rather than down, because I've been brought down a lot in my life and I don't want to do that to others. Even in my yearbook, someone wrote: "I realized you are a genuinely nice person, which why I still talk to you (even though people tell me not to)." It's that last part that stuck with me. Like what did I do wrong that has people saying that I shouldn't be talked to?

As a child, other kids in my neighborhood considered me inferior because I was of a different race (even though we were all of East Asian descent) and ugly (according to them). Later on in 6th grade, my entire class bullied me with this dumb nickname that my Social Studies teacher gave me. All my teachers witnessed it and did nothing about. Teachers did nothing when kids laughed after pulling my seat when I was about to sit down. I remember I walked into class late once wearing a new pair of Converse and everyone in the room laughed at me. Apparently Converse were "girl shoes." They would also just steal my stuff. It got so bad that kids made a Facebook page dedicated to hating me.

I remember telling my mother and she yelled at me and said it was my fault. Looking back, I can see why she lashed out at me. As a low-income immigrant, she had a lot of stress. She had to deal with sending both my older siblings to college and deal with her failing marriage as my father was cheating on her at the time. Divorce wasn't an option for her because of Asian views on marriage. I guess me being the youngest sibling complaining was her breaking point. I had never felt so unwanted in my entire life at that moment. Sixth Grade was a serious time in my life where I considering committing suicide. But I didn't because I didn't want to be even more of a burden to everyone especially my family (with funeral costs and shit). Even to this day, I experience short episodes of depression where I consider suicide. Being unliked for so long definitely affected me. I get a lot of anxiety over trying to be accepted and fit in. So I would try to be affable and just wanted. I really needed a friend at that point of my life.

I try to make myself feel wanted. I work hard in my career field so hopefully some people may want me as a connection. I try to do well in school so maybe someone would ask me for help in something. I obsess how I look. I make sure I listen to others. I always try to improve myself and help others so I'm not unwanted.

I'm sure I've made friends in high school, but like so many of these friendships didn't seem to last. I'm sure I fit in. Senior year, I lost two friends who I considered very close like we were a "squad."

Even in college now, I have trouble keeping in touch with some of my closest friends from senior year. We'll snap one another, but keeping a Snapchat streak with them is a challenge. I'll admit a snapstreak isn't necessarily the best indicator of a friendship, but like I get the vibe that they don't want to talk to me. I'll give them the benefit of the doubt that maybe they're just too busy. They're all at prestigious colleges, busting their asses off. But I worry, what if they just don't want to keep in touch?

I always have this doubt that people don't want to be my friend. I worry that people befriend me because we're stuck together due to a class or out of pity. That the first opportunity they have, they'll cut me off. I have some good friends. But I was wondering: how do I make friendships last? How do test if someone actually wants to be friends with me? How do I tell if the people around me actually like me? How can I tell if I'm being annoying if no one tells me? Like if I'm doing something wrong, I'm willing to improve myself. Do you have any other advice in general?

I guess this might be hard for you to say because I'm sure there are a lot of details I am unintentionally leaving out as I'm writing this and you don't know me in person. Maybe I'm just being too clingy, that's actually something a person told me once.

-B

Hey B,

My god people can be really shitty. They can be cruel and hurtful, they can be insecure and unfair, they can be selfish and immature, and they can make it seem like any one of those things — or all — are your fault. You’ve had to deal with a lot of shittiness from other people, and you’ve also had to deal with a serious lack of support from people who should have your back or look out for you. So even without the details and even without knowing you in person, I have a pretty good sense of what’s going on here.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you something: I have spent many years asking these same questions and struggling with similar issues. Our stories are different, and I would never want to compare mine to yours, but man, I understand your letter so much. I only wish I could say I’ve figured it all out. My answer is going to be a little bit of advice combined with a lot of talking through some of what makes this so tough.

I started this answer with the shittiness of other people because it’s the first thing we need to get out of the way. The cruelty of the kids you went to school with is heartbreaking, and the teacher’s permissiveness even more so. It guts me to think of you, all alone, dealing with bigotry, racism, physical and emotional bullying, and more — only to keep trying harder to be positive, likable, and needed. It’s no surprise to me that you feel you’re being clingy. If I try to picture you in my mind, I see someone who is standing on a floe in an icy sea. Each time you think you’ve found one that’s stable, it crumbles or melts beneath you, so you have to hold on to anything you can to keep from falling into the water. Each time you see another creature, you want to draw it to you with offers of help or support. And when the creature leaves — they always seem to — you figure it was your fault so you try harder the next time.

I spent years doing this, too, B. When I was a kid, another girl turned my friends against me. People said hurtful things about and to me. It was devastating. Not simply because kids can be mean, especially when they go along with someone else and gang up on you. But because it completely undermined any sense of security I had in friendships. One minute I was standing on solid ground, the next I was floating off into the darkness on an unsteady piece of ice. I spent years wanting and trying to make friends but I felt so worried they would see the truth of me, which was that I was obviously an unlikeable, difficult person. I mean, obviously I was, right? Otherwise why would so many friends have abandoned me?

Let me be very clear. It’s exceptionally empathetic of you to understand why your mom lashed out at you. But none of this, not the way the kids treated you or the fact that you “complained” about it or the burdens your mother faced, is your fault. You were a kid, B. One without someone to help guide you. Unless you were an absolute monster — and even then, you would still have been a child — I cannot see how you are responsible for what you write about in your letter.

This doesn’t mean there’s nothing for you to work on. You are responsible for yourself, for who you are right now and for the person you want to become. But before you get to working on yourself, I want you to understand there’s a big difference between “stuff you can work on” and “stuff that’s your fault.” It’s a distinction that’s hard for a lot of people to make, because we’re told repeatedly that we need to work on things about ourselves because we’re difficult and needy, and we’re to blame for situations going wrong or relationships failing. Look, sometimes we are! But no one wants to be at fault. And no one wants to face up to the things about their behavior or personalities that are unpleasant or difficult. Self-awareness is itself hard work, not to mention the hard work of improving or at least tempering those aspects of ourselves.

In your life, there have been a lot of people who have made you feel bad. I think a lot of those people did this because they felt bad themselves. A very temporary way for some people to feel better is to shit on another person, to push themselves up by shoving someone else down. Maybe it’s hard to see how some of the people in your letter acted out of anything other than sheer malice, but I think a lot of hurtful behavior stems from insecurity and fear, plus an incredible lack of awareness (that can border on willful ignorance). What kinds of fears? Fear of not going along with the group, fear of being excluded, fear of being different, fear of being put in the same position you’re in. The fear of taking responsibility for your choices or the fear of taking risks. The fear that they are unlovable, but if everyone focuses on you, no one will notice that fact.

This is not to excuse anyone you’ve written about here. I simply want you to understand what most of us fail to remember: People act out of their own motivations. You and I do this, too. We are not always our best selves. We fail to act with deep consideration for the people we know and love. We mess up. Or we do act with consideration, but a friend can’t see it, because of their own fears. All of us forget that other people act not as reflections of us and our needs, but as separate people in their own right, influenced by forces we can’t always know.

This is why I advise people: work on yourself and on understanding your own motivations. Lack of self-awareness drives hurtful behavior but it also drives someone to think they’re at fault for everything. It also creates lopsided friendships, with one person doing all the giving. Or the sense that one slip up means THAT’S IT FRIENDSHIP OVER. Take some time to focus on you, rather than on everyone else.

You know what else self-awareness does for you? It helps you feel less anxious about the friendships you do have. Part of maintaining friendships and helping them last is learning how to give relationships — and the people in them — some space. I can see you wanting to do that with your friends who are busy at college, but I can also see how hard it is for you. You’ve got all those worries about whether people really like you or will stick around. I think that’s what people feel when they see you (or me!) as clingy. One thing I’ve found about being more secure in myself is that, while I still have similar worries about friendships like all the ones you listed, I’m able to deal with those anxieties better. I try to pay attention to whether I’m being overly sensitive, and I remind myself people’s lives don’t revolve around me or my friendship. It’s hard! But it does get easier.

When I re-read the end of your letter, it destroys me a little each time. I think about you sitting there wondering if you’re annoying or clingy, wishing people would be honest and fair with you, wanting to improve but not knowing how. I see myself in your words, all the times I talked about how difficult I must be, how hard I am to be friends with, how much I wish I could be more easygoing, more fun and lighthearted, the kind of person who isn’t so tangled up all the time. I think about the years I spent thinking, if only I were perfect, everyone would love me. I think about the time wasted wondering why other people were better at networking, what made them popular and accepted and desirable, and when that would ever happen for me. I remember when I finally realized: Oh, I am that person. I’ve just never been able to see it. And maybe I’m difficult, but frankly we are all difficult. Each and every one of us, in some way. We all have to find the people who can give us the space to occasionally be weird, quirky, needy, whiny, melancholy, bossy, clingy, and insecure. Occasionally is important, which is why we all also have to find more balance within ourselves, too.

Really good friendships take time and patience. The trust you’re looking for, the sense that someone really does like you, needs time to grow. It also needs a calm place inside you to grow too, one you’re not constantly checking on or worrying about. And here’s the bad news, B: There is no guarantee even good friendships will last. Sometimes friendships fade out for no real reason, and sometimes they end over a falling out. We don’t talk about friendship breakups like we talk about romantic breakups, but they are very painful just the same.

Earlier this year I lost a few very important friendships in a single stroke. Like you, I wanted people to talk to me, to help me understand. But unlike all those years ago, I knew who I was. Who I am! I know my motivations and what I can be responsible for. I can stand alone on my own two feet, even on a wobbly ice floe with nothing and no one to have my back. In a way, I know that my little ice floe is not so much drifting in isolation as it is floating purposefully toward relationships that have room in them for me to be a flawed human, too.

This isn’t work you can do alone, B. It is a lifelong practice to change these patterns. Get a therapist if you don’t have one. Talk to that therapist about a possible therapy group, one that fits your needs and that can be a safe space for you to learn about how you interact with others. Spend some time doing all the things I’m always exhorting others to do, like volunteer or join a club or do yoga, if only so you get out of your brain for a bit. Put your own oxygen mask on. It’ll help you recognize people who do the same — and they’re the ones who will, over time, become the friends you’ve been looking for.

Lx