Depression and Friendships: How to Choose Friends Wisely
Just the other day I called one of my good friends who is currently coping with a major life crisis. Her father has been diagnosed with cancer and she tells me it is terminal. He has only months to live. It is during these times when I feel at my most inadequate. What can one say or do to help? So I just said a simple, “I am here for you.” Despite everything she is going through she made sure to ask about me, my family, and my kids. And I thought to myself, “This is a GOOD friend.”
When you live with depression making and keeping friends can be a challenge. I find that I tend to do best making friends with those who have faced similar challenges and those who understand that I will have my good and bad days. In my experience I have also found that trust is a key element in making and sustaining friendships. For anyone who has faced early traumas such as loss, neglect, or any type of abuse, trust can prove to be a very difficult feat. In many cases the person with depression who has experienced these life challenges may vacillate from extremes as in trusting too much or trusting too little. It is a very delicate balance. It can seem like many things could break that initially tentative friend-connection.
I am sure everyone here has experienced being burned by friendship where you thought you had a friend but it really wasn’t the case after all. For the person with depression these losses can feel devastating. You may beat yourself up by asking, “What is wrong with me?” or “What did I do wrong?” Part of the problem may be in our blind-spots due to our mood disorder or social history which leaves us clueless about what is healthy and what is not healthy with regard to our relationships. In this post I will share some of my hard earned wisdom about the warning signs of a doomed or unhealthy friendship and the elements of a friendship which can grow and blossom.
Warning signs of an unhealthy friendship:
• You feel like you can’t be yourself in the friendship.
You fear the loss of the friendship if you don’t act in a certain way to fit in with your friend’s standards. In some cases you feel like you have to dummy yourself down or be less than in order for your friend to like you. In either case you feel like you have to hide your true self in order to be accepted or liked.
• Your friend attempts to be your mentor or acts like you are a lost puppy they need to save.
I have had mentors in my life such as my first therapist, certain teachers, and adult figures when I was a child or teen. Some might argue with this but friends are not mentors and mentors are usually not your friend. There is an important distinction because with friendship you are on equal footing. A friend can inspire, give advice, and provide support. But a friend shouldn't be trying to mold you in their image. Eliza Doolittle I am not. When someone tries to fix me, save me, or tell me why I should emulate them then I know I have someone who wants a co-dependent sidekick and not a real friend.
• Your friend never asks how you are doing. If you have a family and children your friend never asks about how they are doing.
In fact I think this is probably the number one warning sign that I overlook but has been a consistent trend among those individuals who didn’t turn out to be very good friends. Someone who never shows an interest in you as a person or the people you care about can only have a superficial relationship with you at best.
• There is a great imbalance in reciprocity.
When you do something for a friend it should be of your own free will and as such you can’t expect anything in return. But in certain circumstances if you are constantly expected to give with no return, your friend might be a user. I once had a neighbor friend who would repeatedly ask me to keep her son over the weekend (including feeding him) so that she and her husband could get away. This was despite the fact that I have two children, one having severe autism. The favor was never reciprocated or even offered. I felt more like a sucker rather than a friend.
• Simple terms of politeness and courtesy are lacking.
“Thank you” goes a long way to make a friend feel appreciated and that you are grateful for how they demonstrate their care and loyalty. I have to wonder about the person who always receives because they feel entitled but cannot say two simple words.
- A bad friend will never apologize.
They will certainly accept your apology but they will assume no responsibility for the role they play in disagreements.
- Your friend is a narcissist.
The narcissist usually looks for a supplicant, rather than a friend, to feed their ego. If you don’t supply the necessary praise and adoration, they have no use for you. Contrary to popular belief, the narcissist does not secretly have low self esteem or self-loathing. In fact some psychologists believe that when you give a narcissist more love in hopes that this will help them, they will use this extra attention and care to manipulate you even more. It may be easy to be taken in by the narcissist especially if you are depressed and vulnerable. Some of the early warning signs are that this person talks excessively about themselves and their achievements or they may openly boast about their power (“I got so and so fired”). They may even be so brazen as to brag about how they manipulate others to get special treatment. If you befriend a narcissist you are signing up to either be subservient or a victim.
You feel like there is a missing vital component to your friend’s personality such as empathy, compassion, or care for others.
If you are a very emotional person you won’t last long in a friendship with someone who lacks emotion or the ability to feel things with you.
Your friend associates with others for the purpose of achieving power, status, or popularity.
There are plenty of people who like to play politics for the purpose of their own gain. And it may even work but at a cost. If you have a friend that suddenly becomes best buds with someone they used to despise in order to court favor, then you have to wonder how genuine they are in being your friend.
You or your friend has the unhealthy misconception that you have to be friends with everybody.
Had a friend in high school who pretty much demanded that I join all the clubs she joined and that I had to be friends with all of her friends. That didn't work very well for me because I am not a pet but a human being. I have my own ideas and friendship preferences.
Contrary to some people's beliefs you do not have to be friends with everybody. Nor can you be friends with everybody. It isn’t possible. There will always be people who don’t like you and people you don’t like. Some people are bullies and others are best described as toxic. Telling the kid who just got beat up by the neighborhood bully to make nice-nice and be the bully's friend is very poor and unrealistic advice. A better idea is to give the kid some martial arts lessons so he can learn to defend himself.
As an adult you may respect the boundaries of someone who you dislike or who is toxic for you in order to be civil and get along. But the status of friend is special. It is not a term to be used lightly.
We can’t choose our family but thank god we always have a choice in selecting our friends.
Elements of a healthy friendship...
It is easy. Simply turn around all of the above. When a friendship is healthy you can feel comfortable being yourself. You or your friend do not play a role of mentor, savior, nor do you choose people to be your fixer-upper project of the week. You and your friend show a personal interest in one another and you show it in simple ways like simply asking “How are you?” and really caring to hear the answer. There is a shared reciprocity. You don’t mind giving to your friend because they show their appreciation with a simple "thank you" and you do the same. You and your friend return kindnesses when you are able. When there is a disagreement there is a shared responsibility for mending the relationship. You both leave your ego at the doorstep. It isn’t possible to have a genuine friendship with a narcissist. If you are in such a relationship you have to ask yourself why you have chosen this role. In a healthy friendship you can relate to one another on an emotional level. Compassion and empathy are bountiful. You don’t have to guess if your friend cares about you. Your friendship is genuine and is not part of some ploy to look good for others, to gain popularity, or to use you in some way. You and your friend respect boundaries and neither one of you plays the role of friend matchmaker or village peacekeeper. You don’t make your friend feel bad or guilty for not wanting to be friends with the same people they do. Likewise you respect that your friend may have associations with people with whom you dislike.
When a friendship is healthy you feel nourished and enriched. When it is bad you feel resentful and used.
Last words of advice: In this technological age where we gage our worth by hearts, numbers, likes, and the number of “friends” (people we don’t even know most of the time) on websites, the word “friend” has lost much of its meaning. I propose something radical. I say that we only use this term when we really mean it. Be selective and choosy about whom you call a friend. And the best way to have a good friend is to be a good friend yourself. Be the kindness you wish to see reflected back. Have the wisdom to know when someone really isn’t a true friend, cut your losses, and move on. Give your time and energy to those special people who genuinely care about you, the ones you call friend.
For more information on depression and friendships please refer to the following Health Central articles:
- A bad friend will never apologize.