To Have a Friend, You Must Be a Friend, Part 1
(Image by Credutien on Pixabay)
I’ve been thinking about friendship lately. I have a friend who, during an earlier phase of our friendship, would close their emails with “Your tenuous friend.” This simultaneously amused, reassured, and unsettled me.
That I was amused by their closing has to do with similarities in our sense of humor: we both love irony, paradox, and can even see humor in the tenuousness of life itself.
That they signed as “friend” was reassuring because I have harbored doubts about my worthiness as a friend since childhood. As children, we all have doubts about friendship because in that stage of life friendship is naturally tenuous—your friend today may ignore you tomorrow or even become your enemy. In that stage, we are just beginners but as we grow older most of us learn that we deserve to have good friends upon whom we can rely. This understanding is a natural by-product of healthy self-esteem: I am worthy of good friends, and I am a good friend. That they signed as "friend" told me that I am moving into a more adult sphere where I am willing to trust my friends and to be trustworthy to them.
That I was unsettled by having a “tenuous” friend also had to do with my feelings of unworthiness from childhood. Why can’t they just sign “Your friend,” instead of reminding me of my insecurities? Well, let me tell you something: if they had signed it “Your friend,” that would have unsettled me, too.
If, like me, you didn’t develop healthy self-esteem during your formative years, you are likely to be intimately familiar with the pain of the one-down end of the self-esteem spectrum: toxic-shame. This can happen when parents use neglect, shame, brutality, or some combination thereof to discipline, mold, or control their children. Toxic doses of shame teach a child they are unworthy in some essential way, and the only hope for salvation is to be a good boy or girl, or leave Mom and Dad alone because they don’t have time for you, or some other kind of double-bind: if you will just do what we say, we will love you, but you always disappoint us, so we have to keep shaming you until you learn your lesson. When this is your experience as a child, it is nearly impossible to trust that someone means it when they call you friend. You are always looking for the catch: What are they not telling me? What are the conditions? How long will this last? In short, friendship is transactional.
Some people experience a childhood that puts them on the one-up end of the self-esteem spectrum: grandiosity (or narcissism). How this can happen is too large a topic to discuss here, so I’ll leave it for another day. In whatever way it happens, the result is essentially the same as for toxic shame: relationships are transactional and thus codependent.
If you’re like me, you are familiar with both ends of the spectrum because you learned that toxic shame is unbearable, but grandiosity feels good, and the fastest way to move out of the pain of shame is to move into feeling superior—and one of the quickest and most reliable ways to do that is through anger or blame. This way of life is like a seesaw: When I am feeling one-up, I will use shaming techniques to put you in your place so I can feel good about myself. But sometimes I overdo it and then I feel ashamed of what I did, so I go back into feeling one-down, and boy, do I want to get out of there fast, so I will blame you and get angry with you and shame you again so I can go back up into feeling superior. This is, of course, an endless cycle. It’s also the basis of most abusive relationships.
The inevitable result of not knowing how to live from a place of healthy self-esteem is immature relational skills that lead to codependence and instability: my sense of self-worth is based on external validation rather than coming from within. I will always be looking for approval from others, or having more money than you, a fancier title, a nicer car, a more beautiful wife, or a larger house. In short, there will never be enough of whatever I require to feel good about myself, and I will always be looking in the wrong places for what it is I really want.
By now you may have some idea of how exhausting it can be to live this way—always on guard, never trusting anyone, never having enough, always looking for the angles, living on a seesaw, or trying to answer questions like “How do I get what I want without paying too high a price?”
Find out how to move beyond codependence and dysfunctional relational skills in Part 2 of this blog. Coming soon.