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Friendships - Is it really so difficult?

As the picture says “friends are the family we choose for ourselves”. I‘ve wondered about this over the years. There seems to be so many different types of friends, it all gets a bit confusing.

What do they need to do to be included as family? If friends really are the family we choose for ourselves, are we choosing the right ones?

As someone who has sat on on the outside looking in for most of my life, I’ve witnessed many a friendship form, stabilise, and then observed as it hits a rocky patch, preferring not to get involved for numerous reasons, if I can help it. I watched this test the most patient of people, saw the range of emotions and the resilience of the people involved, be it that the friendship continued or fell apart. I also saw some underhand behaviour that really didn’t sit well with me. For the main part, it wasn't my business.

For years it seemed like a strange concept to me. I couldn’t quite understand the whole friend thing and never seemed to get it right. We talk to some people daily and others only on occasion. They are work colleagues, people we go to school with, other parents at the school gate or friends of friends, people we meet through socialising (if you’re like me and never go out this may seem like an odd concept).

And then there’s the interaction itself. The things people say and do. And the things we say and do. It can leave us or our friends asking questions like why did they say that? Why are they reacting like that? Why did they do that? What does it all mean?

Lately I’ve been thinking about the type of friends I have had over the years and the type of friend I have been, as well as the pressures of society to conform to the norm.

As an autistic adult with ADHD, friendships have always been something I’ve struggled with although up until a few years ago I didn't really understand why.

Acquaintances can be confusing. We know them, we talk to them, yet it’s only in passing but you could quite happily stand and talk for a while. They may be someone you have known better in the past or someone you’ve known for years, months or even a few days. They know your name, you know theirs, (if you can remember it), you may meet in the same place or pass each other when out and about. At what point do you actually say they are friends?

And if you do decide that they are now a friend and you tell them something more personal, what will they do with that information? Will they share something back? I know there are occasions where I have overshared. Was it because I was lonely? Did I need to be heard? Was it my way of saying I knew what they were going through? Did I want to be validated? Did I want them to like me? Looking back, I can honestly say yes to at least one of those questions. At some point I ’d also think why did I share that??

I have friends that I’ve met because of my interest and involvment with autism and ADHD. These friends get it when it comes to the frequency of contact. These are the friends who I can go for months not talking to, yet the rapport is there without a “what happened?’ or “Oh you are speaking to me” kinda comment.

Forced Friendships. You don’t really want to be their friend and would rather not speak to them at all, but for some reason you have to pass yourself, so you try to be their friend but have nothing in common. If you were left on your own in a room with them, it would be nothing but small talk about the weather, or our kids or last nights TV or work. If you're like me and hate small talk, this is awkward (and can also be boring). In all honesty I'd rather have what could be called an uncomfortable silence. And is it really that uncomfortable? Sometimes the answer is no!

Casual friends. Some I used to know quite well, others I hardly know at all. Personally, with most of them, I am just me; we talk and usually have a laugh. Maybe that's why it's casual, we never really talk about anything too deep or make plans to meet up. Some of these people I am extremely fond of and love bumping into them.

Former friends. Do I say hello or just smile? Sometimes the choice is made for me, as they already know what their stance is on it. Some of them will say hello at times and other times not, which can be confusing. I always find it amusing when others ignore me. I always like to say hello when that happens. Sometimes I do it to be the bigger person and sometimes to annoy them. Judge me as you will.

Then there are the former friends that have deeply hurt me or someone I care about. Saying hello is seen to be being the bigger person, but there are times I just don’t want to be the bigger person by acknowledging them, preferring to ignore them, pretending I didn’t see them or look right through them. Some things I cannot forgive.

As for best friends, I can only think of a small number of people who I’ve actually called my best friend over the years. The first 3 were in my teenage years, moving around various parts of the UK in the 1980's. Two of them I no longer have contact with, one is a friend on social media (I think, I haven't seen any of her posts lately).

It has taken years for me to find friends that I can trust and who truly have my best interests at heart, but I also know that to have a friendship with me comes with a certain level of understanding and acceptance on the other person’s part.

In my earlier post about object permanence, I mentioned the “out of sight, out of mind” thing. Well that applies to friendships too. I have a friend that I have known for 30 years, lives approximately 2 miles away and every now and again we send each other messages to say we must catch up. I think the world of her and do think to myself that I must give her a ring or send a message, but I always get distracted. It’s not that I don’t want to see my friend or hear what is going on for them, I just don’t have the capacity for it when I do remember. Yet strangely enough when we do eventually talk, it’s like we see each other every day. And yes we berate each other for not being in touch more often, but it's accepted without blame on either side.

I also know that by the time my week is up, my time off has become my time to recover from peopling, so that side of it is hard. I'm not saying I wouldn't do anything in my time off, but prefer not to. It really depends on what it is and the effort required.

I have a number of friends like this.

This can mean that those who actually want to be friends with me, may find it difficult to have a 'normal' friendship. I’m not the friend that is always instantly available. I don’t like texting, so I’m not the friend that you can expect to have a lengthy chat with by text. I won’t send that text saying hey let’s grab a coffee, even when I really want to. I may not always answer a text straight away. Sometimes I read it and can’t think of a reply, or there are too many ways to reply and I cant choose which. Sometimes I don't think it needs a reply. Sometimes I don’t have the capacity for texting and may ring instead (although there is very little chance of that happening). Sometimes I don’t want to engage at all.

I’m also not a big fan of social media, so I won‘t be all over your posts, liking and commenting on everything. I have very few people on my social media. I am not that friend.

I don't like leaving my house without a purpose. I don't do random shopping trips out, never mind random visits. I also won’t visit you without an invite first and when I mean an invite, I mean every single occassion. I’ve had friends tell me I can call anytime. I won’t visit any time as they aren't precise enough e.g. next Saturday at 4pm. I always felt like I was imposing on someone when I used to do that, but thinking about that I'm wondering is that my stuff or do they actually want me to visit anytime? It's so confusing.

I also don’t like anyone visiting me without prior warning. The only people that I would actually make an exception for, know me well enough not to just turn up. (This why I wonder about the comment above and it being my stuff).

I’m also aware that some friendships just fizzle out. Our paths can go different ways, sometimes interests change, lifestyles change etc. It doesn’t mean it is about me or you, it just means something has changed and we cannot be the friends we once were, and all of that is OK. If you are one of those people, please know I do think about you sometimes. I also wonder about getting in touch and then think against it (see the comment above and re texting about going for a coffee).

My own issues and past experiences with friendship and the grey areas within them, mean that I’m wary about reaching out. I don‘t want to keep making new friends with the wrong people (and they may not necessarily be the wrong people), but I’ve been burnt too badly in the past. Even with my learning and awareness of the part I play in the friendship, I’m still wary of making new friends.

My father was in the armed forces and because of this I never stayed anywhere long enough to have that ‘lifelong‘ best friend. I don’t have friends I can share those childhood memories with. Truth be told, I don’t remember much about friendships up until the age of 10.

I became aware of friendships and the difficulties with them, as I was entering puberty and realised that I wasn’t like the popular girls in school. I was always sitting on the sidelines watching the popular girls and wishing I could be them because everybody liked them. The few times I was included in the group, I noticed there were petty squabbles and I struggled with that. I hated the animosity and confrontation and having to pick sides. Then one day I was directly involved in one of these squabbles and ended up in a fight, coming away with a rippped dress and an annoyed mother. She wasn’t just annoyed because my dress was ripped, it was also because, at the time, we were stationed near my mums home town and she had gone to school with this girls mother, and they had been friends in school! We did make up after that, although I'm not sure if it was because of our mothers intervention or it came about naturally.

I also became very aware (while in boarding school at the age of 12), that the friends I had made in primary school, fell in and out with each other more often than I realised. A letter from whom I thought was my best friend, stating how she had fell out with another girl in the group. She got a letter back with an honest reply; I didn’t really like the girl anyway. (the no filter, blunt, honest response).

Of course by the time the letter was received they had all made up again, read my letter and I was no longer a part of that friend group. I’ll go one better than that and say that when my dad left the armed services and we returned to my mums home town to live, the original receiver of the letter still didn’t talk to me for years and the other girls only really said hello! And that was when we had all grown up and were supposed to be adults!

As for boarding school, well I was very badly bullied. I was very different to the girls that went there. Obviously I now know it was down to being autistic and having ADHD, but there was much more that made me stand out from my peers. My parents didn’t have money therefore we were poor by their standards. The RAF paid my fees. I didn't return from each weekend home with a brand new wardrobe. I definitely didn’t fit in. But it wasn’t always the other boarders. There was a day pupil who bullied me too and brought her hangers-on with her. She tried several times to get me down at the school lockers (with the aid of boarding pupils in my class) for a confrontation and a chance to give me a good hiding. There were times she succeeded. The best of it is, the same girl that bullied me, used to be my friend (or so I thought).

Looking back, the only girl that I felt was a true friend was a bit different, like me. She was also a day pupil so while there was sanctuary in it, it wasn’t constant. Now when I think about it, we were lonely souls just wanting to be understood, who had the same taste in music and clothes.

The hardest part about friendship over the years has been the toxicity that comes with it. I’m honestly not sure whether or not my own vulnerabilities, loneliness and need to fit in meant I attracted those with the toxic traits or whether something in me sought them out.

And it took time to see their behaviours as toxic. Realising that the person who tells you everything about everyone else and their secrets, also does the same with your deepest darkest secrets. Finding out that the person who bitches about everyone else, also bitches about you to other people, despite calling you her best friend. Surely best friends don’t do that? It really hurt and for a while I did try to get my side of of the story across but it only made it worse. I didn’t bother with the last one. Firstly, it wasn’t worth the time or energy and secondly, why should I give them all the power? No response is still a response.

Don't get me wrong, I am in no way perfect. After months of reading, I am positive that Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria has also played a part when it comes to friendships (also currently writing a blog on this).

I also have no doubt that my behaviour in the past has been toxic at times, but now that I know better, I do my best to be better.

I was used a lot and as a former people pleaser, it wasn’t difficult. Borrowing things, giving lifts, being the person people called on when there was no one else to go out with, even as far as staying in someone’s house in a different town, to ensure that they could stay at home while their parents went on holiday. It’s only after all these things I realised that I was being used, as I was dropped like a hot potato soon after. I'm long past being resentful about it. It's in the past where it should be.

And let’s be honest. When I look back at who I was back then, I would definitely say I was ‘needy’. I wanted others to validate me as I didn’t know how to validate myself. I had no self-worth, low self-esteem, low self-confidence. I did know how to set some boundaries to protect myself but I was scared to do it for fear of rejection. My happiness really did depend on other people. And that wasn’t just friendships. I’m not even going to mention my (apparently) romantic relationships!

Learning that not everyone liked me was something that I struggled with too. I used to try and be their friend to show them I was a decent person. Now I just think it’s their choice and I’m not going to try and change it. It is their opinion and they are entitled to it.

It’s difficult.

I know that, as a friend, I am trustworthy. I still have secrets in my head from years ago, from former friends. As much as I know there are others who have shared my secrets after a friendship has broken down. I have never shared theirs. I was asked to entrust a secret and I have kept that. The term “do onto others as you would do yourself‘ springs to mind here.

I’m also fiercely loyal. I will back a friend to the hilt and stand by their side. If something happens that makes me think they aren't the friend I thought they were, I won't go out and purposefully stab them in the back to anyone and everyone, simply because I am not that kind of person. Why? Because I’ve been at the receiving end of it. I won’t impact another with that amount of hurt.

What I will do is discuss my issues regarding them with friends I know I can trust, if I can't actually discuss it with the individual. And the number of people I trust with that kind of thing I can count on one hand. They are usually reflective chats where my friends help me see my faults and failings too, if I hadn't already thought of them.

As far as trusting goes, I’ve learnt over the years that not everyone is like me, they cannot all be trusted, despite what they say. Some people pretend to be your friend because you have something they want or need. Be it a skillset, a physical thing, information or access to another individual.

Looking back, the toxic traits of others only became apparent to me as friendships were ending, despite some of those traits being there all along. I just didn’t see them. I wasn’t aware that not everyone who said they had the same values as me, didn’t actually hold themselves to those values, they just expected them from other people. A former best friend was so toxic, that it took me a long time to recover from her actions and has also impounded my belief that people cannot be trusted.

If you’re wondering why I am telling you all this, it is because I want you to know that I get it. Friendships, the definition around them and actually managing them (if that’s even possible) is hard.

It’s why so many of us keep our true selves to ourselves.

I get it that some of us have limitations with social skills. Personally, I feel It’s about our inability to PROPERLY read people, to see the intent BEHIND their actions. This could be because we take everything at face value. It could be because of our black and white thinking. It could also be because we simply don't trust our gut.

Over the years I have encountered people in one way or another, and something deep inside has been trying to warn me that something about this person isn't quite right (I can think of no other way to describe this).

For me personally, I get a weird feeling in my body (usually in my stomach or legs) or a tiny voice in my head that raises a doubt. Some would call it red flags. Yet in the past, I've ignored it because I’ve been lonely, bored or craved company and they seemed like a good laugh, kind or interesting and I have went along with their flow, instead of listening to my own instincts. Why? Because I didn’t trust myself.

On other occasions, it was because I saw the good in that person.

Have I been vulnerable in the past? Yes and I feel that at certain times these individuals knew this, although not consciously. I stayed away from them initially, but they wormed their way in and I let them.

At 53 years of age, I have had many a conversation about friendships and learned from others that they too encountered the same type of people and became friends. For several reasons they eventually decided to distance themselves from them. Not necessarily because they are particularly bad people, but because there was something about them that initially won them over, and they too didn’t see the warning signs.

I feel, that as individuals, we let people like this in because they presented as the type of friend we needed/wanted or as someone we wanted to help.

I also think that, at times, we expect too much from people. We expect others to have the same standards and values as we do. We put our expectations so high, that others simply cannot meet those expectations and the friendship flounders.

But, in saying that, we are allowed to have expectations, we are allowed to set boundaries. We are allowed to choose what is acceptable in friendship. In doing this we protect ourselves, but we also need to be realistic.

My measure of friendship now goes by how I feel after interacting with someone. If I feel too drained, I limit my time with them. If they want more than I can give, I say no. More importantly, I've learned to trust my gut instinct. When it's telling me that something isn’t right, I listen and keep my guard up and try not to get too involved, preferring to keep them at a distance.

With my true friends - I would move the earth for them if it was within my limits, but I still have my limits, as they do with me.

My true friends also tell me when they see or hear something in interactions, that may not always be in my best interests. They will explain why and then leave the rest up to me. They have no other motive than to be a good friend.

Very few get let into the true friends category. An article in Psychcentral states that research in the USA shows that most people have between 3 and 5 close friends and that is dependent on various things such as your age, marital status etc.

Also stated in the article and something I have also noticed is that, as we grow older, it is the quality of the friendships that matter, not the number of friends that we have. Personally I feel my friends are the people that I can be my true self with. Friends that accept me for who I am and I don’t have to mask with. Friends that I don’t feel awkward with for the majority of the time. (I say this because there are times when I need a true friend to listen or ask advice, and this can feel awkward no matter how much I love and trust them).

It has taken a lot of self-reflection, therapy and acceptance of myself to get to this far and finally understand how I operate as a friend to others. I also realise what friendships mean to me, the boundaries I need to set and what to realistically expect from them. I'm now 53 years old and finally realise what a good friend is and how I can be a good friend.

I also realise how privileged I am in having those friends and if they happen to be reading this, well.... thanks for being you.

If you're still reading and wondering about friendships, I get it, I've spent years wondering. These are my experiences and my own self-reflection on it. Your experiences may be completely different.

Maybe you need to set boundaries, maybe you don't. Maybe you are one of the lucky ones who, like me, have friends that you know are looking out for you. Maybe you've realised that some people could be held at more of a distance and you could do that in your own way, possibly by no longer being as available as you currently are.

Maybe you feel you need to cut those ties completely, and with that comes a difficult task of working out how to do it In a manner that is acceptable to you. Maybe you put your foot down and cease all contact at once, maybe you do it slowly in the hope that the other person does the same.

Whatever you decide after reading this, please take care of yourself x


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