Relationships are weird, don’t you agree? Other people are unpredictable, and the endless combination of human interactions leads to some pretty frustrating encounters. In Nicole Knows, Nicole Cliffe helps us navigate all the ridiculousness relationships come with. If you have a question for Nicole, email firstname.lastname@example.org
I like being a good friend. I pride myself that, when things go wrong, my friends ask me for advice, or find it easy to vent to me about their problems, and in general say that I am someone who is there for them. And (not a humblebrag) I am someone with a lot of friends, so this happens pretty often. The problem is that I spread myself so thin trying to be a “good friend.” I will go weeks without having a free night to myself because there’s usually someone I haven’t seen in too long. I hold onto whatever they’re upset about in a way that causes me a lot of stress and anxiety. I’ll worry that I or other friends or an event we’ve all planned will somehow result in an interaction that will cause them more problems, and I twist myself up trying to accommodate everyone so that everyone is having a good time and no one has a chance of being upset and then I wind up being the anxious and exhausted one. My partner tries to remind me that our friends are adults and can take care of themselves, but I worry that if I stop trying as hard as I’m trying, our friends will think I don’t care. How do I let myself relax while still being a good friend?
Let me begin by saying it’s been very heartening, while writing this column, to see people taking friendship so seriously. Especially their responsibilities AS friends (it’s not all “responding promptly to the group text,” though that’s obviously very important.) Many people do not take their friendships as seriously as their passing romantic interests, or see their friendships as purely transactional, and it warms the cockles of my heart to witness men and women putting the work in to deepen and strengthen our bonds with each other! I celebrate you.
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Your specific set of concerns is a very valid one, and is the sort of thing that can wind up frustrating your friends as well as yourself, even though that’s the LAST thing you want. Like the Good Hostess Dilemma and the Ultimate Purpose of Etiquette, you want people around you to feel comfortable and at ease while also not yourself turning into the anxiety Roadrunner. I reference the Good Hostess Dilemma here (trademark pending) because people can almost always tell if you are straining to keep things delightful for them. They do not like it! Even if they enjoy the ensuing bowls of carefully chosen snacks and the great listening, they know something is not quite right. The solution I have found, as a hostess (but also as a general purpose friend) is to do approximately 10-15% more than you would like to for other people in a given scenario. Less is not enough, and more is too much!
People greatly want to be found enjoyable, they want you to enjoy your time with them, and sometimes it’s a gift to both sides of the equation to be a little more selfish. If your friend always whines about work when you get together, sit down and make up a whine about work, deliver it, and then say “okay, now you whine about work for…fifteen minutes…and then we’ll talk about something more fun!” If you always make an elaborate meal the second Thursday of every month for six friends, say (in a luxurious tone of voice) “next month I’m going to be lazy and we’re going to order in instead!” We all like being listened to and coddled and supported (oh, do we EVER), but I firmly believe that what we like even more is to know that our friends enjoy our time together, enjoy us, and are not just gritting their teeth until we leave and they can load the dishwasher and put on a sheet mask.
Your boyfriend is very correct that your friends will be okay if you need to pull back a little bit from providing top tier concierge friendship service! I think you’ll find that they don’t even notice. People are great at not noticing things! What I must insist on is that you carve out more nights to yourself, good gravy. This is why women in the olden days announced they were At Home To Guests two nights a week, so that they could do whatever they wanted (by which I mean needlepointing or reading Scripture) the other five with a clear conscience. You’ll have so much more of yourself to offer your friends if you’re more protective of your time. Now, like a therapist, I encourage you to keep emergency timeslots available for friends who just really need you this week, but you do not seem like the sort of person who will suddenly begin coolly blowing people off.
The last thing I will say is that organizing GROUPS of friends is a mug’s game and you should do your best to opt out of it, or at least opt out of any sense of emotional responsibility for them. People will chafe against each other and get into little rivalries or just not gel and it’s utterly beyond anyone’s ability to control. I know this is easier said than done (care less!) but if you CAN manage it, you’ll be delighted in the result. Maybe try caring a LITTLE less to start (or just deliberately paying less attention?) I know if I’m at the movies with friends and I am not 100% confident that everyone is Having a Great Time it makes me absolutely nuts, and it’s something I personally combat by adding a full bag of peanut M&Ms to my popcorn and trying not to think about.
You are doing brilliantly at being a person, in my opinion, and are contributing to the gaiety of nations, as my friend’s grandmother used to say, and if you can just tweak things so that you worry a little bit less about others, you’ll be delighted with the result.