Recently, I had occasion to speak to two friends, on the same day. The conversations couldn’t have been any more different. One friend was celebrating some good news, while the other was struggling under the weight of health issues and needing someone to simply listen and sympathize with them. As someone who cares about both of these people, I was glad to have both conversations but it served as an important reminder about friendships.
Survivors, and others, often find themselves complaining about the lack of friends around us, or the drama that the friends we do have bring into our own lives, without understanding both the nature and limits of friendship. The fact of the matter is, as much fun as it was to laugh and celebrate a good moment with a friend, it’s just as important, if not more important, to be there for the bad ones too. Friends don’t get to pick and choose which moments they get to take part in. Well, at least if you expect to remain friends. Too often I see people complain about no one being willing to sit through their bad moments, when they have never done the same for any of their friends. It’s a sad fact that survivors often get so caught up in our own pain and healing that we forget other people have struggles too. When a friend is going through a hard time, and you see that as a chance to remind them how much worse you have it than they do, don’t be surprised if they don’t want you around during their bad, or good, moments any more. Would you want someone incapable of seeing past their own situation to share those moments with you? I wouldn’t. Ultimately, your ability to be there for others, in healthy ways, will increase the likelihood that others will be there for you.
It’s the healthy part that I think survivors struggle with. I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to say it over and over, child abuse survivors rarely learn how to be adults, and how to function in relation to other adults, until much later in life. That’s not an excuse, or at least it shouldn’t be. There is also no reason that survivors cannot learn to be adults and have adult relationships with other people. But, as a survivor, do not confuse the way you have related to other people from childhood on as normal and healthy. Most likely, it is not.
If you find other people’s ups and downs to be too much for you, you are not acting like a healthy adult. Healthy adults have boundaries. Not just in how they expect others to behave toward them, but in how much they allow other people’s lives to impact them. When I talked to one friend about her good news, I was honestly happy and excited for her. I was very hopeful that this news would help with some of the things she had been struggling with. Later, when I reached out to a friend who I knew was having a hard time, I was honestly concerned and pained by knowing that someone I care for is hurting. I am still both happy for one friend and sad for another. I am also living my own life and taking care of the things I need to take care of, regardless of how I may be feeling toward these two friends. That is what adults do. They are not derailed from their own life because they have a friend who is struggling. They care, and they do what they can for their friends, and then they go right back to living their own life. Because, ultimately, making yourself miserable in the course of empathizing with a friend is not helpful to anyone. You must have boundaries. You must have the inner strength, and the proper sense of self, to be your own person regardless of whatever drama may be going on in the lives of those around you.
People without a proper sense of self are the ones who find themselves constantly being dragged into other people’s lives in ways that are not healthy for anyone. Without that sense of self, they are left to find self-worth in how other people see them, and are open to being mistreated in a variety of ways. Some of those are on purpose, others are simply a result of being involved with other people without a proper sense of themselves. This results in all kinds of life drama, because no one has the inner strength to simply walk away and go live their own life. Unfortunately, most child abuse survivors do not grow up with a sense of themselves, and are used to seeing themselves only through the eyes of those who’ve abused them. That leaves us open to being overly involved in other people’s messes.
The good news is that it’s not too late to learn how to have a normal, adult, sense of yourself. It just takes some time and the willingness to learn. Surely that beats the alternative, no?