Dear Aunty X,
I’m really at the lowest level in my life right now. I currently don’t know how to communicate with my best friend of over 10 years about my drastic change in attitude. We moved in together last year and since then I’ve secretly not been on good terms with her. It was different when we were apart and didn’t see each other often. So let’s call my friend Anna. Anna and I have been friends since secondary school and we’ve been inseparable for years.
There was a period of time that we were so dependent on each other that our relationship got toxic when we started experiencing our own battles with life to the point that we were subconsciously influencing each other’s life and had to cease being friends for a couple years.
Fast forward, we made it out the other side of our individual issues enough so that we could develop a healthier friendship without negatively influencing each other, but a raw sense of competition stayed hidden in the shadows of this newly forming friendship. We live together now — she moved from our hometown to where I moved and we got an apartment together. I helped her get adjusted by introducing her to my friends / coworkers and even got her a new job somewhere I had worked at previously.
If I had to dissect our relationship I would say we both have very low self-esteem and always have but hers manifested in sort of a superiority complex where she subconsciously puts me down and makes jokes about me and my shortcomings as a means of boosting her own self-esteem. My low self-esteem took the inferiority complex route. I recently fell into a pretty bad financial spot where I wasn’t making enough money to live and spent countless months trying to get another job (even reapplying for the same job I got Anna just to be denied multiple times) while battling my own sense of failure. My envy for the things that seemingly came easy for Anna triggered my sense of inferiority to the point that I no longer was able to hear about successes of hers without immediately, and automatically and uncontrollably, tearing myself down for not reaching my own success. There was another incident where I found out she was going on a trip with a friend I introduced to her to and it made me feel like she was trying to purposefully exclude me. This brought on a fight over me not being excited enough when she shared the information of her going on this trip.
Due to my wrong sense of self and inability to overcome the irrational feeling of inferiority to her, which is impeding my ability to grow personally and be a good friend, it has been difficult for me to be a genuinely good friend to her. I want to get along well with Anna but I fear that if I hang onto my grudges, I won’t be able to make this friendship last as long as I want it to. How could I possibly explain to her that it’s not that I’m jealous of her success but rather that I constantly feel like I’m competing with her for it and that I can’t offer her any advice because I’m not in a good position myself?
I can’t give her the praise and validation that she seeks with me because it feels like to feed her ego is to tear down my own? She’s a good enough friend but sometimes I just feel like we’re still teenagers and she’s trying to feel she’s better than me in life. I do feel shame for feeling this way and I don’t want to be envious but I also want to live in a world that doesn’t feel like I’m not doing good enough by her standards.
I’m so sorry that you’ve landed in this spot. I know exactly how impossible it feels. The main thing I want you to really take in, focus on, meditate on, write about, reflect on is this: You’ve come a long, long way – so far, on your hands and knees, with dirt under your fingernails and tears in your eyes – and you’re doing great. You’re doing so well that I don’t want to talk about your friend yet. I just want to point out how hard you’ve worked and how proud you should feel about who you are and where you are.
You are a remarkable person. First of all, you work yourself to the bone. You want to share all you acquire through working your ass off, which is something that is uncommon about you. In short, you are a really kind and generous person. Do you realize how extraordinary or rare that is? That kind of magic is not possessed by everyone. It’s important that you acknowledge and celebrate it.
Your friend moved to your town and you shared everything with her. You found an apartment together. You found her a job. You shared all of your friends with her. Many, many people would never do even one of these things. You did all of them. You gave her a complete life! I’m reminding you of this NOT because it’s time to resent her for everything you did for her. No. This is us celebrating YOUR generous spirit, pure and simple. You have a huge heart and you want to make other people happy, even when it means cutting your cake in half and giving it to them so they can taste it. You love the feeling of sharing and closeness, and you love your friend a lot. I really want you to feel that love and savor it, because it’s a real, living thing that makes your life more vivid, more passionate, more satisfying.
I’m hoping you can sense what I’m saying and realize how priceless your attention, perseverance, and generosity are. Because I have a good feeling that, at your best, you are aware that there is an abundance for all. In certain circumstances, you feel confident and upbeat, and it feels nice to share pals, assist with jobs, and have faith in your friendship. Here is some specific guidance: In our best times, the majority of us are fully aware of who we are. In order to maintain our beliefs and remind ourselves of how hard we’ve worked to get there, we all need to do it when we’re feeling powerful, light, and expansive. It’s crucial to carry out the action repeatedly!
Your inferiority complex is just an echo of stories that were told to you as a child. It has nothing to do with who you are. It’s almost like you’re haunted. Those sounds you hear and feelings of despair and self-doubt you experience when you discover that your friend went on a trip with your other friend, or your friend’s employer won’t hire you? Those sensations come from the haunting, the echoes, the reverberations of old stories that were myths to begin with, myths about how small and helpless and misguided you were. They don’t match the person you’ve grown into.
There are situations that kick up my own echoes, and it takes some time for me to notice how they’re acting on me. But I know I’ve landed there when I want to fix something – fix the record, be understood, win more love, plant myself at the center of the story, be the one with the biggest slice of cake, all for me.
Yet “fixing” things actually goes against my generous nature! I don’t *really* want to be some kind of impressive queen everyone adores. I don’t even want one person in particular to adore me around the clock. That’s my fantastical solution to what I really want. And what I really want, underneath all of those haunting sounds and feelings of fear and need and desire to FIX EVERYTHING, is to transform some small corner of the world into a place where people feel seen and heard and understood. Sometimes that place is at my dining room table, sometimes that place is in my daughter’s bedroom, sometimes that place is in a restaurant where I’m meeting a friend, sometimes that place is in a bar or on a rooftop or on the sidewalk outside a pizza place, and sometimes that place is right here in this column.
This is all relevant to you, by the way. Because you can believe in giving generously and being your big-hearted self and you can celebrate that and you can rejoice in it, but you STILL GET TO BE A HUMAN BEING. You still get to feel sad and left out sometimes. You still get to say so. And you know what makes saying so just fine, particularly for you, an incredibly generous, impressive, hard-working person?
Self-awareness. Your entire email is a work of art in self-knowledge. That’s just one more thing that sets you apart. You are fully aware of the lingering echoes of inadequacy in your life. By criticizing your friend for using her superiority complex as an outlet for her own low self-esteem, you are not in the least bit holding her accountable for these behaviors. You should let her know that you recognize her flaws. Even so, you are aware that you might be misinterpreting how she is feeling. You’re willing to learn her location. BECAUSE YOU CAN SEE CLEARLY. YOU ARE LIVING IN REALITY.
Now all you have to do is talk to her, from the heart, when you’re feeling calm and brave. You have to slow down and tell her, vulnerably, “I’m afraid to talk about this, but I want so badly for our friendship to grow and evolve and part of that includes telling each other the truth even when it’s difficult and even when no one is to blame for the truth.” You need to tell her that her jokes sometimes hurt your feelings, even though you recognize that’s probably not her intention. And you have to ask her for what you need, which isn’t for her to change everything she’s doing, but for her to show some consideration for your feelings. You don’t have to pound home the ways she’s done it wrong. You just have to ask for what you’d prefer moving forward.
In other words, you just have to tell her what you wrote to me, because everything you expressed is understandable. You’re struggling with self-esteem and inferiority issues not because you’re messed up or because she’s a bad person, but because THESE ARE THE THINGS THAT COME UP IN INTIMATE, INTENSE RELATIONSHIPS. They come up for people with incredible self-esteem and people who are mature and balanced and thriving.
True intimacy raises emotional instability. You gain deeper understanding of the fundamental emotions of your upbringing when you have a really demanding, close relationship with someone you love. You get knowledge about the inner drives that drive you onward. You discover how giving and diligent you are, as well as how profoundly terrified and humiliated you are. Furthermore, you can follow all the rules of intimacy and still fail. Because practically EVERYONE finds intimacy tough.
Your generosity makes intimacy even harder, let me add. This is why people get selfish and shut themselves off. Because it’s very, very difficult to remain vulnerable to others while also noticing how scared and insecure you feel the whole time, and how inferior you feel to them. In other words, the letter you wrote to me is one of the most difficult documents for any human to write.
And yet you wrote it. You did that. Why?
Because you’re very brave and very strong, that’s why. Again, we have to stop and hug you and tell you how far you’ve come to get here. Take a minute and feel some pride in what you’ve done, and who you’ve become, and how deeply you’re committed to staying open-hearted and present. Feeling pride in who you are is an exercise I want you to engage with many, many times a day. Because it’s the one thing that absurdly generous, hard-working, self-aware, deeply impressive, big-hearted people like you NEVER DO ENOUGH. And just feeling pride, just acknowledging how hard you’ve worked and how far you’ve come, will change everything.
It will give you more compassion toward yourself. (That’s something you desperately need. Self-awareness can be such a double-edged sword. And so many of us linger in that “Oh god, look how fucked up I am” space repeatedly because we can see our own foibles and vanities and needy desires so clearly.)
Speaking with your friend will also be made simpler by your pride. Because you’ll have the courage to tell her the delicate truth about how you feel from a place of pride and self-love, and you’ll do it without taking responsibility. She will notice your brightness and know that her heart is secure with you because you will shine with the inner optimism that got you here.
And that pride will make it easier to find a better job. Pride will make it easier to exercise more often, which will chip away at your inferiority complex and mute those echoes of fear that have been kicked up by the enormous challenge of sharing your life with your friend. Pride will make it easier to make plans with your friends without worrying about who they love the most. Your friends already love you and they don’t want to lose you. Pride will remind you of that.
But most importantly, pride will remind you that you don’t need to live up to anyone else’s standards, because you’re that rare and beautiful person who already has her own standards. Those standards are ALREADY tough to meet, in fact! You might want to loosen them a little, to make your life easier and give yourself more room to feel and grow. Because you’ll always have high standards even if you lower them a notch or too. Trust me. That’s just who you are. And it’s those standards that brought you to this moment, where your most pressing problems are not caused by failure and isolation and loneliness and alienation, but by daring to give generously, daring to show up for true intimacy, daring to question your doubts, daring to resist blame, daring to show your full self to others, and daring not just to build a full, rich life, but also to SHARE THAT LIFE with the people you love the most.
In other words, your attitude toward yourself has altered recently rather than your attitude toward your friend. Since her standards don’t fit you, you’ve adopted them and they’re making you feel horrible. It’s time for you to refresh your memory on who you are, what your standards are, what you stand for, and what you cherish.
Your problem doesn’t lie in these echoes from your childhood, that will probably never go away completely. Those are just stray sounds, like trucks rumbling by on the freeway miles away that make small animals think a storm might be coming. Once you feel proud of all you’ve done, you won’t mistake those echoes for a storm anymore. You’ll treat them like an unavoidable but almost trivial phenomenon, one that doesn’t reflect badly on you at all. And you’ll start to recognize that most people hear these same echoes, and lots of those people navigate their entire lives around avoiding that coming storm.
That’s not you. You’re courageous. Your problems are the problems of the courageous. In this life, the obstacles you face will be the obstacles faced by the daring and the open-hearted, the ones who are brave enough to show themselves, the ones who are loving enough to share generously, the ones who are trying to make some small corner of this frightened, angry world more beautiful. Take pride in that.
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