Same-field-friends, sensitive to each other's success or lack thereof...
April 15, 2015 5:58 PM   Subscribe

Today I had to take a "break" from a long-time friendship because my friend's announcements (directly to me) of her career successes has been making me feel pretty bad about myself. I feel like I did the best thing for now, but would like other people's opinion on my situation.

Ok, so to give you the back story: my friend A. and I have been friends since middle school. She was a year younger, and used to follow me around like she really admired me, and ingratiated herself into becoming friends with me (and it was flattering and positive too, because in many ways she's a great friend, we've been through a lot together). I excelled at art at the time, and she was talented in art too, but I suppose she envied me on some level whereas I didn't envy her at the time.

I ended up going to a prestigious art school and she went to a local state school and studied English and Graphic Design. Well, I lost a certainty about my artistic path at this prestigious art school because I was surrounded by top talent, and when I graduated, I picked up graphic design and have been a graphic designer since. It is not my passion, and I've been trying to transition into something that is.

On her end, she decided graphic design was not her thing, and applied to art school, where she ended up doing her MFA, and eventually through hard work, has carved out a steadily advancing career in painting and teaching painting. She sometimes has money struggles, but she has a long-term boyfriend, a job doing what she loves, has exhibited, and is altogether doing well for herself.

I am happy for her, but the only issue is that when she chats me up, it's always to share her professional artistic successes, or other big, good news. She is the type of person who doesn't say much about herself, but prefers to let others talk. She is supportive when I tell her pretty much everything, but her advice is nothing particularly insightful. So in other words, I end up feeling like I've been vulnerable to her, revealing all the nooks and crannies of myself, while I don't get much of her real self to relate to. She keeps her cards close to herself, revealing one deep, dark secret only if say, I've cooked her a big elaborate dinner or something. (I really appreciated when she did reveal that secret, I truly felt closer to her than I had in ages). And on top of that, the only cards she reveals are when she's won a big art prize or some other thing she can brag about. I tried to be generous and just praise her like she clearly wants me to, but over multiple incidences like this, it was beginning to really bother me (and my fragile ego re: my own artistic lack of accomplishment).

It bothers me that it isn't enough for her to share news like that over FB (where I can simply edit such notifications), but that she needs to make sure I personally know. She has plenty of friends, other artist friends too, so it makes me wonder why she can't just tactfully talk some, less sensitive, subjects with me, and gracefully avoid others, and get her praise-seeking from other friends who are less wont to feel insecure or jealous. But on the other hand, I feel bad for wishing that, because I don't want to be that person who people have to walk on eggshells around (like my dad was).

I want her to be herself, but her being herself is making me feel terrible about myself, because at this time we are no longer on an equal playing field... I want some time and space to myself to get back to a point where I feel good enough about where I'm at that I can feel genuinely happy for her whatever news she shares... So did I do the right thing by asking for a break? Or am I being some kind of a manipulative, oversensitive diva (for no reason than to preserve an old image of myself)?

By the way, she knows that I am sensitive to her successes, and her way of trying to make it better (?) is to go overboard kissing my butt... she'll apologize, she'll remind me how much she used to worship me, she'll say that she thinks I still have so much potential, and she'll list every little thing that she's jealous of me for, like the fact that I'm not allergic to cats while she can't have any because she is, or the fact that I live in NY, while she's only ever wished to. I hate when she does that, because it's just so unnecessary and weirdly sycophantic/condescending when I don't want her to be either. Ugh. Please tell me what you think is going on with this friendship... Thanks.
posted by Sa Dec to Human Relations (29 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like you guys just don't make good friends. It's not anyone's fault, you just don't do friendship the same way. Honestly, her way matches the way I like to do friendship more than yours does -- which is totally fine but just want to reiterate that I don't think she's behaving badly, I think that just the two of you don't match well. You're not a bad person if you don't get along with everyone.
posted by brainmouse at 6:04 PM on April 15, 2015 [17 favorites]

I think you guys just grew apart, and are not picking up what the other's putting down. It's good that you're taking a break. You're not a monster for wanting more emotional intimacy with a long term friend and don't let anyone make you think that.
posted by bleep at 6:08 PM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

You're not obligated to be friends with anyone if the friendship isn't working for you. Childhood friends often drift apart as they get older and that's ok. You may drift back towards each other or you may not.

The only thing is that I probably wouldn't have asked for a break - I probably would have just pulled a slow fade, because asking for a break often just causes more drama. But it sounds like it worked out fine in this situation.
posted by lunasol at 6:13 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Lunasol, I was doing a slow fade actually because that is how I am too (I hate conflict), but like I said, she chats me up once every 2 months or so for the main purpose of sharing some enviable news. So there is no slow-fading it, without her getting alarmed and asking why.
posted by Sa Dec at 6:17 PM on April 15, 2015

Response by poster: Btw, I don't feel envious of other artist friends' successes... it's just with her that I have a weird thing with because of the particular history we share. It has to do with her having once looked up to me, and now it feels like she looks down on me... and has to rub it in.
posted by Sa Dec at 6:19 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Consider that impressions of friends from long ago can endure for a very long time. If she looked up to you when she met you, and has for a long time, it's possible that she still feels like she is running to catch up with you, even if you feel like you've been standing still for ages. Along those lines, her sharing her successes with you won't feel like bragging to her if she has always felt inferior to you, regardless of observable accomplishments. She might be seeking you out for sharing news of her successes for that reason, and discounting your claims that it makes you feel bad, because how could it? It's natural to assume people we look up to could not possibly be insecure and then interpret their expressions of insecurity as modesty.
posted by lefty lucky cat at 6:32 PM on April 15, 2015 [35 favorites]

You describe how she contacts you, but you don't describe how you reach toward her, if you do. Your actions might set a tone you prefer if you do the approaching.
posted by Riverine at 6:40 PM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There's a chapter from Anne Lamott's writing book Bird By Bird in which she discusses jealousy, and relates having had exactly the same problem herself. Ultimately she gave herself permission to put some distance between her and her friend, on the grounds that her friend just simply wasn't a good influence for her to have in her life any more.

Give that section a read.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:42 PM on April 15, 2015 [9 favorites]

I tried to be generous and just praise her like she clearly wants me to.

and now it feels like she looks down on me...

That's a lot of assumption on your part. There's nothing wrong with respecting your own feeling and drawing the boundaries you need, but your comment that you're no longer "on an equal playing field" seems like you might need to process your feelings about the roles you play in friendships, and whether these can evolve through the ebbs and flows of each party's lives. Your emphasis on ranking and rating might be something you need to grow out of, especially in an artistic field. It seems like her "sycophantic" gestures are just trying to put your successes in perspective, and acknowledge that you both have things to be happy for.
posted by a box and a stick and a string and a bear at 6:45 PM on April 15, 2015 [14 favorites]

I would say that she's probably bragging and hoping to elicit an ego stroke from you, whether it's from your praise or just observing your envious reaction.

But you also said "I lost a certainty about my artistic path at this prestigious art school because I was surrounded by top talent". Surely not all of that top talent was bragging to make you feel bad.

Often envy stems from a sense of entitlement. We feel like "I deserve to be the best! And yet person X is doing better than me. How can the world be so unfair, when I'm entitled to do better than X?" Can you reset your sense of expectations?
posted by vienna at 6:50 PM on April 15, 2015 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: I just want to clarify that I know this is mainly MY problem and issue, and not hers. My own expectation and disappointment in myself for not being where she is at this time. It's an open wound and unfortunately, her wish to share her successful news with me just throws salt on it. I guess it is unreasonable for me to want her to be more sensitive or tactful... it's asking too much. And yet I can't really change what I expect of myself either in terms of accomplishments, etc. So... a certain, if temporary, break seems like the best approach. Thank you for giving me feedback.
posted by Sa Dec at 6:59 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You might have your own issues, but I think they're separate from her behaviour. I think you did the thing you needed to do, and it's fine. I think your instincts about her are probably right. In the kind of friendship it seems you've been offering (which is the kind I'm used to), people aren't usually that selective about what they share, or if they are, it's not usually only in the direction of praise-seeking. It does seem possible that she's (at least) mindful about how vulnerable she's willing to be, for whatever reasons. I mean she does sound, just, really, really ambitious. (Some ambition is good, and it's probably a necessary ingredient for success, but I think it's possible to be ambitious and a good friend, and I don't think she's been a good friend to you. And frankly, the stuff you described in the last paragraph of your question would drive me bonkers.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:11 PM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Please tell me what you think is going on with this friendship...

It is not working, by which I mean, it is causing more distress than ease, and instead of feeding the better angels of your natures, it's feeding the worse devils of them. No internet stranger can really assess the truths of where claimed resentments and looking-down-upons and divadoms and manipulations and insecurities lie in your mutual dynamic, but wherever those ratios are happening isn't sounding healthy.

So, yep; get some distance and time into the mix.
posted by Drastic at 7:14 PM on April 15, 2015 [4 favorites]

Have you ever thought of just telling her how you feel when you hear about her successes? I think owning up to unattractive feelings and being vulnerable is an opportunity for growth. If she's normally quite reserved, she may feel very safe in telling you about these great things that she's done, and that you are a safe place for her to talk about this stuff. Personally, I'm glad to have friends who do cool things and have accomplishments that I don't, won't and may never even try for. Sure, sometimes, I feel a little pang and wonder "Why not me?" but usually the happiness I get from knowing these people outweighs my own self-reproach.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:43 PM on April 15, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Ideefixe, I did already own up to everything, how I felt "needled" by her successes because I'm going through a bumpy transition period, and that I needed a break. (I almost can't help but be honest eventually). However, I didn't point out all my "instincts about her" that I wrote in my OP, as I just didn't feel like she needed to hear it.
posted by Sa Dec at 8:07 PM on April 15, 2015

Response by poster: Actually, it's a good point... this crisis that came to a head with a "break" is really an opportunity for growth. A boundary setting and a clearing out a quiet safe space for myself to regain my equilibrium or something. Thank you for that insight, Ideefixe.
posted by Sa Dec at 8:14 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Does she still bring up the topic now that you've told her it makes you uncomfortable? If so, I think taking a break from her for a while is a good decision. After you've cleared your head and have had some time to gain some inner peace, you can decide whether or not you feel the friendship you have with her is worth saving. In my opinion, if you think you have a good relationship with her outside of this particular issue - then you can have a conversation with her about why this is such a sensitive subject for you and would prefer that the two of you talk about non-career things for some time. I know this might be difficult to do (I'm horrible at talking about my feelings as well) but I think it will be helpful for you because how she reacts from then onwards might give you an idea of how close you want to remain with her. Sometimes, friends just get so caught up in the excitement of their own lives that they don't realize they might be unintentionally hurting you. But real friends don't deliberately try to make you feel bad about yourself, I'm learning that the hard way myself too.

I understand that feeling of jealousy all too well by the way. When you feel less successful than your friends, you become hypersensitive to your perceived "flaws" and even an innocent comment someone makes can seem like it's a jab directed at you. Something that has helped me deal with that green-eyed monster that pops up every now and then is to remind myself that everyone is on their own journey. I know it sound corny but it's true. You're not any less successful than your friend, you took your own path in life and she took hers. And it's hardly over. You have your whole life ahead of you and can choose to go in whatever direction you'd like it to.
posted by KTN at 8:32 PM on April 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

Mod note: Sa Dec, AskMe really isn't for back-and-forth conversation. If you need to clarify something, that's fine, but otherwise it's not necessary or proper to reply.
posted by restless_nomad (staff) at 8:38 PM on April 15, 2015

Best answer: Have you ever thought of just telling her how you feel when you hear about her successes? I think owning up to unattractive feelings and being vulnerable is an opportunity for growth.

That was what I was going to say, plus asking for what you want. "I'm feeling a little insecure about my career path at the moment, and when I hear your good news I want to be happy for you, but I just feel bad about myself. Could we try to connect as friends and leave our art careers out of the conversation for awhile?"

But since you've already asked for a break, then this advice may not help. Hopefully the break is helpful for you.
posted by salvia at 8:55 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

I agree. Drop her. You've thought this through carefully and for now can't see a way to cope with it. Things change and you might get on better with her in the future but for now, for you it is just hard work and hurt feelings and no one is benefitting.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 9:44 PM on April 15, 2015

I don't think OP is displaying a sense of entitlement. OP didn't say that s/he lost certainty at art school because of other people's bragging but because of their talent. It may have been that s/he privately compared self unfavorably with the "top talent", not that s/he received negative comments from them. If OP is envious of friend, it is probably friend's lack of modesty that s/he envies, not friend's excess of talent.
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 9:53 PM on April 15, 2015

What I'm taking away from this is that she has Perfect Syndrome. Everything's always coming up roses for her--AND you have complaints that she is never vulnerable to you. She doesn't have much to say, seems generally impervious, and you feel flawed while she seems superior. Hey, it's like hanging out with my relatives!

You'd probably have less issues with her perfection if you actually could see her as imperfect and not always successful, wouldn't you? If you weren't always feeling like the loser by comparison?

I'm not sure how to get her to be a more open friend. Maybe a slow fade or "break" that becomes permanent is the best thing for you. But my impression of the whole thing is that it may not be so much her career success so much as the lack of openness, weaknesses, humanity. Maybe there's no "there" there with her, maybe she's just not that deep, maybe she just doesn't have much to say. I don't know her, so beats me. But it may be worth one last conversation with her about how you always feel like the weak one because she always seems so perfect, and maybe see if she agrees with that or is all "No, I have plenty of issues!" If she's willing to unclench, let down the facade a bit, maybe this friendship can be saved. It might be worth a shot, and you can just end it/slow fade if it doesn't work.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:59 PM on April 15, 2015

It sounds like you've realised that you want her to be something/someone other than what/who she actually is, have accepted that she's not going to change and taken the steps necessary to ensure that you're in a better position. That's a completely OK and adult thing to do. It's not diva-ish at all to not engage with someone who isn't giving you what you want. It's a completely sensible, rational thing to do. It's quite respectful of her as an individual that you're not attempting to change her behaviour.

For what it's worth, I don't generally share the unpleasant things that have happened to me with other people. I've never found it helpful to re-live the thing that was unpleasant, and it's always seemed a little like gloating on the part of the other person who wants to hear about it. In the past, it's felt like someone was fishing for salacious gossip, or for something that they could use to make themselves feel superior to me about. I've no idea if this is related to why your friend won't share with you or not, it's just a data point from the other side.

I think you've just grown apart, in different directions with different lives. No harm, no foul, and moving on in your own way is, I think, the best possible outcome.
posted by Solomon at 12:25 AM on April 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

There's nothing wrong with your friend. You're just unhappy with your life and therefore you need to work on your self esteem. Your post makes you sound petty.

Not sure the friendship can or will or should survive but it's all about you and not about your friend.
posted by Kwadeng at 12:42 AM on April 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

I think there's a chance that the relationship does have a longstanding component of competitiveness. For so long the OP was someone the friend is still proving herself to, so now it could be that she's sort of relishing feeling on top. My sense is that the OP is so self aware at this point about this issue that if it were one-sided, she might've already solved it. I think the OP is smart to notice this dynamic, and I hope it's one they can break, because old friends are valuable. My instinct is that being simultaneously vulnerable (revealing career insecurity) and confident (not seeking reassurance, owning the feelings of inferiority or insecurity as a personal issue that OP is working through) could free both people, particularly if the friend is ready to drop the competitiveness thing as well. Good luck, OP.
posted by salvia at 12:55 AM on April 16, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think she should drop you.

You say this friend followed you around in middle school, admired you and "ingratiated" herself to you until you grudgingly conceded she could be around you. Now she's successful and happy in a field you both share - and it sounds to me that whenever she has a success she's making sure you know because, for whatever reason, she's still looking for your approval. Has it occurred to you that you are projecting that she's bragging and looking down on you because that's what you do to other people?

I'm being harsh because she sounds like me. You could say I "play it close to the vest", or you could say that I'm plagued with such crippling self-doubt and insecurity that I apologize to my therapist for having to listen to me because I assume that no one cares about my problems, not even when they're billing my insurance. Having been conditioned to not complain, I'll only portray positives to people - because I assume no one gives a shit that I'm depressed or if something didn't go as I'd hoped it would. As I grow older, the positives are material things - decent job, house, car, promotion. It's not bragging if I talk about these things instead of sharing my inner dialogue, which is usually about how I'm a stupid fat fuck who doesn't deserve these things and will be discovered as a mental five-year-old playing dress up at any minute. But I have a feeling I wouldn't tell you any of that even if I'd known you since middle school, because I'd be afraid you'd label me as ungrateful for everything life has handed me instead of just being happy to see what I've achieved. I bet that's how your friend feels, which is why she goes out of her way to reassure you of her value and continues to seek your approval.

If you really want her to stop contacting you, skip the slow fade and just show her this post. Bridge vaporizing guaranteed.
posted by mibo at 4:32 AM on April 16, 2015 [16 favorites]

I think that from the beginning, you have seen her as a fan rather than a friend - you describe the beginning of the friendship in those terms.

I think you've both continued to relate to each other in that way, which is why she gives you the good news about her work: it's a "notice me, senpai!" kind of thing on her part. Meanwhile, she cannot understand that you see yourself as unsuccessful because you are the template in her eyes for talent and success.

If a friend's success makes you want to hold it against them you should always end that friendship. I think it is better to do the fade - sure the person will keep coming back, that's why it's called a fade. You don't get the satisfaction of taking something valuable away from them (your friendship) by telling them that you're doing it, and it's pretty clear that that is the satisfaction you want, after all, it's only fair after she took all your talent and success away from you, isn't it?

I don't know what is going on in your friend's head but I think it will be very difficult for you to thrive as long as you continue to see things in competitive, zero-sum terms. You could also have been surrounded by talent at art school and seen it as a set of influences that would enrich your own talent, after all, but instead you perceived others as sucking all the ability out of you.

Don't be this small.
posted by tel3path at 4:53 AM on April 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Friendships are about acceptance. It doesn't sound like you accept her or even like you like her all that much. No reason to keep her as a friend.

I play things "close to the vest" and the last thing I'd need is a "friend" judging me and being angry or upset with me for protecting myself by being quiet about some stuff. Just because you share with me does not mean I have to share with you. Disclosures are not prizes to be eked out of others. You might want to think about why you feel like your friends owe you discussions of their secrets.
posted by sockermom at 6:44 AM on April 16, 2015 [8 favorites]

I think that from the beginning, you have seen her as a fan rather than a friend - you describe the beginning of the friendship in those terms.

I think this is the real problem. You seemed happy to have someone inferior to you. Now you feel as though you've traded places, and have problems feeling inferior to someone else - while you were okay previously when the shoe was on the other foot.

This is not a friend, this is an ego boost that didn't know it.
posted by corb at 11:11 AM on April 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

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