Friendship and guilt

Earlier this month, I found myself in the enviable position of having both a week to myself and the house to myself. My partner participated in a road race series nearby his parents’ home and brought the kids with him to spend a week with their grandparents.

As one of the captains of Team Introvert, I was way more excited than anyone should be about the prospect of a week to myself. Yet I also knew that the last time I had a week to myself, I found myself in a pretty precarious mental state. Plus, after 15 months of pandemic living and with all of my close friends fully vaccinated, I wanted to get out and spend time with friends “in 3-D”. No problem, I thought. I’ll just send out a few texts and rally the troops and get some things on the calendar!

And that’s when I hit an unexpected wall.

The voices in my head clamored, “Why do you think anyone will want to spend time with you? Oh, so NOW you have some free time and you just expect people to drop everything and hang out with you? They’ll probably be pissed off because you haven’t asked them to do anything in a while. You’re just doing this because it’s convenient for you. You’re not a real friend to anyone.”

This unexpected wave of Friend Guilt caught me off guard. Where was this coming from? Did I honestly think my close friends would be pissed off by a request to get together? How much of a weirdo am I?

Serendipitously, this very subject of Friend Guilt came up over lunch with one of my close friends a few days later. Turns out, I am not that much of a weirdo, at least where Friend Guilt is concerned. (Or maybe this close friend and I are alone in our weirdness on this? I doubt it.) Friend Guilt is a thing! Other people feel Friend Guilt!

I’ve spent some time reflecting on the source of my Friend Guilt since then. In my case, I think there are two main mitigating factors.

Organizing fatigue. Like many women, I carry the bulk of the mental load at home, making sure that the house and the family don’t descend into chaos. (This is something my partner and I are actively working on correcting, not least because the stress of many things, including shouldering this mental load, is negatively impacting my health in tangible ways.) My job requires a lot of planning, organizing, and decision-making throughout the day. I’m mentally fried by the end of the day. Texting or (horrors!) calling people to try and set something up, requiring at least several rounds of decision-making, often seems like an insurmountable barrier, the thought of which exhausts me further. So I often don’t send that text, or initiate the plans. This leads to two different sources of guilt: the guilt of “I’m such a free-rider because I rely on others to initiate plans with me”, and the guilt of “if I was a *real* friend, I would make the effort to initiate plans even when I’m exhausted, because that’s what real friends do.”

A “history” of bailing at the last minute. I put “history” in quotes because honestly I think this is something I make a bigger deal out of than anyone else in my life. One of my kiddos, when very young, was very needy, and often unpredictably so. Now that we have some diagnoses, the behavior back then makes much more sense. At the time, though, all I knew is that I could never quite predict when this kiddo would have a major meltdown, or Very Big Feelings That Need To Come Out Right Now. When this happened, 9.5 times out of 10 kiddo could only be consoled by me. So I’d find myself canceling plans at the last minute, and sometimes those plans happened to be with close friends. Now, my friends are not monsters, so of course they understood. But over time, I started to tell myself a story that I was a bad friend because I couldn’t keep to my friend commitments. And since I couldn’t keep my friend commitments, how dare I make plans to see friends when it was “convenient” for me? You can see the vicious cycle this started. It just became easier to not initiate plans, to avoid the guilt and shame of “neglecting” my friends.

When my friend voiced some of the same phrases that regularly swirl in my head, I realized how ridiculous they sounded and how little truth and weight they hold. When a friend texts me to make plans, I never calculate how long it’s been since they initiated plans to get together. I have never once uttered or thought, “geez, who does this person think they are, texting after all this time?” Heck, my inner bullied middle schooler is thrilled that someone wants to hang out with me at all, to be honest! But those damn stories we tell ourselves hold so much power over us, that it’s hard to be rational in the moment. I’m hoping this a-ha moment with my friend will help me start dismantling this particular set of stories and replace them with truer stories about what “good friendship” looks like.

Do you feel friendship guilt? In what ways does it manifest itself in your life?