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What it means to be a ‘bad friend,’ a painful childhood label that can haunt us

We analyze what makes a true and healthy friendship and how this concept has changed with the times

Amistad Rupturas
A scene from ‘Girls,’ the female friendship series par excellence.

What does it mean to be a good friend? Fiction has sold us on the idea that a person who can claim to be a good friend is one who drops everything the instant that someone in their inner circle falters. The problem with this kind of portrayal, which is defined by an unwavering availability, is that it leaves us with an unrealistic model, generating expectations that can serve in harsh contrast to real-world friendships by equating a top-notch friend with someone who shares this 24/7 philosophy.

If in the past the failure to drop everything to go comfort that friend devastated by a fight with her partner was a stain on the record of a ‘perfect friend,’ technology has added to this (endless) list of demands the need to respond to every WhatsApp message instantaneously. As if that wasn’t enough, one must only listen to the Spice Girls’ Wannabe or watch a Netflix series like the Spanish comedy-drama Valeria about a writer in crisis who turns to her pals to get the feeling that anyone without a group of completely devoted friends has somehow failed.

“When we see someone alone, we immediately think that their solitude must be their fault. If that’s what we think about others, when we feel lonely, even if it’s for a totally justifiable and understandable reason, we are terrified to talk about it and rather than letting it be known, we prefer to hide, because that judgement we make regarding others bounces back to us, and we believe that they’ll judge us too. The same thing happens when we have a ‘small’ number of friends. However, with age you increasingly realize that quality is much more important than quantity,” says Alicia González, author of Amigos mejores [Best friends], in which she dissects, among other things, how relationships work, how to learn to identify our needs and how to communicate assertively. “We have been taught to need positive reinforcement. We expect and need approval from others, to be given worth so that we feel we are indeed valid. We are not trained to rely on own self-recognition. Due to this, we’re always looking to others for that ‘thank you for being a good friend,’ because that’s when we think we are worth it,” she says.

Friendship capital

It also doesn’t help that beginning in our earliest childhood, we are constantly asked if we have many friends and above all, if we have a best friend, thus generating the idea that whoever has more friends, possesses greater value. “We women enter the world of platonic relationships with hostility, insecurity and comparison. We struggle with the pure and genuine, almost spiritual need to connect with our peers… You’ve also got to take into account all the input we get from society, movies and cartoons that warn us that women are the enemy. I think that this is precisely where the difference comes from that allows men to live their friendships from an early age, to be and play without fear, compared to the prejudice and fear with which women relate to each other,” says the psychologist.

Of course, these matters don’t get to the heart of friendships, as scientists say it can take more than 200 hours to get close enough to someone to share a real emotional connection. “It seems that society pushes us to be good friends and to have friends, but the most important thing is that we value being our own best friends. If we are not full of love ourselves, we don’t have love to give, but at the same time, if we don’t receive love or friendship from others, we won’t have enough love to give us self-esteem,” says Júlia Pascual, psychologist and director of the Center for Brief Strategic Therapy.

The ball and chain of the bad friend label

We care so much about being a good friend because the concept is so integral to who we are and how we see ourselves, an essential part of our self-image, so the moment that someone accuses of being a bad friend, we are forced to reevaluate what we think we know about ourselves. “It makes us connect with failure, error, with not being valid” as people. It is very complicated for us to feel that a “you are a bad friend” is specific to the relationship with a single person, because we tend to generalize the label. “If we do not do the long and hard work of separating one person’s opinion and its impact on our life with the reality of our other relationships, a phrase this powerful and hurtful can destroy our concept of identity and role within friendship, and question everything good that we have and supply to those around us,” warns Alicia González. “Being a good friend is deeply ingrained in our self-image due to the importance of social relationships, the reflection of personal values, self-esteem, cultural influence and the construction of our identity in relation to others,” adds Pascual.

Friendship is such a potent form of love that the Italian word for “friendship,” amicizia, has the same root as the verb “to love,” amare. But really, don’t friendships share the same demands, complexities and so many other factors with love? Perhaps one of the books that best reflects these friendly tensions is Elena Ferrante’s La amiga estupenda [The stupendous friend], which chronicles the tempestuous relationship between Lila and Lenú and captures the way in which, during childhood and adolescence and even beyond, friendships are not free of jealousy, competitiveness and even cruelty. “For some, admitting that a friendship is broken has become the equivalent of admitting that a marriage has failed. It seems that, inspired by the very pro-friendship tone of things that have been written and said about the subject over the last two decades, a myth of the life-long friendship has sprung up, even as the ideal of the marriage that lasts a lifetime, sadly, has become rather unrealistic. The romantic ideal of friendships that neither end nor fail can create unnecessary anguish in people who would be better off ending a friendship and instead, decide to stay in it no matter what happens. They attach themselves to the myth rather than understanding their relationship,” writes Jan Yager in When friendship hurts, a book that helps readers with the tools needed to identify and confront friendships that are destructive or hurtful.

Júlia Pascual explains that friendship requires qualities like loyalty, support and understanding, and because of this, being labelled a bad friend can make us question our capacity to offer these valuable qualities. “In addition, being considered a bad friend can feel like failure in a fundamental aspect of our social life, and such comments can damage our self-esteem. If a person values being a good friend and someone questions that, they can feel less valuable or competent,” she says. “The bad friend label can trigger a fear of rejection and isolation within one’s social circle, which is especially painful given the value that people put on belongingness and acceptance. It can cause a painful reflection on past actions and relationships, making one question where they could have failed or what they could have done differently, and generate confusion, especially if the person is unsure of why they have been given this label, which can leave them in a cycle of doubt and self-analysis,” says the psychologist.

Ultimately, if someone accuses you of being a bad friend, the solution (or what you can do to attempt a solution) is, just like in romantic relationships, betting on communication. Because, in reality, what sets apart a good friendship from a bad one is the ability to solve and repair the hurt you’ve caused. The Spice Girls insist that friendship never ends, but we know that it does if loyalty, honesty, trust, respect and authenticity are not in play.

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