On Giving and Taking in Friendship
How does one balance out toxicity in friendships?
There’s a clip of Oprah that I’ve saved on my Instagram where she describes “clearing of some people whose energy” was not supportive of who she wanted to be in the world. There were some folks who wouldn’t take responsibility for the energy that they brought, so she in turn decided (yes, Oprah!) that she had to be responsible for the energy she let into her life. I was dumbfounded when I first saw it, about a year and a half ago, and at my own personal crossroads. It was as if Oprah was articulating the exact anxiety I had been feeling in my own life: being surrounded by people who took way more than they gave back. I had always assumed that maybe I was at fault — for not asking for my needs, for not giving voice to my desires, thus I was willingly being taken advantage of. Then I watched this one-minute oracle, and it got me thinking: Do I need the friends who give me nothing in return? Why have friends if they can’t, or won’t, care for you?
I have always been too eager to give, because it’s all I ever knew. I was raised by a mother who always needed more, and for that I became a “filler” person, dedicated to giving, filling in the needs of others, readily and with contentment. I took pride in these qualities that I espoused, and even in my youth it was a characteristic, though often taken for granted, that made me feel like I had purpose. That I was a different kind of person, one whose inclination balanced out the greed that I felt surrounded me. My mother was greedy in a way that wasn’t her fault. Eclipsed by her various mental illnesses (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder), she was incapable of stepping out of her self-centeredness, because everything was dictated by her disease. It was her only point of reference, and I couldn’t fault her for that.
So, like a dog bred for show, I was shapeshifted into giving, falling into it like it was a lifestyle. Yet for years, things felt off. I would give to friends, only to find myself continuously at a standstill: I felt drained, I felt sad, I always felt like I was not being taken care of. In adulthood, I didn’t have the same happy-go-lucky attitude of my youth. Now I felt like I deserved more. That it was unfair that I wasn’t getting more. For a while I even debated if it was because I was naturally selfish, that I had only given to my friends, to my mother, because it made me feel good, and now I wanted things in return because I wasn’t good enough to do it unconditionally. I considered I was this way until I saw Oprah’s video.
As a society, there are many things we don’t give women, and one of the big ones is perspective. So many of us, in different vocations, with different personalities, take on commitments without ever being given the chance to consider maybe that particular thing is not right for us. I was not born with this kind of entitlement, to stand up for myself and say no. To say no is a privilege. One that is taught. To never settle for anything that isn’t fulfilling you, whether that be a job, a partner, or friends. I stepped into so many friendships because I felt that was what a human did. We have friends, and we care for them—it’s easy! It’s what my mother taught me to do. I didn’t even learn how to check in with myself until this year. I didn’t even know that was something I was allowed to do.
In this piece for Psychology Today, Suzanne Degges-White writes, “No one should be the one who is always giving.” To me, it’s a manifesto, an encouragement that things can get better, but that there has to be responsibility by us, by those who give and give, to say: “No more.” That there’s always time to stand up for yourself and declare the things that you need.
As I enter my Saturn Return, at the end of my 27th year, I am shedding all the things that never nourished me. The things that always left me wanting for more and feeling like a fool. Friendships are work; they demand nurturing, and care. But sometimes the people you let into your life aren’t the ones who are there to bring you up. It’s okay to let them go, to look at them and tell them they are hurting you, or to stop a friendship because it never served you and never will. It takes bravery and strength to walk out of a bad situation with a friend, to believe in yourself enough to know you deserve the love that you give to someone. This goes for all kinds of relationships — and trust me, I’m only just learning.
I take solace in Oprah’s words because they’re a gift I needed to give myself. It’s an important and timely lesson: Good friends are life-giving, but bad friends — well baby, they aren’t worth the damn time.