Knowing When to Unfriend a Friend

Troll. ogre, fairy, giant

“When you don’t know when you have been spit on, it does not matter too much what else you think you know.” -Ruth Shays

It’s taken me far too long to comprehend when a friend isn’t truly a friend. I’ve accepted camouflaged, insulting behavior for many years. Being raised by an emotionally abusive mother was a setup to tolerate abuse, however subtle. Her outright cruelty made it hard to recognize covert mistreatment. Growing up that way made me a ready target for people who didn’t honor me. For example, in the past I had a friend who I thought of as a sister. Most times when we were together I felt so understood and supported. Yet there were times when she turned on me, pointing out my flaws “for my own good.” I felt the distinct “ouch” of being stung even though she spoke to me in a benign voice. It was so confusing. At least in dealing with my mom, her delivery left no mistaking that she meant me harm. Digging deep, I saw that even though my friend’s actions were hurtful I was getting something out of them. Part of the gain was the safety of familiarity, but an even bigger part was that it was comfortable for me to play small. Living that way is so undemanding. I got the security of not having to stretch by accepting the role I was assigned to as a child.

Friends who don’t honor you are a reflection of what you believe about yourself. Having the courage to no longer accept another’s unkindness says you’re ready to claim your power. But what if by doing so your bond disintegrates? In the past, I clung to harmful relationships out of the fear of abandonment. Today I know that when I no longer allow myself to be treated poorly, the connection shifts. I may lose a friend. Indeed, that’s exactly what came to pass in my example above. It’s true that when you assert yourself there may be a hole in your life, but not for long. Love abhors a vacuum. By no longer putting up with being treated as “less than,” we make room for real friends to enter. And enter they always do.

One thing is for certain, it’s not my job to figure out why the perpetrator feels the need to put me down. I’ve spent way too much energy analyzing why people do what they do. That somehow made their bad behavior OK and kept me stuck in an unhealthy situation. The watercolor above illustrates this in a fun way. Like with a troll, it’s futile for the fairy to figure out why she angered him. Could it be she was flying too low and disturbed his sleep? Or did he, once upon a time, have his heart broken by a fairy? Perhaps he was raised to believe her kind are just nasty pests. Most likely he was just doing what miserable ogres do when someone gets too close to them. In the end it’s not important what provoked him. All that matters is getting away from him. It’s up to you to keep yourself safe from brutes no matter how nice they appear to be on the surface. Be mindful of your surroundings. Sleepwalkers disturb bees or worse yet, get in the way of trolls. 

Recognizing that I’m the fairy in the painting makes me smile. Even though she has wings, she cowers clearly immobilized. How in the world did she forget that she can fly?

Flying Fairy

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Text and images © Sue Shanahan. All rights reserved.

11 thoughts on “Knowing When to Unfriend a Friend

  1. A walk down a very dark memory lane!
    I think many of us suffered immensely with friends because our NPD mothers taught us the wrong lessons, which is why, once we have seen the light, we must take it to others too – as what you are doing so beautifully and bravely, Sue. All abuse victims must know there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel.


  2. I’m viewing your post for the second time, Sue. Looking at the title and now wondering if it is the answer to the conundrum I took to God only yesterday. Do I walk away from the sporadic episodes of willful hurting which I am now experiencing by a friend of almost 17 years? Would that be overacting or a caution that comes from years of tolerating abuse in worse forms? Thanks for the post, Sue. I guess I need to pray about this.


  3. Sue, I know your story will touch so many lives – mostly of women because we seem to be the ones who others choose to hurt – intentional or not. Unlike your’s, my mother was wonderful and we knew she loved us (my sister and I). She shaped the good things in my life. Growing up with an alcoholic dad in the 50’s was what ‘helped’ to shape me to be silent, to fear my dad being ‘found out’ by friends, to never talk about my feelings. He was never mean in any way, but just sat quietly in his old battered rocking chair drunk most evenings and for sure on weekends. I never told anyone about it though and now I know I was ashamed of him.I grew up with few memories of him because my ‘self-assigned job was to take care of my mom. It was my younger (by 13 months) sister who was my dad’s protector. We never got to talk much about it because just about the time it became ‘OK’ she died – at age 46. It’s one of many regrets I have at losing her so soon. My beloved auntie, who was my dad’s sister, lived to nearly 96 and she is the one who gave me back some wonderful memories of him. We would visit over a period of 3-4 days and I wrote down her family stories. What a blessing that was!

    My ‘adult’ lessons swirled about never feeling like I was ‘perfect’, never talking about ME, doing for rather than being done for. Those did come, I guess, from the way I thought about my need to care for mom. She never knew and I’m so grateful, – had she known about my feelings, my rules, my need not to bother her, it would have broken her heart. It took her death to drop me so far down a well that I couldn’t ‘fix’ it. I once dreamt about a year later that my severe depression was what saved my life. If I couldn’t have disappeared inside myself, I couldn’t have lived through it. What an awakening! Losing my beloved sister exactly 13 months to the day after my mom’s death was truly the worst day of my life, yet I had progressed far enough in therapy that my grief was more of a healthy one and I could be there for her 4 kids. My husband is the one who got me out of the well with his love, his support and his insistence that I get help!

    Oddly, I think early on a few of my ‘friends’ from school were the ones who hurt me occasionally and like you, I just shrugged it off. NOT! One girlfriend told me in the summer of 1960, before our senior year in HS, that I had the ugliest heels she’d ever seen. I STILL remember that clearly, so I guess it made an impression. I really couldn’t understand why she said that because I thought my heels looked just like anyone else’s, Still do! Now it one were to look at my toes . . . then I’d understand. OK ENOUGH!

    I really love how you can put such hard and personal issues into words and I’m guessing you really have no idea how much that means – kind of like smiling at someone who looks sad or troubled. We have no idea how far that smile might go either! KEEP IT UP SUE! You’re marvelous! I love you! Oh, and your drawings are a perfect description of what you wrote!


  4. I just came across your reply today, Carol. Thank you so much for cheering me on. It makes realize the truth in the words, “We are all one.” You are a wonderful writer and I can relate so much to your experiences. Thank you for sharing. You now feel like a dear friend to me. xo


    • Ah, thanks Sue! You feel like a very close friend too! I think our growing up years may have been different experiences, but we learned to ‘live life’ the same way and I think that is why your writings touch me so much! Keep it up, my friend! I do love to write and tell stories and have ‘unofficially’ designated myself and the teller of ‘Grandma Carol’s Stories.’ I’ve been writing them since 9-2011 and keeping them in a document. I hope someday, my extended family will find them and enjoy reading them as well as learned about the lives of our family members who have passed away. It certainly is not an organized bunch of writings – rather it is whatever I happen to see that appeals to me as well as experiences that are from my own life and memory. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me! Carol


      • I think that is a fantastic gift to leave your loved ones. I am so curious about the people I came from. My grandma always meant to do what you are doing but never got around it. What will make your gift even more special is that you are a fabulous writer! xo


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