Friendship is such a beautiful bond. We are born into our relationships with family of origin, but we choose friendships. Friends are the people who “get” us. They enjoy our company and we enjoy theirs. It would be magical if it were always that simple, though. Sometimes our friends end up making decisions that make us cringe.
And really, the only reason we cringe is because we care, right? If it were a total stranger, we’d just roll our eyes and not even think anymore about it.
When we see a friend making bad choices, it hurts because we care.
We want them to live their best life and make healthy decisions. Maybe in some ways, we want them to be more like we envision them, rather than who they really are. Which is a bit selfish, when you examine it. Our disappointments about friends’ choices are often a reflection of our own expectations being defied. That friend who is dating a married man; the friend who uses pills or drinks too much. We know they are better than that and it hurts to watch this person we care so much about making choices that don’t reflect our own values. Of course it is normal; this cringing when watching a friend make poor choices.
We are human, and we have a right to hold expectations. The problem arises when we have expectations for other people’s lives and they aren’t living up to them. That’s our problem, though, isn’t it? It is a problem based out of our own ego that has projected how others should behave, according to our own view of what is right and wrong.
But how much of a robot would one have to be to not feel this way when watching a friend make bad choices?
It is a natural extension of caring about someone; we can anticipate the pain they will likely experience due to these choices and it seems so obvious. And in some situations, we can clearly see that they are causing others pain. This is equally hard to watch, especially when we know they are aware of it and continue to do it anyway.
It’s tricky to balance. Being a supportive friend is important, and it is also important to be honest about our feelings and live according to our values. How can all of those things exist at the same time in a situation like this? Here are a few ideas.
Even though it hurts to watch a friend make poor choices, it is their decision to do so. One of the most difficult parts of a relationship with another human is the feeling of disappointment that comes with watching them make destructive choices. It is important to remember that our friends don’t actually need our approval. And we can love them without loving their behavior.
We can still hold our friends in high regard, even when they don’t live up to our expectations.
None of us would want to be judged by the worst things we’ve ever done. We’re all human. Sometimes we make stupid mistakes and make bad choices. It doesn’t define who we are at our core. It simply means we are all fallible. Our friends will learn from their own mistakes, just as we do. Adding our judgment will only serve to contribute additional shame to their long-term recovery.
Accepting that our friend is making bad choices isn’t the same thing as being complicit. A true friendship can tolerate a bit of honest, hard conversation. Try to frame the remarks in a loving way as much as possible given the circumstances. “I statements” are irrefutable; no one can argue about how we feel about something, right? Practice a few ways of expressing thoughts and feelings. It could even be as simple as, “I worry about you. I feel like you are going to get hurt.”
Offering compassionate support and concern is fine if our friend’s behavior isn’t going to cause immediate risk of harm. All of that goes away if our friend’s behavior is so destructive that he or she will be at risk immediately. In situations that rise to the point of severe risk of harm, injury or death, it is our obligation to interfere.
Generally if there is a situation that has risen to this level of risk, there have been warning signs along the way. If the friend is engaging in high-risk behavior and it has been getting worse and worse (severe drug abuse, suicidal thoughts and behaviors, physical abuse by a partner) those are grounds for an intervention of some sort.
Interventions can be risky in that even the most true-blue of friends can get highly defensive and may end the friendship.
We have to weigh out the risk of sitting back and not intervening with the risk of serious harm to our friend. If there is a possibility that our friend is in grave danger, then airing on the side of caution and intervening is worth making them angry.
Most likely, a friend will be able to reflect back on the situation and understand that the intervention was done out of love, not meddling. It may even be worthwhile to establish an agreement with friends about this; a ‘Just In Case I’m Ever Making Dumb Choices’ agreement. The important criteria for knowing when to intervene is when there is a high likelihood of danger.
If a friend is simply making bad decisions, but they’re not dangerous ones, the most difficult part will be dealing with your own thoughts and feelings about it. Sometimes stepping back from our feelings and examining what is being triggered within our own minds can be useful.
We can ask ourselves, “why am I reacting so strongly to this?” “Are there other feelings beneath the surface?” “What does this represent that goes against my value system? How can I reaffirm my own values and still be a reliable friend?”
There is a good possibility that at some point our friends will be the ones who dislike our choices. And that’s ok. True friendship can tolerate some disappointment and it may even foster some positive growth in the relationship.