Dear Steff Metal
I’m having an odd situation with a friend I met at college. When we first started hanging out, she was pretty cool, but lately she’s started copying me – my clothes, my music tastes, picking up elements of my speech patterns, deciding my favorite movies and books are her favorites … it sounds so silly but it bugs me.
Other friends have begun commenting on how she dresses and even talks like me. She’s started inviting herself along to social outings I plan with other friends. I’m going on my third date with a new guy this weekend and she wants to come too (she says it’s only fair since I spent the last two friday nights with him, that she should get me too), and I’m trying to find a way to tell her it’s not happening.
She’s also started butting into my life with opinions (what she thinks of the new guy, opinions about my other friends and my family) that I don’t ask for. I’m trying very hard to tell myself it’s not a big deal, but she is irritating me to the point of shoving her head down the toilet until she stops struggling.
Why is she doing this and what can I do to get her to stop? I’m afraid of losing her friendship.
Wow, would it be crazy if I said I have dealt with the exact same issue? As in – I could practically have written this letter myself a few years ago. I’m grateful you wrote to me, so I could have a chance to talk about it. This isn’t as uncommon as you might think. From my own experience, I can tell you some things that work and some things that definitely, absolutely will not help.
During my first year at uni I met a girl in my hostel. She was super intelligent and heaps of fun. She was one of the first friends I made in Auckland, and when she and another girlfriend decided to flat together, I was honored that they accepted me as a third flatmate.
I lived with these two girls for two years. I had changed and grown a lot over those years, and was pretty secure and comfortable with who I was. I had made some awesome friends, was dating a laid-back bloke, and generally having a lot of fun. I spent a lot of time hanging out with this friend – she was always heaps of fun and we enjoyed a lot of the same things. We had several classes together, lived together, participated in many of the same clubs, and when I went out, she would normally come too.
During this time, this friend become increasingly attached to me. The process was so gradual I didn’t notice it until it became invasive. First, it was little things – she would pick up on my opinions about music, movies, books, etc, and repeat them as her own. Then she became increasingly insistant on knowning intimate details of my life – details she always had an opinon on. Then she started inviting herself to the few remaining activities that didn’t involve her. It all started to feel … wrong. I started resenting her hanging around, constantly copying, constantly critical.
The situation escalated when I started dating CDH and – naturally, of a person who has just begun dating someone they really like – I wanted to spend time with him. Time alone with him. In this same year I moved out of my flat, and dropped many of my extra-curricular activities to concentrate on my studies.
My friend felt neglected, and I totally get that. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the tools and emotional stability available to deal with her feelings in a constructive way. I thought maybe things would be better if she moved in with me and we would see each other at home, but they did not.
The invasive criticism, copying and prying into private areas of my life escalated to a point when she became threatening and I actually had to get out. Immediately. It was no longer physically safe for me to live in that house. I had a wonderful group of incredible people roll up and move my stuff out in the dead of the night. And the friend, probably quite understandably, has never wanted to speak to me again.
I don’t want your situation to end up like this, because it’s no fun! It hurts losing a friend, especially one who you were close to, and one whose friendship you really treasured and did everything you could to salvage.
Here’s the thing – when you’re young, (especially if you have just come from high school where they do their best to trample all the self-esteem out of you), you spend an awful lot of time figuring out who you are. You experiment with a lot of different things – maybe drugs and drinking, maybe hobbies, maybe jobs, maybe subcultures, maybe aspects of your personality, before you settle on the right mix of “yep. This is me.” Heck, I experimented with all these things between the ages of 16-20.
As you move through these experiments, you often collect role models – people who inspire you to try new things and discover more of yourself. In fifth form I had a friend who served as my role model – when I was trying to get up the courage to talk to someone I would imagine I was her and try and think of what she would say, and this helped give me courage to stand up to people and be myself.
People want others to like them. They want to exude confidence and happiness and eccentricity. And sometimes, the easiest and safest way to appear confident and happy and in control is to take on the personality of someone who is confident and happy and in control. If you watch a person interacting with people in positive ways and getting good things because if it, you’re only human if you want to borrow a little of that for yourself.
And that’s how we end up with friends borrowing little bits of our personalities – not because they are crazy, but because they’re still trying to figure out who they are and what fits where. They see our positive interactions and want to bring that positivity into their own lives. Old folks say “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” – and I believe that’s true. A friend who’s imitating you is saying “I believe you’re a truly awesome person and I want you to be a majoy influence on my life.”
This happens on a subconscious level, and I bet you twenty-seven vintage Slayer t-shirts your friend doesn’t even realize she’s doing it. She’s not consciously trying to swipe your personality. She just thinks you’re awesome and wants a piece of the pie.
You are not perfect. You slip up. You make mistakes. You have days when you are grumpy, days when you don’t feel confident and in-control, and you might accidentally shag a hopeless guy in the bathroom of a Misfits concert. You struggle with your own issues, and you don’t always say or do the right thing. But you’re cool with this, because you know you’ll always look after yourself – you’re totally best friends with you.
But your friend does not yet know how to be friends with herself. She doesn’t yet understand the truth behind the cliché “happiness comes from within.” She thinks the sun shines from your prosterior, and she’s using that sunlight to brighten her world.
You are not trying to be anyone’s role model – you’re just being you. You did not ask to be put on a pedastool and worshipped. The role of being someone’s beacon of happiness comes with huge responsibilites. Suddenly, you are responsible for someone else’s happiness. They place all their hopes and dreams and feelings at your feet.
That’s a hell of a lot of responsibility, and, because you are not perfect, you are doomed to fail.
You cannot live up to someone else’s ideal of a “perfect friend”. You cannot be the sole source of happiness in someone else’s life. I know, because I tried. Odin help me, but I tried. I didn’t do everything perfectly, because I didn’t have the tools to mend emotional problems that weren’t mine to fix. This friend honestly, truly believed that if I would just give in to her requests, than everything would be OK and she would be happy again. But even if I had done all the things she asked and more, she wouldn’t have been satisfied because she wasn’t happy inside herself.
You cannot help those who will not help themselves. What you can do is help them find ways to help themselves, but you can’t solve their problems for them. They won’t feel any more loved and accepted by latching on to your friends. They won’t feel any more unique and individualistic by copying the way you dress, and they won’t feel any more genuine by copying the way you act.
Here are clues your friend is starting to regard you as her beacon of happiness:
- She says things like “I wish things could go back to the way they were”
- She dislikes your new partner, new interests or new friends.
- She attempts to sabotage your relationship with new partner or new friends.
- She gives you lists of demands and says that if you did these things, she would be happy.
- She makes snide remarks about how you’ve “changed”
- She tries to belittle you in front of other friends, to get others to agree that you’ve changed.
- She comes up with elaborate plots and schemes to win you back or make you see the error of your ways
- She sees evey activity you do without her as a “betrayal”
- She makes you feel as if you’re the bad guy, but when you think about it, you don’t really understand what you did wrong.
- Her behaviour and outbursts become erratic and unpredictable
- She takes more drastic measures to copy you, ie. copying your exact hairstyle, getting your exact same tattoo …
If you suspect you’re friend is falling into a situation like this, here are some things you can do. Some of these I did, some I didn’t do but should have tried. Any one of these might help your friend:
- Talk to her about how the copying makes you feel. This is the hardest thing to do, because you are friends with this person and you don’t want to hurt them, and you know their copying isn’t malicious. But you have to talk to them. I struggled to talk to this friend of mine because every time I did, she would turn it into screams and accusations and I would walk away feeling as though everything was my fault. I could have tried asserting myself more and asking her to let me finish talking, or written myself a script.
- Sometimes it can help to write everything you want to say down into a letter, leave it for a couple of days, go back and edit out all the angry bits and add in some stuff about how awesome they are, and then give that to them. This is only advisable for truly, truly shy people like me who struggle with confrontational people. As soon as someone starts shouting, I back down and shut down.
- Encourage them to find their own identity. If they seem really excited about something and you are NOT interested, make sure you encourage them to go. Show them pamphlets for local clubs, or shout them a community class for their birthday. If they’re too shy, go with them for the first week, till they feel more confident. Encourage them to invite new friends to their house, to parties … do everything you can to help them find activities they can be excited about that don’t involve you.
- Talk to someone wise. This is SO important. I didn’t do this, and I was so confused. I thought I was the problem. I thought I’d turned into a horrible monster. I didn’t talk to CDH or my parents or any of my friends because I didn’t want people to think ill of this girl. In the end, I felt like my chest was caving in, so I went to see a counseller. She opened my eyes to what was really going on.
- Protect yourself first. If you’re in a dangerous situation – if someone is threatening to hurt you or themselves, you need to get out. Get out today.
- Suggest they might need to talk to someone about their problems … someone who isn’t you. Help them make an appointment with a counsellor, or suggest another friend who’s good at listening who they could talk to. Maybe they will take your advice, maybe not, but it doesn’t hurt to try. I suggested on numerous occasions my friend see a counsellor, and she said she would, but she never did. Her call.
- Talk to someone in this person’s family about what’s been going on. This is the number one thing that I didn’t do which I really, really wish I had done. Your friend’s family probably has no idea what’s going on with her – but they are the best people to give her tools to help herself – not you. So give them a ring or shoot them an emil and let them know what’s been going on and how worried you are. DO THIS NOW – before it’s too late. Your friend will probably hate you for it, but if you truly care for them, it’s the best thing you can do.
You have to realize that this is NOT about you. It’s about her. You can’t solve her problem – only she can.
I still think this girl is totally awesome, and if she emailed me tomorrow and said “let’s be friends again”, I’d say “about bloody time!” I can only hope she has found happiness within herself and has a strong group of friends and family to support her. I truly hope she’s having an absolute ball, going on zany adventures and totally embracing being herself.
Readers, have any of you ever experienced something like this before, and what have you done to resolve it? Did it end happily ever after? Did you ever borrow personality traits from other people? Do you have any advice on dealing with these issues?