It may be time to trim your tree.
As a survivor of abuse and assault, I can sometimes imbue my friends with magical qualities they don't possess, simply because I so dearly want them to be That Person. At times, I am guilty of the mental fog of affection and justification when making excuses for people who abuse the privilege of my loyalty and friendship. During that friendship, some engage in demeaning comments, all the while cloaked in being my “mentor,” my “guide,” my “good friend.”
My spiritual example, as it were. Yah. That. Recently, I've had to look hard at what that's cost me.
Early last year, I had just returned from a second trip to Indonesia. I had spent four weeks being shuttled from one hospital to another with a brand new case of Interstitial Cystitis ( a disorder which, among many others, can be directly attributed to emotional trauma, and in this case most certainly was), one of the first calls I made was to a treasured friend of some twenty years. The pain was immense, not only for the lost adventure, but for the harsh, final dumping by the last BF on my 66th birthday.
Her response: “ I told you so.”
Not the first time she had twisted this particular dagger in my guts after an horrific breakup. I lost count, for I had gone back to this particular man multiple times. We do what we do for our reasons. Not for others’ reasons.
When I called her on this, which was the first time in two decades I had ever done so, she argued with me. She was in such a habit of being right, being top-down in our connection, that this kind of pushback from me wasn’t to be tolerated. It shook the balance of power.
In that moment, I knew our relationship was over. I backed away, and didn’t reach out to her again. I launched myself into recovery, travel, adventures. Meanwhile I packed my house box by box, day by day, and searched for a new home. New state, new life.
I had once seriously considered moving back to the small city where we had met, primarily because her family had become beloved to me. I’m not sure that was reciprocated fully, but I enjoyed time with them. They most assuredly enjoyed the gifts I showered on the family out of genuine gratitude for somewhere to be over the holidays, as all my family are gone. I am still deeply grateful for that gift, even if I was very much a thumb.
For two decades I had spent those holidays with her family. I had spoken with love and affection at her mother’s funeral, a gift of immense power which other family members deeply appreciated. So did she.
But over the years, this woman, who carefully wrapped herself in the robes of Wise Woman and Mentor, Spiritual Sage and Guide would periodically say things which knifed me in the emotional guts so deeply it left scars.
Because she knew me well enough, and I confided my deepest secrets, those very secrets gave her the power to make comments that hurt far more deeply than just an offhand remark.
Writer and author Reverend Sheri Heller, LCSW wrote a book about this behavior. This is what jerked back those multicolored shimmering cloaks and caused me to see my friend precisely as she was. From a recent article, Heller says:
In the Gaslighting Friend, I wrote about a dynamic with a woman who touted herself a spiritual healer and a pillar of altruism and morality. Indeed, this fictionalized account told of a ten-year friendship I shared with a narcissistic ‘shaman’ who used virtue signaling and piety to glean supply. When I stopped believing that her backstabbing and intermittent barbs and disparagement were meant to ‘help,’ I saw the energy vampire that lurked beneath her fallen mask.
My friend wasn’t wholly bad, not at all. She was capable of being very kind and generous. She would often give gifts that meant a great deal. She was not inherently evil, not at all.
However over the years, her occasional cruelty brought me to my emotional knees, while at the same time my compulsion to put her on a pedestal at the cost of my confidence kept me both in thrall and in denial of the behaviors I was seeing.
Rather than her gifts, I’d rather have had her time. Her kindness. I’d rather not have been subjected to the barbs. Barbs that never in a million years would I ever have lobbed at her.
Heller writes of those of us who have been affected by female narcissists:
They evidence a high tolerance for cruelty and abuse, doubt their perceptions, and may idealize and fear their abuser.
That would describe me, and my relationship to a number of people whom I have trimmed from the tree of my life over the last few years. I might argue pretty strenuously that those of us who were subjected to incest, as I was, and repeated sexual assaults, can often develop such habits of living life as an apology. We effectively walk around with a Kick Me sign on our backs.
In all fairness to the woman I finally had the courage to sever from my life, she was not afflicted with many of the traits that Sheri described..
What made the gaslighting so difficult to spot was that for the most part she really was kind, appreciative and a good friend. She did, however, engage in ugly comments, which appeared to be a finely-tuned way to keep me in my place.
Beneath her, as it were, and not competing with her for primacy. However, I do not know her mind and heart. Only her actions. Those are adequate measurement, to my mind.
The gaslighting began to increase as soon as my life began to truly take off. The more I grew, the more I traveled, the more I wrote, the more I succeeded, the uglier the gaslighting. Didn’t happen often but when it did, holy cow.
It's all my fault. Of course it is.
I was days cleaning up the emotional bleeding, and then dazed wondering what on earth had happened, and then determined to believe that it was somehow my fault. She couldn’t possibly be capable of such things. I had to have done something terribly wrong.
Again, this was a person who demonstrated great care and generosity, but just like my father, withheld the deeper connections. She had other friends who had her time, attention and love. I had a bit of that attention, like bread crumbs off the table of her life's priorities, but they had the lion’s share. Meanwhile I considered her, and she knew this, my closest friend.
That “closest friend” upon whom I heaped so much admiration made promises she didn’t keep, and likely had no intention of keeping. She said she would visit, an annual promise that was forgotten, and then she would regale me at Christmas with tales of the real friends she had traveled with or gone to see.
That’s how important you really are. Not enough to hold up the integrity of a promise.
After a long silence I finally heard from her near the beginning of autumn 2019. I had been doing a lot of traveling. By that time I’d already processed that our friendship was over, having finally forced myself to review and write down the gaslighting comments and gotten into my own face about the cost of being friends with this person. For my part we were done.
She wrote that she felt she had wronged me somehow (ya think?) and wanted to talk. She said she had always considered me a “good friend.”
What a demotion that was.
That remark underscored the difference in how we felt about each other. I have all too often cared far more about people than they did about me, at great cost. Men and women.
Time to end that.
I was deeply conflicted. I wrote about it, masked her identity, and processed my feelings. I was in pain, and doing my best to figure out a way forward. In no way did I intend to hurt, and in fact had taken pains not to allow anyone to know who she was. In fact, nobody else did. They didn’t read the piece. She did. I had no clue she was reading my articles.
She figured out she was the topic. Instead of reaching out with empathy and understanding, she came after me with sharpened knives. In a half-second, I learned swiftly that all the woo-woo spiritual language was pure and utter window dressing. When your default setting is rip someone’s jugular out, kindly, all that stuff about kindness and empathy is just, well, horse poop.
Her first instinct was to do harm, accuse me of never caring about her family, on and on. I was momentarily gobsmacked. What I saw was this person raw and unmasked. Then I wrote back in that way you can only do when first, you’ve already ended the connection on your part, and second, you don’t have anything to lose.
I pointed out that the things she had done, she HAD done. No amount of excusing or explaining would change the facts. I also pointed out that I had always had her on a pedestal, and when I had called her on her behavior, her first instinct was to make me wrong about it.
She backtracked. For ONCE. You simply cannot argue facts. Then she penned some pap about reconnecting in spring when the flowers are blooming.
My response was to block her in every form in which she could reach out or read.
She \had accused me of planning to write all manner of ugly stories about her. Interestingly, this is the first time I even thought about her again, much less write anything, so thorough was the bleaching of this experience from my life. I felt no sense of loss or regret.
If anything, heartfelt relief.
Reading Sheri’s comments, I now understand why.
Another favorite writer and friend Dr. Rosenna Bakari wrote:
At social gatherings, you mostly stand alone, not even wanting people to talk to you. Your favorite number is two — you and one other person. You can speak with one familiar person all day. You let other people make the big decisions. Then you help them achieve the goals. You never ask for anything in return.
Despite being highly intelligent, you avoid the spotlight. Yes, being visible brings vulnerability and the possibility of harm. But, remaining invisible brings stagnation and missed opportunity. Humility is not the avoidance of being publicly recognized and appreciated. It is knowing how to receive recognition.
While I learned to master my social anxiety young, I still worked far harder to elevate others- mostly at my expense- rather than be at center stage.
What Rosenna’s words point out is the cost I paid to elevate others, handing them power over me, and causing me to feel apologetic for true accomplishments. To be very careful about sharing my excellence.
As I came into my own, I came under attack.
Who do you think you are? can be expressed in both subtle and very obvious gaslighting, by people who claim to be loving, accepting, supporting.
I now live in a place of trees. My yard is full of huge Christmas trees, deer that raid my bird seed and squirrels and chipmunks. Christmas is around me every single day. I don’t need to purchase carloads of gifts to buy love.
Hard lessons. All of them.
Those people who have shown up since I removed the rotten branches of conditional friendships have brought love and light and excitement into my life. They don’t ask me to hide who I am but celebrate it. As Rosenna writes, I’m learning how to be visible, to receive recognition.
I no longer fear friendship censure. Those friends I do have, don’t censure. They support.
Each one of us comes into the fullness of our selves if we do the work. Part of that work is finding those who are willing to show us who we are, who we can be. People who have done work themselves, and by example invite us to transform.
Some of that transformational work involves pruning. As painful as that can be, it’s the only way the sun can shine light on what needs to grow.