I tightened the grip on my drink as the man standing next to me in the pub spewed racist, targeted vitriol about my Iranian heritage.
Even now, I feel nauseated recalling his cruel words and the utter mortification I felt.
Worse, my close friend stood silently beside me sipping a white wine spritzer, her gaze burning anywhere but into the eyes of the offender or even mine — which had at this point filled with tears as I rebutted the hideous comments.
To me, her silence spoke volumes. I felt quite embarrassed that I had thought she was a friend of mine for the past four years — she clearly didn’t feel the same. We went out together, had many heart to hearts and saw each other all the time.
In my view, having a backbone is the least a friend should offer — even if it isn’t easy. Had the situation been the other way around, I would have certainly stepped in.
Afterwards, I kept her at arm’s length, swerved one-on-one meetups and no longer texted. I didn’t tell her how I felt, or why I was retreating. If she’d asked why the sudden distance I might have explained, but she never did, so I let our friendship calmly drift apart.
Maybe I should have been honest but I didn’t see the value in getting into it when the qualities she was showing me weren’t the type I wanted in the people close to me. In adulthood, this was the first time I culled a friendship.
I’ve done it again since. Ditching repeat offenders has been the ultimate act of self-care and made my social network a much more rewarding, empathic and supportive space.
It also means the limited mental energy and physical capacity I have for socialising due to chronic pain and disability is reserved for the ones who value me as much as I value them and are kind and good people.
I’m not intolerant to the imperfections of our humanity. I deal with it when friends talk nonstop about themselves, heavily offload or fail to stay in touch as much as they probably should. In those instances, I keep in mind that they have excellent qualities too and friendships ebb and flow.
I am acutely aware I’m far from the perfect friend. I can be too opinionated, but I work hard to avoid offering unsolicited advice. I don’t always succeed. I’m a flawed human being and recognise my failures as a person, friend, wife, daughter and mother so if someone raises an issue with me, I don’t get defensive. I listen objectively, empathise, validate their feelings, apologise for how my behaviour has impacted them and endeavour to do better.
I’m sure I’ve been on the receiving end of culling more than once, and that’s OK. I don’t resent anyone for doing it. Kudos to former friends who gave themselves the right to want a better-matched friend than me.
I also know the physical pain I suffer leads to many last-minute cancelled plans on my end. My long journey through infertility, IVF, multiple surgeries and recoveries may be too much for some people.
I’m not as fun, free and spontaneous as I was in my 20s or like friends who can go to festivals, jump on a plane for a hen do or travel hours to meet up. If my limitations put someone off, or they don’t want to support me through the prolonged periods of the difficulty I live with then so be it. That’s their prerogative.
But what I do know is that for all my flaws, I’m also a loyal, caring, honest person. I try to live my life mindful and respectful of others. I’m objective enough to concede that people might not be able to, or want to put in the effort I do to maintain friendships and maybe my bar is set quite high.
When friendships falter, I first ask myself Am I The Asshole here? Sometimes, yes, the problem is me. Statistically, I must be at fault sometimes. But most of the time, I’d argue I’m not.
Either way, culling friends, and now having two very close ones and a handful of good mates, is more than enough for me and I don’t hold any grudges towards those who have been and gone, or those who hover on the periphery of my life.
One friend visited days after I’d had my longed-for IVF baby and sat on my sofa and cried about their love life. They had no real interest in my baby or how I was struggling to be a new mum in chronic pain. There wasn’t much acknowledgement about how special it was that I was finally a mum after all those years trying.
At that moment, some modicum of shared joy would have been welcome, treasured, and appropriate. I steered clear after that and though we came together in key moments or enjoyed good catch-ups over dinner or the phone from time to time, the closeness I’d once felt had evaporated.
The more I culled or set clear boundaries, the more I realised I disliked work cliques. In the same way, I loathed that weird social hierarchy at school, I found those engaging in drama, bitching or group emails gossiping immature and tiresome.
I stopped giving so much of myself to work colleagues who leaned on me when they were heartbroken, depressed or grieving. The ‘sad weather’ ones who floated away the moment the life crisis I’d emotionally supported them through had passed.
The culling process made me look inward too and be mindful that if I really cared about a friendship, I needed to work at it to avoid being cut off myself.
I’ve learnt some connections in life are transient ones forged when we had a shared purpose or reason to be around each other. A job, a friendship group, a hobby or children.
Someone once told me just because you share a common history with a long-standing friend, it doesn’t mean you have anything in common anymore and I found that to be profound. Some friendships are fine for right now, but as you move into the next phase of life, they are no longer really fit for purpose, and letting go without hard feelings is a healthy way to reclaim your time and energy.
I don’t expect friends to be lifelong anymore, though I hope my besties are here for the long haul.
And so, when I cull friends, I don’t feel guilty or that I owe an explanation or heads up. If I pull back and if they don’t notice, ask me why, or seek to remain in touch, maybe we weren’t real friends in the first place. Or, maybe our chapter together has closed, and they are as ready for our friendship to fizzle out as I am.
Culling people out of your life might sound savage, but if the friendship isn’t working for you, it’s probably not working for them either and it’s time to move on.
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