As a therapist, I’ve heard that statement quite often; and it is uttered by two very different types of client, and at different stages of healing. To over-simplify, the first type is those who have been growing and expanding and are clearly in a good place. The second type is those in the beginning of therapy, and whose lives are not working well on several levels.
With those who are growing, their relationships are becoming more nurturing, They are satisfied with their work or careers—they feel for the most part, good about themselves. If they are still in therapy, it is because they are not satisfied just with getting over issues that brought them to therapy but because they want to thrive. Their goal was to become whole, or as one of my favorite authors, David Richo, writes about—they have become adults. They are expanding, and along the way, some old friends and acquaintances no longer fit with their new and improved lives.
Rarely have they “broken up” with an old friend. What usually happens is a shift in where they invest their time and attention. Realizing they outgrew old friends comes later as an insight. Once they come to love themselves, once they connect with healthy anger (that which tells them when someone has stepped over a boundary); once they drop the need to be rescued, or to rescue; once they stop making decisions based upon fear, guilt, or shame, then they make very different choices. And friendships that were based upon unhealthy ties just shrivel up and die. The exception to ending a relationship by the withdrawal of investment, is when abuse is involved. Then, a clear and firm breakup is necessary.
When someone quite new to therapy declares they are outgrowing their friends, what that usually means is they are disappointed or angry that a friend has not come through for them in certain and distinct ways, and the thinking is, if I get rid of this friend, it will feel like I’m taking care of myself. However, It is the distinct grievance that points to their primal wounds—like abandonment, not mattering, or perceived betrayal. They are usually unhappy with their lives in general, frequently out of touch with their family (often for good reason), and have a history of less than satisfying relationships. They usually feel alone in the world and their world is getting smaller.
Daniel Siegel, in his book Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation talks about the minds of adults with insecure attachment issues, especially when as children they were abused or neglected. Without treatment, when distressed “they are inclined towards chaos or rigidity—or both.” When it comes to friendships ” the preoccupied narrative is: I need others but I can’t depend on them.”
The truism that we attract and are attracted by those who are about as healthy or unhealthy as we, applies here. If the primal wound of my unhealed client is abandonment—a natural outcome of neglect in childhood—then he or she will search for someone to relieve that anxiety. What they think they need is someone who will never leave them. What they will get is someone as unhealed as themselves who will perhaps want to rescue them, or maybe expect to be hugely appreciated for what they do for them. A wise person once said, “If you think finding the right person will solve your problem then all you’ve done is involve that person in your problem.”
The work, for those who need others but believe they can’t depend on them, is not to find the perfect friends, but to work from the inside. Developing self-sufficiency, autonomy, self-reliance, self-love, and self-esteem pays off doubly. Those traits are attractive. They will gradually, over time, discover they have friends with those same positive traits. Two adults in a relationship nourishes mutual expansion.
Recommended reading: How to be an Adult: A Handbook on Psychological and Spiritual Integration by David Richo, and Mindsight by Daniel Siegel.