Recognizing that your friends’ actions or decisions are evoking something in you is the first step.
It’s nice to have—and be—a friend someone can take their highest highs, lowest lows and even questionable decisions to, judgment free.
“The hallmark of a friendship is trust and honesty,” licensed psychotherapist and mental health expert, Dr. Akua Boateng tells ILY. Feeling safe to be your full self—through insecurities, individual growth, and shifts in the relationship—is the ultimate goal.
Ideally, we like to think that we accept our friends no matter what, particularly if their actions aren’t directly hurting us, but that is not always the case. Our bias towards our friends tends to inherently allow us to extend grace to them. Yet, according to Psychology Today, “when we feel truly negatively about a particular behavior or issue, we may judge everyone on that criterion—spouse, friend, coworker or stranger.”
Think about when you’ve found yourself judging your friends. Are they handling a breakup poorly in your eyes? Did they confide in you that they’re seeing a married person, or maybe they themselves are having an affair? Or did they perhaps share that they’re going to open their relationship, and you thought so highly of that relationship that it’s hard to understand why? Or maybe you’re simply uncomfortable with how negative they’re being lately.
Oftentimes, harshly judging our friends comes from two places within ourselves—a place of heightened distress or jealousy. We all hold ourselves to certain standards. When a friend isn’t meeting the standard we have for ourselves, we may find ourselves judging them in ways we judge ourselves. “If I’m very harsh on myself, I’m going to be very harsh to people. If I hold myself to a very high standard, I’m going to do the same with the person,” Boateng says.
Envy is part of this, too. “Based on my life, my upbringing, and the way I see myself, I don’t allow myself to indulge in certain behavior,” Boateng points out. “Based on the framework of the way you judged yourself or the way that your caregivers in life did not allow you to be free in, you judge them and envy them at the same time.” For example, if someone is being what you deem to be too emotional or crying too much, you may judge this person because you’ve been conditioned to suppress these emotions or not show them because it’s viewed as weak. You’re judging them for doing something you do not allow yourself to and might want to or need to.
The first thing to do is check in with yourself.Dr. Akua Boateng
“The first thing to do is check in with yourself and get a sense of what part of you this information is agitating,” Boateng advises. Recognizing that your friend’s actions or decisions are evoking something in you that is resulting in these critical feelings about them is as important to determine for yourself as it can potentially be for the friendship.
That process of looking inward should include looking at your life experiences and exploring whether you or someone you’re close to has experienced pain as a result of similar actions, in turn influencing your view of your friend. It’s often necessary to consider if it’s something you’ve experienced or part of a greater generational cycle and actually bringing up issues you have with yourself. Failing to make that connection can result in your emotions about yourself being projected onto your friend. “If my friend is having an affair with a married person and one of my parents cheated on the other parent, this displaced anger from my own experiences gets lathered on to them,” Boateng offers as an example. This can potentially put your judgements into action, shifting the dynamic between you and your friend or leading you to draw conclusions about them or your friendship prematurely.
“The displaced emotion can bring you to characterizing a person totally based on this one decision. ‘This is a bad person now’ or ‘this is a toxic friend,’” Boateng explains. “It’s over-generalizing a person’s character based on this one decision or challenging period in their life.”
Once you’ve clarified how much of your reaction and feelings are yours and how much is truly related to what’s happening in your friend’s life for yourself, Boateng says it’s important to humanize them by “being able to talk to your friend about their rationale and what’s happening with them emotionally that’s led to this place.” Sometimes we judge the decisions or reactions of our friends without gaining understanding of what it is they are experiencing. Focusing on curiosity about how, rather than what, by asking where they were and are emotionally or what the decision, reaction or experience provides to them can offer you understanding of where they are.
If you don’t extend grace through your own inner work or intentionally humanize your friend, you may find your misaligned feelings manifesting in your actions within the relationship and towards them.
“You may distance yourself from this person or potentially tell other people to dismiss and deny access emotionally to them,” Boateng says, pointing out what these actions could look like. “You might internally characterize this person and not really tell them, right? So, you’re making a decision internally like, ‘Okay, I cannot trust this person’s insight, information or judgment. Ever. But, I’m going to keep it in my life and I’m not going to value what they say because of this one moment.’”
The hallmark of a friendship is trust and honesty.Dr. Akua Boateng
If you find yourself in this situation, Boateng says it really comes back to looking inward, again, but also offering yourself grace to process these feelings. She says asking yourself questions like, How am I interpreting this information? How am I actually internalizing this information? How do I take care of my emotional reaction without judging it? Hopefully, asking yourself these things will afford you the understanding of your judgements enough to extend grace to the friend or at least communicate what’s going on between you.
Ultimately, if these questions force you to recognize you need some time to find the answers, you should do that. “It’s okay to be upset. Get yourself to understand and allow that emotion to have your full attention. Allow yourself to pursue coping strategies that are really helpful to you,” she says. “Give yourself time to practice.” However, she adds, “At some point, you want to address it with that friend.”
During this process, you could find that you just can’t understand and maybe don’t identify with them and how they’re handling their life right now. Boateng reassures, “There’s a human emotion within them that you can relate to, even if that emotion played out in a different outcome for them.” She says to empathize with what you can understand.
Truly focusing on the emotion—be it loneliness, fear, anger or something else—do your best to find the common ground, and honor yourself by way of boundaries or space and time.
“It’s okay to set boundaries and to say, ‘It’s really hard for me to sit in this experience with you. I can do that partially in these ways, but I can’t do it in these other ways,’” Boateng says. Yes, honoring yourself can be that simple sometimes, but it also looks like being honest with yourself and the friend(s) who is struggling. Sharing things like, “I am still in process, and I’m not clear yet. You’ve probably noticed some changed behavior. I’m working through it.” Being very clear about what’s happening with you and allowing yourself time to form a complete and thoughtful response will require time. That time is helpful for each of you to understand what’s going on within your friendship dynamic.
It’s okay to set boundaries.Dr. Akua Boateng
Should you do the inner work and come to recognize where your own experiences impact your reaction and truly show up for the friend despite questioning their actions, approaching them from a place of concern is another way to help further humanize their experience.
“I think this is probably the most compassionate approach,” Boateng says. She recommends clearly pointing out to them that you’re trying to reconcile what it is you know about them now, their goals, or how they’re otherwise managing alongside of how you fit into showing support or offering grace.
“These are the spots in relationships that have the potential to cultivate immense growth and depth in the relationship or can snap it and break it. Taking them on very gently and doing your best to be honest and stay grounded while they are happening is really important,” Boateng says. Defining moments like these can act as a barometer for the true integrity and longevity in that relationship, but like most challenges in life, it starts with looking within yourself.