At the start of the pandemic, I was recently unemployed and spending most of my time at home: applying for positions, doing interviews, binge-watching TV and, in between grocery runs, processing my wave of emotions over having lost my job. I wasn’t sure how to handle my anger and grief of being jobless in the middle of a pandemic — and no longer having one of the key parts of my life that I used to define myself.
As I processed the loss, I started to open up to friends about how I felt. Some were supportive, while others were not. There were friends who asked me how I was really doing, who watched “RuPaul’s Drag Race” with me and held space for my feelings. And there also were friends who breezed over my feelings and dove into unsolicited advice on how to find a job or what I could do in interviews. I left those conversations feeling more stressed than comforted — and questioning whether I wanted to continue being so close with those friends.
The summer’s Black Lives Matter protests amplified my doubts. As the movement gained prominence after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and so many others, I watched as some friends became more involved with the movement, while others only performatively participated.
One friend started asking me about my own feelings and experiences as a Black woman, questioning her own ignorance of how much White privilege had protected her. Our conversations deepened our friendship. In the summer, another liberal friend wanted to educate herself on the issue by reading more books on anti-racism. By the fall, she was dating a two-time Trump supporter and failing to recognize her complicity in supporting white supremacy.
I didn’t want another year of this, I realized. I needed to reevaluate my friendships.
So, this year, I’ve decided to focus my energy on one key intention: letting go of what doesn’t serve me. I like to think of it as akin to cleaning out my closet. Of course, friends are not clothes; giving them up is easier said than done. Still, I’ve found that following Marie Kondo’s famous KonMari method can translate into relationships: Does this spark joy?
Some friendships were obvious to keep, like certain beloved pieces of clothing — the ones that fit well, that can be worn daily. In them, I feel safe to be myself, no matter my emotional state; I can talk openly and easily, about pain and joy alike. These are the friends who got me through the grief of my unemployment, reminding me of all the ways I wasn’t defined by what I do. They listened compassionately as I expressed my financial worries, job-search anxieties and streams of stressful thoughts that made it hard to get out of bed. During the Black Lives Matter protests, they gave me space to express my sheer rage and sadness. They sat with their own reckoning of how silent they’d been. They also made me laugh with funny stories and YouTube videos. This type of friend is supportive, caring and reciprocates the energy I bring into the friendship. These friends are keepers.
But other cases (and their resolutions) are murkier. If the friendship no longer sparks joy, is it possible to become less close, or is it time to let it go completely?
When assessing a friendship I potentially need to change, it’s usually because, though our interactions are mostly positive and our values align, something still feels off. Maybe they’re unable to hold space for my range of emotions in my unemployment. Maybe they don’t recognize their own White privilege, or they fail to consistently challenge their own actions and beliefs that unknowingly support oppression. Such examples aren’t immediate friendship-enders, but they require deeper change on my friend’s part to make me feel safe opening up again.
When this happens, I try to have a conversation with them on the phone or in person. I tell them directly what I need; maybe it’s more emotional support or an understanding of how their actions may be hurting me. If they’re open to what I have to say, I check in occasionally and wait to see if their behavior changes. If they get defensive, I take it as a signal that I need to spend less time on them. Either way, there’s an emotional toll that lingers.
It’s been no less easy when the need for a “breakup” has been more obvious, especially if it’s with someone I’ve known for a while and expected to be friends with for decades. In these cases, there’s been a complete change in the friendship’s dynamic over time: What was once easy, fun and nurturing has become challenging or confrontational, as if we can’t get on the same wavelength. Often, I notice a pattern of feeling unheard, disrespected or generally unsupported. And once I’ve noticed it, it’s usually hard for me to keep it going.
In some of these instances, whether it’s a friend I met in college or through a formative experience like the Peace Corps, the deeper, free-flowing conversations we once had about our big dreams for our 20s and 30s have turned stagnant. Our only shared experience is the past, while the celebratory moments of the present, such as getting a promotion or going on a dream vacation, are met less with excitement, or even with jealousy and derision. In other cases, the natural ebbs and flows of life — from having a baby to getting married or moving across the country — create a natural ending point. The frequency of texts, calls and plans to meet up might naturally fall away with each life transition.
Losing friendships altogether hurts. I feel guilt over letting friendships fade away with lessening texts and calls, as well as bringing their ends about more directly. I slowly heal by reminding myself of why we broke up and the knowledge that the pain will lessen with time. As it is with other breakups, I know I’ll find more meaningful friendships again. In time, at the acceptance stage, I find relief in knowing I made the right decision for me, even if there’s still pain.
I’ve realized, along the way, that while assessing and deprioritizing certain friendships can be difficult, it’s worth it. Having the right people around is energizing and supportive. Having the wrong ones feels draining and emotionally heavy. As you reflect on your own friendships in 2021, consider those emotional markers. Notice what feels right in your body.
And sit with this image, too: When I ring in the next new year, in 2022, I hope to feel amazed and grateful for being surrounded by nourishing people, friends who support the best version of me, as I do for them.