$Monday: Get Out of the Bucket and Into the Sea

Don't ever settle down in a bucket of crabs. The people we keep around us have considerable power to motivate, inspire, and support us--or to drag us down. If you ever find yourself trapped in a bucket of crabby dragger-downers, remember that there are plenty of fish in the sea--and yes, some fish really are friends; this is not just a completely silly metaphor. Everybody needs healthy relationships to succeed in life, including some literal fish. So come on in, the water's fine!

It is always painful to end relationships that aren't working for us, but that pain is sometimes necessary to get right with ourselves and redirect our energies toward healthier connections. As a person who struggles with anxiety, I know that when the world seems limited and small and stingy and lonely, it's an issue of my own perception, and it might also be exacerbated by my habit of hanging on to dysfunctional friendships longer than I should. It is important for me to remember that the world is full of flawed but lovely people who could enrich my life given the chance, and on the open sea, there's also space to float in blissful solitude from time to time. Sometimes we need to get away--from the negative voices in our heads or from the crab bucket mentality of those not-so-great companions crowding around us--before we can find a healthy way to connect with others and our dreams again.

Our friends can be our greatest inspirations and motivators, and they can also be our greatest obstacles when they don't share our values and goals. Bad friends are not necessarily bad people, they just aren't pulling in the same direction. If you have a friend who isn't invested in your success and might actually resent you for becoming "too good" for them, that person is simply not on your team.

This sounds simple, but in practice it's difficult. I hate the thought of "giving up" on a person I have loved and with whom I've collected happy memories. It floods me with guilt over "failing" the friendship and grief over its loss. Fortunately, I've learned by now that there usually isn't any need to go through a dramatic breakup and that giving a musty relationship some time and space is neither unkind nor a barrier to reconnecting later, if the two of us end up on the same wavelength again. Sometimes all you have to do is to back away slowly. Put less and less effort into reaching out until the crab in your life quits paying attention long enough for you to slip discreetly over the lip of that bucket and onto the warm sands of freedom.

All human relationships have ups and downs, and nobody is a perfect friend every day. Healthy, long-term friendships require goodwill and forgiveness and generosity. So how do you know whether to make it work for both of you or make a run for it? Here are three signs that you're in a bucket:

1. Overall, your relationship is more draining than sustaining. How do you feel after spending time with this person? Do you feel happy, invigorated, soothed, inspired, motivated to be a better person? Or do you feel used, uneasy, tired, suddenly broke, or enabled to be your worst self? Take a moment to reflect. How often do you feel this way after interacting with this person? Is it part of a larger pattern?

2. They see your other friends or family members as competition. You don't need to be best friends with all of your friends' friends, romantic partners, kids, and parents. But good friends don't show contempt for your other relationships--unless those relationships are harmful and they're trying to help you escape them (a very tricky effort to be undertaken only in an emergency). Simply put, true friends want you to be healthy and happy, and that means honoring your other important relationships. They trust you to manage your own life and don't interfere unless they are truly concerned for your well being.

My husband and I married younger and had a child younger than most people we know (if they ever did either of those things at all), and many of our friendships and even family relationships became strained when child-free people--or parents who are not as interested in their own kids--became indignant that we had less energy, time, and motivation to entertain and humor them. My husband and I also felt that we grew up faster than some of our peers, and their antics that had been so much fun in our teens and early 20s started to feel sad as they clung to their adolescence and we moved on. It was distressing to feel betrayed as some of our loved ones tried to make us feel bad about our "boring," uncool family life and health and financial goals and absurdly early bedtime, but we wisely opted not to take advice from people whose lives we did not admire.

Happily, we still have beloved friends who grew up just as much as we did, in different directions with different milestones, and we have fully enjoyed witnessing to each other's various paths and life choices without feeling jealous, judged, or resentful. Some of our child-free friends are not at all child-haters and have put effort into developing a relationship with our daughter, who is, as they know, a real human person and not a Chia pet. And my husband and I love the refreshing experience of hanging out with child-free friends sometimes, who have lots of interesting things to talk about that aren't related to parenthood. So if anyone tries to come between you and your child or other vital relationships in your life, run. They're not worth the drama.

3. They tell you over and over again that they're jealous of you. This seems obvious, but the communication is often obscured by backhanded compliments and apparent jokes. A little razzing between friends is natural and can even be motivating, but if a friend has a habit of pointing out your "luck" or their jealousy as an excuse for why they can't rise to your level, that's a red flag. People who constantly insist that you are "lucky" are suggesting that the good things in your life are undeserved accidents of chance and have nothing to do with your personal choices and efforts. They are also using their lack of "luck" as an excuse for not striving for whatever you have that they want.

So if someone giggles and says "I hate you" or "I'm so jealous" as a joke, take heed. Envy and the fear of being left behind are not motivating to insecure people; those people are more likely to take you down than pull themselves up. Don't spend another minute around anyone who cares more about destroying your happiness than creating their own. Not only will they never support you, but your presence actually inspires them to hate themselves more, so you can never help them either, not even by crabbing yourself up and pretending to be smaller and less wonderful than you are. For both of your sakes, get out of there. Sometimes leaving is the kindest, most compassionate response to someone hell-bent on using your life's blessings as excuses to harm themselves and others. Sometimes after you remove yourself, left with nothing else to do, your crabby friend will follow your example and find their own way out of the bucket too.

Losing friends and partners and support communities is devastating, even if you know you'll be better off without them, so don't beat yourself up if you can't just hop out and move on, unscathed and ready to rock. Take some time in solitude if you need to. Allow yourself to grieve for your friendship and the hopes you may have held for your former friend. And then, as the song goes, "Let it go."

Sing the whole song. Seriously. Crank it up and belt that showtune. Get it stuck in your head until you want to puke. It's your jam until you get your groove back.

Don't hide away too long and turn into a hermit crab (my personal tendency).

When I realize I have to let go of a close friendship or a group that I've invested deeply in, it can take me a long time to process the loss and get excited about my goals again. But I always do. Haters gon' hate and crabs gon' crab, but outside of all the buckets, the sun rises every day on an endless sea of possibility. If you find yourself bogged down in guilt from comparing yourself to those closest to you, that's how you know you've ended up in a bucket. Your only hope is to wiggle on out of there and make a run for it. Surf's up.

 me with a mega-inspiring friend who literally drags my pasty butt to the beach once in a while


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