In the 21st century, female friendships are celebrated like no other. From Dolly Alderton's Everything I Know About Love to that summer of #SquadGoals, today's young women have come of age in a golden era of female friendships. We’re told that these friendships are the backbone of our 20s, that they can replace and, in some cases, be more fulfilling than romantic love. But while these friendships are constantly celebrated and explored on social media, in literature and via our TV screens, they’re also scrutinised with the same level of intensity.
You only have to scroll through TikTok or Instagram to see thousands of examples of people calling out bad friend behaviour. Labelling your friends as toxic, gaslighters, manipulative or lazy has never been more prevalent. I think this is why I swallowed every single piece of advice I could find about being a Good Friend.
As the Good Friend, it was my responsibility to arrange everything from engagement drinks to birthday parties, while frantically managing a number of group chats. I'd shop for my friends when they were sick and drive over in the early hours to pick them up from terrible one-night stands. I spent weeks researching job opportunities for one friend, rewriting her CV and creating individual portfolios for each role, with cover letters to match. Weekends were spent helping them sort through their wardrobes and houses before realising that it was Sunday night and my own house was a mess.
It was around midnight on a rainy Tuesday when my boyfriend asked me to come to bed and I realised that I was over-investing in my friendships. I explained that I was making six different CVs for a friend and he asked whether this was a task I’d set myself or one I was asked to do. Thinking back to the conversation I’d had with this friend, I’d offered to do this and insisted that I could help. I don’t think – at any point – she’d actually asked. As I handed over the fruits of my unsolicited labour, I realised that our message thread was overwhelmingly one-sided. It was a chain of barely responded-to texts as I checked in or congratulated her on some news I had seen on social media. As I scrolled upwards, I felt my eyes well up. The crushing realisation hit me that despite everything I was giving, she hadn’t even remembered my birthday the week before.
This in itself was a bitter pill to swallow. Even worse was the realisation that the problem wasn’t her, it was me.
For 27-year-old Cassie*, this feeling is familiar. As a writer, networking and meeting new people is part of her job. "I’ve always found it easy to make friends but I find myself falling into the same pattern where I need to go above and beyond. I recently started getting close to one of my neighbours, Sarah*, and we became friends really quickly. She seemed really keen to spend time together and I really wanted a friend. I know it sounds a bit desperate but I wanted her to see that I could be a good friend, so I started giving her things."
The crushing realisation hit me that despite everything I was giving, she hadn't even remembered my birthday the week before.
Cassie often receives PR samples as part of her job and, not long into the friendship, she began offering them to Sarah. "It got to a point where she wouldn’t message to see how I was, she’d just text to request things and I started to find that I was feeling a bit used. I know there are issues with how I manage my friendships. It’s like I don’t feel like I’m good enough as a friend, that I need to give something more than just me."
It’s a sentiment that 22-year-old graphic designer Eve shares. "It sounds so sad but because I work from home and I’m always broke, I feel like I need to give something else to my friendships. It’s like I’m desperate to make them work, even when they clearly don’t. I found that I was constantly going way too far with my friendships."
Eve often found herself going above and beyond for her friends but felt crushed after it was unreciprocated. "I did a ton of design work for free. I don’t think they really expected it from me but it felt like I needed to give more and more. I had a friend that was in bed with COVID and I went around and cleaned her entire sharehouse. At the time, I was devastated that I wasn’t getting that level of friendship back. But I guess when I think about it now, I was just putting too much in, treating any acquaintance as a best friend, and it crushed me."
This idea of not feeling enough for a friend and needing to remind them of your value seems to be prevalent. Psychologist Wendy Dignan explains that validating ourselves through our friendships is far more common than you might think. "Especially for women, it’s all about how we define ourselves. This is actually driven by our upbringing. Regardless of how positive or negative our childhood was, we spend our adult lives trying to prove or disprove these ideas about how we can be good people, good friends."
Wendy explains that for those of us who experience low self-esteem, it can be really easy to over-invest. "It’s almost counterproductive as we often feel worse when we give more than we should. It’s been proven through research that people will often take, gratefully or not, what you offer and this sets an expectation. And this actually leaves us feeling worse. When we create a healthier balance we find that we’re much happier in our relationships."
Cassie has recently started to address her experiences with friendships. "I felt this need to squeeze into these friendships, even if they weren’t working. I had something really awful happen and I realised that I didn’t really have anyone that I trusted to call. I obviously blamed myself, I felt like I must be toxic." Cassie explains that it was a tricky decision but she sought support and decided to take a step back from these friendships. "Even though it’s been lonely, I’m feeling a lot better. Some of these friendships that I was so terrified of losing weren't actually working for either of us. I feel like I’ve finally got to a place where I’m setting boundaries."
Like Cassie, I too stepped back from my friendships this year. It soon became clear that no longer offering to do everything made no difference to some friends. I could enjoy more relaxed friendships that didn’t involve me playing therapist, recruiter and general organiser.
I know it sounds a bit desperate but I wanted her to see that I could be a good friend so I started giving her things.
Without my constant checking in or invitations to catch up, some friends did drop away. Previously I'd clung on to these friends, desperate to explain that I missed them, that I lay awake at night panicking about whether I was supporting them, that I’d do anything to make the friendship work. This time I stepped back. One never messaged again.
It’s been hard but it’s also been a chance to rebuild healthier dynamics in my friendships. Wendy says we must remember that our current behaviour – especially if it involves over-investing – is our default setting. It’s how we’re most naturally inclined to present ourselves in our relationships and therefore the behaviour we’re most likely to revert to. But there is a way out of it. "Find a way to take a breather from these relationships and if you realise that you’re over-committing or over-investing, ask yourself why. What you’re really trying to do is explore yourself through the lens of your friendships. How do you actually validate yourself?"
I see now that neither I nor they are 'bad' mates. Some are surface-level friendships that I mistook for something more, and no amount of investment could change that. Others are just friendships that have run their course and that's okay, too. That said, plenty of friends have checked in. One messaged to say how much she appreciated the support I’d offered her, and that my check-ins had been valued more than I know.
As I stopped offering so much in these friendships, most shifted naturally to a healthier dynamic once I stopped trying so hard to make them work. Friends began to pick up the role of group organiser; with others, I had fairly honest conversations and their expectations of me shifted. A lot of these unhealthy relationships – the sort that were destroying my self-esteem – became more manageable the second I gave them some space.
There’s growth in learning that your friendships are, in many ways, a reflection of yourself. With the support of my long-suffering therapist, I’ve started to seek validation from myself rather than others. I'm finally accepting that I’m responsible for setting my own boundaries and that the people in our lives will take what we offer, for better or for worse.
That said, I might have stopped offering so often and so insistently but I'm still willing to do anything for my friends.
*Name changed to protect anonymity