Ask A Therapist

I Can’t Get Over What My Friend Said Years Ago. How Can I Move On?

Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years' clinical experience and the founder of HarleyTherapy.com, for advice on the things we worry about in private.
Have a question for a therapist? Submit yours for Sheri.
Question:
I have a friend I’ve known since university. We have a really similar sense of humour and grew quite close over the years – she’s always been someone I could trust to talk to if I was working through a difficult situation.
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Three years ago I was talking to her about whether or not to go back to my ex and she said, in passing, that I was being a bit "naive" and "overdramatic". It came from a place of love, I think (I did not go back to that ex, which was the right decision), but it’s completely shaped how I see myself. I feel like I have to hold myself back and question all my decisions, especially when I’m with her. What once felt really natural now feels stifled and deliberate.
I want to move on and not focus on this anymore but I really struggle with it, especially because I trust this friend. She’s probably right that I am like that! But the fact other people see me that way makes me feel ashamed. What should I do?
How can I move on from this?
Abbi, 28
Answer:
I'm going to preface all of this by saying that every relationship has its unique dynamic and there's no hard and fast rule about what's acceptable and what isn't. Some people have very tongue-in-cheek relationships where banter and making fun of each other is accepted, whereas for others it isn't at all. It really depends on the flavour of the relationship and the character of it.
But a general rule of thumb is if a comment is about a person's character and personality (who you are) rather than behaviour and actions (what you did), that's usually a lot more damaging.
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That's because all of us are flawed: we all make mistakes and behave in ways we shouldn’t. But when those behavioural traits become labelled as who we are, that can be harder to change and it cuts deeper, generally. Being called a liar or a jealous person is very different to a friend saying "that was a lie" or "you're feeling jealous about this guy". It's more painful and leaves a lot less room for change.
All of this really hits on the theme of core beliefs, a concept in psychology that homes in on the things that we fundamentally believe about ourselves, the world and other people. So if at core we believe we are a liar or a bad person – or in this case, "naive and overdramatic" – that can be the route to negative thoughts and, in turn, negative emotions. This sounds like it may have happened with you here.
How you negotiate this depends, as I said earlier, on the accepted standards of your friendship as well as your interpretation of events. One person could be called a drama queen and not be impacted because they could see the other person was misinformed and so let it go. But for other people, as perhaps for you, it can touch on a core belief and probably trigger a chain of negative thoughts about yourself. Maybe, at root, you do think that you are being overdramatic.
In that case, there are two potential routes: addressing this internally or externally.
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To address this internally, you should be asking yourself: What has this brought up? What has this activated for me?
It falls in the realm of CBT [cognitive behavioural therapy] where you're trying to unpick firstly the feelings. Why is this an issue for you? Do you feel sad? Angry? Depressed? Ashamed? You should acknowledge whatever the key emotions are as a starting point. And then we look for the thoughts that are behind this. Why has being called naive or overdramatic been the cause of this emotion? Why does it matter? There will likely be automatic negative thoughts that fuel this. Maybe a parent or teacher would call you naive and it would always make you feel terrible, or perhaps you’re scared you can’t progress in the world because someone will always be there to take advantage of you.
This can lead you even further into looking at the core belief at the heart of this. You can do this by continually asking: Why does it matter? In this example: "I've been called naive and therefore I won't be able to progress in the world if this is true." Why does that matter? "I really want to progress and if I can't, then I'll be a failure." Why? And what is the consequence of that? You can continue to dig deeper and you might get down to a core belief of "I'm not good enough" or "I can't trust anyone" or "the world's an unsafe place". And those are really good to work on. There's lots of ways that you can work on core beliefs that I outline further down.
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All this internal work could be done alone, with another friend, through journalling, or talked through in therapy. By getting external consultation, you might be able to process it that way. However it takes a bit of work, which is why therapy, as a guided environment, is often easier.
The alternative is the confrontation but that should ideally follow some internal work. If you’ve done a lot of work and introspection and you still can’t get past it, this is often the point where confronting the hurt can be useful in my experience of working with clients.
If the friends are in tune, then the one who said that should probably know that they touched a raw nerve and that they should either apologize, retract or counterbalance it with lots more positives. If they didn’t – as seems to be the case here – then it's possible for you to bring it up again, even years later, in this way. You can say something like: "Hey, I just wanted to talk through something that happened ages ago. It has sat with me and I wanted to let you know so that we can work through it. I hope that's okay with you." If they take the invitation, at that point you proceed by talking about what you recall them saying and how it touched something that made you feel very sad. You can emphasize how you value their friendship but, as it is still sticking with you, you wanted to talk it through to clear the air.
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How that person responds is very revealing. You would expect in a mutually healthy relationship that that person would acknowledge and perhaps either apologize or say that it was not meant to be taken in that way. If they become highly defensive or, worse, catapult more labels and more insults back, then that is not generally a healthy relationship because your thoughts and feelings are not being respected. And you've got to decide whether this friendship is worth the benefits versus the disadvantages, and if that friendship is a meaningful one, is it one you want to continue to be in? That answer is ultimately up to you.
Remember that all kinds of relationships are really difficult and they do take work. They take work on ourselves and they also take interpersonal work, whether that's intense listening, making time, communicating difficult feelings, bearing hurt sometimes, apologizing, forgiving, accepting. All of these things are not natural, comfortable areas. But generally, the rewards of friendships and relationships outweigh the troubles.
Working on your core values on the one hand and working on your relationship with that friend on the other can contribute to helping you build the self-confidence that seems to be lacking.
The core belief we want to get is one that promotes self-confidence, confidence in other people and a balanced perspective on the world: I'm okay, the world's okay and it's neither all good or all bad – and whatever meets us we can cope with it. As you work on the theoretical side, you shouldn't forget the lived experiences. You've got to go and throw yourself out there and not protect yourself against those negative comments. Be vulnerable and allow people to behave in the way that they are. You'll see more often than not that you can get through it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

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