So You’re The Punching Bag Of The Friend Group. Now What?

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"It seems in every friendship group I’ve ever been in, I become the butt of the joke," says Alice*, 28. "Since I can remember, I’ve always taken the role of 'punching bag' – primary, secondary school, college, uni, work, family. The only person close to me who doesn’t have me in that position is my husband – and I still find that weird."
Of friendship group stereotypes – the officious organiser, the reluctant therapist, the designated driver – the punching bag is arguably the most painful. Like their namesake, punching bags take repeated abuse without breaking (or flying off the wall), blithely bouncing back into the ring for another pummelling. Often they lack respect from the wider group, or at least its 'main character' ringleader, and are kept around for cheap thrills.
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For some, it's all good fun. Perhaps you're Gretchen in Mean Girls and blissfully unaware that you're the punching bag. Perhaps you're anyone who breathes the same air as master puncher Lisa Vanderpump on early seasons of The Real Housewives and you get the wind knocked out of you with reassuring regularity. Maybe, like any Rebel Wilson character being pushed into a fountain or jumping onto a car bonnet, the attention that comes with being the comic relief puts a pep in your step.

"Being the punching bag just means they love you the most," says a TikTok commenter. Alice agrees. She doesn't mind the odd emotional elbow jab to the ribcage because she knows the metaphorical fisticuffs are lovingly swung. As RuPaul advises the queens ahead of every Drag Race roast challenge: "It's okay if it comes from a place of love – and you make it funny."

"It’s a weird one," Alice muses. "It’s not necessarily that I like [being the punching bag], I just don’t mind it, if that makes sense? I’d happily take that spot – to avoid someone else having to take it. I don’t mind having the mick taken out of me," she explains. "TBH I think I’m quite easy to take the mick out of because I’m quite an open book."
But in some situations, playful swings (think The Office's Michael Scott's annual and deliberate forgetting of Toby from HR's birthday) wind into something more sinister, flying a little too close to bullying. Being the punching bag can be exhausting, traumatic and life-altering. For this writer, an erstwhile friendship group's body blows featured fistfuls of incessant, irreverent, slut-shaming remarks and generalised, unfunny degradation. A few years of enduring such uppercuts led to a life-bruise that's lasted almost a decade. In my early 20s I distanced myself not just from the offending friendship group but from friendship groups altogether. I was done being Toby. Bring on my Pam era.
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So where's the line? And is swearing off friend groups for good the healthiest route out? "If you know your group's tendencies towards banter and the patterns and language that it typically involves, you will be able to sort out what is friendly and what has more of an edge to it," says London-based psychotherapist and relationship counsellor Beverley Blackman. "It's also worth acknowledging that people can say things they don't mean when they are in a heightened state of some kind, e.g. stressed, unwell, have had too much to drink, etc."
"The time to worry is when the jibing constantly has an edge and moves away from what the group's 'norm' is," Blackman continues. "This needs addressing. You can do it quietly and subtly or you can call the person out then and there – depending on your group dynamics, you will know which option to go for."
There are, of course, consequences when laughing off the odd joke at your expense turns into surviving an endurance race you never signed up for. "When someone is constantly put down and diminished, their sense of self and self-esteem suffers," says Blackman. "They may want to hide away, not communicate, not be part of the group; they can become insular and depressed or anxious. It's a hard role to be in."

There are ways to break the cycle. "The first is to engender some self-respect. Ask yourself what gives other people the right to use you as a punch bag," says Blackman, harshly but helpfully. "Ask yourself about what your part in it may be, and what your patterns of behaviour may be which allow people to treat you as a punch bag."
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Actual punch bags are designed to withstand even a Nicola Adams-style right hook. This is a less discussed and more nuanced aspect of the punching bag persona: their seeming resilience and remarkable ability to bounce back. But is it genuinely character-building to adopt this role and, crucially, is it worth putting up with? Alice believes one reason she is repeatedly cast in the punching bag role is because her friends know she can take it. "I think others think I am this laid-back, chill person that walks around taking the mick out of herself and don’t get me wrong, I am definitely that person most of the time so I can’t argue with that," Alice explains. "People think I can handle it – and that’s probably to do with the way I come across – and I definitely can handle it. I actually enjoy it most of the time!"

But what if you don't enjoy it? As so often is the case, all roads lead to therapy. Blackman advises speaking to someone, preferably an impartial outsider. "It's always worth seeking some short-term therapy to learn about yourself and your sense of identity." You don't have to be mentally ill to seek therapy, she reminds us. "Many people use it as a journey of self-discovery and to bring about positive changes in their lives, and relationships and friendship group dynamics is always a place where a person's sometimes dysfunctional life patterns can show up. Once you are aware of them, it's much easier to make changes so that you don't end up as the punch bag and so that your self-respect stays at a good level."
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Prioritising self-respect when you're in the throes of a toxic friendship dynamic is as difficult as it sounds – particularly in the age of social media. In my prior situation, the punching was largely happening in person, quietly, away from the rotten tomato-strewn stage of social media for friends to pile on top of and drama-starved strangers to drool over. I can't imagine how much pointier the jabs feel when they double up as 'content' for friends' feeds.
"Things like Instagram and Facebook have caused difficulties between friends or friendship groups," says Blackman of her clients. "Many people have expressed concerns about how their friendships have altered [during the pandemic]. It's much easier to misinterpret a friend's meaning if you are communicating by text or email rather than using tone of voice in a phone call."
For Alice, maintaining friendships virtually through the pandemic has actually had a positive effect on her punch bag persona. "I’m not the punching bag as often now as I’m not seeing my friends as much!" she says. "Also, since the pandemic, when I do see the people I love, things feel more caring and sensitive."
I'm thinking that advice from a fellow punching bag who manages to maintain loving relationships with her friends should be heeded. "Speak up if you’re not comfortable," says Alice. "I would say maybe don’t do it while in an uncomfortable or heated situation as feelings will be heightened. I can’t imagine there being an issue bringing up your feelings to your friends in a reflective conversation. And if there are, then your friends aren’t right for you – brutal but you shouldn’t have to put up with anything you don’t feel happy with. Put your boundaries on the table loud and clear."

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