Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: One of my close friends has taken to jumping on me over all kinds of things — what I eat, how I vote, whether it’s “right” for me to have a cleaning lady, you name it. When I get annoyed at the constant attacks, he tells me that real friends are supposed to challenge each other, that everyone else in my life just mindlessly validates me, and that I’m close-minded and unable to handle criticism. I don’t think that’s true, although I certainly don’t appreciate having it hurled indiscriminately at me like this.
This guy is smart, interesting, and can be a lot of fun, but every time I see him I come away feeling really insecure that I actually am this flawed, awful person living in a bubble full of sycophants.
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Is he right? Is the common wisdom that friends are supposed to “challenge” each other?
DEAR CHALLENGED: You can say “To you, real friends challenge each other. To me, life is a constant challenge, and so real friends are the ones who are kind to and accept each other.” Discuss.
Or say, “Fine. I’m challenging your notion that it’s your place to fix me.”
Or, don’t discuss or say, and just let this alleged close friend know you’re not going to keep serving yourself up to be criticized.
He will likely call this proof you can’t handle criticism, but that’s fine. Just tell him he’s right, shrug, and spare yourself his company. It’s your prerogative.
As for the doubts this has stirred up, you can still pay attention both to your own behavior and to the ways your other friends do and don’t reinforce it, without validating his tactics. It’s useful to revisit occasionally our own idea of what a good person is, and to see if we’re living up to that; that’s our job, though, not our friends’.
You know, my husband challenges me. He calls me on it when I behave poorly. There have been points in my life when I have listened to his criticism even after completely disregarding everyone else’s. This is because he deploys his criticism very selectively, and doesn’t rip into me for eating an ice-cream bar or blowing off errands or whatever. He makes me want to be a better person.
If he was doing what “Challenged” described, however, I would stop listening to him very quickly and assume he needed to find a new wife, someone whose flaws he didn’t feel the constant need to point out.
DEAR ANONYMOUS: This makes the distinction clear, thank you.
I’d say real friends ask and discuss with kindness and tact, and accept that they may make different choices in life. Or, you know, generally behave like adults with their friends.
Obviously my tune changes if there are serious red flags, but a cleaning lady definitely doesn’t fall under “flag material” to me.
— Anonymous 2
DEAR ANONYMOUS 2: Right — whereas this friend’s behavior does, since he’s essentially gaslighting “Challenged.” Thanks.