You won't always have a tribe
An inconsolable mess of hot pink, stuffed animals, and tears, my five-year-old self remained buried face first in the princess comforter on my bed. Through racking sobs, I tried to explain to my mom what was so terribly wrong.
“I don’t have any friends,” I coughed out in between gasps. It had been a terrible day of Kindergarten. I’d done something to make my friends in the class angry, and they’d shunned me during playtime. I didn’t know it then, but I was on a long path that would be riddled with problems with friendships; female friends always seemed to dart in and out of my life. The road was just beginning, though, and it was the first time I’d suffered such an immense heartache as being left out.
My mom, as mothers do, hugged me tight, dried my tears, and tried to console me.
“What’s going on?” a male voice asked from the door of my bedroom.
My mom explained as the tears still fell down my cheek. “She’s worried she doesn’t have any friends.” The way my mom’s voice quivered slightly, I could sense the empathy along with the trepidation that perhaps, somehow, the child she’d worked so hard to raise had turned out to be a loner incapable of social relationships. Considering I was an only child, this was a very real fear, I realize now.
My dad walked into the room, and I peered at him through my blurry tears. I watched him shrug and look at me.
“Well, you don’t have any friends,” he uttered matter-of-factly.
Que more racking sobs, even more inconsolable now.
Que an angry sigh from my mother as she shook her head at him.
“What?” he responded after the glare my mother gave him. “It’s true. You don’t have friends. I don’t have friends. What I mean is, don’t worry. No one has friends. You are your only true friend in life.”
My mother shooed him away, knowing that a five-year-old needs hugs and advice on how it would be better tomorrow, not an existential examination of the meaning of friendship.
We still tease my father about his words of wisdom that day. In many ways, that was the first scarring moment in my five-year-old life. What did my dad mean I had no friends? What was wrong with me if even my dad thought I had no friend to speak of? At five, I couldn’t really comprehend what he meant. Luckily, my mother managed to calm me down enough to get me to go back to school and try in the friendship department again.
Nevertheless, I didn’t forget my dad’s words. And even if I’d wanted to forget them, I couldn’t—because over the years, they basically rang true.
My father is not a literary man by any means. Even though I’m an English teacher and he was the one who sparked my love for reading and writing in many ways, he does not value Shakespeare, Emerson, or poetry. Still, I can appreciate now, decades later, the Emersonian quality to his phrase—this idea of being independent, of being your own best friend in life, and of chasing your own desires no matter what others think.
He was trying to impress upon my way-too-young mind that people will always come and go in life. People will get angry at us when we deserve it, and they’ll get angry at us when we don’t. People will claim to be friends in the good times and leave during the bad times. And sometimes people will just up and leave because they can. There’s only one constant, one person you can depend on to have your best interests at heart—yourself.
I think that these words ring even truer for females.
Not to edge over into the realm of sexism, but honestly, ladies, aren’t we sometimes terrible to each other? Manoeuvring the catty world of junior high and high school with my bad haircut only to get to adult world and find out it doesn’t end—it’s been a tragedy worse than that seventh grade shaggy haircut I had and lack of hair styling techniques. All relationships are hard, but female friendships sometimes carry an extra weight with them. Competition, jealousy, and manipulation all seem to worm their way into even the best-intentioned friendships.
I’ve had friends and lost them. I’ve been backstabbed and lied to over the years. I also have done some things I’m not proud of in friendship. I’ve let jealousy or distance get in the way. I’ve failed to be there for the female friends in my life in ways I should have been.
In short, friendships do come and go, and sometimes it feels like the coldness of my dad’s words ring true—no one has any friends at all.
It seems like a stoic lesson on humanity, one that there would be no recovering from. Still, my dad’s words have helped me stay positive in the face of loss when it comes to relationships. At a young age, despite my mother’s eye rolls, he taught me to be independent.
My father taught me that happiness shouldn’t come from external forces. He showed me that a big part of life is learning to be your own best friend, to have your own interests at heart, and to let go of people who just don’t get you.
In junior high, I had a substitute teacher who I was convinced hated me. She was a long-term substitute for our home economics teacher, and she often got frustrated with me because I was, shall I say, somewhat of a failure in the cooking and sewing and everything domestic department (some things don’t change). I remember going home with my whiny, thirteen-year-old complaints about how unfair life was and how much she hated me and how mad I was.
My father’s advice?
“Some people won’t like you just because they don’t like you. They don’t need a reason. Just keep on going, don’t draw attention to yourself, and do your best.”
That wasn’t what my thirteen-year-old “life’s not fair” self wanted to hear. But even then, he was true to his mantra.
Not everyone will like you. Not everyone who says they are your friend will stick around. People are fickle.
You have to learn to be more than just okay with being alone. You have to learn to be confident in who you are, where you’re going, and sometimes hold your own hand on the way. Sure, along the way, there will be people who lighten the journey. There will be people who walk with us for a few miles or maybe even thousands. There will be friends who get us, who really get us, and who love us despite our shortcomings.
But there will also be people who don’t. There will be people on the sidelines pretending to cheer us on only to cheer louder when we trip. There will be friends who are actually enemies wearing friends’ cloaks. There will be friends who turn and leave when we need them most.
We will all find ourselves a teary-eyed mess, face down in our comforter wishing our mom could tell us of course we have friends and tomorrow will be better.
But as one of my favorite female writers and speakers, Rachel Hollis notes, you can’t let the opinions of others impact your self-worth. You have to ignore the negative opinions of others and realize they don’t change who you are.'
I’m thankful for my dad’s words because he set me on a path of being okay alone—more than okay alone. He taught me to find self-worth and self-identity outside the views of others. He taught me that it’s okay to walk by yourself sometimes through life—because we all do that from time to time.
There’s a wonderful quote in the book and movie P.S. I Love You where the mother is consoling he sobbing adult daughter when she is grieving over her lost husband. The mother says, “So now, all alone or not, you gotta walk ahead. Thing to remember is if we're all alone, then we're all together in that too.” It always reminds me of my father and his advice. It reminds us that human friendship is a struggle for everyone—we’re not alone in facing this.
However, we need to be confident enough in ourselves to walk alone sometimes. My father taught me that alone isn’t a scary, tearful thing. It’s just a part of life, and one we all can get through when we must.
USA TODAY Bestselling Thriller author with Avon Books (HarperCollins), The Widow Next Door