“Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email email@example.com.
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Dear Swipe This!
A couple of months ago, I had a fight with a friend. She isn’t my best friend, or even a particularly close friend, but things got pretty heated. By the end of the argument, I was so irritated with her that I decided to unfollow her on Instagram. I thought, who needs to be friends with someone so bent on arguing and attacking?
In the months that followed, we never spoke about our conflict. But both online and in real life, she started treating me warmly and I mirrored that kindness back to her. At this point, I can confidently say we are friends again. Everything feels fine! But one thing is nagging at me: I have no idea if she knows that I unfollowed her. I guess I could just quietly re-follow her (she never unfollowed me), but I’m not sure what the appropriate etiquette is in this situation.
Can I follow her again without saying anything? I’m nervous that she’ll question me. But I’m also afraid that if I bring it up, it will just be awkward and remind her of the conflict. I’m happy that we’re getting along again. I don’t want to rock the boat!
What’s the best way to handle this?
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Dear Friendly Unfollower,
Friendships come in all shapes and sizes. There are big ones that take root in our heart and expand like strong, thick-trunked trees and stretch their limbs year after year, and then there are the smaller ones that flit in and out of our daily life like passing butterflies. Some people consider these smaller friendships to be less valuable, but I believe they add color and connection to our lives. At a basic level, they may remind us that we are all part of something bigger. So I admire you for treating this seemingly casual connection with caution and respect.
But I have some questions about how this friendship actually makes you feel. Conflict is a natural part of life, and it’s normal to want to storm out of a room when one arises. However, the fact that you were so upset with this friend that you needed to erase her from your feed makes me wonder more about how she behaved than it does about you. It’s possible you were feeling sensitive, but I’m curious if this person’s approach to conflict was so aggressive and insensitive, that it made you feel trapped, or worse, erased.
You say this conflict smoothed over with time, and that’s wonderful! I don’t believe every disagreement needs rehashing to achieve resolution. But it seems to me you’re very concerned about doing things the right way and that there is a part of you that genuinely doesn’t want your friend to feel hurt, so I also wonder if there isn’t another part of you that is worried that if she discovers what you did, she won’t like you.
One of the biggest traps in life is wanting everyone to like us. We want approval from our parents, from our partners, from our close friends, from our not-so-close friends, from our colleagues, our bosses, acquaintances, even strangers! If you kept track of who was pleased with you and who was displeased with you all day every day, you’d be miserable with anxiety and paralyzed with exhaustion.
Unfortunately, social media gives us the illusion that we can keep tabs on how liked we are. Did your #tbt post earn 10 likes or 100? Who liked it and how quickly? How many new followers did you gain this week and who are they and how many people like them? Or, God forbid, did you lose any followers? Why and how and who decided they don’t like you anymore?
When we keep tabs on our likability, minor friendships take on a greater weight and simple interactions become minefields where we can discover that we are hated or adored.
I can understand why you’d worry about the effect your actions might have on your friend. Who wants to hear that a friend couldn’t stand the sight of us in their feed? Who wants to hear that an acquaintance stopped liking them?
But the fact is, who does and does not like us is none of our business. In fact, I’d go so far as to say even when people do like us, the things they don’t like about us are none of our business. It’s not our job to manage other people’s opinions of us. When it comes to connection, our only job is to act out of kindness.
Kindness is not the same thing as being “nice.” When we’re nice, we worry about pleasing others. We want to be agreeable. We definitely do not want to rock the boat. When we are kind, we are deeply considerate and generous. We don’t erase ourselves or our needs. And that’s why what’s kind isn’t always nice.
So, if you unfollowed this friend as an act of kindness to yourself, I think you need to let go of any idea you might have that you should be ashamed of that choice. You were frustrated and you did what you needed to do to take care of yourself. And anyone who’s worth half a moment of your time will understand that.
Good friends no matter how casual the connection respect your right to take care of yourself. And if you’re dealing with a casual acquaintance who is going to blow up at you for taking a moment to put your own needs first, run! People who ask you to doubt your needs and place their happiness first are very bad news.
If I were you, I would re-follow this friend without discussion. It is a simple signifier of connection and there’s no need to over-complicate it. Your friend will see that you’ve followed her and, yes, it’s possible she’ll infer what happened. Or, she’ll think little of it and go on with her daily life. There is also a small chance that, as you fear, this friend will be very upset with you. In which case, you can be honest but kind. Offer her empathy. You can acknowledge how your choice might have upset her, but you do not have to apologize for needing space and taking it.
If this friendship is built on a flimsy foundation, that conversation could be the opportunity to build something stronger. Maybe, now that all this time has passed, your perspective will have changed and you’ll both see the conflict you had more clearly. It could give each of you valuable insights into who the other is and what she needs in a friendship, as well as in moments of conflict. On the other hand, flimsy foundations can cave in and crumble. If that happens, I want you to know in your bones that it is 100 percent OK. You are not a family-style bowl of pasta and everyone does not have to like you!
As cheesy as this may sound, I believe the most wonderful friendship we can have in life is the one we develop with ourselves. And part of being a good friend to yourself is not living in fear of what others will think. When we’re being good friends to ourselves, we build ourselves up. We know our worth. We don’t wait around for crumbs of approval from acquaintances because we don’t need them. And when we’re not hoping for crumbs, we cannot make choices based in fear. We can only make choices that we know are best for us and trust that, no matter the outcome, we’ll be OK.
So let go of the outcome, and click that follow button. You have nothing to lose except for the belief that a passing butterfly gets to determine your worth.
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