“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 protected]
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Dear Swipe This!
I have a friend who lives on the West Coast and I live on the East Coast. Every time I visit her city, I give her my info. I’ll tell her if I’m reading or performing somewhere, or I plan a dinner a bunch of us can go to and I invite her. She always attends.
However, I always find out she’s visiting my city through social media. I see photos of her in my neighborhood with a bunch of other friends and I’ll text her “OMG, are you here?” And she’ll say yes and tell me the days she’s in town and I’ll invite her to cool things and NOPE—it never happens! We never hang out! And I see Instagram post after Instagram post of her having a blast in my city. I think the greatest blow was not having plans on a Saturday night and then waking up Sunday morning and seeing all of her photos from the night before at a bar walking distance from my place.
I’ve known this friend for 13 years. We have never lived in the same city. The closest was when we met—we lived one hour away from each other and had a lot of mutual friends. So we have never been BFFs who share the most intimate things, but we have been hanging out one-on-one and in groups for over a decade in multiple states from Georgia to California to NYC.
Something similar happened with a different friend a few years ago—we both lived in different cities and had a falling out. She came to visit her parents in the city I lived in and kept checking in on Facebook at all these places near me and it was so awkward because we weren’t speaking, but she, who was normally 1,000 miles away, was down the street and I couldn’t do anything about it. Social media is weird. And now, of course, we are BFFs again and we savor every moment we get to actually hang out since we live even further from each other than before.
Getting back to my original problem, though: I get that maybe we’re not close enough to make time for each other during visits (though, again, she always makes time to see me when I’m on the West Coast), so is it OK for me to unfollow her on social media? It was just too hurtful to see those photos. Do I need to tell her why I’m unfollowing her or should I just do it?
Unsure to Unfollow
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Dear Unsure to Unfollow,
It’s never nice to feel excluded. But the funny thing about exclusion is at one time or another, every human on the planet has felt this way. Everyone remembers the birthday party they didn’t get invited to, the time their playground friend left them behind, or the day when there weren’t enough seats at the lunch table. So the first thing I’d like to let you know is that you may have been feeling lonely on a Saturday night. But you are by no means alone in your experience. We have all been there.
That said, the specific experience you are talking about is a hard one to process and share because it didn’t happen to your friend. It happened to you while you were alone with your phone screen. It’s possible that your friend is flighty and rude and maybe even a little self-involved. It’s also possible that she didn’t have it in her heart to say, “I don’t think I’ll have time to see you,” because she likes you and did not want you to feel excluded. Your friend did not actively reject you—you rejected yourself when you saw those images of a happy evening that did not include you. You told yourself, I’m not wanted, I’m not valued, I am alone.
I wonder, if you’d had a full schedule that weekend, would you have noticed that she wasn’t available? Would you have cared? Would you have perceived her lack of follow-up as an act of exclusion, or simply as schedules not lining up? Or would you have been too busy showing up for your own life to give it a second thought?
One of my favorite sayings is keep your eyes on your own paper. In the world of social media, that old adage can feel nearly impossible to uphold. How can you keep your eyes on your own paper when other people’s papers magically appear on the screen of your phone? And not only can we see everyone else’s paper in the form of posts, feeds, and profiles, we get to see the grades each paper earned. How many likes did it get and who commented? And did they use one emoji heart or five? We get to watch how others engage with one another and we can make all kinds of assumptions about intimacy. We can also experience exclusion near constantly—if we choose it.
You wrote to me asking for permission to unfollow your friend, and if you feel you need to, by all means, you can. But I don’t think unfollowing this friend will protect you from feelings of exclusion if you are unwilling to investigate why you’ve chosen exclusion yet again. You’ve got to put your eyes back on your own paper. And this isn’t the first time you’ve struggled with this—you say so yourself.
At this point perhaps you are saying, “That isn’t true, I didn’t choose to have this experience! It just happened that way!” But when something keeps happening in life, when we become aware of an unpleasant pattern, we can’t do anything about it unless we are willing to examine our role in keeping that pattern in motion.
It seems to me you have a tendency to turn toward those who turn away from you. As I read your letter, I found myself wondering how frequently you give your generous attention to those whose attention is a challenge to capture. Why are you peeking over their shoulder at their paper? What are you hoping to find? Is some part of you seeking that experience of feeling excluded? Is there something about the lives they lead that represents the life you’d like for yourself?
You also appear to maintain friendships that are in many ways untenable. There is nothing wrong with having a long-distance friendship here or there, but is it possible you’re scattering your energy? How can the friendships that are presently available in your life blossom and grow deeper if you are always seeking affection elsewhere?
I also wonder how you can possibly be satisfied in your relationships if you are constantly measuring yourself against the most intimate members of other people’s worlds. You say at one point that you felt deeply envious when a friend came to town to see her parents. If you feel excluded when a friend is tending to the needs of their own family, you may need to examine your own boundaries more carefully. It is not always appropriate for others to carve out time for us or to bring us in. And when we take their need for boundaries as a signal that we are not cared for, we set ourselves, and those we love, up for a whole lot of unnecessary suffering.
Which brings us back to that very human feeling of exclusion. I believe that sense of panic you felt goes deeper than the discomfort of being alone on a Saturday night. I believe seeing your friend feeling at home on your “turf,” as you call it, tapped into a deeper human instinct—the instinct to find your tribe.
Humans are tribal creatures. We search for signals that we belong. And when we find evidence that we don’t, alarm bells go off in our head. So that feeling you had of panic, and “I cannot let this happen again!” isn’t unique to you. It’s deeply human. It’s how we’re hard-wired. It is your brain’s way of trying to help you survive.
It also explains why you feel so wronged by your friend. When you got to the West Coast, you say you plan dinners that “a bunch of us” can go to. It seems your tribe has an open-door policy. When you are with your people, your friend is welcome. But when she is with her tribe, she doesn’t invite you to the table to share the feast.
So for me, the question is not should you unfollow, but how can you reclaim your rightful position as the chief of your tribe? How can you let go of the idea that you need to be chosen in order to belong? Can you recognize that your time, energy, and attention are precious and valuable? Can you stop turning toward those who turn away from you and turn back to your great responsibilities as the chief of your tribe?
You get to create and nurture your own intricate network of friends and loved ones and no one can take that from you. You get to choose who gets a seat at your table. And trust me, it will be a much more festive meal if you stop lingering in the doorway and invite yourself to take your rightful seat at the table.