Several readers wrote and asked me why some people talk badly about their friends behind their backs.
The rational question: Why spend time with people you don’t like or respect? Or, if your really do like and respect them, why vent about them to other people in such a disloyal way?
Here’s one explanation.
Let’s say you don’t feel so great about yourself. Let’s say you’re not very confident or happy with yourself. As a result, you don’t think much about the friends who choose to spend time with you.
A happy and content person chooses friends who share his or her values, beliefs, and interests. Such a person likes himself, and as a result only selects people he or she likes as friends or associates.
But if you’re not happy with who you are, you’re more likely to choose people merely because they’re interested in you, and willing to spend time with you.
If you’ve never passed a positive evaluation on yourself, then it stands to reason you won’t have a very positive evaluation of those who select to spend time with you.
A confident person isn’t a braggart or a narcissist (i.e., a person who feels entitled to rights or needs to which others are not entitled). But a confident person does feel, on some usually unspoken level, that, ‘I’m a good person to be with, and others will like what I have to offer.’
When people don’t like themselves, their friends (or even spouses) serve as a reminder of what they don’t like. If you don’t like yourself and I’m your friend, then I’m a reminder—when you see me—of the fact that there must be something wrong with me, in order to like you.
It’s irrational and illogical, of course. But it makes psychological sense, given the underlying premise that ‘I’m not a likable person.’
People who treat their friends poorly usually get the rap for being ‘selfish.’ In this context, the term is meant to imply that the person ‘likes himself too much, and as a result won’t even treat his own friends or spouse well.’
This makes absolutely no sense. If you like yourself even moderately well, you’re going to treat those you care about with loyalty and respect. You wouldn’t need some arbitrary rule to tell you, ‘Be nice’ to prevent you from talking badly about your friends.
Your friends and romantic partners are your choices. They’re not like your family-of-origin, whom you did not choose (although you might choose and enjoy staying connected with them). To denigrate the people you choose to have in your life is to denigrate your choices—i.e., your own basic self.
A person with self-esteem, who’s content and serene in his or her own skin, will gladly stay home alone before spending time with people he or she does not enjoy. Insecure people, on the other hand, have to be with somebody. Their choices are somewhat indiscriminate, and as a result they don’t think highly of their own choices.
Sometimes people willingly stay with people they see as inadequate friends. They’ll stay with friends whose values, behaviors or choices they do not enjoy or admire. As a result, they feel badly about themselves when they agree to spend time with such friends.
This is a variation of the same theme. ‘I feel badly about myself for not making better choices in my own life. I’m choosing people who reflect that negligence, because they’re not making better choices, either.’ It’s not necessarily an explicit, conscious thought of this kind. But that’s the thinking underlying the feelings of resentment and guilt some people have, when in the presence of friends.
In order to distract oneself from that resentment and guilt, the person talks about the friends behind their backs, in order to gain some relief. It provides some temporary relief, perhaps, but the facts still cannot be wished away. The facts are you don’t feel good about yourself for the choices you’re making in life, and the friends are merely a symptom and a reminder of those choices.
In assessing ourselves and other people, we tend to be too casual and superficial. We say things like, ‘It’s not nice to be selfish,’ or, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say about other people, then don’t say anything at all.’
These directives don’t begin to get to the heart and core of the matter. This is why these preachy cliches never stick, and only induce more guilt (in conscientious people) without resolving anything.
So much starts with self-respect, self-esteem and self-awareness. Your behaviors, choices and emotions are all reflections of what’s happening in your own thinking, and in your own mind. Start there when trying to figure out why you’re acting in a way that seems to make no sense.
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