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Q&A for Teens: How Can I Change My Friend?

July 19, 2012 | by Lauren Roth

My friend has changed drastically and I don’t know how to handle it.

Dear Lauren,

I used to be close to a girl in elementary school, but then she switched to a different school. She has changed drastically and I really don't know how to handle it.  She had beautiful blonde hair, which she has now dyed black, she listens to (in my opinion) strange music where the singers are really just shouting, and she’s always talking about weird computer fantasy stuff—like “Legend of Zelda” and “Second Life,” and that kind of stuff I don’t know anything about. I have become, in a way, her therapist, and it’s too much for me. How am I supposed to relate to her and help her find a school where she'll be more like the way we used to be?

Lauren Roth's Answer

I am so happy you wrote to me, because now I can release you from the pressure of feeling as though you need to fulfill a role you are not qualified to fulfill. You do not need to be your friend’s therapist. You’re not a therapist, so you don’t need to be anyone’s therapist. Just breathe a sigh of relief and calm down. Inhale. Exhale. You are not your friend’s therapist. Inhale. Exhale. Feel better?

Let’s release a little more of the self-imposed pressure on you: you are not “supposed” to relate to any friend; it’s not your obligation to relate to people, even if you used to be friendly with them. You can choose to relate to your friends, but if you find they are doing strange, destructive, unpleasant, or unmanageable things, you absolutely have the right to tell them, “I don’t think I know how to handle this. I love you and I’m not sure what to do here. I think maybe you should get help from someone who is qualified to help you. I care about you—that’s why I’m saying this.”

In terms of your changing your friend, as you indicated you want to do: you can’t. You can never, ever change anyone other than yourself. And if you try, you’ll probably be frustrated, and they’ll probably feel alienated. Sure, you can talk to her about her behavior. You can tell her, “Friend, your behavior and discussion topics and life choices are making me worry about you. Are you happy with the path you’re taking, and do you want to stay on this path? I know it’s none of my business. I just want my friend to be happy, that’s all.”

My kids and I were driving down the street today when we noticed that the city workers had torn holes in the pavement quite a few days ago, but they still had not filled in those holes. As we were bumping slowly along, trying to avoid the induced potholes, a friend in the car with us said, accusingly, “Why haven’t they filled in those holes yet?” My 6-year-old answered, “I guess they know their job.” And she was right. If everyone worried about someone else’s job, life would be very complicated. When you’re friends (or when you have been friends in the past) with someone, there’s a delicate balance between caring for that person and running their life for them. Although it’s lovely to care about friends, we cannot live their lives. Only they can do that.

And remember that what works for one person might not work for another. What inspires one person might not inspire another. Everyone is different. Perhaps this is the way your friend is choosing to lead her life, whether you think it’s the correct way or not, and whether it’s the way you have chosen to live your own life or not. Of course you can talk to her about her life choices and about your life choices, but always with the realization that some people will choose to live their lives differently than you choose to live yours.

The other day, I was stopped in traffic for about 10 minutes while a very lengthy funeral procession passed by on the other side of the street. Because I was facing the line of cars, I was able to see each of the drivers and passengers. From the appearance of the vehicles and the people in them, and from the music coming out of the vehicles, it was obvious to me that an African American had passed away. From the extreme lengthiness of the funeral procession line, it was obvious to me that this person was someone very important. At one point, the procession was stalled and I was side-by-side with one of the drivers in the line. I said, “This person obviously was important. Who was it?”

She looked at me—studying me—seemed to decide I definitely was not African American, pressed her lips into a thin line, gave me a look of pure disdain, sneered, “You didn’t know him,” then turned to the person in the passenger seat of her car, rolled her eyes, curled her lip in disgust, and without looking at me again, drove on.

What’s sad to me about that story is: we all do that. We all size people up, judge whether they are “like us” or not, judge whether they are “one of us” or not, and then mete out our love, acceptance, kindness, and friendship accordingly.

But the truth of life is that we all have different values and different life-views. We all have different life paths, and we all make different choices. We can tell our friends how we feel and we can tell them if we’re concerned about them, but we shouldn’t assume that they will necessarily be happier or more fulfilled if they choose the paths in life that we have chosen for ourselves.

When I was at the Western Wall a month ago on Friday night, I saw the most beautiful sight: I saw all different types of Jews dancing and singing together.

The world is a tapestry, woven from many different fibers, each with their own texture, color, and properties. Some threads are silky, fine, and soft as baby’s skin. Others yarns are more like rope—wooly, scratchy, rough, tough, and strong. The differences between us all make the world into the fascinating and beautiful multi-colored and multi-textured planet we call home.

Sometimes, loving our friends means telling them we’re concerned, telling them we care about them, then letting them live the life they’ve chosen to live.

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