Substitute People

I had a somewhat pathetic childhood. I was a socially awkward mini-INTJ with nominal people skills and no understanding of basic human nature — which is selfish and uncaring. I was a very kind little girl, sometimes blunt but always wanting to make sure that everyone was having a good time and felt included. As such, I didn’t understand why I was not included, why I could be friends with someone one week and not the next (when nothing had changed in-between), or what to do when that happened. My first taste of the brutality of friendships came at age seven, when one of my friends exchanged me for a boy. One week, I was talked to and included, the next week I was ignored. Since I have never been very good at not showing my emotions, it must have been written all over my face — what happened?!? what did I do?! My mother said she had never felt more helpless than seeing her little girl stand alone on the steps at church with hurt and confusion all over her round little face. I wish I could say that this habit of me being “forgotten” and “excluded” changed as I got older but in truth… it didn’t. I remember several instances in which I specifically asked to be included when two different groups of friends were planning an outing and in both instances, they went without me. It was not a malicious decision on their part, simply that no one thought about me.

For the most part, that happened a lot growing up — people forgot that I existed. I am not sure if it was because living in the country, I simply wasn’t around constantly to remind them, since they never ran into me at school or the local grocer’s, or if I was just that forgettable in person. Growing up, I wanted desperately to be included. I did not want to be the center of attention, but I wanted to be involved, remembered, thought about, spoken to — and I put an immense amount of effort into my half of the friendship. I never do things by halves — I either commit to them fully or pull the plug. So often, I wound up in relationships in which I carried most of the weight, made most of the effort, and bore much of the blame whenever anything went wrong, just because I wanted to be included. I was afraid of losing what “friends” I had, so I went out of my way to appeal to and placate them, instead of expecting them to fulfill their half of our unspoken friendship bargain. Even so, I still didn’t know how I was left out of things or suddenly not worth talking to on Sunday mornings. I didn’t know why people who were my friends for a long time started corresponding with me less and less, or what I could do to fix it.

That’s when Elizabethtown came out.

To be honest, I wasn’t going to go see it — I had never been a big Orlando Bloom fan but I do like Kirsten Dunst and had nothing else to do that afternoon, so I plunked myself down in the theater and learned about Substitute People. The movie is about a lot of things — dealing with loss, grief, etc., — but mostly it is about two people who feel a lot like I did sometimes, as if they were fine and dandy in friendships until something better came along, and then they got chucked by the wayside faster than you could say “Hot Ticket!” I always figured there was something profoundly amiss with me if people treated me that way — but there’s nothing wrong with the heroine in this movie; I would LOVE to hang out with someone like her, who plans an entire road trip complete with music for a guy she likes just for the heck of it. If people could ignore this totally cool person and treat her like a substitute friend, there wasn’t anything wrong with me after all.

I’d love to say that I walked out of that movie having changed my life, and that from then on it has been all hearts and roses and best friends… but it hasn’t. I’ve been through my share of relationship hell since then. I’ve had times in which I had very close friends and when I have felt like I have had no friends at all. I’ve had lots of people to confide in and no one to talk to. I have dealt with people moving on from me, and me moving on from them and not knowing how to make the transition without hurting their feelings. Having spent so much of my life feeling like a “Substitute Person,” it tore me up inside thinking that possibly I had begun to treat others in the same way. But that is when God spoke to my heart and reminded me that my friendships have never been false on my end. I have always meant them, and enjoyed them, and learned much from them. If you have shared a wonderful friendship for a long time and now are drifting away, there is nothing wrong with that — because you both fulfilled a purpose in each other’s life, gave one another joy, and shared something real. Your circle of friends can change depending on a lot of things — your current interests and passions, different social circles, or a new church. Our lives are not meant to remain stagnant and we should always be meeting new people and forming new acquaintances.

Over the years, I have had a succession of “best friends.” Most of them have come and gone, but at the time we had a lot of fun, shared a lot of things, and made a ton of memories. Do I miss them? Sometimes. I think back on all the fun we had and miss it, but I also know that things can never be the same — once your life paths have taken different directions, you can never go back. You can start over again but it will never be as it was. There are a few friends, however, who will be with you a long time and whose lives will be similar to yours, so that you never really grow apart. But the truth is — life doesn’t just change your friends, it changes you. The circumstances of our lives, the choices we make, the renewed passions and interests we have, even our spiritual walk with Christ makes huge changes in our lives, and sometimes it’s not our friends who have drifted, it’s us. We can choose to feel immense guilt about this, or we can accept that nothing went wrong, that our memories are intact, that it is likely that while we have been changing, others have been too.

I don’t know where you are right now, if you are saddened that a friendship has waned and cannot understand why, or if you are discovering that your focus is shifting to a different group of people — but I want you to know it’s okay. It’s all right to hang on, and it’s all right to let go. Everyone struggles when their life changes. Everyone feels awkward and secretly wants to be included. No one knows quite how to handle friendship transitions — we all just fly by the seat of our pants and hope for the best. But none of us have to be Substitute People. If we don’t fit in, if we don’t feel included, it just means we haven’t quite found the right friends yet. We need to look at each person we interact with as a potential friend, since you can never have too many.

9 Replies to “Substitute People”

  1. Hits too close to home, I dislike feeling this, it is the story of my life. People will call me up invite me out then the next day I´m completely forgotten for weeks to months on end with no one to talk to. I make an effort to stay in contact or even meet new people but it hasn´t worked out. Not sure why it happens, I be myself, I am friendly, on various occasions have totally gotten a dead party moving (to the point where people would thank me later for getting things moving), remember birthdays (even give gifts to people on events). Yet at the end of the day it seems that I am just not important enough to keep in mind, I mean even its just for an invite so I´m not stuck in a corner. It is this cyclic rhythm of constant exclusion-inclusion-exclusion that is just burying me. I absolutely cherish times together, but this pattern is pathological and overwhelming.

    1. I don’t know what to tell you, Anthony, except that people who treat you like that aren’t really your friends… they’re using you to get what they want (someone to hang out with when it’s convenient for them, someone to be the life of a dull party). I’d look for new friends, who treat you with the respect and affection you deserve. Don’t LET THEM treat you like a substitute person. Be the one who invites people places, instead of waiting. And if they say no — find someone who will say yes. Find ANOTHER substitute person, and cease being substitute people together.

    1. Finding your footing in relationships that are constantly changing is hard — I often don’t know what to do, so realizing that people change and it’s okay if you drift apart or are changing has been a challenge for me. I hope your friendship transitions turn out well!

  2. When it comes to one’s relationships, I believe that it most definitely is not just “one-sided.” It takes two people to make a friendship work and it takes two people to “ruin” a friendship. I have regrets, yes, but I also know that if I want to keep up the relationships with the people who mean the most to me, I cannot let them take every initiative.

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