Pretender Friends

Let me first admit that Jackson Browne’s lyrics from “The Pretender” inspired the title of this one.

I met M years ago in Canada*. When I told her I would be visiting for a month to write a book, M was overjoyed. Near the end of the month, we had made many good memories together. Taking our kids to parks and lakes, visiting favorite shops and Farmer’s Markets. Before I left, she told me she had decided that during my trip, she would wear less makeup and try to dress more relaxed, just like me. 

I should have known at that time. But instead of being concerned or alerted, I was distracted by her flattery. I had heard it before,“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” 

Now, I’ve already written about the problems of my pretending and answered “Does pretending ever lead to the real thing?

The point here is that I realized I was befriending someone who didn’t exist. M was pretending to be more like me than she was. Sort of like the imaginary friends we make up as children, the ones who always like what we like. M was imagining she was more like me than she was. Except we weren’t children, anymore.

She played a convincing part. In the months after my trip to Canada, she joined our Soulation classes, she read the books I was reading, she made us matching jewelry. She imitated beautifully. But, like all pretending, it wasn’t sustainable.**

Dale figured it out before I did. As the real M came out more and more, Dale started to get wise. But it took me longer. I did start to get bored with her conversation. I realize now that’s a clue. But back then, I just kept trying.

Instead of paying attention, I turned on my helpfulness faucet. I turned it way up: counseling tips, self care books, soul care ideas. Within a year M had proclaimed a steady war on all the things she used to be, or pretend to be.

But I was still working hard on our “friendship.” This is in part because of a strength of mine: perseverance. But it’s also in part due to a failing of mine: codependency. Codependents believe things like

I need you to need me.
I’m okay if you’re okay.
I need to be helpful even if I’m not taking care of myself.

As long as I’m convinced I’m helping someone, it’s been easier for me to ignore my boredom. This is true codependency: refusing to admit the truth to myself because I’m so busy distracting myself with “goodness”. 

Ignoring reality in any way is a great recipe for confusing, painful, impossible friendships. It cranks up the drama, the exhaustion and removes the pleasure. I do not recommend it. 

It gets even murkier if your profession involves helping (mental or physical health, ministry, non-profit, social work, parenting, childcare).

Closing Soulation, taking some years of public silence, reading, confessing, journaling and noticing the true friends, the lifelong friends, these all helped me recover. 

When you’re not a traveling speaker or writer, when you’re just a mom with two boys, groupies fade away. Thank the good Lord, though I haven’t always been grateful about that.

However honesty and self-knowledge are the best base for better friendships. 

I am still helpful. I still enjoy working on soul care with my friends. But I am not doing the soul care for them. See the difference? 

I no longer distract myself from a boring friendship by trying to offer soul care. Soul care cannot be the bread and butter of any friendship. Soul care can be the foundation for mentoring or teaching, for life coaching or therapy. But for friendship, you must have a meeting of equals in the places you connect.

Friendship must be about more than imitation or flattery, friendship must be about more than mentorship or rescue. Otherwise, the friendship will just be pretend.

Worried you have some pretender friends? Or that you are one yourself?

Let me leave you with three questions to help you heal from pretending. 

  1. Are you bored with any friendships? Consider that maybe you’ve drawn apart and that it’s okay to let each other go separate ways. And should you find each other again, it’s much more fulfilling when you’ve had time to grow.
  2. What qualities alert you to someone being interesting? Don’t assume this is real or lasting until you see that quality pop up consistently in different settings. For example, if that quality is missing on the person’s social feed, consider asking about it. Gauge their reasons. 
  3. Are your pics on social that are supposed to be recording your real life actually just recording a performance? Would you do that same activity if no one was watching? With social, we have a constant temptation to pretend and mold our public perception away from who we actually are. Avoid this by distancing yourself from any activity you’re doing just for a picture of it. Only take pics of something you’re already planning to do, while you do it. I’m not talking about smiling at the camera. I’m talking about going on the rope swing for the IG story, not because you like rope swings. 

Are you there? 

Say a prayer, for the Pretender. 

* Names and places have been changed for her protection.

** To learn more about where this problem can lead, search “Love or Romance Addiction”.

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We were eating in Boston’s Quincy Market when I caught this reflection of myself in the glass. I carefully posed and held my camera low to take the picture. This reference photo is only a hint of what I look like.

This experience of posing, while looking casual, is exactly what most of the social media selfies are all about. And it’s a form of pretending, even if we don’t admit it.

The reflection is not me, but it resembles me enough to have caught my eye. That’s the seduction of friends who pretend to exactly like us. We are all flattered by similarities. But, it’s an imitation of the real thing.

My favorite part of this painting was the light on my shoulders. That’s why I originally took the picture. It’s crisp and interesting. And those are also the qualities that make friendships good. You know where you end and your friend begins.

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Wow, a powerful message here; love the tools for assessing friendships. Having moved recently, I have been grateful for ANY friends….just now thinking I can be more selective, with your blog as a guide…..

This is really interesting and I am surprised to find myself more struck by whether I am boring in friendship. With a tendency to please, I can be annoyingly agreeable or have little confidence in my own opinions or thoughts. I’ve often feared being boring and I think it’s because with my tendency to just agree and morph to the people I’m befriending…there’s a good risk that makes me pretty boring!

I’ve been thinking lately about a warning sign for me is feeling really exhausted by an interaction. I am introverted and that can be part of it. But I think I’m exhausted at working so hard to please and make myself liked. It’s a loooooong standing habit, but worth spending more time with. Because of course at heart I’m not boring but these habits sure are.

I was in a very long marriage just like this…. She was done pretending to be a mother, a wife, sober, and a Christian. Strangely, I find comfort in the outcome. While the whole thing challenges my view on sovereignty, I cannot deny the peace that surpasses all understanding and I know where that comes from. Now the challenge is moving forward in a worthy manner. Less of me and more of Him is tough sometimes. Thanks for sharing Jonalyn. Hope your family is enjoying the summer.

Hi Shane! I love a good discussion on what sovereignty means. Are you interested in sharing a little bit more about what you thought it was before. And how your views may be shifting?

Hey Erin,

Sovereignty I suppose in the classic sense (Col 1) “ For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” An overwhelming sovereignty…. And now…

I know that God hates divorce, and I also know that he puts spouses together. So then I stand here to ponder the incongruency of the current outcome. Where does the sovereignty end? I can look back at Joseph I know that when he was sold into slavery, in the end he said “ you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” He was illustrating that in God‘s sovereignty- he was sold into slavery- and that was God‘s intention.

It’s ponderous…. God’s sovereignty in divorce? Definitely ponderous. Can God be sovereign in both Marriage and divorce and still hate the latter?

Thank you for the thoughts… this reminds me of a quote I posted on Insta not too long ago from Naval Ravikant- “The good news is… the moment of suffering, when you’re in pain, is the moment of truth. It is a moment where you’re forced to embrace reality the way it actually is. Then you can make meaningful change and progress. You can only make progress when you’re starting with the truth. To see the truth, you have to get your ego out of the way because your ego doesn’t want to face the truth. The smaller you can make your ego, the less conditioned you can make your reactions. The less desires you can have about the outcome you want… the easier it will be to see reality. What we wish to be true, clouds our perception of what is true. Suffering is the moment we can no longer deny reality.”

I’m sitting in this and waiting…

I love this painting and the artist’s notes and reflections.
Thank you for this post and the solid questions! I’ve been thinking about them a bit.
I really agree with your first point on letting go of a friendship and being willing to see if it will come back better, or maybe not. Sometimes it has been really easy for me to let go. And sometimes I only get there kicking and screaming and crying.
Qualities I find interesting and valuable in a friend – they are willing to hang with me in my mess and theirs. That includes whether I look a mess, or my house looks a mess, or my children seem a mess and the messy parts of my life and story. And I want all this from them, too. I want to be welcome in their mess, too.
One of my hardest friendship losses…. I thought she and I both had this together, in a strong way. I don’t know that she was pretending. But now in retrospect, I wonder if she was offering that open mess to do many people, that it didn’t indicate anything special in our relationship. I thought we had all this authenticity of life and discussion that indicated friendship. But it she let go of spending time with me SO easily when I shifted into a different path (going to a different church). I still feel confused when I think about it.

Don’t take this as me claiming to be an expert at noticing the pretender. But I would add that I very much agree with the imitation and flattery fostering boredom. It may be what a loathe most in “friendships”. If other person is regularly indicating that I am better than them or better off than them and praising me in nearly everything…. I absolutely hate that. It makes me feel unseen. Like they are friends with someone whom they have built in their imagination.
Which is very like what you experienced with “M”, it seems.
Here to say, I get it!

Do you think because it’s a form of manipulation? Little white lies…..and you can no longer trust this person will be their authentic self or trust they accept your authentic self? I juuuuust ended a friendship because of this. It creeped me out. I felt guilty, still mudling through those feelings honestly, but ultimately knew it just wasn’t a healthy relationship.

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