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What to Know About Navigating Changing Friendships in Mental Health Recovery

As I scrolled through my Facebook memories recently, I realized just how much my friendship network has changed over the past four years. I don’t even talk to some of the people I felt closest to before my first hospitalization in 2017, and the people I confide in the most now are people I actually met in treatment or during my recovery. Even now, as I do lots of intense trauma work with my therapist, my friendships are continuing to evolve in both positive and negative ways.

When I expressed some of these feelings to my therapist last week, I realized something that put it all into perspective: I’m not the same person I was years or even months ago, so of course my relationships will look different too.

For many of us in recovery — whether it’s related to addiction, eating disorders, or general mental health — these changing friendships can seem difficult to navigate or even feel scary. However, we can all learn to work through these various types of changes — we just need to understand what’s happening.

Sometimes the dynamics in friendships shift as you make positive lifestyle changes. You may find yourself relying on certain friends a bit less than you did before, or you may find that you’re more able to provide emotional support to people you couldn’t aid previously. You also might notice that you’re more aware of certain friends’ unhealthy behaviors and you may feel compelled to point them out or hold them accountable. The roles you play in each other’s lives may fluctuate or flip-flop completely — it really just depends.

Unfortunately, these changing dynamics can feel uncomfortable at first. They may cause tension or erupt into full-blown conflicts. You may worry that your friendships are going to end, or you may feel compelled to pause your own progress for the sake of the relationship with your friends.

When this happens, just remind yourself that all major changes come with growing pains, including your interpersonal relationships while you’re in recovery. Try to communicate your emotions and your needs as openly as possible, and establish boundaries as needed. Most of the time, your friends will understand and be receptive to your honesty because they love you. It just takes time for everyone to adjust to changes — even your closest loved ones.

Sometimes you drift apart from people as you grow. You may notice that the people who you felt closest to in those lowest moments no longer mesh with you in the same way. You may no longer share as many commonalities, or the activities that you once bonded over may no longer be a part of your life. Over time, these changes can really push you apart.

Unfortunately, we don’t all grow at the same rates or move in the same directions as we evolve. There’s nothing wrong with drifting apart from people you used to consider your closest friends — it happens.

If you find yourself drifting apart from people as you grow in your recovery, don’t panic. Chances are you’ll either reconnect down the line or find new friends who fit into your new lifestyle. The most important thing in recovery is your personal growth, and you should never sacrifice that for someone else. Recovery or not, most friendships don’t last forever; drifting apart from people is a natural part of life for everyone.

Sometimes, although it hurts to admit it, friendships are just no longer sustainable in recovery. There are times when the dynamics of a friendship are directly connected to that former lifestyle. In some cases, friends who met under unhealthy circumstances actually feed each other’s negative habits. In these scenarios, continuing the friendship can actually harm your recovery efforts and cause you to backslide… and nobody wants that.

There are also friendship dynamics that only worked because of the power differential your former habits fed. In those cases, recovery can form a wedge that can’t be repaired (and it shouldn’t be). The more you recover, the more powerless this friend may feel, and they may lash out as a result.

Regardless of the reasons why the friendship becomes unsustainable, don’t be afraid to simply walk away. Use your therapist or other parts of your support system to help you decide the best way to distance yourself or end the friendship entirely, and don’t forget to utilize healthy coping skills to deal with the intense emotions you feel along the way.

Will it hurt in the short term? Absolutely! But an unhealthy relationship won’t aid your recovery, and holding onto it will only hinder your progress (and possibly your friend’s). Instead of jeopardizing your well-being, it’s better to part ways as amicably as possible and continue moving forward with your personal growth.

If you aren’t sure if you should end a friendship that feels counterproductive to your recovery, try using a pros and cons list to help you decide. Or, if you feel comfortable doing so, express your concerns directly to the friend in question and see if you can problem-solve together.

Recovery is never easy, no matter what you’re recovering from. However, it’s a very necessary part of healing your mind and body so you can build a life worth living for yourself. Just remember that all transitions, even the best ones, come with their fair share of growing pains and changes in relationships along the way.

Friends often come and go during these times, and that’s OK. The people who are meant to be with you will stay, and in time you’ll find your footing in those relationships as you go. Just keep growing — you deserve it.

Photo by Gemma Chua-Tran on Unsplash