This one may sting for some. But it is a good lesson for all.
I’ve been talking about my rebranding. The trials and tribulations placed upon me by insignificant people. I’ve also talked in a previous post about trusting yourself and others. So as I went through some of the hardest, lowest, and darkest days, I trusted that those I were closest with would help me through it. And if not help, at the very least, make sure that I was surviving.
The first person I reached out to ended up doubling back on me and became another insignificant person because there was something for her to gain. The next person I reached out to would answer the phone, but never initiate anything further. As others became aware I was stepping down from my post, my phone went eerily quiet.
I worked in a county with six other superintendents. Not one reached out to see how I was doing. Being in a small community, you know they all knew what was going on.
Add to that number another 14 superintendents who worked in the same regional district as me. They all had my number or at least access to it. They never hesitated reaching out when they needed something. I guess it wasn’t a two way street.
No one should have to endure what I was going through alone. Now to be fair, I have a few close friends (as in I can count them on one hand and have fingers left over), they checked in on me. But the quietness from everyone else disturbed me. Mainly because I had been through countless professional development seminars and academies that emphasized taking care of each other.
Then I thought back to when times were good. I heard from colleagues quite often. I would get an occasional text from out of nowhere asking how I was doing. Extending an invitation to dinner. All of that was suddenly gone.
As it turns out, I am not alone in experiencing this. Many people going through something traumatic such as being diagnosed with cancer or losing a loved one experiences the vanishing friends phenomenon. It’s not because these friends are bad friends or even bad people. The reasons vary, but often it is associated with one of the following categories.
Paths Converge and Diverge
Throwing myself into the administrative world I attended every principal’s function possible throughout the state. Transitioning to the superintendent’s chair I attended the inaugural Aspiring Superintendents Academy. Once in the top seat, I went to more functions, not merely attending but participating. I became a fellow after successfully completing the fifth cohort of the Illinois School for Advanced Leadership. Along the way my contacts grew. Networking, socializing, connecting. I did it all.
But this was because our paths had converged at whatever event we were attending. At the end of the day, we went our separate ways. I traveled back down south as the others dispersed throughout the state; some of us separated by over six hours. The distance brought, well, distance.
True friendships require regular nurturing. Yes, we all have that friend that we can go over a year without seeing and then when we meet up it’s like we were never apart. Except for the fact that we had to spend the first couple of hours catching up. Social media has allowed us to accelerate that process a little bit, but the finer details still take time to explain.
I share the blame on this one. I didn’t do a bang up job making sure that I nurtured relationships to go to the next level of friendship for when times were tough. If we want to cultivate a friendship beyond just occasional pleasantries, we must be intentional in our actions. We must condition ourselves to reach out regularly. It must go beyond just a perfunctory how are you? You must be sincere and go deeper in making sure that person knows you deeply care about how they are doing.
Learn the important dates: birthdays, anniversaries, days of tragedy that have the potential of being hard. I have a good friend who lost a son several years ago. When his birthday or the anniversary of his tragic accident come up, I make sure she knows I am thinking of her. Does it elicit tears? Yes. Was it uncomfortable the first few times I did it? Absolutely. But the friendship we have fostered because of that is immeasurable.
Ouch. They’re Not A Real Friend
No one wants to think that someone they’ve spent time laughing with and working with could turn out to be not a real friend. Plus, when you are in a perceived position of power, some people truly just want to pretend to be your friend. As painful as this is, it is sometimes the case. My attorney succinctly puts it: Some people suck.
Don’t get huffy with me for pointing out the truth. Refer back to a previous blog post in which I pointed out that some people get a sick satisfaction out of watching you fail. They give you all the words and fake empathy you need only to go and do a complete 180 behind your back. Don’t be naive, this happens more than you care to admit.
Sometimes the people who seemed so close and then abandoned you might be doing so in order to position themselves to take your place in the event you fall. This was the case for me as I was looking to step down. I ran the largest district in the county. Several in the county and many others in the area (including the schools I ran) saw my leaving as an opportunity for them.
It’s sad really. When you come to the realization you should definitely take a moment to grieve. Losing a friend, even if they turned out to be a fake one, is beyond hurtful. Especially if you had spent the time cultivating a relationship that wasn’t truly there. But after you grieve for a moment, I am going to give you advice from Jodie Eckleberry-Hunt’s (2020) book Move on, Motherf*cker (MOMF): “MOMF is perfect for the stress and self-inflicted pain of immediate, present-day situations. MOMF is ideal for dealing with difficult people and relationships [and] building healthier relationships (and letting go of the unfixable ones)” (p. 13).
People Avoid Trauma
Do you know someone who can’t see blood without getting lightheaded? Or if they see someone vomit odds are they will be next? Well the same applies when people know the answer to their question of “How is everything going” is not going to be answered with a “Great!”
We often ask people how they are doing when we already know the answer. It’s a safe question. We get a safe answer and continue about our day. Only certain events force us to address the uncomfort. An example would be attending a visitation. I certainly can’t be the only one who has stood in the line to go by the casket and turn to the person next to me to say, “What should I say?” Or the hushed exchange with the person you went with on who goes first through the receiving line. If we’re going to be honest, a high percentage of visitations we have attended we most likely weighed how bad it would be to skip it. Why? Because we want to avoid trauma.
In my situation, as people learned about me stepping down they immediately assumed the worst. They felt that asking me would open up fresh wounds. Or it would throw the proverbial salt in the wound. They did not want to feel responsible for what they felt like would bring me down again. Unfortunately, hearing from someone who truly cared would have meant the world to me.
When you are struggling or even at rock bottom, that disrupts the mental peace of other people if they were to get involved. A sudden change of jobs or being diagnosed with a life-changing illness threatens the mental peace of others. It forces them into a state of unpleasant thoughts. People don’t wake up with a desire to be sad. Instead they convince themselves that someone else has done the deed of reaching out. That simple mindshift gives them the peace they need to go on without reaching out to you.
They could also avoid the trauma because they don’t want the same thing to happen to them. Some things are too real. My situation with insignificant people could happen to anyone at any time. Reaching out to me might have led me to share more details that would leave them with the uncomfortable thought that this could have been them. It is okay to reach out; you aren’t going to catch the person’s problems.
Find Your Ride or Die
Your ride or die is with you through thick or thin. They don’t have to be the same gender. You don’t have to be romantically involved. But it is a person who will literally drop everything and be at your side when you need it most.
I don’t know how many ride or dies you can have. But I would venture it isn’t everyone with whom you are friends. Think of it this way, you can’t have a ride or die and not be theirs as well. I understand the term is generally figurative, I mean, we aren’t literally laying our lives down, but it means that when you’re at rock bottom, they’re right there with you, no matter how dark and depressing it is.
I should quickly point out that just because you aren’t someone’s ride or die doesn’t excuse you from being a friend. If you know someone is in need, reach out. Don’t assume they’ll be okay or that your contact is not significant. This is a way to foster growth in a friendship. Because, and I hope this isn’t the case, the tables may turn some day. You’ll want as many people as possible holding you up.
I look back at my situation and realize that like any relationship, it takes two to make things successful. If I didn’t do my part of fostering a friendship then that is on me. I would like to think that if I were in their shoes I would have reached out. But I don’t know. And for everyone’s sake, I hope to never find out.