The pandemic has made me realise that I've been a terrible friend

I was three days into having coronavirus symptoms and isolating in a tiny apartment in Switzerland when my phone buzzed with a message. 

‘How are you feeling?’ it read. 

This was a simple enough text: the type so many of us have been sending and receiving since the start of the pandemic. But while I didn’t know it yet, this message would become painfully significant to me.

That text, and the reaction that followed, showed me what a bad friend I have been to people I thought I was close to.

A week went by, and I’d recovered from the virus, but I still hadn’t replied. In that time, unbeknownst to me, she had blocked me on social media.

I had been isolating in a new country without family or friends and felt lost, both physically and emotionally. I didn’t know how to put any of that into words, so I avoided a response altogether.

After my isolation period, I travelled back to the UK to be closer to my family. I kept myself busy with freelance marketing work and binge-watching Netflix. Meanwhile, the text from my friend burned a hole in my inbox.

‘I’ll message her later,’ I kept thinking. The longer I left the reply, the less I knew how to justify my silence, and the harder it was to find the right words.

We had been good friends since meeting in Bali three years before, but I hadn’t kept up our closeness. There had been several occasions I’d not responded to her messages in a timely manner – it was the ‘wrong’ time of day or I had been ‘busy’ – so it must have seemed like I didn’t care about her.

Finding out she had blocked me, left me gutted. But it was a wake up call; I realised I should have been more responsive and given her the time she deserved – I hated myself for not trying hard enough.

Research shows that two-thirds of British people reported feeling lonely throughout the first lockdown. It turned out I was one of them – but it was of my own doing.

It wasn’t just about replying to one text from one acquaintance. I’d been a bad friend in lots of ways for a long time. 

Pre-outbreak, I lived and worked as a digital nomad from far-flung places. In this transient lifestyle, I got so used to everything being temporary that I was only emotionally present with people I was geographically close to. 

Even with friends who were nearby, I was unreliable, often cancelling commitments at the last minute. I find it difficult to say no, so I’d agree to plans I have zero interest in without checking whether I was free or considering whether I actually wanted to go, meaning I regularly flaked out and let people down later on.

I’ve also been guilty in the past of choosing pitifully picked boyfriends over well-meaning friends. When a boyfriend once cheated on me, my friends tried to warn me. They told me that they had seen him with someone else and detailed events that were too obvious to ignore.

But I took his side and the relationship continued for a few more months. Eventually, I was confronted by the unquestionable truth, thanks to the girl he had been with – someone I’d once considered a friend.

If I had listened to those friends in the first place, I would have saved myself a lot of time and heartache. Instead, I came out of the situation with not only with a broken heart but also some broken friendships. I just had not given the people that tried to help me any recognition or trust.

This year has helped me reflect on all the ways I have to change. Like when I would scroll through social media and unfollow friends whose stories made me feel sad or uncomfortable.

When a group of friends met up without me, I assumed that they deliberately didn’t invite me, and ended up deleting them to avoid having to see them having fun together.

I didn’t stop to think that they might be hurt by my actions.

I need to be kinder to myself and others – both online and in real life – by trying to think more positively rather than assuming the worst of people.

Having travelled so much, I’m familiar with the fact that, in an emergency, you should always put your own oxygen mask on first before assisting others – the same goes for relationships.

My inability to say no is arguably a symptom of low self-confidence and fear of asserting myself. I thought that travel had cured my insecurities when, really, I had just found an elaborate excuse for my distant behaviour.

Being forced to isolate has helped me learn that I need to be kinder to myself, and only then will I be able to be kinder to others. So that’s what I’m starting to work on through lockdown. Instead of holding on to the past and hating myself for my actions, I want to learn from my experiences so that I can do better moving forward.

I’ve started by re-adding those lost social media friends and I’ve limited my social media time to avoid letting my mental health spiral to the point of reacting negatively to posts. I’ll occasionally mute anyone who triggers a negative emotion from me, but I make sure not to unfollow now. 

I’m also learning the power of ‘no’ and how to honour my commitments. Studies found that saying ‘I don’t’ rather than ‘I can’t’ helps you to turn down offers more successfully because it indicates that you have a strong level of insight into yourself.

In becoming honest about what I do want, I hope I’ll improve my attitude towards commitment and become more reliable. 

I’ve got a message saved in my outbox for the friend who blocked me on social media. It’s an apology and explanation of everything that I’ve learned. She has every right not to want to be close again but she deserves my honesty. I am ready to take responsibility for the fact I may have ruined a good friendship with a kind person.  

Friends are the support system we need to survive – not only lockdown but the rest of whatever life throws at us. These relationships make dark days brighter, and good days even better.

I need my friends, and I hope by identifying and changing my behaviour that they’ll come to be able to rely on me, too.

This year, I will tend to the relationships I’m lucky enough to have, and check in with people often. I care, but I need to show it.

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