I have this friend, who I’ll call Emma. It’s not her real name, but Emma is a nice name so it’ll do fine. Emma is lovely – you’d like her if you met her. She’s kind hearted, generous, loyal, good fun, funny, talented. She’s clever too, and pretty, and popular, although like many of my friends, she doesn’t always believe it when you tell her. In fact, she’s the perfect friend apart from one thing – she can be really horrible. I mean that she can be cruel, demoralising, to the point of bullying.
I know this sounds a bit of a paradox, and it is, because while Emma is lovely to most people, there’s someone – let’s call her Jenny – that she’s totally nasty to. I try to explain from time to time, but Emma does this denial thing, telling me she didn’t mean to be rude or disparaging, she likes Jenny and wouldn’t upset her for the world. But when I explain some of the things Emma does, you’ll see what I mean.
We were talking about literature and films, just a general chinwag about the arts, and Jenny mentioned a book she’d read and Emma said, ‘Oh, what do you know? You’re really thick, and your opinion doesn’t matter.’
Emma knew she’d upset Jenny. For such a lovely person, Emma is really unforgiving where Jenny is concerned. And her remarks deliberately cut to the bone.
You know the sort of dialogue women sometimes have about their appearance, which often is only about seeking reassurance. The ‘does my bum look big in this?’ conversation almost always ends with Emma telling Jenny she has a backside the size of Basingstoke and looks dreadful, whatever she wears. And it’s not just her bum – her teeth are awful, her face is horrible, her hair is a mess, whatever she wears looks bad and the result is that poor Jenny’s self-esteem is low. It doesn’t matter what I say, it’s too late – Jenny believes the worst.
Emma has completely broken Jenny’s confidence, to the extent that however nice Emma is about everyone else, a different set of rules apply to Jenny, who always lacks something – intelligence, an opinion, an idea, skill, personality. Emma takes every opportunity to be heartlessly cruel.
Of course, I mentioned to Emma once that her behaviour to Jenny was abusive and that she ought to stop. She is rude to her, she neglects her, she destroys her self-belief. And Emma burst into tears; she denied it at first, then she said she couldn’t help it. She’d change her ways; she’d never do it again. Five minutes later, she told Jenny that she was stupid, she didn’t matter, no-one liked her and she deserved what she got.
Of course, I ought to mention at this point that Emma doesn’t always make these comments to Jenny out loud. Most of them are said privately, in her own head. Because Emma and Jenny are the same person.
I try to explain to Emma that while she is so positive, supportive and generous to other people, she’s cruel to herself. Without realising it, she’s her own worst friend. She wouldn’t treat anyone else with such derision and be so unsupportive. She’d be appalled if she heard anyone speak the way her inner voice speaks to her. She denies herself pleasures and treats – she doesn’t think she deserves them. ‘I can’t eat a piece of chocolate – I’m already fat.’ ‘I won’t buy myself that dress – it’s too much to spend on myself and I’ll look rubbish in it anyway.’ ‘I won’t go out – I don’t know anyone and no-one will talk to me.’ ‘I’ll be embarrassing.’ ‘No one is interested in my opinion – I’m too uninteresting/old/stupid/ boring/ ugly/ pointless.’ Fill in any awful word – Emma does it all the time.
I suggested she become the kind friend to herself that she is to others. She’s bounteous with compliments; she’s supportive, generous, warm. So why does she think she doesn’t merit it?
We had a chat about it – she thinks it’s a woman thing, that it comes from self-denial, from a lifetime of believing she’s second best, not deserving enough, not loved enough. Other women/ men/ family members/ friends/ just about everyone else is more important and Emma doesn’t matter, so if Emma is diminished in some way, well, that’s all she thinks she’s worth. It’s a habit that’s taken a lifetime and she’s fed it by proving that she’s right at every turn. She ignores the positives, the successes; she’s blind to her loveliness, her generosity, and concentrates all her energy on the failures. It serves to justify her cruelty to herself.
‘Emma,’ I said. ‘You wouldn’t treat a friend that way. Why do you do it to yourself?’
And Emma cried. She almost knows I’m right, that she’s bright and lovely and worth a whole lot, but it’s a difficult habit to break. She tries, then she forgets and reverts to type, and her opinions become useless again and her bum is the size of Basingstoke. She’s not worthy of good things. Other people will always come first, and she’s relegated to the back of the queue, to invisibility, where she can do least harm to herself.
There may be many Emmas who are wonderful to everyone and yet they are their own worst friend. I can think of several of my friends who may read this blog post and think ‘Is this me? Am I Emma?’
The Emmas of this world are glorious people; they are special and they should love themselves more. Think of the feeling a mother gets when she first holds her baby in her arms, that pure unconditional love for the perfect being: that’s the love we owe ourselves, and that includes all the Emmas. We may start off with bucketloads of love and self-respect, but we can lose it on the journey.
So, if you know an Emma and she’s giving Jenny a hard time, please remind her how special she is. We all need to be good friends to ourselves, so that we can be the best friend we can to everyone else – and that includes all the Emmas, whoever they are.