It has been well documented that, no matter how old we are, September seems to mark the start of a new year better than New Year. The air is crisp, the world feels fresh and there’s a sense that if we want to be happier, smarter, better dressed and more organised, this is the best time to give it a good college try. “College” is the operative word here, since the whole idea stems from the fact that September marks the start of the academic year. When I was at school, September filled me with trepidation and optimism in equal parts. If I worked really hard at it, I’d be popular! Maybe this year would be my time! But perhaps it would just be the same – or worse. At 31, I still experience a subconscious glimmer of anxiety and dread at this time of year, because my teenage muscle memory tells me I am still a nerdy weirdo and no one wants me in their netball team.
This glimmer turned into a full-blown freakout recently, when I learnt that a few friends were hanging out together and I wasn’t invited. Embarrassingly, I reacted in a totally teenage way (well, maybe not totally teenage, because my first response was to take the bins out so my husband wouldn’t see me crying about something so petty.) I sobbed on the sofa for over an hour, reliving my entire adolescence with fun expressions like “I will be alone and friendless forever!” and “Does everyone actually hate me?”
It was a shock to realise that some of my anxieties and emotions around friendship hadn’t changed in 20 years. Making that discovery was like going back in time. I nearly checked to make sure I hadn’t started wearing my hair with two greasy parallel strands framing my face, or put on a pair of Kickers without noticing. I felt unpopular and horribly insecure. In that moment, I forgot everything I’d learnt about life since my teens, and focused on feeling lonely and left out. I dramatised and catastrophised the situation. I started to doubt and question every single friendship in my life. Through tears, I hypothesised that the meeting had been planned purely as a way to exclude me. Then, after I’d worked my way through a toilet roll, a mug of strong tea and four chocolate biscuits, I got over myself.
Being left out felt horrible, but that feeling came from me. I wasn’t being excluded by popular girls who wanted to make fun of me, but by adults who genuinely had no desire to spend time with me. I could do my best to reinvent myself in order to become the girl they might want for a teammate. Or, I could reinvent my attitude and see myself as a woman who doesn’t mindlessly pursue friendships with people who make her feel bad.
We fetishise female friendships, presenting them as a celebration of womanhood, inclusiveness and sisterly love. We rarely see a middle ground, in which people grow apart and sometimes come back together again
For me, being a teen was about trying to contort myself in order to fit inside other people’s worlds. I feared my own company like I feared the Topshop communal changing room. As an adult, I’ve learnt to love being alone. I’m discovering that I’m much more introverted than I realised and spending time with friends is like drinking expensive cognac – delicious in meditative, measured doses, but overwhelming and headache-inducing if I overdo it. I’m simply not capable of being a good friend to all of the people I’ve felt close to over the course of my life. If some of them are recognising this, they’re not trying to trigger teenage feelings – they’re being selective about their friendships in a way that seems very grown up.
Typically, we fetishise female friendships, presenting them as a celebration of womanhood, inclusiveness and sisterly love. If there is an alternative, it’s cruel and bitchy, and we focus on the ways in which women go out of their way to compete with and hurt each other. We rarely see a middle ground, in which people grow apart and sometimes come back together again. We don’t talk about the fact that having and being a friend can be very difficult. We need different levels of support from each other at different times. When we all have lives, jobs and families, we can’t bring the same electric intensity to an adult friendship that we were capable of during adolescence.
I loved Sex And The City but, for me, the least realistic thing about the programme wasn’t the luxurious apartments or $600 shoes – it was the fact that four women could spend so much time together and no one ever seemed to feel left out of the group. Similarly, while Girls has been praised for its honesty when it comes to bad sex, horrible jobs and terrible apartments, my favourite aspect of the programme is that it presents female friendship as something that can be selfish, dysfunctional, painful and awkward. The loneliest part of being left out isn’t being excluded from one group, but looking around and seeing that everyone else has found their tribe. Friendship feng shui might be the answer. If a relationship has turned toxic, September is the time to cut loose. You can’t make new friends if you’re drained by the old ones and it’s better to have no friends than bad friends.
This September, I am coming to terms with the fact that there is no pencil case I can buy that will make people want to have lunch with me. It’s time for a friendship refresh. I haven’t changed – I will always be earnest, nerdy and a little bit odd. The difference is that I don’t need to wait to be chosen any more. I get to pick my own team. It might be smaller, but it’s going to include people I like, not people I’m desperate to impress. I choose me.