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Can I Be Friends with Someone Who Makes Bad Choices?

In this Answer Queen column, two Tribe members unload on pals who are self-absorbed or eco-ravagers. Can these friendships be saved?

How to Deal With Selfish Friends: Taking On Pals Who Make Bad ChoicesDear Answer Queen:

I have a friend, H, who was a stay-at-home mom for her three kids. Now those kids, like mine, have been at college or beyond for a couple of years, and while our other friends and I doubted H would go back to work (they don’t need the income), we did think she would replace some of the school parent stuff she always did—classroom mom, bake sale queen, collector of money for the sports teams—with something else charitable or at least interesting: helping the homeless, soliciting for the environment, even marching for something or getting behind a political candidate. Instead, she now spends her days shopping, getting mani/pedis, sending lavish care packages to her kids, and exercising (hot yoga five times a week, anyone?).

I’m having trouble with someone who just doesn’t seem to care about anything but herself.

I love my friend, but I’m having trouble with someone who just doesn’t seem to care about anything but 1) herself, 2) buying stuff, and 3) looking in the mirror. Plus, her lack of engagement makes her, well, boring. Am I wrong to think this woman, who has both the means and the time, should go do some good in the world?

                                                Tired of Friend’s Self-Absorption


Dear Answer Queen:

A couple of friends of mine talk constantly about climate change and the environment, yet their own carbon footprint is huge. They own enormous houses, drive monstrous, gas-guzzling cars, travel constantly and luxuriously, devour methane-producing red meat like candy, spray chemical pesticides on their football field-sized lawns . . . need I go on? Meanwhile, one of them recently scolded me for not contributing to some save-the-earth fund she was collecting for, which, when I looked it up, seemed dubious. I felt like saying, “I can’t afford to because I spent my money this year putting solar panels on my normal-sized house and trading in my old fuel-burning car for a smaller, gas-saving hybrid. How about you?”

I believe in Be the Change You Want to See, not Preach One Thing and Practice Another.

I believe in Be the Change You Want to See, not Preach One Thing and Practice Another—and these ladies are the latter to a fault. How can I keep myself from slapping them upside the head?

                                            Sick of Hypocrites

Dear Sick and Tired:

Ah, the thrill—the actual dopamine rush!—of judgment and righteousness. The high of superiority coursing through your blood is awesome, isn’t it? I should know. I’m a slave to it myself, from frowning at the dude with the slab of steak on his plate to sniffing at the woman who breeds whatever-doodle dogs when there are homeless mutts overflowing kill shelters. I climb up on my high horse and mutter, complete with fake British accent, how do these people live with themselves?

But then I force myself to climb back down—if I haven’t already face-planted at that point—by remembering this: People could judge me just as harshly if they chose to. They’d simply be judging different things. Like, yes, my home energy comes partly from solar, I reuse and compost obsessively, and I’ve managed to cut out red meat (you can mail my award to NextTribe, thank you), but I also still wear leather, own an old fridge that uses more energy than it should, and occasionally buy blueberries shipped halfway across the world instead of eating yet another local apple or yam.

The high of superiority coursing through your blood is awesome, isn’t it?

Why? Well, because—say it with me—no one is perfect. And while I do try to get involved locally (I cooked a hot meal at a homeless shelter this past winter, and I swear it gave me a buzz for a month), I’m often both happier and more effective staying home in PJs working and then donating some of my paycheck to a cause than I am ringing doorbells or doing a grueling fill-in-the-blank-a-thon for that same cause. Yet someone looking at my lack of participation in the local Pussies Rule Rally or Cash for Cancer Dunk Booth might think I do nothing but sleep all day.

Which I sometimes do. But then, I also sometimes work all night.

Until You Walk in Her Shoes . . .

In other words: To each her own when it comes to both life and helping out. But, also, when you don’t have all the facts about someone—and how can you when you’re not actually living inside that person—isn’t it better not to judge?

Maybe, Tired, your still-at-home friend has an illness you don’t know about, and her doctor told her to take care of herself so that others won’t soon have to. Or maybe her marriage is on the rocks, and she’s worried that her husband will leave if she doesn’t maintain her 23-year-old looks at 45 or 50. (If so, good riddance to him—but that’s a whole other column.) Maybe she’s actually an introvert who finally has time to indulge her true personality after all those years of maniacal mothering and baking. Maybe she needs a year or two to chill out and Do Me, as they say.

Maybe, Tired, your still-at-home friend has an illness you don’t know about, and her doctor told her to take care of herself.

Or maybe she is a selfish narcissist who couldn’t care less about the world. That’s sad—especially these days, when it feels like the world needs all the help it can get—but if so, at least she’ll make you feel good about all the generous, charitable things you do. Right? Because if everyone followed your exact recipe—or even close—no offense, but we’d have a pretty homogeneous, boring planet of people. So better to focus on what you are doing right than on what your friends aren’t.

Still, with all of that said—and putting my advice about not judging aside for a sec—it’s okay, even healthy, to form opinions and be savvy about people; it’s part of what kept our ancestors, and now keeps us, protected and alive. In his new book Assume the Worst: The Graduation Speech You’ll Never Hear, Carl Hiaasen advises, with hilarity but also wisdom, to judge others hard and fast. “Sharpen an aptitude for cold-eyed discernment,” he writes, adding, “It’s all right to prefer honest, alert, intelligent people.”

Instead of Slapping Them

And I sympathize with you, Sick, when it comes to the carbon footprint-hogs; that’s tough to stomach in this day and age. Still, let’s both step back and give them the benefit of the doubt: Maybe they’re simply unenlightened as opposed to true hypocrites. Maybe their hearts are in the right places, even if their heads are in the ever-warming clouds. Maybe they actually don’t realize the money needed to maintain their McMansions and football field-sized lawns could feed a considerable chunk of the planet.

In that case, rather than slap them—tempting though that is—why not try to educate? Next time you see them, let it “slip” that you’re considering going meat-free six days a week or getting rid of your water-sucking lawn after watching this documentary/reading this book/hearing this radio show that changed your life. (Suggestions: “Before the Flood,” “Cowspiracy,” or the older but still wise “An Inconvenient Truth”—all eye-opening and riveting.)

As for you, Tired, try telling your friend about a charity you’re thinking of volunteering for because it sounds so noble—spew a few examples of why—and then ask if she wants to join you. It always helps to make something about you, not the other person: “I’m feeling like I need to do more for battered women/the public schools/local refugees, even though I’m pressed for time, because this cause really needs help. Wanna do it with me?” Follow up with emails, links, things you can do on this or that date. After a while, like water torture, you might just break her down to say yes.

I wish you both tons of luck, Sick and Tired. Your own best community service may just start with inspiring others. If so, on behalf of all of us, thank you.

                                                           Answer Queen

Read More: How to Part with a Friend Who Is More Pain Than Pleasure

A version of this story was originally published in June 2018. 



Cathi Hanauer is the New York Times bestselling author of three novels—GoneSweet Ruin, and My Sister’s Bones—and two anthologies, The Bitch in the House and The Bitch is Back, which was an NPR “Best Book” of 2016. She’s contributed articles, essays, and criticism to The New York Times, Elle, O—the Oprah Magazine, Real Simple, and many other publications. 

By Cathi Hanauer


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