Breaking up with a best friend in your teens or early 20s can be devastating. That’s not an overstatement — it’s the word three different psychology experts used to describe the loss.
Caroline Hunt, a professor in the University of Sydney’s school of psychology, is one.
She says adolescents and young adults can be floored by BFF breakdowns because they’re still figuring out who they are. These splits can have big implications and prompt even bigger questions.
Professor Hunt says friends play a huge role in identity formation, especially for teens.
“What sort of person am I? Am I the sort of person that people like or don’t like?”
“They haven’t got to the point where they can say, ‘Well actually, I feel OK as a person, whether this friend comes or goes’.”
It’s this painful bind that besties Lucy and Daisy experience in the final two episodes of ABC’s online series, Content.
(Spoiler alert: fame-hungry Lucy ditches Daisy’s university graduation for a party with Instagram influencers. A friendship fall-out of epic proportions ensues.)
In the case of Content, it’s clear that limelight-loving Lucy has some self-reflection to do, but not all friend break-ups are so black and white.
Sometimes, they can come out of thin air and leave us asking: why?
Divvying up the responsibility pie
If you’re going through this angst right now — or know someone who is — Monash University lecturer and counselling psychologist Tristan Snell says the best response is to think rationally.
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“With adolescents, friendships can be fairly temperamental,” he says.
“It’s easy to believe, if there is a breakdown, ‘That’s it, I’ll never speak to that person again.’ But just be mindful that may not be the case.”
When working with clients who’ve experienced friendship fall-outs, Dr Snell encourages a cognitive therapy (also known as cognitive behaviour therapy, or CBT) approach.
“It’s teaching people to identify how thoughts impact on the way they feel, and then changing or responding to negative thoughts so they are more realistic,” he explains.
Through harnessing this method, you’re more likely to skip the ‘My friend hates me and therefore I’m a bad person’ downward-spiralling, and instead look for evidenced-based reasons why things didn’t work out.
“For instance, [you could realise] ‘We’ve just developed different interests’, or ‘This person is heading into a different direction to me’, or ‘This person is dealing with a lot of personal problems and that’s why they’ve lashed out’,” Dr Snell says.
Just remember that being realistic might require you to take ownership for the part you played in the friendship’s demise.
“If you’ve done or said something that has ended the relationship or caused a problem for the other person, you have to acknowledge that and actually work on that [issue],” Dr Snell adds.
Focus on the facts, rather than just emotion
Clinical psychologist and psychotherapist Toula Gordillo prefers to draw lessons from “the original cognitive behaviour therapists”, the Stoics, when working with teens.
Stoicism started in the third-century BC and was adopted by a number of famous thinkers, including Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. The philosophy, which is rooted in logic and level-headedness, still has fans today.
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“One of the principles behind Stoicism is to look at the facts, rather than getting caught up in the emotions or jumping to conclusions and catastrophising,” Dr Gordillo explains.
Life is unpredictable, she says, so there’s no point in worrying about things that are outside our control.
“For example, [young people] can concentrate on choosing their group of friends, but they can’t change whether a person doesn’t want to be their friend anymore,” she says.
“[It’s] a really important Stoic strategy and it’s something that I think we could all benefit from learning.”
The grief is real
The Stoics were skilled at keeping calm and carrying on, but it’s important to acknowledge the heartbreak of losing a friend.
As Dr Gordillo points out, friendships can last longer and be deeper than romantic relationships for teens and young adults.
And their breakdowns can trigger real feelings of grief, Dr Snell notes.
“When people have a grief reaction they tend to experience waves of painful emotions,” he says.
Those waves may be similar to the ones you experience after a romance ends.
According to Dr Snell, sometimes you’ll be reminiscing and missing the person, other times you’ll feel happy. Then there will be reminders that really upset you, particularly around anniversary dates or activities you used to do with your friend.
“Those are all normal grief reactions, and it’s important to know that those feelings will come and go.”
Just remember, you will make new friends, and over time the pain does heal.
Until then, there’s plenty of Stoic literature and episodes of Content to catch up on.