The Ones Who Let Go

Letting Go
One of my clients has lived in a small, closely-knit community for many years now. In partnership with another couple, two people she considered good friends, she owned a restaurant/bar that served as a gathering point for their community. As it turned out, these “friends” had been stealing from her for quite some time, skimming profits that should have been shared with my client – easy to do in a cash business. When my client finally learned the truth, she confronted her partners and, to make a long and very painful story short, they out-maneuvered her and took control of the business.

Losing the restaurant/bar was painful enough, but far more agonizing was the loss of many relationships she had developed over the years within her community. Her former partners lied about her and successfully turned many people against her, men and women she had formerly considered close friends and confidants. Sides were drawn and she found herself increasingly isolated. The ease and speed with which many people let go of her was devastating. It stirred up life-long feelings of shame, that she was defective and of no value, not worth holding onto.

My client’s loss made me think about the people over the years who have “let go” of me, or who I’ve let go of. Friendships come and go, of course; people often drift apart through inertia or distance. But then there are those particular friends who stop returning our calls, or people whose calls we stop returning because they’re too “difficult” in some way. For me, and for my clients as well, to be on the receiving end of this experience stirs up shame. In keeping with some of my other views on this subject, I think of it as a kind of unrequited love. I like you and want to be your friend, but you don’t feel the same way about me.

I “let go” of an old friend last year, but in truth, I think he had already let go of me. A certain formality had entered into his emails and I found it painful, shaming in a way, as if he were saying he no longer wanted to be close to me, that I wasn’t “worth it.” I think he disapproved of my website and my efforts to build a career as a writer for mass market publications; I know his feelings were complicated by envy for my success (he’s also a psychotherapist), but that didn’t make it any less painful when he pulled away.

I have another client who lives a very isolated life, and it’s not because she doesn’t reach out to other people within her community. As a single mother, she’s a bit out of place in this conservative, family-oriented town. On a rational level, she understands the reasons why people don’t reciprocate, but it’s nonetheless painful. It feels to her as if she’s not “worth it.” Even when she thinks she has forged a meaningful connection, it often turns out to be more tenuous than she had thought. Her friendships are precious to her, but other people seem to “let go” far more easily that she does.

I turned 60 last week and have just moved from North Carolina to Colorado. I’m in a reflective mood, thinking about the current condition and the future of my friendships. There are the few long-term friends who for years now have “held on” tight, despite the physical distance. We manage to get together at least once a year, usually in Colorado; we Skype and we text and we email because we’ve invested so much in one another. I’ve also forged some important new friendships this year, surprising to me at this “advanced” age. I’m mostly feeling good about my connections with other people, but also wistful about the friends who have slipped away over the years.

I have a story I sometimes tell, about an old friend with whom I had a falling out some 30 years ago. She was an academic, living in New York City at the time, and I went to visit her and her husband, a promising artist. She invited some friends over for dinner one night, a group of other academics and artists, all of whom knew each other well. We were eight or nine at table, and over the course of the evening, nobody asked me a single question or tried to include me in the conversation. I made some efforts but the evening was both painful and awkward. I felt like an outsider, out of place.

At the end of the evening, my friend asked me what I thought about Prof. X, a man who had held forth for much of the evening, and I told her that I thought he could learn how to ask a question. Probably not too diplomatic on my part; but she took my point and told me, with obvious contempt, “You’re not important enough for Prof. X to take an interest in you.” And that was the end of our friendship; she distanced herself and I followed her lead. We had been extremely close for years. We had travelled together and written two plays together. It didn’t help that she and my future wife disliked each other.

But the memory of that friendship still causes a twinge of shame. Not because I was too “unimportant” for Prof. X, but because I didn’t matter enough for my friend to hold onto me. I suppose you could say we both suffered “narcissistic injuries” – me because I felt slighted, and she because she felt criticized on behalf of her friend the professor; in retrospect, I can see we both felt shamed in some way and defended ourselves against that pain by pushing away from each other. Sad, really – the way friends let go of one another over the years. I suppose the fact that I’m still talking about this breach says how painful it was to me, and how lasting the shame. It’s ironic because the subject matter of my new book would probably interest her as it dovetails with some of her own areas of academic concern.

On that particular note, the book is now scheduled for release on September 22. As I promote my book, I’ve decided to follow Alice Hoffman’s example, gleaned from Facebook posts concerning her latest novel. Ms. Hoffman is factual, concise, and grateful in a way that always feels sincere. Without further ado, here’s the cover of my book:

TNYK Cover

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. How is the becoming 60 going? Do you still feel 20-ish?
    Also, Unless Prof. X was actually called “Prof. X”, he wasn’t too important to ask questions.

    PS: I thought you were dead (not really, but you know).

    1. Gordon, the last few months have been incredibly demanding, with revisions to my book, selling my house and packing up to move, etc. I felt bad about neglecting my blog, but I’m hoping to get back to more regular posts.

      As for 60, so far so good. It helps to feel that my career is in such a good place. Rather than feeling older, I feel as if I’m peaking.

  2. Hello Joseph,

    Happy Birthday and I like the cover of the book – good colour and clever play on words! Not long now to the release date !!!! Exciting times ahead!!!

    Some of those ‘friends’ you describe don’t seem like good friends. I hope that if a friend was successful that I could be happy for them and not let my envy contaminate things and as for that professor – good for you for saying something! made me laugh what you said and how horrible of your ex-friend- maybe when your book is released you could send her an email and ask if Professor X thinks you’re important enough now?

    The issue of failed friendships echos strongly with me. I have ‘let go’ (with mixed feelings – relief and sorrow being 2 feelings, regret another, bec I wish it could be different) of many friends in the last few years. Some dumped me for reasons , like I moved away but tbh I realised they had always been one way friendships – me making most or all of the effort. I suspect they did not let me go with regret or sorrow – I had stopped giving them what they wanted and so they dumped me.

    I constantly question myself and wonder have I been too absolutist in my approach to other people. Possibly I have been but then again they were not good friends. Sometimes I find it hard to know where to draw the line…allowing people to be make mistakes and let you down but not putting up with toxic people either. And it is very hard to find good friends.

    Recently I decided not to worry about it and let things be. Anyway to my surprise I manage ok with several people who are more acquaintances than ‘real’ friends and no family at all. It sounds sad and it is in many ways and I wish I had a few good friends that i could depend on. (It’s also possible that I am underestimating some of my new acquaintances). It’s scary at times and a little embarrassing. Recently i ended up in hospital (nothing serious) and I was asked for next of kin – I said I have no-one… the sky did not fall in…I said I know it’s unusual and it’s a long story…they just accepted it…afterwards I thought I’ll bet it’s not all that unusual.

    I sense a change for you. Are you worried about having little or no friends when you make that change? You’d be surprised how well you can manage with few people in your life if that is an issue for you. (Forgive me if I have gotten this wrong).

    Enjoy looking forward to the book release date.

    1. Thanks, Fiona. Like you, I’ve come around to expecting less from people, which means I’m not often disappointed. Yes, I am concerned about being too isolated here in Colorado, but I also know that Skype and email make it possible to stay in close contact with the people I care about, even when they are across the country or even on a different continent. Plus I’ll be doing more traveling, too, which means I will be able (as I recently did) to visit my son and some dear friends in London, and to catch up with a friend from Madrid who came over to meet me. I’m actually hopeful about the future and my friendships.

  3. Missed your blog and looking forward to it becoming regular again. I can relate to what you say about letting friendships go and having experienced being let go myself. Trying to be a good friend and then beginning to understand that the friendship is very one-sided .Second guessing yourself and tolerating the occasional sleights , just to keep an old friendship going can be very hurtful . Friendships do change because of distance and changing life circumstances . I think for every loss of a friendship always teaches us something. Perhaps it will help us be more discerning about who we invest in . BTW Congratulations on your move to beautiful Colorado.

  4. Good luck with the book.

    I’m afraid some of this post reinforces my prejudices about therapists.

    “You’re not important enough for Prof. X to take an interest in.” The speaker I think must have been awfully immature or have a frightful set of values.

    1. Evan, she was a historian, not a therapist, and more of an intellectual snob than immature. But I guess that kind of snobbery actually is immature, when you think about it.

    2. Are people who judge their friends by their importance really friends?
      I may have ten friends – I’d hate to count – and a lot more “friends” from business to Facebook. As fate would have it, some of them are “important” in the general parlance, which means outside (and perhaps inside) the academic world celebrity. Sometimes it means rich. I am not.
      A rule among my real friends is that you do not talk about the important people you k now unless it is with others who know them. Did you hear B broke his leg when a stage gave way. D is having twins – again? But not My Friend B or My Good Friend B.
      I use Facebook for business and tend to commingle the private there, as well (which one should not). I generally share things I come across in the press I think will interest people or amuse them, occasionally something funny or silly, but almost never selfies and absolutely never selfies with “important” people. Their stardust is theirs and I am pretty sure it doesn’t rub off.
      The me with an important person picture flood, however, seems to be increasing in a one upping name dropping race. How pathetic the sycophants are, as was your lost friend. Unless you are really boring, which I rather doubt. And if she didn’t think you are important (I have no idea if you are, but I like your blog) why did she ask your opinion about an “important person” anyway.
      I suspect there are lot more genuine friends to be found in Colorado than Manhattan. I wish you many.

      1. To answer your first question — no, I don’t think that people who judge other people by their importance are true friends. It took that incident to make me realize the limitations of our friendship. Up until then, I had thought I was an important person TO HER.

        1. I didn’t mean to imply you did. I was really just musing. It’s something I have been noticing more and more.
          As for the book, I have been waiting for it as well. I hope it is available in electronic format, as I plan to move my base of operation to Berlin and have very limited transport space this trip over.

  5. Hello, just thought I’d write a comment to say that I’ve been waiting for your next book ever since reading your last and then finding your blog. Looking forward to reading it!

    1. Thanks, William! And I’m looking forward to launching it out into the world so that people can read and respond to it. Hearing from people like you who read my last book has been very satisfying to me.

  6. Joe I relate to this. We moved to Devon in the UK from the Shires and didn’t know a single soul. I missed my old friends but in the long run only half of them bothered to keep in touch. Those who did were real friends. I have had close colleagues at work who have retired and not ever bothered to make an effort (despite mine) to keep up the “friendship”. I think people who have lots of “friends” have a different concept of friendship than me. They say a friend in need is a friend indeed. It is also true that someone you have shared a large important part of your life with can later become estranged and that makes us feel sad and confused. I have learned to live reaching out but not expecting friends to remain friends. We use each other and that is not meant to be cynical. I think it is true though. That way people can exercise their freedom of choice and I get to feel less hurt. I would add though that I am blessed to be married to my best friend and I hope this will last!

    1. Being married to your best friend most definitely makes it easier! I guess I can get on board with the idea of people “using” one another at different stages in their lives — I’ve certainly done that — but it does make me feel a little cynical. I like to feel that strong friendships will last.

  7. I’m too tired to contribute much, but I wanted to say that people come into our lives for a reason, a lesson to be learned about ourselves or life in general. I personally don’t have any close friends. None that have ever stayed in my life for any great time at least.

    For some reason this has been my history. I find that one person who really gets me, who understands my humour and I really connect with. Then they move. It breaks my heart every time and I always tell myself not to get too close to people because they always seem to move on.

    I know that there is something for me to learn from each experience – what that is exactly I don’t know.

    But I suspect in your case, Joe, you learned a great deal about yourself, your relationship and about people in general. In the end it is all good and it is as it should be.

    It would be nice to have a friend, but I no longer count on that as ever happening for me. I get along with people, and for some reason many people seem to like me, they just don’t seem to stick around in my life.

    My brain is a fog – working too hard, too much to think about. I hope some of what I wrote made sense. I will probably read it later and question it all.

    Welcome back. I too thought that perhaps something catastrophic had happened to you. Very glad to know that is not the case.

    1. Hi Sheila, and very nice to hear from you! I think what I have learned about myself from the Chapel Hill experience is that I have a tendency to idealize new situations and people, to believe in the concept of fresh starts. Here in this new location, I watch myself having very low expectations now. I wouldn’t call myself cynical but I would say I’m skeptical.

      1. I would say that I try to be more guarded. It doesn’t always work, but I need to be. I have difficulty with loss. Being highly sensitive, I seem to feel the pain of losing people from my life very deeply. I do recover, as one would expect.

        Where does your idealizing come from, Joe?

        1. One of my teachers once said, “The worse the object, the more the need to idealize it.” He meant that when you have a particularly deficient mother, it’s too painful to recognize the truth and so you idealize her as a form of denial. That’s the root of my tendency to idealize people.

  8. Wishing you every happiness and peace in your new home in Colorado. The best of luck with your book. And, a belated very happy birthday and many happy returns.

    Perhaps we just need to distinguish between friends and acquaintances, and discernment is at the heart of the matter.

    Joe, there are many poseurs aka legends in their own mind, like the famous Prof at that dinner party. If nothing else his manners left much to be desired, and where I come from (Ireland) we have a word for the likes of him. Can’t print it in full: g*b***te.

    I concur with what Jo Lynne says above.

    Best wishes

  9. That woman’s comment was frightfully rude! The only way I can understand it is she must have felt personally offended by your comment regarding the professor and her friendship for him resulted in her lashing out at you, maybe she felt guilty about being a bad host on some level. Still I think her comment was deeply regrettable and unnecessary. At the risk of countering grandiosity with grandiosity I don’t think she deserved you as a friend!

    I recently got back in touch with an old friend, it was very gratifying and I was relieved to see he missed me too, yet my friend has a narcisstic streak himself and I’m kind of afraid that when I see him again he will hurt my feelings. It’s a shame because I do care for him so but can’t help wondering if these ones that got away escaped for a reason.

    Maybe I need your new book the old one was very interesting and confronting ( in a good way).

    1. I think you just need to be on your guard. Most friendships have limitations; recognizing what you can and cannot get from this friend will help you protect yourself from needless pain.

  10. Appealing front on your coming book! There is an old saying ; If you want a friend, close one eye – If you want to keep your friend, close both eyes.

  11. I let a dear and close friend go when his depression was too bitter for me to allow into my heart. I told him many times I was drirfting away and why, and still, of course, he was deeply hurt when I said I couldn’t continue seeing him as long as he was so savagely depressed. He’d had a good therapist and psychiatrist, both of whom he let go – the therapist for very good reason – they’d done business together and he got burned; the psychiatrist, because my friend took the letter reducing his psychiatrist’s practice personally, and didn’t pursue as patients who wanted to continue with medication and talk therapy needed to do [this psychiatrist is the exception to the narrow medication focus of most current psychiatrists].
    I felt and still feel after a decade, deep sadness and loss, and no other safe alternative seemed available. We’ve “tried” a few times to re-connect, and that’s just not worked – awkward and uncomfortable for us both.
    No lesson or moral to this tale, just my own closest experience to the topic. Dr Bob

  12. in my experience , people who no longer cross paths naturally rarely remain friends – it takes very strong effort and extension of energies from both folks to keep thing things going. I don’t take this personally – it simply seems a fact of human social behavior, having little or nothing to do with the importance of their previous relationship. Dr Bob

  13. I just let go of a ten year relationship, mostly because I felt depleted after each encounter with my friend. He had become increasingly egotistical, childish, and even, at times, verbally abusive. Many of these changes started when I began psychotherapy years ago; I found that as my self-esteem increased, his seemed to decrease. He wanted the “old me” back — the one that he could mold and bend to his every whim. He wanted to hear that his work was brilliant, when it wasn’t, and that he was doing the best he could in life when he wasn’t even trying.

    I think it’s really difficult to maintain a friendship when one person is growing, and the other feels stuck in the same place. And while it hurts to end a friendship (it feels a lot like grieving a death), I now know that as long as I stay open and seek out opportunities for personal growth, I will make new friends.

    Also, I really love the cover of your new book, Dr. Burgo!

    1. Hi anonymous
      I’ve recently had a similar experience although my ex friend is ‘doing well’ in life. I’m currently studying counselling and psychotherapy and of course, with my increased self awareness, to my horror I came to realise why after each contact with my ‘ex’ I would feel deeply ashamed about myself – “WHY did I have to bring that up again? I shouldn’t have gone on about that as it wasn’t of interest to her!” etc etc.
      What i felt was happening was as I am a good listener, I’m interested in people and take care not to interrupt and get people to expand on their story by showing interest, if they don’t do that back (many do not reciprocate) whatever I bring up in conversation can straight away get hijacked by the ‘hogger’ or they don’t listen well so it can fall flat – hugely embarrassing and shameful to me!!!
      The ex would constantly ask a question that was completely random and not related to the current convo and then not even bother listening to the answer or just give up 1/4 of the way in to my (reluctant) reply and ask some one ELSE another random! I have felt so ashamed of this that I even found it difficult to discuss with my O H afterwards (she did it to him and he ended up having to reply to me – the only one polite enough to listen after she ‘hijacked’ another friend nearby- and I already knew the answer!). I appreciate its all subliminal and as she insisted on reasons for my withdrawal, I have told her how ive felt on some of those occasions. We still have to see each other and now she is blanking me and saying I don’t deserve to be upset as it was all my doing/choice that I could not ‘sort out the ‘petty’ issues at the time’.
      I feel I’m trying to fight off accusations and answer ridiculous comments like these without accusing back. Only saying how I feel, which is all I know.

  14. Hello Dr Joe!

    Welcome to rainy, cloudy, cold Colorado! I am happy to see you back on the blog. This topic is so complex and oh so important isn’t it? Connection and attachment and community. People need each other on this earth. Just no escaping it. At different times in our life we need each other in different ways. No matter what it is always a vulnerable position for both parties. Friendship does seem to be a non linear and imperfect thing. I have had many friends come and go and relate to those twinge of shame feelings, but I really can say I have learned about myself from each of my friends. The long term friendships I have are there because of a steadfastness on both sides of constant communication and forgiveness. Not easy and these things are rare and some friendships just aren’t worth it. But some are. I can say you never do know what is around the corner. My most recent close friend I met (after moving from suburb to city), at my community coffee shop. Who knows who you will meet, or when?

    Look forward to your book and more posts Joe!


  15. I had a friend who walked out of my life. The pain was like experiencing the death of a loved one. It took about a year and the early sign was an increasing formality that didn’t resemble our previous closeness at all. Now I occasionally hear from her and it feels like a business exchange. She no doubt felt a lot of feelings about our friendship, to change her behavior in such an extreme way, but she could never share with any authenticity with me. Very painful indeed.

  16. After researching the possible aftermath of ending a four year relationship with a malignant, revengeful narcissitic man I was Blessed to discover your site! I’m a self supporting mother of four girls ages 24-16. When I thought my situation couldn’t get worse after he was charged with two counts of assualt from the injuries he inflicted on me, It did! I then learned he possessed pedifiliar tendencies and have firm proof he was grooming my youngest daughter. He wanted everyone out of his way for good except my daughter. I’m asking your advice would be to pursue All possible legal remedies against him. The revenge these people are capable of is almost beyond my comprehension by appears inevitable with any choice I make. Thank you for your commitment to helping me and others!

    1. You have to weigh the costs of seeking “all possible legal remedies.” If he has the resources to fight you, it could be a scorched earth battle that stretches on for years.

  17. Friendship. I have three close friends , all of whom now live elsewhere. We connect thru emails and texts. They are emotionally satisfying, though limiting of course, because we don’t meet in person, very often. There are a few neighbours with whom I share some intimacy. My grown children, and grandchild, though not friends- give me love, and acceptance.
    I often question why I don’t reach out to people more, then realize I’m a solitary sort of person. I also find women around my age, early 60s, when I have started to expand our connection- try to contain me, define me in their image. It’s then I pull back and pull away.
    The three people who I do keep in my life, just accept me- as I am. Though I realize having friends in the flesh, is much more ideal.
    I’m starting with a writers group this coming week, and hope to maybe start to develop some new connections.
    I do see my Mother, because she was and still is at 94, such a controlling and containing woman, has probably made me very reticent with going in too far with people. As soon as I start to feel contained, or others’ projections take over their ability to really hear and relate to me in the moment, I’m outta there.

  18. It is amazing to me that it can take 30 years to build a friendship, and then one stray remark to wreck it.

    My policy is that if I am prepared to forgive my enemies, it is triply important to be prepared to forgive my friends. In other words, people say stupid sh*t all the time. Thank god I have friends who have forgiven me for my trespasses.

  19. It’s interesting that, in the case of both breaks you described, you were the victim, the offended party; the other person, evidently in the wrong. Your psychotherapist friend distanced himself from you due to ‘jealousy’ at your professional success. Your New Yorker friend took the side of a self-absorbed narcissist at dinner. On both occasions, you behaved in a basically decent manner; the other person, like a prick. How refreshing it is to see that even – perhaps especially – psychotherapists are able to maintain these self-serving delusions about themselves. I would be very interested to hear their sides of the story.

      1. ‘Delusional’ may be overly harsh, but nonetheless: two of your relationships ended, and you seem to have developed narratives around both (‘He was jealous/She was rude’) that offer the maximum protection to your own ego.

        1. SD, isn’t it true that people are fragile and prone to misbehavior either in bursts or sustained ways? Joseph, I’m glad you are back with us here. You have lived in many places, you’re a person who meets many people, who seeks experiences and works hard at connecting — which does not always come easily to those of us who had/have a parent with NPD or BPD or otherwise “not good enough parents” so good on you for continuing to connect. I can completely believe that you have had at least two friends in 60 years who have dropped the ball all on their own in a major way in their friendship with you in exactly the ways you described. I’ve had more than two people in my own family who have behaved in horribly narcissistic and jealous ways towards me, who in essence and/or in deed, “let go” of me, so it’s not surprising that friends and acquaintances sometimes do so. These family members are neither healed nor working on healing their own wounds, whereas I am doing so, and strengthening my own boundaries; I’ve learned that I cannot expect much else from them. We shouldn’t be surprised that others let us down, family or friends or acquaintances. It doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt; it hurts terribly, especially if we try to deny how much. It does mean that’s where they are at the moment. We can forgive and re-engage immediately, or do so after a pause, or we can decide to let go and move on. Often, the last option is best. I have found that letting go or being let go is one of the harder things to learn in life.

          A fellow journeyer in healing — Catherine

  20. Very happy to have found your site. I look forward to exploring your thoughtful articles.
    Regarding friendship, I have found that when that painful moment arrives (Prof. X is cooler than you,) the friendship boat has long sailed and hit the rocks and it awaits that last wave to sink it. Perhaps time and tides (forgive all the sea imagery, I live near the Chesapeake Bay,) perhaps the irritation factor had passed the what I get from you as a friend factor, hard to say sometimes. I have gotten brutally candid at times with friends when I no longer care what happens. I think of it as a natural process sort of like death, mourn and move on (time is short, perhaps a couple of decades for all of us, but that is for another entry.) Best

  21. Hi Joe
    CONGRATULATIONS on your move and your book.

    I find whenever I reconnect with friends I let go of – I am quickly reminded of why I let go the first time!! I hope this thought is helpful to those grieving a former friendship they let go of.
    SD – interesting that you question two examples of hurtful friends in a man’s 60 years of life….. I wonder are you living in some (delusional) utopia yourself?

  22. I have now been on both sides of ending a “friendship”. The first was a person whom I met when we were 4 years old and not very aware of anyone else since we were both terrified and alone in our first times out of our homes (kindergarten). As teenagers through our thirties we were fast friends, but it crumbled and fell apart when she announced she would be ending all contact with everyone except her daughter and brother. 50 years of friendship is something I value and respect, I was kind of hurt, but not totally surprised. Not long after that, the brother was cut off too, reasons unknown. He is still my friend. All of us agree that she has a problem, we suppose. The other one I knew for 25 years, was always confrontational and difficult, from the beginning kind of pushed the relationship on me, and I terminated it when, in a tough time in my life I neither wanted to share with her, nor to deal with her increàsingly hostile communiqués. She wanted to fight with me over semantics and my therapist concurred that I should end it for my own good. I just lacked the interest and energy. It was such a relief to be free of that stress. It is always a pleasure to find your posts when searching for guidance about one thing or another.

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