Some Unhealthy Friend Group Roles
It's tough to be lonely and not have a group of friends. However, as much as you may want to get into a social circle, not all of them are created equal. If you're socially awkward, inexperienced, or less-confident, you can fall into unhealthy, self-worth-damaging roles in your friend group. It doesn't happen all the time - not every clique is a deadly minefield - but it doesn't hurt to be aware of the risks. I'll go over the roles first. Then I'll cover some reasons people can fall into certain ones, as well as some options for avoiding or getting out of them.
The group punching bag
This is the "friend" the group doesn't respect, but they keep around because they're fun to rip on. There are a few types of punching bag:
- The group member everyone constantly teases and makes fun of. The teasers often hide behind "we're just joking around", but it's clear their target gets it worse than the others.
- The member everyone plays "pranks" on, large and small. The group may ditch them on a night out, embarrass them in front of their crush, or do little annoying things, like gang up on them when they're playing a competitive video game together.
- The member who's constantly criticized. If the group's playing a team-based game, any time they make a mistake everyone piles on them. If someone else messes up, it passes without comment.
The excessive favor giver
This member goes out of their way to do nice things for their friends. They buy them lunch, pay for their cover and drinks at the bar, lend them their class notes, and so on. There's nothing wrong with treating your buddies or giving them a helping hand here and there, but you can go too far with it. For one, it can make you seem like you're insecure, and think you have to buy people's company. Parasitic types may mooch off you. It can make the recipients of your favors feel uncomfortably obligated and in debt. Throwing your money and time around can make you seem like you're low on financial or social common sense, and cause others to lose respect for you.
The reluctant therapist
Your friends need a lot of emotional support at this point in their lives, and you're there to listen. Again, there's nothing wrong with that. It is an issue if they constantly want to vent to you, without any concern for your own time or emotional needs. They may be in a lot of pain and not realize they're being draining and over-relying on you. However, that doesn't change the fact that it's not good for you to be doing so much mental labor.
The reluctant organizer
Many friendship groups have one or two people who naturally take on the event organizer role. If it's just part of their personality, and they're happy to do it, there's no harm in that. Being the organizer is less-healthy when you only do it because you'd hardly ever see anyone otherwise. The rest of the group may not have anything against you, but are just lazy about setting up plans themselves. They know you'll do the work, so they let that happen. At worst, they're more indifferent to you, and won't show up unless you bribe them by arrange some sort of enticing get together.
The reluctant chauffeur
That is, you have a car and give your friends tons of rides. If you couldn't offer that service, you doubt they'd keep you around. I don't mean they don't have cars, and appreciate that you can help them get around every now and then. I mean when they unabashedly use you as a free taxi.
The reluctant designated driver
When everyone goes out drinking it's taken for granted you'll be the D.D. This is especially bad if you drink as well, but are put in the position of not being allowed to. Even if you don't drink, you friends may still be disrespectful and assume that you're always going to drive them all home at the end of the night.
The reluctant host
You've got a bigger apartment off campus. You're renting a house near all the bars downtown. You've got a nice bedroom in the basement, and your parents don't hassle you if you have a bunch of people over. It's taken for granted most of the group's get togethers are going to be at your place. It's more than you'd like, but you feel you don't have a say in the matter. Your friends also don't help clean up the next day, eat your food without replacing it, or get you in trouble with your parents or neighbors.
The reluctant nightclub babysitter
Your friends expect you to watch out for them when they act like drunk dumbasses while you're out at bars and clubs. They need you to drag them away from creepy guys they're flirting with, keep them from getting into fights, or make sure they don't misplace their stuff. Friends watch out for each other. That's a good thing. What's not is when they assume they can act however they want, that you'll always be following behind to save them from themselves, and that your own fun that night is secondary.
Some reasons people can fall into unhealthy roles in their social circle
- Their "friends" foisted the role on them, because they're simply jerks. They didn't have the self-confidence or assertiveness skills to resist it. E.g., their group wanted someone to bully, and they don't have the self-esteem to leave when everyone treats them poorly.
- Their "friends" foisted the role on them, not because they're deliberate jerks, but because they're a bit self-centered, thoughtless, and immature, and don't realize they're acting badly. For example, in their eagerness to have someone ferry them around, they don't realize they're using one of their friends for their car.
- They took on the role themselves, because they mistakenly thought it would help them gain affection or respect (e.g., "If I watch out for my friends at bars, they'll like me for it.")
- They gave themselves the role, because they believe it will keep them from being rejected (e.g., they unconsciously worry that if they aren't always available to listen to their friends' problems then no one will want to spend time with them).
- They're naive and socially inexperienced and don't know they're in an unhealthy role. They think that's just how things work with groups of friends (e.g., they don't realize their buddies' teasing has crossed the line into being mean-spirited).
People of any age can fall into toxic, counterproductive roles in their group, though there are a few reasons I think it's more likely to happen to someone who's younger:
- Younger people have less social and life experience, especially if they were more isolated and awkward growing up. They haven't had time to learn they shouldn't have to put up with certain behaviors from their friends.
- In general, younger people can be bigger jerks to their peers. Some of them haven't outgrown childish tendencies to act like bullies, not think of others' feelings, or use people for their own ends.
- The circumstances in high school, and college to a lesser extent, can push incompatible people together. Someone may not be a good fit for a jerk-ish clique, but fall into it because they share the same lunch period with everyone in it, have no one else to sit with in the cafeteria, and know two members from middle school.
- Teenagers and college students have access to fewer practical resources, like money or a car, and it can be tempting for them to use someone who has these things.
Ways to avoid these roles in the first place
- If nothing else, just knowing about these roles can help you avoid slipping into them.
- Try to learn of any fears, insecurities, or tendencies that may drive you to take on or passively accept certain roles (e.g., your parents raised you to be a people pleaser, and your first instinct on meeting any new friends is to put their needs before yours).
- If you get the sense your friends are trying to put you in a role you don't want, try to casually brush it off at first. Establish your boundaries, but in a low-key, friendly way (e.g., "Nah, I was the D.D. last time. I'm happy to take my turn, but won't do it every night we go out.")
- If they're being insistent about trying to push you into a role, be more assertive. For example, in a self-assured tone saying, "Guys, it's not happening. I'm not going to be that person in the group everyone rips on all the time."
- Have a baseline level of self-respect. Be willing to walk away from a social circle that doesn't seem like it will treat you as an equal.
Some options if you've already fallen into an unhealthy role in your social circle
- It may be hard, but try to honestly look at your situation and ask if there's any hope of the group treating you better. Are they clearly immature jerks who will only keep you around if they can give you a hard time? Or are they fairly nice people, who are unintentionally taking you for granted, because you've given the impression that you're okay with your position? If you know deep down they're irredeemable jerks, it could be simpler to move on and make some better friends. There are always other social circles to meet. Don't feel you've got no options, and that sticking with a subpar clique is better than being alone.
- Try to identify any fears or insecurities that may be causing you to stay in that role. For example, do you believe that your friends will stop hanging out with you if you don't buy them drinks every time you go out?
- Change any behavior of yours that supports the role. For example, if you're always buying meals for your friends, despite their protests, let them pay for their own food. If it makes you more comfortable, gradually scale back how often you pay for them.
- If your friends have forced a role on you that you don't want, like driver or babysitter, try to transition out of it in a low-key way. Like rather than always being the D.D. without question, on some nights casually say you feel like drinking, and that someone else can drive. Everyone may accept the change without even noticing.
- If necessary, be more straightforward and assertive. Like if you casually tell them you can't always be on call to listen to them vent about their problems, and they make a fuss, politely, but firmly, tell them it's not realistic to expect that amount of support from any one person. It's possible they won't change, which hurts, but at least you'll know where you stand, and you can focus on finding a group that actually fits you.