• Keeping Friends

Should friends be brutally truthful with one another?

Published: January 4, 2012 | Last Updated: September 25, 2013 By | 30 Replies Continue Reading
While everyone wants authentic, truthful friendships, it can be challenging to find the right balance between honesty and tact


Dear Irene,

I have a history of dropping friendships and have wondered whether this pattern suggests I’m a horrible friend. I have counseling training and so I know something about relationships, but still seem to be unable to use my training effectively.

My mother used to lean on me emotionally and to this day, I am someone people come to when they want to open up about their lives. My problem comes, when their sharing goes to the level of complaining but they won’t do anything about it. Or they upset me in some way and when I raise it, they become defensive.

My experience is that people don’t really want authenticity but think they do — until it gets hard and difficult scenarios come up. I’m very down on myself and realize I speak the truth (although I try to be very loving), but I guess my expectations just don’t sit well with others.

It’s my honest feeling that the friends I’ve had and dropped have been unwilling to work out conflict in an effective way. But I do know my tendency is to want to correct dysfunctional thinking. Sometimes too, I’m just baffled by other peoples’ expectations.

How can I manage my friendships, without feeling I can’t be honest for fear of losing them? When I’ve held back I realize I simply build up tension.

Best, Celia


Dear Celia,

If you have a “history” of friendship problems, it’s great that you’re taking stock of the role you may be playing in creating that history.

It sounds like you have a strong, take-charge personality that allows people to feel comfortable telling you their problems and asking for advice. However, even though people may ask for advice, it doesn’t mean they are ready and able to make major changes in the ways they approach a situation, whether it’s a conflict with a boss or disagreement with a spouse. (Also, that they don’t follow through or immediately change course, doesn’t mean that they don’t necessarily value your advice.) It’s natural that they would appear defensive to you if they are not psychologically ready to change.

That said, regardless of your background and training, I think you need to exercise some caution in “taking on cases.” Perhaps, you are confusing the roles of counselor and friend. Friendships work best when they are between equals, two people who share and depend on each other in different ways. Behavior you label as “dysfunctional” may serve another individual well or just mean they are unable to change it. It’s a mistake to befriend (or marry) anyone with the hope of changing them. In addition, these friends may be more interested in venting to you rather than actually changing their lives.

Regarding truth, there’s a delicate balance between being brutally honest (AKA blunt) and being tactful and sensitive to a person’s feelings. To remain “authentic” without being dishonest, you may want to find more effective ways to deliver your message. The timing of a message also plays a critical role in whether or not it is heard.

Keep in mind that many people have a hard time dealing directly with conflict. And yes, there is an inherent risk in alienating people with too much honesty. You need to weigh your options carefully and differentiate how you respond to different people and problems. If you can’t tolerate another person, you have several choices: to try to be more accepting and patient, to discuss the problem with the other person, or to “drop” that friendship.

Hope this helps.

Best, Irene

Some prior blog posts on The Friendship Blog about friendship and honesty:

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Category: Communication, KEEPING FRIENDS

Comments (30)

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  1. Anonymous says:

    you have restored my faith in myself! I have heard all the comments. Some pointed out a superiority I may feel I have, one was blatantly bitchy, but most have been really helpful. I have begun to realize that over-extending myself leads to this expectation from some others that I will just keep endlessly supporting. I know my boundaries have been blurred and I see myself now holding back some to ensure I can be a good friend, but not become fatigued either. Thanks!!

  2. Anonymous says:

    you have restored my faith in myself! I have heard all the comments. Some pointed out a superiority I may feel I have, one was blatantly bitchy, but most have been really helpful. I have begun to realize that over-extending myself leads to this expectation from some others that I will just keep endlessly supporting. I know my boundaries have been blurred and I see myself now holding back some to ensure I can be a good friend, but not become fatigued either. Thanks!!

  3. Anonymous says:

    It’s emotionally draining to always be the one that people turn to for advice. Some become dependent and only use you/see you when they need advice. I had to let one friendship drift away because my friend only used me when she had a problem- then I wouldn’t hear from her. It’s draining and annoying to be giving the same advice over and over. (Also, whenever I had a problem she was too busy and didn’t listen or rolled her eyes, so it was a one-sided friendship!) When I spoke the truth when giving advice, she became upset because it was something she didn’t want to hear. So I then just kept my mouth shut and simply listened to her- well that upset her as well. So sometimes you can’t please anyone and just have to move on. If they come back into your life, fine and if not, that’s fine too.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Great reply! Probably because it sums up EXACTL what I have learned BIG TIME in the past year or so, at the age of 29. I used to feel like a jerk being standoffish and careful with my supportiveness, but for all the reasons you said, I have learned over the long term, being too open will backfire on me and being careful and conservative with my “giving side” is the best for everyone in the end.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I have been in your shoes!!!! I wrote a question on friend forum a few months ago about emotional charity cases, and it had a lot to do with this exact thing. I had a lot of friendships that I had dropped abruptly, and they were all people who I determined to be “emotional charity cases”…(not at the time…in retrospect this fall after assessing the ones who ives dropped)…I realized that with some people, my way of getting close to them is to be very open ans overly supportive of their problems, and make them feel super comfortable talking to me. It’s like I had a knack for coming off as super open and endlessly patient for people, but the reality was, I think this was just one (faulty) tactic for getting close to people, and it all blew up in my face when after so long, the support I gave premised on an assumption that my help would help THEM….ran out when I realized they just were attracted to my friendship for the sounding board/support. You’re not a bad person for ending up like that and running out of patience with people, it’s just good that now you realise you have clear limits to your empathy and the impression you give doesnt jive with it. I have learned to distance myself from people who appear to be coming to me for my empathy, and have been working harder on connecting wih people based only on positivies (i.e. not on growing close over some mutual sad story, negative feelings, etc).

  6. Anonymous says:

    great response! helpful and yes, the “why” is so important. glad to see the responses getting more helpful…

  7. Anonymous says:

    I think sometimes people may become accustomed to the roles played in their childhoods . I too had a mom who did this to me. Although in my case, I have listened to friends over the years hash out their problems. I’ve never studied nor am I a qualified counselor. So I prefer to listen, and offer maybe some suggestions, especially in cases where a friend seems to want to re-hash the problem over and over again. But I thoroughly agree with Irene, that it’s difficult to become a counselor to a friend. Celia claims she is down on herself about the fact she speaks the truth to people, and that her expectations do not sit well w/others. Maybe this is something to think about, because it depends I feel how well you really know people, first of all. I think we all know that if one is going to tell a friend something sensitive, that person I hope chooses their words very carefully. But I also believe that being said, the person doling out advice maybe should refrain from having expectations from their friends. Of course, if this is someone who really just burns your ear w/same complaints, there are ways to stop this also. Now I’m not talking about scenarios, e.g. spousal abuse. Definitely these cases are warranted. I had a friend in one of these. Oh the drama that went on while she was with this guy! I finally told her, and because of the nature of this….she wasn’t doing anything about it, so I had to let go of this friend. But I honestly feel that we can’t just be highly opinionated w/all of our friends, and then have expectations, etc. of them. Maybe if Celia would try to change her role, of wanting to “fix things,”
    it could take some pressure off her. I also think it is important for Celia to ask herself, the WHY she has a history of dropping friends. Happy New Year & Let’s Change History.

  8. Anonymous says:

    The postings might be “public,” but that doesn’t give people a license for a free-for-all bashing of Celia. I don’t think Celia said or implied she was surprised to get feedback. It was the ferocity of the comments, I believe, that she was surprised about. I also don’t believe Celia gave the impression she didn’t want the truth because it would hurt. My apologies for interpreting you, Celia.

  9. Anonymous says:

    even if you are good at it! No one likes to feel like they are invisible unless they are offering some service, whether it be cat sitting, counseling or shuttling kids around. I don’t think there is a human being on the planet who doesn’t want to be seen and appreciated for who they are in a friendship and what they bring to the table. It really hurts to have someone take from you and give nothing back because they’ve decided that you don’t need anything and that listening and absorbing another person’s pain doesn’t cost you anything. People who are empathic often feel the pain of others and hearing and understanding that a friend is suffering can be a very draining.

    Everyone needs love, kindness and attention even if they seem completely self sufficient. They may not need you to listen to their problems but they could surely benefit from a kind word or a walk in a park or a little note just to say hey I’m thinking of you.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Well said – I can relate to this too as I was a counsellor for my parents since I was a child and often took this role with friends because that is what I felt my value was in these relationships.

    Like the other poster eloquently said, this can be exhausting. I don’t get the sense that Celia is trying to be superior either, she is trying to figure out her role in these relationships and wants to have healthy relationships where the conversation goes back and forth and isn’t always focused on a friends stream of problems.

    Thank you Celia for writing so honestly about your experiences. 🙂

  11. Anonymous says:

    I so appreciate this response. It is helpful. i did put my problem in a public forum as one person responded. So I opened myself up to opinion. Those that help me improve are those that are gentle in rebuke. The wisdom in those words are well taken. Feedback that is helpful makes me want to change. Feedback that is snidey, doesn’t.

  12. Anonymous says:

    and in my experience there are some people who actually do like to hear other people complain about their lives because it makes them feel that their lot is better by comparison. It sounds like Celia actually wants better things for her friends and gets frustrated that she can’t help. I’d rather have a friend who wants me to be happy than a friend who is happy to see me stay stuck.

  13. Anonymous says:

    is that she was put into a parental role by her mother. Perhaps some of the more harsh posters here can try to imagine what that may have been like for her. From what she’s written here it sounds like she had to manage an unfair burden in her family. Sometimes when that role is thrust upon you, you can start to internalize the idea that the only value you have is what you can do for someone. It becomes second nature to start using the skills that you have been forced to learn in your family and to apply them to your friendships. I don’t think Celia is doing this out of a sense of superiority any more than someone who is very needy is trying to exploit their friendships by taking too much and dumping their problems on their friends. It may just be what they learned and are comfortable. Everyone looks at problems through the filter of their own experience and I think trying to take a more empathic and objective view is never a bad thing. At least she had the courage to reach out to Irene for input. Just because she exposed herself in a public forum doesn’t mean we as Irene’s guests have carte blanche to take swipes at her. That is so much of what is wrong with the internet an nothing to be proud of in my opinion.

  14. Irene says:

    This conversation has become a bit too snarky, can you please temper it and be a little less acccusatory of one another?

    Thanks, Irene

  15. Anonymous says:

    You are right, at least you are seeking out information and advice to change some things – and I have to respect that at least you are seeking change. I have to admit, it can get really old to be in relationships where you just wish a person would change instead of rehashing complaints all the time. The way you described it made your overall approach sound judgmental, but you’re right, I’m not there.

    I definitely believe that you don’t actively search out friends to be a counsellor to, but it wouldn’t surprise me if subconsciously you sort of give out that vibe, and subconsciously, people who are ‘takers’ tend to respond to it.

    I really hope that you’re able to find some friends are are balanced givers and takers, because it does sound like you are kind and want to listen and be helpful, but you should also get that back in return.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the reply – and sorry about the formatting – I should have used HTML (and previewed the message) – totally my bad.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Well, you DID send an email that could be publicly posted… don’t be surprised that you’re getting feedback. And, as you yourself have indicated…sometimes the truth hurts!

  18. Anonymous says:

    Good luck, Celia. You’re smart to examine your own behavior.

  19. Anonymous says:

    yikes! my troubles seem to have brought out the spite in you! You seemed to have judged my conversations without being in them. Perhaps by telling us this, you feel justified in assuming I’m all like your friend.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Oh, man, this hit a nerve. I recently dropped a friend who was a lot like Celia. I’m sure my former friend saw herself as wonderfully caring and helpful, but I saw her as hypercritical, sanctimonious and more than a little spiteful. It’s really hard to be around someone who’s constantly telling you you’re wrong and is forever finding fault with you. Celia is smart to start examining her own behavior. She doesn’t want to end up like my ex-friend, who’s 60 and can’t hang on to a friend for more than a year or two.

  21. Anonymous says:

    I posted a reply to you in the wrong place – sorry! It titled it the same as you, so you’ll know it refers to what you have said.

  22. Anonymous says:

    this reply resonates such truth! You really hit the mark with how I feel. I don’t believe anyone actively seeks to use another friend, but sometimes people become consumed with their problems and it is tiring to be on the receiving end of it. Thanks for your insight…

  23. Anonymous says:

    your long post comes over to me as very judgmental! I am truly trying to examine myself here in order to change some things but you have supposed I am judgmental and harsh which isn’t fair based on the little you know in my relatively short letter. The comment about when people complain at me but will do nothing about it is not referring to irritation at being bothered by peoples’ ventings. It is the point where someone consumes you in a relationship with the same complaint but will do nothing to change it. That is their right, but it’s also mine to protect myself and not be used as an endless sounding board. Irene is right. I need to have better boundaries and not be a counselor to my friends, but I can assure you I don’t go actively searching that out. Often people who are needy, when they know your background, take it as a free lunch! Others are nervous and think you might analyze them all the time. Neither is true.

  24. Anonymous says:

    I can relate a lot to what Celia mentioned about friends wanting emotional support but not “accepting” helpful guidance. Maybe Celia does have tact, maybe she isn’t too blunt the friends are just in toxic relationships and not taking any advice or making any postive changes?

    From my experience I have had to look at my friendships and also question why I tend to drop friends frequently and one of the conclusions I have made is due to exhaustion…let me explain.

    I get exhausted when friends take but don’t give. The friends need help constantly and it is just me giving.

    I get exhausted when friendships ask and expect too much but are not willing to give the same.

    I get exhausted when friends stay in toxic relationships where there is abuse but they refuse to get out or do anything and expect me to hang around the abusive husband.

    I get exhausted with empty promises or friends bailing at the last minute for important events.

    But most of all, I get exhausted when friendships are one-sided and it is always me caring for the other rather than a mutually beneficial friendship.

    In these friendships, I have just given up. I’m too exhausted to deal with it. I last until I cannot last anymore and then I have guilt for not lasting. The most important thing I have learned from these experiences is communicating when I feel overwhelmed or when I feel like I am not a part of a fair-sided friendship instead of just dropping the friend without a word.

    Honestly, Best Friends Forever by Dr. Levine has provided many helpful tools for me to create better friendships and also learn how I play a part in each of these friendships (both positively and negatively)!

  25. Anonymous says:

    Re: Celia, above, I found myself getting actually irritated as I read the letter. I’m sure she’s super well-meaning, but she sounds pretty judgmental and harsh. Sounds like she sets herself up as the ‘authority’ – whether by words or by actions, she gives off the air of being wise and judgmental.

    On the one hand, it’s great to be a wise voice of reason that people can turn to as a sounding board, or even sometimes for a bit of mentoring direction. But when a friend takes a role of trying to ‘fix’ things in someone’s life, and even getting angry when their advice isn’t taken, then maybe the friend should step back and take a look at themselves. Why are they getting so irritated about other people not following their advice? Maybe people never wanted advice in the first place, just someone to hear them and their point of view and understand them (even if the listener doesn’t agree with their actions).

    I guess this hits home because I had a friend like Celia. Super smart and wise, very kind, caring, giving, big heart – all good traits, like it sounds like Celia had.

    But my friend – or, more like ex-friend – was such a big ‘giver’ in so many of her relationships, and set herself up as such an authority. She got irritated when we wouldn’t implement her advice. Eventually, we’d disappear (me and several of her other friends), because we knew that we couldn’t live her to her unspoken expectations. We knew we weren’t ready to make the changes that she thought we should, and it was easier to move along than to be close to someone, who, whilst super nice and caring, was also judgmental and not very understanding of our feelings.

    Love the comment from the commenter who posted this in their second paragraph:

    ‘I realized that until I slowly and carefully got to know someone I couldn’t know what they had to give so lending from my support bank before I knew if they had the resources or the desire to repay was setting myself up for bankruptcy. ‘

    So true. I had a friend who compared friends to stores – not all stores offer what you’re looking for. Yeah, you can get lingerie at Walmart, but it’s best found at Victoria’s Secret or a nice lingerie boutique. And whilst you can get tools at Walmart, forget finding them at Victoria’s or the boutique.

    Some people like to have a balance of relationships – friendships that are fairly equal, then friendships in which they are the mentor/supporter/giver, and some in which they are the mentee/recipient. I think that’s a nice balance. It would suck to have relationships in which one is always giving, and yet, being the recipient of giving all the time doesn’t really allow for much personal growth. And the balanced relationships, I think, are always in season.

    Also, people let you get away with what you let them get away with. And I think that most people don’t go into a relationship thinking, ‘Hmm, I’m gonna get the most I can out of this person!!’ It’s a combination of their personality and the ‘giver’s personality. If they put in 50% and basically require the other person to give 50%, the friend will either rise to the challenge or move on. But if person A puts in 50, then 60, then even more, up to 90%, they shouldn’t be surprised to only get 10% back, if that. They set themselves up by allowing the relationship to progress that way.

    Personally, I have different friends for different purposes. I have a couple that are my homies, that I know I can go to in a pinch. I have another one who isn’t quite on that tier – she wouldn’t be the first or second I’d call in a pinch, but she wouldn’t be the last either. I more go get coffee with her and go on walks and do things with her than confide my deepest feelings with her, although I have little by little shared crumbs and such, just to see how she’s handle it. So far, she’s proved herself trustworthy, but it’s better to let a relationship develop carefully rather than to jump in with both feet and get burned. In time, she could become part of my closest tier – but for now, she’s a wonderful friend in the role that she’s currently playing.

    It just doesn’t work out well to try and make every friend equal, to try to let each friend serve every friend purpose.

  26. Anonymous says:

    I agree with the others posters. It’s a great article; very informative. Thanks.

  27. Anonymous says:

    I agree with the comments so far, and came to add that some people think that friendship means what others can do for them. I had a “friend” who thought this- she always wanted you to do something for her and when you couldn’t, she didn’t consider you a friend anymore or she got upset. Obviously this wasn’t much of a friendship, lol, and I’m trying to keep my distance. It’s a tough but good lesson to learn.

  28. Anonymous says:

    When I was in my 20’s and early 30’s I had a fair number of friends whom I connected with because they needed some sort of help or support. I truly felt for them because I knew what it was like to need a shoulder and to have nowhere to turn. I rather naively thought that if I were to reach out and help people who were in need they would return the favor-they would treat me as I treated them. I learned the hard way that some didn’t understand I had expectations of reciprocity and were simply happy to take what I had to give. Those friendships didn’t last because they were based upon a premise of inequality. When I realized that I was always going to be the giver I would eventually tire of the situation and become resentful and the taker would become confused by my pulling away. They expected me to keep giving as I had always done and had voluntarily set myself up to do and I had expected them to give back which they never intended to do.

    I had to learn as Irene said to seek out friendships with equals and to connect with people over shared experiences and interests and values rather than assume that if I forged a friendship over helping someone they would feel loyalty to me and want to help in return. I realized that until I slowly and carefully got to know someone I couldn’t know what they had to give so lending from my support bank before I knew if they had the resources or the desire to repay was setting myself up for bankruptcy. Now I am careful to only give what I can emotionally afford. I try to remember to ask myself if I do this and I get nothing back will I feel resentment. If the answer is yes then I don’t give or don’t give as much. There is nothing worse than doing for someone with hate in your heart because everyone loses.

  29. Anonymous says:

    thank you, this is really good. I think the comment about timing in particular!

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