Why we need to declutter our friendships

Published: August 13, 2009 | Last Updated: August 13, 2009 By | 9 Replies Continue Reading

Some of us are hoarders and some of us are tossers. Many of us do the same thing with our friends. Yesterday, I received a Twitter message that put the idea in bold relief. It explained the problem in less than 140-characters: Bad friends prevent you from having good friends–Gabonese proverb.

More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle pointed out that when it comes to “friendships of good” (or what we might call best friends today) there are limits to the number of relationships that can be juggled simultaneously. The precise number of manageable relationships varies from person to person: Some of us have greater social needs; some are better than others in making and keeping friends. Because of survival needs, some people have less discretionary time for socializing. And some are more adept than others in juggling work, family, friends, and alone time. Gender also comes into play: Compared to men, women tend to favor a smaller, more intimate circle of friends.

Robin Dunbar, a British sociologist, studied social groups of non-human primates to estimate the number of social connections that a human being could handle at one time. That concept has been dubbed “Dunbar’s number.” He concluded that 150 is the number of friends, both close and casual, that humans are functionally hardwired to handle at the same time (the number limited by the volume of the neocortex of the brain). Another study at Liverpool University in the 1990s also found that most people have an extended network of about 150 people they consider distant acquaintances and about five that they consider close friends.

Friendships are inherently dynamic, but if you’re a hoarder, it’s tough to let go—even if the friendship has turned toxic or one-sided. And since ending a friendship is likely to be a one-way street, it isn’t something to be done in haste or taken lightly.

Yet maintaining friendships that no longer work is like having a closet cluttered with clothes of all different sizes that no longer fit. If you organize and declutter, it’s a lot easier and more rewarding to get dressed each morning. Similarly if you’re spending your time and emotions on friendships that aren’t satisfying, you are keeping yourself from developing new ones that may be more fulfilling.

TWITTER VERSION: Audit your friendships because having too many bad ones can prevent you from having good ones

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  1. Clare says:

    Hi Irene,

    Yes I really need to de-clutter my relationships with people right now. I keep saying “Yes” to people who want to see me. But in the end I keep disappointing them when I say “Yes” to almost everyone and I can’t be there for everyone anymore. I feel extremely exhausted and lonely now because I don’t feel close to anyone anymore ):

    I need and want to let go but I’m afraid of disappointing people 🙁

  2. Rosemarie says:

    Thank you. I was needing some guidance on how to move on from some friendships. I wasn’t feeling fulfilled anymore. I was noticing that I was being used and my feelings weren’t respected. I’m someone who has this “loyalty” to everything including the people who even hurt me–thanks to the martyr attitude I was raised with. I feel sick to my stomach when I get emailed or called to go to some girl’s get-togethers. I knew it was time for me to makes changes. I’m so over it like a bad relationship. Only a few out of the group I really trust anymore. The declutter analogy is very fitting. Thank you for giving me the extra confidence to say, “It’s time to move on!”

  3. Anonymous says:

    You are so right, some times it takes a major life happenstance to make a change of circumstances that has not been healthy. When my mother died I started to see the true colours of people I thought I had been close to for a decade or more, and let go of the negative draining people who complain and put down and are not friendly, after all being friends is about being friendly and that is what can be lost sight of when being in a friendship relationship for a long time.

  4. Irene says:

    Congratulations on taking care of yourself and doing what’s right for you!



  5. Anonymous says:

    Irene, well said.

    I am a hoarder. I don’t judge others and I try to do everything for everyone, including those friends who take me for granted and push me around.

    Maybe it’s a blessing in disguise, but I started coming to my senses after a fall out with another friend who was always putting me down. I started the process of decluttering my friendships and the results have been amazing. I now hang out with more positive people….. people who genuinely care about me.

  6. Irene says:

    Yes, it’s so hard to change things even if they aren’t right.




  7. Irene says:

    Hi Sophie:

    I know how hard this is to do…easier said than done. Why do we feel so guilty?


  8. Anonymous says:

    Well said. I am going through a “de-cluttering” phase of friends. I am hoping to have more room for healthy friendships. The transition is painful with any change, good or bad. Right now, I don’t have many good friends. I do have trust issues from bad “friends”. Being in my late thirties, I have realized I don’t need extra drama. Don’t have the time or energy to put forth effort in some people that have made no effort on their end.

  9. Sophie says:

    Irene, have you been living in my head? You so often address exactly what I need to hear.
    I’ve been decluttering my friendships this year because I realized I was expending too much energy on unsatisfying relationships. It’s sad and sometimes I worry that I’m just … well … a bitch–but in the end, I hope it will open my life up for new friendships.

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