The Friend as a Shiny Object: A Reflection

Have you ever had a friend for whom you fell head over heels when you met, similar to what might occur with a new romantic partner? Idealized the person, felt something akin to a rush of infatuation, pursued closeness before allowing the potential for true friendship to develop naturally, only to have it fall apart over time?

I have. One could attribute rapid idealization, followed by complete devaluing, as a sign of splitting — a hallmark of borderline personality disorder. As a long-time psychologist with lots of personal therapy under my belt as part of my professional training, I’m pretty direct with looking at myself. The complete picture of BPD doesn’t apply to me. I don’t split, nor do I have other signs and symptoms of that disorder. But I sometimes experience grave disappointment and sadness because I have ignored warning signs and fought to sustain an overly idealized friendship longer than I should have. There can also be great anger, but should that happen, it is more or less on me. Regardless of any perceived rupture, expectations exceeded what reality presented. I haven’t done this a lot, but it has happened on more than one occasion. It’s a hard thing to accept in oneself. The aftermath can be painful, even after realizing the aspects of what has taken place that are one’s own responsibility. When the signs present themselves, we all have two choices — assuming we are self-aware enough to recognize what is going on. We can let go of the idealization, decide that the friendship is worth accepting the imperfections, and adjust expectations. Or we can determine that it just doesn’t work for us and let it go.

Enter my thoughts about the concept of a friend as a “shiny object.” I believe this to be a fairly common experience for many people. A shiny object is something very attractive and extremely compelling because it is something new. It may distract you from more stable and long-lasting positive things in your life that have been consistent but lost some of their new car smell, so to speak, or might provide a distraction from a difficult situation. A shiny object can make you feel giddy and exhilarated. Eventually, though, the shine must wear off. When that shiny object is a person, what is left? Is there substance, trust, and a long-lasting connection? I want to stress that the decline of an overly idealized relationship may or may not have to do with a revelation of personal failings. It can also represent avoiding acceptance that some fundamental differences can’t be overridden. In either case, we either don’t see, or we deny what is there.

What I’m thinking about now is not the experience of a natural wearing away of the shine, but the experience of seeing the beautiful shine scratched, revealing something under the surface that doesn’t match the exterior according to the image we have created. Can the scratch come as a less than welcome surprise but be integrated into a new surface — like the scratches that build up on new leather? Or is it shockingly distressing, resulting in an immediate reaction? Is it saved up somewhere under the surface until it can no longer be ignored?

The pandemic period has shown many of us revealing our most vulnerable, needy, and generally less attractive parts of ourselves. While this is hardly limited to the period of the pandemic, I have had some of these experiences while under the current stress that has been placed on all of us and our friendships. Some very un-shiny objects — in that they are friends I have known for decades — have turned out to be my mainstays. Over the years, they have seen me at my best and my absolute worst. We go through periods without much contact and come back together just as before. Somehow, despite their having seen all sides of me, I have not driven them away. I’m well beyond grateful for this and for them. However, I’ve also had scratches in shiny objects come into view during this time. It takes effort to determine if the shine can be buffed into something more genuine and sustainable. Sadly, it doesn’t appear to be a possibility in my recent situation. I have been sorry, sad, and enraged at various points. I’m reaching acceptance that buffing the shine isn’t going to happen this time around.

While writing this, I had a sudden blast from my professional past take me by surprise. Hans Kohut was a psychoanalyst who developed a school of thought within the psychoanalytic tradition called Self Psychology. As a lapsed analyst who currently leans more toward the here and now rather than there and then, it was unexpected to find myself suddenly thinking about these ideas. The self-psychological concepts of twinship, idealizing, and mirroring transferences are related in some respects to what I have described here. (https://icpla.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/Baker-H.-Heinz-Kohuts-Self-Psychology-An-Overview-1-9.pdf). The concepts as developed by Kohut are used to hypothesize how problems in early development become psychopathology. I am not necessarily referring to a pathological condition in what I write here — I believe that I am describing an experience that many people have had to one degree or another. In any case, I didn’t want to write from a professional perspective but a personal one.

In relationships, the shiny object and our response to it should be approached with care. The ability to stop and think when the pull is strong is often tough to do. Exhilaration is hard to resist. Sometimes that rush is worth the risk. Often it is not. In my case — I’m genuinely uncertain which is true. That, I suppose, is the problem. Do you remember being taught the phrase “stop, look and listen” when learning to cross the street? The Free Dictionary (https://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/stop%2C+look%2C+and+listen)
provides these definitions:

1. Literally, to stop before crossing a street or railroad, looking and listening to make sure no car or train is coming.

2. To exercise caution, prudence, or awareness in a dangerous, risky, or sensitive situation.

I’m not sure how I want to come to an end here; there is less of a conclusion than finding awareness and consideration about certain relationships and our own participation in events that may be painful. If we never open ourselves to any chances, we risk missing out on wonderful connections. But listening to one’s inner dialog and having honest conversations with oneself are the best tools we have to manage our sometimes off-kilter impulses.

I'm a psychologist based in New York.