On a recent episode of Fan Mail Friday, I read a letter from Dev, one of our listeners, who’s dealing with a really interesting problem.
In college, he became super close with two guys. One became his roommate, and they all joined the same frat, but…
I kept working on my personal growth and had been growing out of these relationships because of the way they acted and treated me and treated other people.
The way Dev explains it, he “was in an environment where [his] personality, growth, and well-being took hits and [he] didn’t enjoy hanging out with them.”
Like most of us who have experienced this disconnect though, Dev continues:
I stuck out the relationships because I felt it would be really awkward if I didn’t. I’ve now been trying to avoid their texts to hang out, and I have a lot of mutual friends with them. This is a bummer, because if I’d like to avoid them, I’ll run into them if I meet up with mutual friends.
Meanwhile, Dev’s been evolving.
So now he’s in a tough spot. Dev relays some valid concerns:
I don’t think I should tell them I don’t want to be friends, because this would burn bridges and I can see them saying a lot of stuff behind my back to our other friends.
But he doesn’t feel like continuing these relationships, because he longer shares the same values. He’s become a different person — a better person — but he’s stuck between his old life and his new identity.
Worst of all, he’s not entirely sure if this is actually a big deal.
“This sounds like a dumb problem,” he signs off, “But what do you think?”
I shared my thoughts about Dev’s story in my Fan Mail Friday response.
But over the next few days, I kept thinking about him. His story really stuck with me.
Because this question really gets to the heart of why we change — and how to deal with that transformation.
It forces us to answer the question:
What do we do when we outgrow our friends and family?
Which is actually one of the most common problems our alumni share with us. Without fail, usually four or five months after graduating, I start getting emails about how out of step they feel with the people around them now that they’re dedicated to their self-improvement.
So I want to thank Dev for writing in. Great question. We’ve all been in Dev’s shoes. Many of us are in them right now.
And I want to expand on what I said to you, Dev, because I think you’ve done something extraordinary.
I think you’ve made a conscious choice to invest in yourself from an early age, and have had the courage to follow that journey, no matter where it leads.
I think that if you’re truly focused on become a better person, you will outgrow your friends.
Not all of them, but some of them. Especially the ones who aren’t as interested in becoming a better person. And definitely the ones who resent you, consciously or unconsciously, for changing.
This won’t be the last time you find yourself in this situation. But it will be the hardest, because you’re in the first major growth phase of your life.
I also think it’s normal to worry about your decision.
It’s scary to make a major change in your life. Most growth — especially early growth — happens alone.
And when the people around you resist that change, an evolutionary reflex kicks in.
We don’t want to be the one outcast from the group. We don’t want to be shunned by the tribe. We judge our choices in large part by how the people around us feel.
That’s part of being human. Listening to those other voices.
But I also think you wrote me because you were listening to a deeper voice.
The one saying that “my personality, growth, and well-being took hits.” The one that “didn’t enjoy hanging out with” those guys.
That voice is real. That voice is you.
Because ultimately, this isn’t just about the guys you hang out with, or how you spend your time.
It’s about values. It’s about happiness. It’s about living a life of meaning and direction.
It’s about surrounding yourself with people who elevate and inspire you.
But that doesn’t make the decision any easier.
It can feel cruel to ditch the people you once called friends. It can feel disloyal to move on from the tribe.
But what seems like cruelty is actually love. The love you have for your own growth.
And what feels like disloyalty is actually loyalty. The loyalty to yourself above all else.
Because by sticking with relationships that no longer serve you, you’re elevating other people above yourself, and prioritizing the past over your future.
When you see it that way, it’s hard to justify maintaining relationships with people “just because,” or out of fear of hurting their feelings.
Ultimately, deciding which friends to cut out of your life is the not-so-fun part of becoming a better person.
That’s the responsibility of growth.
Which is why the stakes of this decision here are so high.
Your future literally depends on whether you keep your old friends, and stay unhappy and stagnant, or move on, and embrace the uncertainty and excitement of building a new life.
When you think of it that way, outgrowing your friends isn’t just an inevitable part of getting better.
It’s a necessary part of getting better.
It’s a sign you’re getting better.
Which means on some level, even though this can be tough to accept…
If you’re not outgrowing some people, then you aren’t evolving!
So here’s the big question.
How do you actually move on from old relationships?
Is there a right way to cut people out of your life?
Well, not exactly. Transitioning your relationships isn’t a science. Each relationship is different, and every situation requires a different approach.
But one thing is non-negotiable: Once you feel it’s time to redefine a relationship, then you should make a firm commitment to making the transition.
I say “redefine” and “transition” because not all relationships need to be formally ended. Our relationships exist on a spectrum of intimacy, and in most cases we’ll simply be moving old relationships to a different spot on the spectrum.
An overbearing friend might become an acquaintance. A combative sibling might become just another relative. An envious teammate might become a distant colleague.
So that’s the first principle of old relationships: Start by redefining them.
Most relationships don’t need to be formally “ended.” They can simply be recategorized in your mind. Over time, the relationship will reflect the investment you place in it.
In some cases, this might effectively “end” the relationship. But there’s no need to make a production out of the transition, which can cause unnecessary drama. The most important part of moving on from old friends is your emotional stance toward the relationship. The relationship will usually reflect that investment.
Next, differentiate between people who are truly toxic and people who simply don’t elevate you.
Handling toxic friends — like people who actively criticize you for getting better or resent your growth — is a no-brainer. These are the relationships you must remove from your life. In most cases, you can slowly pull away, and the other party will mirror the transition.
Then there are friends who aren’t explicitly toxic, but who aren’t particularly supportive, inspiring, or engaging. These are harder relationships to manage, because the cost of maintaining them isn’t terribly high, but neither are the benefits.
These middling relationships can be quite damaging, because they tend to languish without a clear purpose, sometimes for years. They suck up precious energy, but they aren’t painful enough to decisively end. They provide comfort and stimulation, but not enough to contribute to your growth.
In these cases, you don’t need to actively cut these relationships out of your life. Like a toxic relationship, you can distance or redefine the friendship on your end. Unlike a toxic relationship, you might engage minimally with these people, hang out from time to time, and maybe even remain good friends. But you’ll begin to make a conscious decision about how much time and energy to spend with them, which will reflect how important these relationships are to this stage of your life.
The key criterion here is whether these relationships embody your new values.
These values might include health, self-awareness, kindness, curiosity and supportiveness — the elements that make up your growth.
If a relationship celebrates those values, then that’s a good reason to maintain them. If a relationship does not celebrate those values, then you have a good reason to transition them. And if they inconsistently celebrate those values — or are neutral with respect to them — then you’ll decide for yourself how much of an emotional investment to make in them, but you won’t prioritize these relationships as highly as the ones that accelerate your journey.
And that’s the basic formula for evaluating and transitioning old relationships.
Differentiate between toxic and neutral friends. Redefine relationships before formally ending them. And have the conviction to only maintain relationships that embody and build on your values.
So thank you, Dev, for asking this question.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to discuss this question as a community.
Tell me — have you outgrown any of your old relationships? Did you stick with them, or move on? How did those transitions go? Drop me a comment below, and let’s keep talking!
Lead photo by Joshua Rothhaas