True Friends and False Dichotomies

04/01/2012 23:17 GMT | Updated 05/03/2012 10:12 GMT

It's the start of the year. Traditionally a time when people gathered around the fire, wrapped themselves up warmly and shared online self-help tips with each other, possibly accompanied by pictures of inspirational kittens hanging off things. 

I don't want to undermine this noble activity, but I can't help noticing that a lot of self-help advice is not actually that useful. Being inspirational is all very well, but being told, for example, "stop worrying" and "stop blaming other people for your problems" and "you can't love others till you love yourself" is getting a bit grating. In the entire history of spoken language, the phrase "stop worrying" has never decreased anyone's levels of worry. And what if other people actually are to blame for your problems? And it's demonstrably true that you can, in fact, love others without loving yourself. People manage it all the time. 

But the one that's particularly annoying me is actually two pieces of advice in conjunction. I won't name the site I saw it on, because it's not fair - it's well-intentioned, and you can find the same advice all over the internet. But this is the quote:

"Stop spending time with the wrong people. Life is too short to spend time with people who suck the happiness out of you... And remember, it's not the people that stand by your side when you're at your best, but the ones who stand beside you when you're at your worst that are your true friends."

Let's look at a practical example of what this advice entails. Let's say Ai and Bee are friends. However, Bee has become clingy and depressed and is draining Ai's energy, so Ai drops Bee as a friend. 

That's what happened from Ai's point of view. From Bee's point of view, Ai failed the test of true friendship by not standing by her when Bee was "at her worst". Who's right? 

What I'm trying to say is that the two pieces of advice above can easily lead to double standards. Dump people who drag you down, but only be friends with people who won't do that to you? Is that fair?

The trouble is, it's when people are at their worst that they suck other people's happiness. And it's probably because they're suffering from depression or loss or rejection themselves. The problem of what to do about that is a real one, both for them and for their friends, but I don't think it should be solved by dividing one's friends into 'people I will dump if they get too needy' and 'people I will stand by at all costs.'

And to continue to look at this in practical terms, how do you tell someone they're too depressing to be friends with any more? Email? Text? Skywriting? A personalised message in a stick of rock? The etiquette is far from clear.

And when does the tipping point come? The 1am phone call when they cry at you over the infidelity of their partner or the loss of their mother or their boss's insensivity? Is that a great time to mention that they're getting a bit draining and could they stop talking to you?

I agree that sometimes you do have to focus on looking after yourself first, and I can see that standing by people could be seen as one of the criteria for 'true friendship' - but I'd like more detail on what standing by someone involves in reality. What if they've killed someone? Do you have to take their side in every argument (and what if you have another friend on the other side?) Can you still hang out with their ex? Loyalty is not a simple concept. And nor is friendship.