I have a friend who constantly criticizes me. He has a very sarcastic personality so he plays it off as humor. Recently he’s been blatantly ignoring me when we are in a group situation or making me feel as if I am not welcome. Then all of a sudden, he’s really nice to me.

As far as I can tell, I’m not changing my own behavior. I have no idea why his attitude toward me swings so much. I can’t really approach him because he will laugh it off and say I’m being overly sensitive and can’t take a joke. Why do friends feel the need to bring each other down or be so competitive?

Sincerely, Confused

Dear Confused,

This question is a loaded one! It has me spinning a bit. My first question to you is what is your definition of friendship? I think most would agree that friends do not act this way. Oh sure, we can step on each other’s toes, hurt each other’s feelings and at times want to get even with one another. But friends talk to each other, at least real friends do. When a relationship is important to us, we talk things out. There may be times we simply cannot muster up the courage, so we act “strange,” in hopes that the other will ask us what is wrong. But you say that you cannot even talk to this friend. He will only use it as a reason (weapon) to put you down again and make fun of you. If this is true, this is not a real friend.

The way that you describe all of this sounds like a very immature way of getting even, or actually it sounds a bit more like a lover’s quarrel.

Perhaps the problem resides in you more than you would care to admit? Do you just go along with these mood swings? Are you there when this supposed friend is nice but yet say nothing when he is treating you badly? Do you confront him?

Have you hurt him in some way that you are not admitting to or are aware of? This may take some thought, but think hard, consider everything. Is he attracted to you but you are not attracted to him? Have you slighted him in the past? It sounds like he may want you to feel what he is feeling.

Some people are simply emotionally immature and so disturbed that they can only participate in what pop psychology calls “toxic relationships.” What are his other relationships like? Perhaps he is one of these “toxic” people and if so, he needs some serious help.

Perhaps none of this applies, although I cannot help but wonder why he has picked you to pick on?

How much interest and fascination do you have with this guy? Do you have some internal battle you are fighting and hoping to win through him? Do you secretly enjoy some part of this drama? Does it make you feel special albeit in a hurtful way? What would happen if you let go of the energy you have attached to this and simply ignore his mood swings? What’s more important to you, drama or connection?

Finally, I feel that it is important to address the last part of your question. When we are young and striving to get ahead, we sometimes are competitive without knowing it. But as we mature, we usually come to recognize that competition at the expense of another, especially someone we care about, someone we call a friend, is simply not worth it. We value our friendships and learn that we can all compete for what we want in the world without stepping on each other. Friends have each other’s back. They truly care about each other and do what they can to contribute to each other’s welfare.

As life marches on, you will find that your true friends will consist of a very small inner circle. Your social friends will form a circle just outside of that; still friends but just not as close. True friendships require time and work. It’s nearly impossible to have very many. In any event, friends become an integral part of what is known as our social support network. Studies have consistently found that having a solid social support network contributes to our overall success in life and is very instrumental in maintaining good health and/or surviving a serious illness. Define your idea of friendship and classify your friends. Put people where they really belong in your life and you will be happier and healthier for it.

Dr. JoAnne Barge is a licensed psychologist with offices in Brentwood. E-mail your questions and comments to NewShrink@gmail.com or visit us at www.newshrink.com. All questions and responses will be kept completely anonymous.