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How to Spot Friends, Enemies, Frenemies, and Bullies

Stop bullies and discover who's a friend, an enemy, or in-between.

Have you ever been confused about whether to call a schoolmate, family member, coworker, employee, boss, partner, acquaintance, or social contact a friend, an enemy, even a bully, or something in between—a "frenemy?" It turns out that getting clarity, identifying the taxonomy, taking action to prevent sadness, harm or even tragedy is possible, as confusing as it looks on first glance.

We owe Phoebe Prince, Megan Meier, and so many others like them an immediate attempt at understanding and stopping bullying. In its place, there needs to be the opposite—an understanding of exactly what makes for a friend.

Maybe you've been on Facebook, Twitter, online matchmaking sites, or had email exchanges with an acquaintance or business contact, or schoolmate and felt concerned about your privacy, being labeled, slandered, or objectified for lack being known personally, or worrying about their intentions?

There's actually a quick, practical way of assessing this.

It may be a more important time than ever to know not just who your friends and enemies are, but those confusing social interactions which, for lack of personal information, connection and in-person meeting, are somewhere in between.

Whether we are talking about women or men, I am sure you have been "crossed" in your time—betrayed, let down, cheated, used, disrespected, or at least turned off in your friendships or dating. It's never been as raw, painful, and as urgent to understand the roots of these as it is right now—in light of yet another suicide in a youth after being chronically bullied—the sad story of Phoebe Prince.

I've thought about this a lot over the past few months, taking people I know or have known, side by side, and wondering what the common factors are. What was the common element in someone who proves to be a friend, an enemy, a bully or a "frenemy" after all is said and done.

This word "frenemy" is one of those wonderful, comic neologisms that was first mentioned on the TV drama Sex and the City and more recently joked about by Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert. Yet on further reflection, you may realize that it is an incredibly useful word. It addresses those situations where someone smiles to our face, but eventually proves true to have had ulterior motives toward us. Someone who gives us praise one moment, but spreads gossip unnoticed by us the very next. Someone we hire as a consultant, for a service, or for guidance, or whom we know collegially, but are never quite sure is on our side. Is it the money we pay them, the interests we share or differ on, or simply because they are mature enough to often do what's right by others?

So many youths use social media today, that it grows every day in terms of how friends and enemies are perceived, and with bullying by that means coming into the fore as well, it makes sense to turn an eye a little more serious than Colbert to this term, frenemy, the "precursor" to friends, enemies, and bullies. I will show you how to spot these four types of relationships by looking at internet blog comments and friend comments.

Liking, Loving, Disliking, and Hating

Maybe you have noticed that it's very possible to "like" a person and yet not "love" them, or to "love" a person but not "like" them at the moment. This dual aspect of liking and loving in a friendship occurs because these states take place in different areas of the brain. Intellectually, we "like those who are like us," as Robert Cialdini states in his book, Influence: the Power of Persuasion. We like those who share opinions, beliefs, values, goals and common experiences or backgrounds. Emotionally, we love each other because, simply, we make each other happy and raise each other's self-esteem. (Both of these are different things from "desire" or "passion.")

So we have a constructive criticism for our friends, in which we advise, point out flaws, suggest and direct them toward maturity and right without causing offense. We "like those who are like us," and yet, reciprocal altruism is also present in which we "like those who like us." Which is much like being an advocate for each other.

On the flipside, our enemies dislike us, as we do them. They certainly don't love us either, but may not express absolute hatred that can carry impulsivity, loss of control, and in the end, the tendency to invade boundaries, emotional or even physical. Enemies, in other words, can still have maturity, boundaries, and even carry our respect in the presence of dislike.

So strangers aside, our friends like us and love us, are constructive critics and advocates in one.

Our enemies dislike us, and are neither constructive critics nor advocates.

Bullies are either enemies that go too far, or objectify us entirely—expressing a hatred that invades boundaries and may cross from the emotionally immature to the criminally physical.

Frenemies are, well, perhaps everyone else known to us as more than a stranger. They are the precursors to the other three, and are either a constructive critic, but non-advocate, or an advocate who doesn't know us, or the situation at hand, to be a fit critic, and may not be either for long.

Critical Advocacy

Whether looking at an auto mechanic, a doctor, lawyer, business partner, cosigner on a loan, journalist you are working with, member of a sports team, club, or even someone you are considering to marry, there is an especially useful way to look at people, their intentions toward you, and the quality and degree of friendship bonds you share.

It turns out there are only two common factors to look at, and only one profile of another person absolutely guarantees they are on your side, on your team, and "with you" for the long haul.

I encapsulate it in a phrase I use now, called "critical advocacy."

Watching the latest celebrity scandals, political conflicts such as the atrocious harassment of congressmen, or the ever-shifting journalism landscape away from "just the facts" toward what they are calling "advocacy journalism," I looked at this term and wondered how it compared to the old view of the classical critic—one who could be of either the constructive or destructive variety.

Add to this some thought about how important communication is in both our friendships and conflicts, and its inaccuracy when we don't really know others so well personally—that objectification of others that happens through electronic communication at times, and causes "spamming," "flaming," and the threatening, annoying, anonymous naysayers so known to clutter the internet with spiteful, hateful, childish comments.

Clearly, communication has two aspects: it conveys data, on the one hand, but emotion on the other.

To read the actions and words of another through a filter for friendship, enemies, and everything in between—"frenemies"—we would need to address both parts. Both the "data" and the "emotion" in their behavior toward us.

"Critical advocacy" fits that bill.

Your Critics

Someone who is a "critic" in your life—of the positive kind—has the three Cs: concern, competence, and constructiveness.

1. First, they are concerned about you enough to want details, and to speak in those details. They have the ability to pay attention to the world around them. They don't make flippant, sloppy, or thoughtless comments about you or in conversation with you. They are "present." They are self-aware and observant.

2. They are competent to have an opinion on you, your life, and your actions. They aren't ill-informed about who you are, the issues at hand, and have some knowledge and experience with both. Not merely dependent on sheer intelligence, or necessitating it at all, they have a desire to learn and teach, have "lived in your shoes," or at least empathy about what it would be like to be you. Some of their expertise may be through formal education, but some through life's experience at the situations at hand. They know what they are talking about in other words.

3. And finally, they are constructive—positive and encouraging, not negative and destructive. They offer solutions and thoughtful suggestions, not merely a period at the end of a negative sentence. This necessitates having good boundaries and maturity, to be a collaborator and compromiser, willing to change their view with new information.

In other words, the critic addresses the "data"—information about you and the friendship from a place of a mature intellect.

Destructive criticism is negative, opinion-based, and may even then be contaminated with a troubled personal history that has nothing to do with you.

Constructive criticism can be positive, but may be neutral, like a classical, admirable journalist of years past, and while the friend with critical skill may point out things to you that you could do better, need to change, or are even wrongful, they most often will also pair that with a suggested path to better living, solutions, and mutual happiness.

If you've ever had a friend, coworker or romantic relationship in which you knew the person was probably right in their opinion about you, but you left the interaction feeling shame, diminished self-esteem, or confused as to what to do next, you probably had just experienced destructive criticism from someone you can now be sure was other than a real friend.

In their communication to you, look for insight and competence, concern and attention, and the maturity that carries constructiveness with it. You need to know that they know what they are talking about—that they are a fit judge of you and your worth.

Certainly you have also been on the edge of feeling hurt by opinions expressed by others, judging you, making you feel little, but on closer inspection, you find that they a.) don't have the education to be a fit judge of your situation, and/or b.) don't have the shared experiences, or at least empathy, to be a fit judge of you.

Discard these. Those who aren't fit judges of your behavior cannot be true friends. It's fine for them to stay acquaintances or strangers. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, but you need to not be spending your time investing in them.

Your Advocates

Someone who is an advocate in your life is on your team, in your corner, and likely even shares a life's purpose with you in this arena. They may have always been an optimist in your life, a source of good energy, positive in spirit about who you are and what you do, and that's just great.

That is, until you have joint responsibility, goals and personal stakes tied to the person, such as in a business partner, employee, employer, doctor, lawyer, accountant, or even a spouse.

It's great to have advocates in your life. They are a "breath of fresh air," or more accurately, a source of positive emotion in your communication. They are a "shoulder to lean on" now and again, but if you invest time, energy, heart and soul in them, they need to have shoulders as strong as your own.

Being an advocate for others, and surrounding yourself with advocates of your own are fine arrangements among acquaintances and casual friends. Yet, when your life's goals, well-being, and that of your dependents will be directly impacted by the presence or absence of not only the advocacy of that person, but their competence, concern, and constructiveness too, it is not a fun, harmless friendship anymore.

Ah, and here we see the "Free Rider Problem," that effect where someone claiming to be a friend is somewhat of a "hanger-on," or appears "lazy" in the friendship. Our shoulder on which they lean isn't returned in the labor of the friendship. And in this way, the self-described friend is slipping more into frenemy territory. Having a greatest fan is nice, but not when that's all they do and we tire of the heavy lifting in the relationship.

Recognizing this effect can be one of those real heartbreakers in life—after all, we are talking about a positive person, a good person, a friendly person—but because they lack the competence to be a wise teammate, lack the concern enough to pay attention to the details, or the mature constructiveness to be collaborators, compromisers, and problem solvers on our team, they need to be let go even so.

"Harmful" = "not friend."

Your Friends

They are easy to spot. In a definition that goes back at least as far as Aristotle, a friend is simply one who makes us consistently feel happy, and we reciprocate.

But what about them is so reliable at leading to those feelings of happiness when we share experiences?

Your true friends are both constructive critics, and loyal advocates of you, your issues, beliefs, values, and goals. They offer corrective advice when you go astray, and the Three Ss: suggestions, solutions, and support to get you back on track and keep you there.

Friendship is, of course, also related to our "fit" in personality style, something that seems complex on the surface but is incredibly easy to understand with a little insight. Those who are best friend potential for us also tend to be our opposite in style, yet still be well-matched in maturity level. There's a useful food-for-thought quiz here.

I've noticed that even when people are a good match by personality, that doesn't necessarily mean they are going to be a great teammate at a specific task, or an absolute guarantee as a solid, durable friend.

In friendship, teamwork, communication, and conflict resolution happen where opposites attract, yet have the capacity for empathy—placing ourselves in the other's shoes.

There are other variables involved—for example, age differences, cultural differences, essentially differences in whether you share the same purpose or life's purpose together—beliefs and values—otherwise even if you are great people and a good fit of personality, you are at cross purposes, literally.

Maturity in friendship entails having good boundaries, win/win attitude, constructiveness, wisdom, patience, self-awareness, empathy, and a host of other things.

Your Enemies

This is an easy one to see in your life, because their behavior is so clear and uniform. They are negative in their words with you, and negative in their emotions for you, if they even express any of these directly. You might hear what they think of you through gossip, or from far away through impersonal emails, or even see anonymous posts about you somewhere out there on the internet—which is nowhere at all really when it comes to true friendship and matters of the heart.

We are evolved for in-person social connection, and you might notice that as electronic communication marches forward, there seem to be more and more enemies to be had through objectifying one another.

The point is that enemies themselves might have far more troubles than you, and because they don't know you really, it is easy for them to be destructively critical, to forego concern, and easily duck, turn, or hide from being discovered as incompetent to understand you, judge you, or comment on the issues at hand.

It's also possible for your enemies to be mature people, and even good people, but ones who don't like you and whom you don't like in return.

What matters to your welfare is that they are neither a constructive critic, nor an advocate. They only have destructive criticism for you, and if asked, would actually advocate against you rather than keep the neutrality of an old-time journalist.

They are then the opposite of a casual friend, which is at least better than the lowest of the low. They may at least have boundaries on their conduct, and might even respect you though they don't like you. It's possible because personal boundaries are the very source of what we call respect for self and others. I talk about boundaries in intimate detail in the book, MindOS: the operating system of the human mind.

They have not crossed that boundary into direct physical harm to your person, your property, or others "on your team" essential to your mutual welfare.

For those lowest of the low, we have the word "bully."

Your Bullies

The bullies in your life have not just been the opposite of casual friends. They are more like the opposites of "best friends" in your life—the people so reliably on your team, in your corner, and with joint goals, stakes, and responsibilities.

They lack personal boundaries, the origin of respect for ourselves and others, and may foolishly think nothing of actually violating your person, your property, or your social reputation—in some cases incompetent to even see what they are doing.

This lack of personal boundaries also carries with it a characteristic we tend to call "weakness." Someone with poor boundaries is just as emotionally fragile as they are intrusive in our lives.

They are low in self-esteem themselves, often moreso than the victims of their bullying, but that is no matter. The very thing they seek is a vulnerable other in whom to dump their negative emotion, frustration, and self-loathing. Rather than finding the maturity that lends self-observation and accountability for their own personal growth and happiness, they pass the buck, and harm, onto others.

Which makes them different from just enemies. They are immature, bad people for whom destructive criticism crosses into emotional or physical abuse, incompetence and lack of concern cross to negligence, and anti-advocacy crosses into trauma to another.

We need to adapt to the idea that in life there will be enemies—there's no avoiding that—but in the case of Phoebe Prince and so many others, both children and adults, a bully need never be tolerated as an expectable or acceptable part of life.

At worst, a bully is an immature, or even criminal enemy, not just a casual or social one. The school bullies, the youth of the country, need more detailed instruction on maturity in general, and most urgently, boundaries in specific, than perhaps ever in history. As we all can clearly see, deaths like that of Phoebe Prince, Megan Meier, and thousands like them worldwide, were all entirely, wholely, and easily avoidable.

And while also easy to recognize often only after their damage is done, it might serve us well to go back to the term for everything in between these poles of friendship and bullying—"frenemy"—looking at it seriously as a potential no man's land of our social relations. A staging ground from which bullies arise.

Maybe that's what's so ironic about the "frenemy" term's origin in the comedy of Stephen Colbert—the comedians of society have always been the truth-tellers on issues that give us the most anxiety, are most confusing, or are deemed least politically correct.

Your Frenemies

They are "everyone else." Not quite a friend—you're not ever sure. Not quite an enemy—after all, they sometimes seem to advocate for you, like you, or smile at you even if they don't seem to spend much time with you actually helping you achieve your goals. With others, we might notice they help us with things—seem to be on our team, or at least show up to meetings—yet we might sense a vague feeling of disapproval in their demeanor, a nagging worry that they might someday "throw us under the bus" to save their own skins.

It's not possible to be true friends with everyone we meet, contrary to the mindset that the social networking sites might lull you into with their "friend" button.

It's also not common that everyone in life is an enemy. If we ever get to feeling that, we might be in need of some therapy on our past hurts and traumas.

Bullies are even less common than what I have called "casual social enemies" here (those with at least reasonably mature boundaries, who happen to dislike you) while at the same time bullies may be the most devastating people in the lives of our adolescents, and most destructive to the future well-being, success and social connectedness of individuals.

That leaves frenemies as the most common kind of social roles for people we encounter in our lives.

What's crucial is that bullies likely go unrecognized (until the damage is done) because they are wolves hiding in the sheep's clothing of the frenemy role. Whether a sibling, a mentor, teacher, parent, administrator, boss, or spectator on the social dramas around us,

The teacher who once gave you an unfair failing grade was a frenemy—either not an advocate, or not very constructively critical as far as we know (until they took you under their wing to give you extra tutoring and encouragement to do better next time.) You then felt friendship feelings for them. Their role evolved from frenemy to friendly.

A boss who fired you was a frenemy—either not an advocate or not a constructive critic—until the next thing they did was to prepare you a nice or at least reasonable letter of recommendation for the next employer. From frenemy to friendly.

Some people in your family might also be true friends, but some others might be more of the frenemy variety. You can choose your friends, but you can't choose your frenemies. If we saw that there are varying levels of friendship within families, we might have more actionable moves to make in improving what were formerly recalcitrant family relations.

Your lawyer, doctor, or accountant had better be more than frenemies—they need to be both competent critics, and reliable advocates over time.

A journalist, an acquaintance, might be only a critic, not an advocate—which they don't owe anyone—but they also ought not be an enemy if they are true to their calling, and not a bully if they value their reputation as neutral. They are a frenemy, and so frenemies are not always a negative thing.

Still, in the jungle of adolescence, there might not be much thought about such adult roles. For them, there are Facebook, Twitter, Blogs and other equally socially unregulated communication.

Social Media

One of the interesting and also potentially hurtful things about social media for both youth and adults alike is the relative or complete anonymity of it all. One can have a negative social impact without any repercussions or accountability—a "Wild West" of dislike leading to the tacit endorsement of impulsive and boundariless hatred.

Frenemies here can become enemies or bullies as easily as friends.

If you were to examine your own Facebook, Twitter, or bog comments, you would see a pattern.

To review:

Friends are both constructive critics with the competence, concern and knowledge and experience to comment on you, as well as being a clear advocate. "Friend" them.

Enemies are both destructive critics (or incompetent ones) as well as being non-advocates. "Unfriend" or delete them without noticing any harm done really.

Bullies are enemies who have already gotten "under your skin"—your boundary—and even as you delete them you feel the pain inflicted emotionally. It may last a while. Never, ever accept a reapplication for "friending" or go anywhere near them in person if possible.

Frenemies can lead to any of the other three, and that is why they are to be given the most attention. You might not want to unfriend them just yet, because they may sometime soon prove a great new person to know, but if things start to turn south, be hot on the delete button.

Their tell-tale signs will be that:

  • They either pair great analysis with experience—they do offer something to learn in constructive criticism offering a better way to do things. They know you or your situation in a way that actually brings social value to the public forum, and diplomatic discourse.
  • Yet they are clearly not your advocate. There are no compliments or kudos—no feeling of "they're on my side," or "they're on my team." They are critics but not advocates. Wait and see.

On the other hand, they might instead be glowing supporters who don't display much thought, attention, or real knowledge of you or your situation. They are advocates, but not apt critics, and their advocacy is not based in a detailed history or experience of knowing you—it may evaporate as quickly as their attention. Again, take a wait and see attitude.

What's learned in social media can be imported into the classroom, the boardroom, the sidewalk, and the dinner table, where the brakes on impulsivity and poor boundaries aren't so far removed from social consequences. The "Wild West" of the internet could then ironically give us some clarity on the subtle shades of social gray that occur face to face.

Making My Frenemy My Friend

You might start to see that what's key is not a spot check on our relationships—not minimal monitoring in places like schools, the workplace, and our homes—but instead, a more longitudinal observation. A consistency over time, to track and halt any decline into bullying. My trainers back in the surgical rotations of medical school used to say, "It's not what you do. It's what you do next." Which is to say that for every mistake or misunderstanding, there is usually a cure if we stick together as people, and keep communicating.

We need to keep a long term eye on our communities and social groups, not just a once in a while check, or conference only in times of crisis or grievance. We need programs that teach the benefits, rewards, and coolness factor associated with being known as a quality friend.

Through this all, we can also take the high road, the optimistic path, and also see that while frenemy relationships can and do deteriorate into enemies and bullies (when we spot that trend it's time to "un-friend" on Facebook, block their email, and keep real supporters close), it's also just as possible that frenemies—half-friends and half enemies, critics without advocacy or advocates without critical thinking—can and do also become friends.

This is what Prince, Meier, and all those bullied or broken deserved: friendship, not bullying, not death. Turning a frenemy to a friend takes good boundaries on both parties parts, and since we can't control the latter—only ourselves—it may very well be that one of the biggest hidden challenges in public education, especially that of children, is the simple instruction on what a boundary is, how to use it, protect it, find strength and mutual respect in it.

We owe the victims, and our communities, instruction in vivid detail about maturity in general and personal boundaries in specific—that feature of our psyches which demands respect from others, holds on to self-respect, and takes the weaknesses of both bully and potential victim upward into a personal strength of character—a socially secure, safe position.

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