In the last section of our Taking Stock series we explore one of the most important areas of our lives – friendships
As humans, we are fundamentally social creatures; we are all, at some level, driven by a need to love and be loved in return. This need extends beyond our intimate relationship and our families to the need to have peers who we can relate to, confide in and share experiences with.
Many of us have different friends who bring different things to our lives. It is wonderful to have friends we have known for years, who have been there through the different phases of our lives, with whom we enjoy a mutual understanding based on shared history. It is also wonderful to meet new friends; friends who open us up to new experiences, new understandings and new ways of being.
Think about all of the friends you have in your life:
• What qualities are important to you in a friend?
• How do you most like to spend time with your friends?
• Do you feel you spend enough time doing those things and, if not, why not?
Close friends give us something our partners and families aren’t able to, such as the freedom to discuss issues and dilemmas without the restrictions that can be imposed by familial expectations, possessiveness or fear of change.
It is only possible to successfully nurture a handful of truly close friends; if we try to maintain too many close friendships, we can end up spreading ourselves too thinly. Who are your closest friends – part of your personal ‘inner circle’? Are you able to give each of them the time and energy you would like to?
Think about your friends in the next circle out (people you enjoy spending time with but who you would not necessarily think to call up with exciting news or a problem). Does anyone in this category regularly demand too much of your time?
The more friends we have, the more we need to be proactive in organising our time so as to ensure we put enough energy into the relationships that mean the most to us.
YOU as a friend
Let’s turn our attention now to how you, yourself, are as a friend:
• What do you feel one friend should provide for another?
• What do you like about how you are as a friend?
• What do you feel you could do even better as a friend?
As well as friends providing us with wonderful companionship, healthy friendships need to also be mutually supportive. All of us will have times in our lives when we need to lean on our friends and there will be times when they will need to lean on us.
For most of us, being able to comfort and support our friends allows us feel needed and valued; listening, providing reassurance and talking things through is a bonding and fulfilling part of any relationship. It is equally important for us to allow ourselves to be supported by our friends.
Some of us can feel vulnerable and exposed if we share our issues with others and this can make us reluctant to let our friends comfort and support us; not only is this a loss for us, it can also result in our friends feeling shut out and excluded from our lives.
• Are you comfortable discussing your problems with your very close friends?
• Have you ever shut out a close friend from an issue because you chose to cope alone?
• Conversely, do you feel you are always in ‘crisis’ mode (i.e. always in need of support)?
• Do you have one topic or situation that you constantly review or revisit with your friends?
It is important to recognise if we (or, indeed, one of our friends) are always in ‘crisis’ mode, particularly if this is due to a recurring issue and we repeatedly fail to take any action to change it. If this is the case, for the good of our friendships (and for our own happiness), we need to either accept the situation as it is or, even better, take steps towards changing it in order to move forward positively.
The roles we take on
All of us take on ‘roles’ with our friends; interestingly we can take on different roles with different people. Consider the following roles and identify the ones you adopt in your friendships, as well as the roles your friends take on with you.
The Queen Bee
This is the woman who feels her opinion should matter more than anyone else’s; she likes to dominate the group she is part of (particularly the women in a mixed group). The Queen Bee tends to prefer the company of men and can feel threatened by any new women who joins the group she is part of.
She tends to, initially, be very friendly towards a new woman and then will begin to be judgemental and critical of her. The only women The Queen Bee feels comfortable with are those who are deferential to her.
The Disorganised One
This is the friend who has a tendency to let people down. Despite caring about her friends, she can forget important life events or challenges her friends are facing. Whilst this can be hurtful, it actually reflects a lack of routine and organisation in her own life, rather than a lack of care.
The Disorganised One tends to pull out of things last minute and holds an expectation that others will fit in with her to accommodate her often chaotic schedule. She would benefit from taking time out to review how she is currently running her life, in order to feel more in control, less stressed and free to be the friend she truly wants to be.
This is the friend who always feels the need to advise you on the best course of action. She has a genuine desire to help people but very often also has a need to control her friends (particularly those she cares about), and can become frustrated if her friends choose not to act upon her advice.
Ultimately, she often feels all she ever does is give to (and support) others, when in reality she actively adopts this role and rarely chooses to lean on others.
The challenge for the advisor is to let go of the need to manage her friends’ problems, learning instead to listen and talk things through. It is also important for The Advisor to recognise that she is denying herself the opportunity to be supported by those who love her.
This is the woman who fits well with The Advisor, as The Child always asks for guidance. She feels the need to check her behaviour with others, looks for reassurance that she is doing the right thing and finds it hard to make decisions on her own.
The Child tends to be overly apologetic if she does not follow her friend’s advice (or even sometimes withholds information for fear of being reprimanded) and is overly critical of herself if she makes mistakes. The Child needs to learn to trust herself, listen to her own (inner) voice and realise that her life choices are entirely her own.
This is the type of friend you can truly rely upon; she will have an awareness of your challenges, your concerns and your excitements even as she goes about her own life.
The Constant has mutually respectful, non-judgemental friendships where she is not only supportive but also comfortable being supported. She will let you know, clearly and honestly, what she is feeling at any given time, and she brings much joy, support and warmth to her friends’ lives.
It is important to recognise that each of us can choose to take on a different role simply by shifting our understanding of how we truly want to be as a friend. Just as important is having a clear understanding of how we expect our friends to treat us.
As we have seen, understanding our boundaries is crucial in all of our relationships, and this is no less true with friends.
• How do you expect to be treated by your friends?
• What behaviour would you find unacceptable from a friend?
• Can you remember a time when you have felt hurt or let down by a friend?
• How did you deal with that situation?
• How good are you at letting your friends know if they have done something you find unacceptable or hurtful?
If you do are not good at communicating your boundaries remember there does not have to be conflict in order for you to do so. The best way is to keep the conversation positive by letting your friend know how important your relationship with them is. Rather than focusing on what they should (or should not) have done, explain how you are feeling (hurt, let down, disappointed) using open and honest communication.
If your friend is worth keeping they will listen to what you have to say, discuss the issue and be genuinely concerned that they have caused you any pain.
It is, of course, equally important for us to be able to take feedback from our friends. If we have hurt someone we care about, regardless of how aware we were at the time, we need to apologise unreservedly and try as hard as we can to look through their eyes and understand what they are feeling. This way we can learn from the situation and avoid making that mistake again with them, or anyone else.
If, despite clear communication on your part, someone continuously crosses your boundaries, it is important to consider whether that person should remain so much in your life. It can be a difficult, and upsetting, realisation that someone we have been close to is not respectful of us, or our needs, but in order to be truly happy we all need to value ourselves enough to walk away.
If we do come to this decision, it is important to withdraw from that person with as much sensitivity and kindness as possible. Anyone who has experienced the heartache of being suddenly dropped without explanation by someone they felt close to understands the pain it can cause. Step back gradually and, if asked, be honest enough to provide a clear explanation as to why you feel the need to look after your own interests.
Expanding your circles
In order to grow and experience life fully, it is important to be receptive to welcoming new friends; meeting new people really can open our eyes to different ways of seeing and being in the world.
In addition, if you have a particular interest that nobody in your friendship group shares (sports, art, travel, etc.) it is worth putting the effort in to meet someone with whom you can share it.
• Do you feel you have friends with whom you can do all that you wish to do?
• Is there an activity you have done before in your life that you really enjoyed doing but no longer do?
• Is there an activity you have always wanted to do but have never tried because of not having someone to do it with?
The simplest way to find people with similar interests is to join clubs. It can be hard to put ourselves in unknown situations, but the rewards of finding people to share new and fulfilling experiences with are huge.
• Are there any friends you feel you need to be clearer with regarding your boundaries?
• Are there any friendships that no longer serve you in terms of nurturing you and supporting you?
• What friendships do you feel you need to nurture more so that they know just how important they are to you?
• What do you want to spend more time doing with your friends and what do you need to do to make that happen?
Friends provide us with love and laughter; they share our pain, our joy and our dreams. Value yourself enough to take time to ensure your friendships are as positive, and as life-enhancing, as they should be.