So, I'm going to ask for a show of hands here, and I want you to be honest. Here goes...
a) When you spend time with a certain friend, you often leave feeling worse than when the coffee date started
b) When you meet up with certain friends, you revert to the person you were at school and end up feeling frustrated
c) Your friends discourage you from making changes in your world instead of supporting you
d) When you look around your friendship group, you realise you are mates with them just because, well, you've always been mates
e) When you go out with that friend of yours and the conversation is 95% about them and 5% about you
f) You secretly dread invitations to 'catch ups' and you will spend weeks fashioning an excuse not to attend
Did you raise your hand for every statement? I wouldn't be surprised if you did. The reason I decided to write a blog about friendships is because it's been something I've been challenged by in the past, but it is also a theme that comes up time and time again in work with clients.
I feel, with friendships, we form a lot of them at times in our lives when we just don't know ourselves very well at all. The pressure cooker of educational environments means that making friends becomes more about 'fitting in' than making careful choices for mutual enrichment and personal growth. And that's where a lot of us get stuck - especially if, like me, you have grown up, attended school and then 'settled down' in the same area.
The friendships we form in our schooldays all too easily become the blueprints for the way we feel about ourselves later in our lives. 'Friendship groups' at school are formed in a crucible labelled 'survival', and the rigidity of the school world makes it difficult for people to consider friendships as being more organic and flexible. On top of this, out of sentimentality, we often keep some friendships going long past their sell-by-date just because they've always been our friends.
From my own experience, friendships can be hotbeds of insecurity and discomfort. One of my earliest memories of primary school is crying my eyes out because I felt another girl was 'taking my friend off me' - I can still recall the deep sense of abandonment and rejection I felt deep in my stomach.... as well as feeling a fair bit of embarrassment at behaving like an unhinged stalker sort. That early feeling of loss, of not 'being picked', shaped a lot of my friendships to come. Only in my adulthood did I become aware of the way in which I waited for 'permission' to be liked or to become a friend, often taking the subordinate position in friendships and always expecting them one day to move on to something and someone better.
I think the lesson I had to learn from my own early friendships was that it was OK to let go and to embrace change. I also had to learn that other people's decisions were not somehow a criticism of me. I wonder what the lessons have been you've had to learn from your interactions with others?
These days, I like to imagine the progress of friendships like the movement of a coastal area over time: some friendships are constant, like the cliffs; some are fleeting, like the waves; and some grow and decline slowly over time, like sand dunes in the wind.
Healthy friendships are, firstly, about keeping your self love topped up (it all starts with you); secondly, they're about being open to the idea of making new connections, and taking the risk of things not going anywhere; lastly, they are about being open to change, both in yourself and in those around you.
Tips to help you ensure your friendships are healthy:
1. It's important to work out your own values, principles and interests before you start filling your world with other people; that way you can avoid being too easily led as well as ensuring you feel more confident about how you wish to spend your time, as well as with whom. Healthy friendships start with strengthening our own relationship with ourselves.
2. Give yourself permission not to get along with everyone you meet. It's OK not to 'click' with people now and then. You don't have to be everyone's cup of tea and vica versa. You merely need to be kind to everyone, which is very different from seeking to be liked by everyone.
3. No-one can 'make you feel' anything: if you are coming away from a coffee with a friend or a catch up feeling rubbish, then it could be something inside you that is doing it. Instead of blaming others for your anger, resentment or disappointment, take responsibility for your own feelings. If you feel sad after hearing about your friend's future plans, then interrogate your sadness rather than blame them for 'making you feel' sad. Perhaps that sadness is signposting you to a need to make your own plans.
4. Have an annual 'friend audit' - this is particularly important in the era of social media when people often have hundreds of 'friends' or 'followers'. By 'audit', I mean examine the people you have gathered around you over the years and consider the evidence 'for' and 'against' keeping them in your life another year. Now, this isn't about making decisions based on spite or on unresolved quarrels; this is about choice. People often forget that they can choose who they share their world with. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself:-
- do you have anything in common beyond having gone to the same school once upon a time?
- are you able to respect one another's principles and beliefs?
- if and when you do fall out, are you able to talk about it constructively?
- do you give one another the freedom to grow and change?
- can you speak candidly, openly and honestly to them?
- is the power between you balanced?
- does it feel 'easy' or just too much like hard work when you meet up?
5. If a friendship comes to an end, mourn it, of course, but celebrate the ways in which that friendship might have shaped your interests, your behaviour or, even, your sense of humour. All connections we make help us to grow in some way - no time is wasted. The end of a friendship can be painful, but it's also a great opportunity to make changes to stale patterns and routines, and to jettison interests and activities that you may have grown out of. The best gift you can give you and your friends is the freedom to change - and, if that means that you begin to grow apart, then let one another go without criticism and without spite.