“In order to have friends you must first be one.” Ebert Hubbard, Philosopher.
Along the course of my life I have gained and lost a fair few friends. More and more I begin to realise that this is not unique or uncommon. So I guess I am not as special, or even as ‘unspecial’, as I thought! At times, these broken friendships ended mutually, quietly, slowly and naturally; usually because neither person had the energy or interest in putting in the time and effort it takes to be a good friend…. And neither one cared enough to even make a fuss over it. It’s entirely plausible that you didn’t even notice it had ended and nor did they. I have definitely experienced this from both sides. Honestly. Note to self - new blog post topic. Other times these friendships came to a more abrupt or unequal ending, with one person or the other declaring it over. Essentially though, the reasons remain the same I suppose. One person wasn’t being a good friend. More likely neither of them were.
So what does it take to be a good friend? When I look at my friends, and take stock of what I value in each one, I notice that each of them offers me something I value, something that makes my time with them enjoyable enough that I seek it out on a fairly regular basis, and I hope, vice versa. Time. That is the most common indicator of a healthy friendship. What motivates us to put in the effort to make time for our friends? I think it is related to how special, valued, loved and important they make us feel. How we feel about someone and how they make us feel about ourselves is closely linked. This is dependant entirely on how we communicate with them. LETS break that down, shall we?
Effort (and empathy!)
Sharing (and sympathising)
Listening. Friendship is in the details. What tends to differentiate a friend from an acquaintance, aside from time given to the friendship, is the amount of detail in which we disclose personal information, and how much we remember about theirs. An acquaintance does not expect you to remember their birthday, and similarly, you do not get upset when they ask you what your dog’s name is, for the hundredth time. There is no expectation on either of you to know the details, even if it is slightly frustrating because your dog’s name is Pig! Come on now - It’s hilarious and points at your brilliance and witty nature. How can they forget?!!
Some people are natural talkers and other natural listeners, but we need to hone both skills to make a really good friend. Sometimes in conversation we are so busy planning the next hilarious thing we are going to say, or preoccupied with trying to find a way to steer the conversation where we want it to go (or away from where we don’t want it to go) that we don’t even really notice we aren’t listening to what our friend is saying. We all get stressed, and have things weighing on us occasionally that might stop us from really being able to hear what a friend is sharing with us, but this should not be a pattern for you. We have all been chatting with someone at one point or another, trying to find the words to communicate something important to us, when suddenly the communication is railroaded by the latest news from said friend. It doesn’t feel great. (Especially when what you were trying to share was significant and her news was seemingly more trivial, like the latest tweet from her celebrity crush, which was clearly directed at her, right? Don’t you think? Let’s plan the wedding! Rolls eyes.) If a friend feels like you can’t listen, care about her problems and empathise, celebrate her successes and stop talking about yourself long enough to breathe, chances are you will be met by a wall of distance.
As one of my close friends described this situation to me about another of her friends she said: “I had to put some distance there. She never asks me how I am and when she does, she doesn’t listen to the answer, always finding ways to turn the conversation back around to herself. Sometimes I don’t even get the chance to speak at all before she starts talking about herself again. It’s as though asking about me is just a pleasantry to get out of the way. If I told her this she would probably angrily deny it and say it is my fault for never speaking up, but I never get the chance.”
Humans are selfish by nature, so naturally our favourite topic of conversation is “me.” It’s important to be honest with yourself and have a close look at your interactions. How much time do you spend talking about yourself versus listening to your friend? If you find you are dominating the conversation, stop, take a breath, and try to show a genuine interest in her life. Make eye contact and watch her body language for clues too. Until now you might not have noticed this friendship is unequal, but believe me, the other person does. And she will be spending her time on someone who makes her feel “understood” sooner than you can say the word “ghosted” if you don’t start listening soon.
Effort. Knowing the details of your friends’ life, and remembering them are closely linked. This takes effort. As you learn to listen better, you will learn to pick up on the emotive language, body language and other verbal and nonverbal cues that tell us when something is important to someone. Like when I say it is totally fine that you ditched me last week, but I avoid eye contact with you when I say it? That tells you I value reliability and am a bit of a diva when you let me down! It’s unlikely you will make the same mistake again if you value my friendship, right? There’s a topic for another time. Getting back on point…. Whenever someone has shared something with you that seems to be causing them some emotional reaction, it is essential that you follow up on that with them later. Did they have a job interview? How did it go? Were the kids sick? Are they better? Stressed about an exam? Did they manage to fit in that extra study? Relationship drama? Have things settled down? You don’t have to play 20 questions, or make a big fuss about every little thing they mention. A quick call or text will suffice, even if they don’t get time to answer you. It is important to people that we care about them enough to follow through. Friendship is an action word. For the really big things such as a birthday, or an anniversary of something they celebrate or commiserate, pop a reminder in your phone or computer, or even just on the calendar, one for the day of, and one for the week before if you need to plan any gatherings, events, gifts or cards etc… And then it is there. It will mean a lot to them that you remembered, even if you did have a little help. (They never need to know that… unless you go ahead and write a blog post about it…. Lol) It will mean even more to them if you have taken the time to organise something for them with a personal touch, more than a message on social media or a text. It makes your friend feel loved, cared for, secure, thought about, valued and important. Who doesn’t want to feel that? I do. Don’t you? It only takes a little effort. Or maybe I am just a diva!
Time. I watched a movie once called “In Time” where time was used like a currency. I liked the movie almost as much as the analogy! We all get exactly the same amount of time in our proverbial account, each and every day. Circumstance dictates how we spend it. Some of us work, some of us are gym bunnies, some of us parents, or carers, or students. Many of us multiples of these things all at once. It gets eaten up so quickly by the things we have to do, there’s not much left for the things we want to do. It seems almost unanimous, when I speak to people about friendship, that time spent is a big factor in closeness, and also hugely limits us from having more close friends. When we do find we have some time to “spend” on social activities, who we choose to spend it with speaks volumes. If we don’t “spend” our time on the people we value, it stands to reason that those people don’t feel valued by us. If you are feeling a little lonely or isolated, it is a good idea to ask yourself where your time has been spent and if it reflects what you really value. If it doesn’t, chances are your friends haven’t felt like you were being a very good friend. Take it from someone who knows - that is the first step towards not having good friends. Don’t despair. It’s never too late to change this. Just the same as we look at the budget to see where we can make cuts to fit in those new shoes, or that overseas trip, or just to have some savings in the bank, there are ways to maximise your time too. How you manage that is up to you. Perhaps you could meet up with someone in your lunch hour once a week, or take a gym class together, or invite a friend over for a movie on the condition that they help you study afterwards. Being a good friend means showing up. Literally not virtually. If you do, you will have people who show up for you. Think about it. Making time takes effort, and you can’t please everyone, so make sure your time spent reflects the people you value. It’s a similar concept to value for money, and time is the currency you use to buy friendships. How much you invest is up to you, and so therefore, is how many rewards you reap from it.
Sharing. We spoke about listening earlier and the impact this has on friendships and their individual dynamics. Working on your listening is only half the battle. If you look at your interactions and you realise you are always talking, directing the conversation, and you actually don’t know much about your friend, asking them and then really listening isn’t that hard if you really care about them. That said, if you find that you always seem to be in the listening role, and feel you do it well, but don’t really feel connected or understood by your friends, then chances are you are not great at sharing. Learning to listen, if I had to guess, is way harder than learning to open up and share some of yourself with your friends. Sharing, when it is mutual is the biggest factor in successful reciprocal (non-judgemental) friendships. And it is also vital to happiness. I know, I know; it’s scary to make yourself vulnerable and share your real (crazy) self sometimes, even with your closest friends. This is true even if they openly and easily share with you. Unfortunately, if you ask me, sharing with someone who listens is the key to human connectedness, so you must learn. Don’t wait to be asked, pick the friend you trust the most, and share something about yourself or your life that is slightly more personal than you usually would. (Baby steps!) After all your friends are awesome people, or why would you hang out with them? You trust them, right? You are not only denying yourself by holding back, but you are also denying your friends the opportunity to be a good friend and reciprocate. You know how good it feels when a friend shares something with you and you support them and bask in their warm affectionate praises, noting to yourself what a truly wonderful selfless human you are? Or like the time you gave them the perfect gift for their anniversary that everyone else forgot and felt like your heart could burst with pride for yourself? No? Just me on that one? Lol. Well anyway, your friends want to bask in your glow sometimes too and if they don’t feel they can offer you anything, you risk losing them to someone who makes them feel like they can.
I made a statement earlier that friendship is an action word. It isn’t always easy and effortless, which is why we don’t form close friendships with everyone we meet. That and the fact that we probably don’t like most of them anyway! Lol Seriously though, it is ok to enjoy the more casual friendships for what they are too, your buddy who makes you laugh, or the one who shares yoga with you, or the group of mums you chat to at the school gate.
If you are honestly getting it all right, and still feeling isolated, then the chances are; your friend, or the person you are trying to be friends with, isn’t being a very good friend right now. Maybe they just aren’t looking for more close or intense/intimate friendships right now, or they are going through something they don’t want to share, or, actually a whole host of other reasons they may have. Trust me when I tell you that none of them have anything at all to do with you. Zero. We can’t change other people, and it is not our place to hold them accountable. If your friend is creating space, they probably need space, even if they won’t admit it or tell you why. That is all you need to know. Either leave them be and move on, or enjoy it as a more surface level friendship for now and try a new friend target. Even if you used to be super close. It’s hard, I know! How close you are with someone may change over time. Ebb and flow is natural and normal. You deserve good friends, so rather than wasting effort, energy and time on someone who isn’t making you feel valued, put your energy back into yourself and what you can control. If you value yourself, you won’t settle for less. And you’ll feel better about this when you let it go. Well, actually, to quote Jon Kabbat-Zinn “It’s not a matter of letting it go - you would if you could. Instead of let it go, we should probably say ‘let it be’.”
Remember; not every friendship needs to be close, but if you are feeling isolated, or lonely or misunderstood, maybe it is because none of them are. To have good friends, you must first be a good friend. Are you?
LETS be friends?! Listening. Effort. Time. Sharing. It’s a formula. Try it out. Let me know how you go. :)
your Best Friend ForNever (BFFN)