The importance of friendships is emphasized and promoted in our culture and social media, and is generally accepted as a necessary part of mental health and wellness. Indeed, the importance of friendships to support mental health has been well researched, supported, and reported (check out http://www.mayoclinic.org for more information). Many different kinds of friendships and levels of depth can be formed, depending upon the people involved and other contributing factors.
But what happens when a friendship runs awry? Or when a friendship that was supportive no longer seems to be? I’d like to dispel the myth that all friendships should be easy and require little-to-no effort to maintain, making it taboo to talk about when friendships struggle or tank. Friendship difficulties can become a shameful secret a person may harbor, perhaps similar to getting divorced from a spouse or estranged from a child.
Despite the positive value of social media, it is set up to champion “likes,” which automatically promotes those ideas popularly accepted by the culture, which may not be helpful in the long run. In return, an individual’s post may become buried despite its validity or relevance. This can lead people who may have helpful ideas contrary to the social norm to be invalidated by the very social system from which they are seeking support.
I enjoy and can see the appeal of social media, but it is not without its faults. For folks who have blurry boundaries, lack protections, and are still forming their conclusions about the world, social media can bolster psychological binds that are difficult for the uninitiated to recognize. For example I recently saw a very popular (22K likes) quote – “You’ll know the people that feed your Soul… because you’ll feel good after spending time with them.” Taken at face-value, I would agree, and I get a warm, fuzzy feeling about it. But let’s also take a critical look at how this contributes to the myth that friendships should be easy. Having challenging conversations typically does not feel good for people-pleasing or conflict-avoidant types, but this may be necessary in order to grow together. It may be worth spending time not feeling “good” for a while to talk (so long as it’s emotionally and physically safe!) about feelings, needs and other vulnerabilities. This is one important way emotional closeness is built. It may not be comfortable, but in healthy, reciprocal relationships, it is worth it.
The topic of friendships has always been a bit of a sore spot for me. There were times in my elementary school years when I was bullied for months. At other times, I was ostracized from my friendship group for reasons I found out later were unfair and the product of further bullying tactics. Those experiences, coupled with my natural shyness and sensitivity to the world, caused me to be extra vigilant for mean behaviors in others.
In order to cope with being bullied, I developed a way of putting other people first in friendships as I found this led to their being less likely to turn on me. I thought that if I treated them as more important than me, they might like me more. Even though I seemed to have some success with this strategy as a kid (and it strengthened my helping nature in the long run), as an adult I have come to value reciprocity and mutuality in friendships far more than simply staving off rejection by sacrificing myself to be liked. Nonetheless, learning that lesson meant I had to question many of the pithy, yet inspiring ideas our culture has about making and keeping friends.
Months ago, I experienced a falling-out with a friend. We had an argument (several, actually). Despite my best efforts to demonstrate understanding for her point of view, I couldn’t seem to elicit the same from her. The more excited I got about getting her to understand my perspective, the more she recoiled and hunkered down in her position. My patience and caring for her dried up in response to her extinguishment of the process. I felt shut down and dropped; she wasn’t being fair! Months passed with no further discussion. Life went on, but my feelings were hurt, and I grieved the loss.
I recognized this incident as an important growth experience. Moving forward, I embraced it and dove deep into understanding myself and what happened with a spirit of love and self-respect. I spent time nurturing other friendships and enjoyed a variety of social situations. I found an author (Ross Rosenberg, The Human Magnet Syndrome) who helped explain relationship dynamics in an interesting and constructive way that I found empowering and freeing when applied to myself. I cultivated my rich inner experience to be full of self-care, self-understanding, and empathy for others who have had experiences similar to mine.
The friend in question and I met recently in order to talk… and it went okay. We took turns talking, and we both seemed genuinely interested in what the other was saying. We’re not close the way we were before, and we’re not sure that this friendship will go in that direction. And however the friendship goes, it’s okay. Friendship may be a benefit in life, but if a particular friendship doesn’t last or remain as close, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed big time. Friendship is a type of agreement between two people. Life is not static, so such an agreement may naturally require change, bringing more or less closeness. Either way, it still holds value. As with most things, you can learn from any friendship in order to grow into a more authentic, engaged, and fulfilled version of you.
Crystal Stone, LMSW, CAADC is a mental health therapist in the Houghton/Hancock area. She specializes in trauma recovery and EMDR therapy. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and check out her website: tamarackhealingarts.com.
Excerpted with permission from Health & Happiness U.P. Magazine, Fall 2018 Issue, copyright 2018. All rights reserved.