“A friend is someone with whom you dare to be yourself.” ~Frank Crane
Studies show that feeling connected to other people is a core human need. A sense of connection impacts not only on our mental health but also our physical well-being. It reduces our risk of disease and increases longevity.
While the research is clear, statistics also suggest that our level of social connectedness is declining. Social media might help us be more widely connected, but it doesn’t usually replace the connection we experience in offline friendships.
It seems that as adults we aren’t that good at friendships. People complain that it’s hard to make friends and maintain existing friendships after leaving school. It’s largely because we are busy with jobs and families, but I wonder whether there are other reasons outside of those external circumstances.
Growing up I had a very specific ideal of what “true friendship” looked like, which I had primarily picked up from books, TV, and movies: You have a best friend who you share everything with, hang out with 24/7 and grow old with—through thick and thin and of course happily ever after.
Only my reality looked different, which in itself made me feel that there was something wrong with me.
I also struggled because I felt like an outsider. I am mixed race (half Chinese, half German), was born and raised in Germany, and grew up very conscious of looking different, which is something I simply cannot hide. My parents told me to be proud of being different, but I wanted nothing more than to blend in because I felt that my difference isolated me.
I was a painfully shy kid. I always found it difficult to approach other kids and I began feeling invisible to the world.
I wanted to belong so badly and would have done anything to fit in, but because I had convinced myself that I was too different, I eventually stopped trying. Instead, I pretended I didn’t care about not being part of the group. I didn’t want anyone to see that I was upset. On the outside I seemed self-confident and strong, but always faked it and never made it (until much later in life). In short, I was doing the opposite of being myself.
The belief that nobody noticed me stuck with me into adulthood until I eventually realized that I hadn’t been invisible but rather I had been hiding. I had built a solid wall around me.
As an adult I can see that I probably wasn’t all that different from the others. How many of us grow up thinking we need to pretend to be someone we are not in order to belong and to be loved? How many of us still do this now as adults? And how ironic is it that by wearing a mask we achieve the opposite of what we intend and basically make it impossible to experience true connection?
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about letting people in and creating meaningful connections. And I’ve come a long way from that insecure little girl who hid behind a wall and felt chronically isolated. If you’ve struggled to form and maintain friendships, perhaps my lessons may help.
1. Not all friendships are created equal.
Friendships are not a “one size fits all” kind of affair but rather come in different shapes and forms. A friend doesn’t have to cater to all your needs. It’s more natural to have friends for different areas of your life. That doesn’t make any one friend “less than,” but it feels much healthier than placing undue expectations on one person.
For example, a lot of my close friends live far away and we no longer share our everyday lives with each other, but I know I can still rely on them. Then there are people I’ve just met. While sometimes I instantly click with people, with others it takes longer to connect deeply. I also have loose acquaintances, and while we might not discuss our deepest thoughts, it’s still fun to connect through experiences and mutual interests.
Once we open our minds to what friendship can look like, we will gain access to connections that would have otherwise gone under our radar.
2. Connection is a two-way street.
The quality of connection is made up of what both of you are putting in. And the connection is likely to break apart if you expect what you are not prepared to give.
This doesn’t just apply to what you are willing to do for the other person. Are you fully showing up as yourself? Are you allowing others to really see you? And are you prepared to really see the other person, too, including the more challenging things that can feel heavy and painful?
3. People can only honor your needs and wishes if you communicate them.
We often expect others not only to read our minds but also to be on the same page as us on all matters. Chances are that if you haven’t clearly communicated what you expect from your friend, they might have no idea.
But also, remind yourself you have no “right” to others fulfilling your needs and wishes. Be prepared that others aren’t able or don’t want to give what you would like them to give you.
You know that saying “In times of crisis, you find out who your real friends are”? Well, I don’t entirely agree with that. It assumes that there is an unwritten rule about how friends need to behave, but there can be multiple reasons why they might not be able to be there for you to the extent you expect them to.
When my mum passed away, for example, my friends reacted in different ways. I totally understand that a lot of people find death highly uncomfortable and simply too terrifying to talk about, so, I accepted that I wasn’t able to talk about it with all of my friends.
Fortunately, some friends were able to be there for me. This experience taught me to formulate my needs and ask for help. On some days, the support I needed was to be able to talk and cry and on other days, I wanted to be left alone. The only way for my friends to know was for me to tell them.
4. You don’t need to agree on everything.
Maybe this is just me, but I feel an urge to agree with my friends on everything. Disagreements on even the smallest of issues cause me a certain level of discomfort. Of course, this is where the cycle of not being myself begins: by not saying what I really want in order not to upset the other person. That’s what compromise is for though, right?
I am therefore teaching myself to remember that it’s okay to disagree and to learn to accept that niggling feeling of discomfort that I still feel, even when I know this won’t affect the friendship overall.
That being said, sometimes disagreement is a sign that someone isn’t a person I want to be friends with—there are certain no-gos, certain things that just aren’t okay with me. Get clarity on your no-gos and stop sweating about the rest.
5. You don’t have to like each other all the time.
This for sure is another remnant of my Hollywood friendship ideal. Do you like yourself all the time? I don’t. I can be moody or thoughtless. I have characteristics I don’t like and that I am working on changing.
The same goes for every other person. And not only do we all have bad days and do stupid things sometimes; we might also have spleens or characteristics that are annoying to others. But they are likely outweighed by our loveliness . If so, maybe you can accept them in your friends and focus on all the rest instead of getting worked up over them or trying to change them.
6. Friendships need appreciation to flourish.
Don’t take friendships for granted, whether it’s the little or the big things: tell and show the other person that they are appreciated and loved, and express your gratitude. Especially when we have known somebody for a long time, we may expect them to just know how we feel. And chances are they do, but it’s always nice to hear it, too.
7. Not everyone will give as much as you give.
Just the way we set our own boundaries and decide what we are prepared to give, everyone else has the same right. And everyone’s boundaries are different.
While solid friendships naturally involve give and take, it shouldn’t be about tit for tat. Don’t keep count and don’t expect reciprocity for everything you are giving into the friendship. Give because you want to, not because you feel obligated or because you want something in exchange.
8. Grudges erode relationships.
I am pretty good at holding a grudge. I also know that it’s my coping mechanism for trying to protect myself from getting hurt and disappointed again.
Here’s a secret: It doesn’t work! Also, is it worth proving that you were “right”? Do you even know for sure that you were “right”? Put yourself in the other person’s shoes: Can you understand where they are coming from? Communicate when you are upset, clear the air, and move on. But remember:
9. Strong friendships require strong boundaries.
Boundaries are so important, and a lot of us are unfortunately not very good at a) identifying our boundaries b) ensuring they are honored, and c) walking away when they are not.
Personally, I have two main areas where I am still learning to communicate my boundaries: First, I’m part introvert and as much as I enjoy socializing, it can also feel depleting. Saying no to an invite or leaving a gathering when my limit has been reached still doesn’t come easy but it’s getting easier. It’s a matter of taking my own needs seriously as well as explaining them to my friends.
Secondly, people tend to find it easy to open up to me and often come to me for advice. As much as I want to help people and especially support my friends, I am still figuring out where my boundary is. I don’t want to take on a one-sided role of “counselor” in a friendship, since this inevitably leaves me feeling resentful. I am aware this is as much about me naturally putting myself in that role as it is about people’s expectations of me.
10. People change.
Are you the same person you were ten years ago? Even one year ago?
We all change, and especially when we’ve known somebody for a while, it’s easy to assume that we know everything about them.
I love this quote by George Bernard Shaw: “The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them.”
Are you still listening? Are you curious? Are you taking an interest?
Sometimes we change so much that we drift apart, and that’s okay. The fact that we may grow so far apart that we no longer want to be friends doesn’t take away from all the joy and fun we had in the past.
Though I have long since bid farewell to my warped idealistic friendship model, I do make a conscious decision about who I want to spend my time with. And the criteria for that can change over time and are for me to decide.
My only advice is this: don’t be quick to discard relationships from a place of disappointment, hurt feelings, a bruised ego, or even a sense of revenge.
If somebody means something to you, talk to them. Figure out a new way to be friends going forward—one that works for both of you. But also accept that people are not there to adhere to your expectations or to the image you built up of them in your head.
And remember that connections in whatever form add immeasurably to the quality of our lives. Let’s open our hearts and minds to experience more of them!