“No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.” ~Alice Walker
When I was young, I never actively wanted friends, probably because I didn’t know the benefits of having strong friendships. I got along fine in my social circle in high school, in part because I could translate Latin more quickly than my classmates, which was helpful to some of them, and because I was pleasant enough.
I wasn’t going to get on anyone’s nerves, at least not on purpose. In fact, I was so careful not to be a bother to anyone that I essentially rendered myself mute. Yep, you couldn’t get a peep out of me most days.
Those high school years spent in relative silence created a major gap in my ability to navigate relationships and to deal with major stressors in college, graduate school, and beyond. I don’t think I understood how trust worked between good friends, and that made me vulnerable to all sorts of things, including feeling anxious, uncomfortable, and clueless.
After entering into my own psychotherapy early in graduate school, I began to work on breaking out of my silence.
Session after session I practiced speaking about personal matters even when I felt awkward doing so. I began to trust my ability to communicate, even about difficult feelings; I no longer needed to find reasons to shrink into myself.
Through the therapy process, I also realized I had been holding myself back on many fronts, including my natural inclination to be with people and to be, well, talkative and social. Being able to express myself freely enabled me to learn how to be a good friend and how to have a good time in the process.
Enjoying true friendship as an adult has undoubtedly been one of the most meaningful aspects of my life.
Some of the lessons I have learned through my friendships include:
1. Almost everyone wants to have fun.
You don’t have to take yourself or others so seriously. Don’t be afraid to approach people if you have an idea, an instinct about something, or something you just need to say.
2. We all share the same experiences.
We all become vulnerable each time a new person approaches or each time we consider meeting up with someone new. There really isn’t a way of getting around this. It’s part of the human experience and it’s not going away. Even further advances in social media and technology cannot erase the wobbly feeling we need to go through when we are social.
3. We all are different and unique.
The fact that no two of us are exactly the same has become a source of relief for me. I no longer have to strive to be just like someone else.
I now know enough about myself to be able to enjoy exploring the unique aspects of other people in my life. Those differences between us help me to feel sane and to understand my own life experiences better.
4. We can choose to be open or closed in our relationships.
It’s dangerous to fool ourselves into believing a closed stance is safer than an open one. When we interact with others in a guarded way, we prevent ourselves from absorbing the finer details of what’s really happening. We miss the present moment because we are watching out for ourselves.
When we are open, others sense that we are alert, aware, involved, and engaged—all excellent and desirable qualities in a worker, student, partner, or friend.
Be careful if you find yourself closed off to new information or interactions and if fear is your first response to new demands and opportunities. If you’re wondering why social interactions feel so difficult, see if you might be approaching them with a closed stance.
When you are open and expressive with your friends, it’s equivalent to building trust and to ensuring loving feelings between you. You’ll begin to feel more at ease and less like shielding yourself from others.
5. We don’t always have to insist on parity and fairness.
People who are preoccupied with calculating whether they are getting as much as they are giving in their interactions have very close relationships, but unfortunately, those relationships are with the calculator inside their head instead of the people they are with.
We can tabulate the costs and benefits, but who really wants to conduct relationships as if they were the next round of taxes?
Be generous with your time. Give freely of your kindness, knowledge, and expertise.
6. We can reach into new dimensions.
I have had the most enriching experiences in the past few years getting to know men and women who are older than I am—about five to ten years older. The extra years seem to bring wisdom, experience, and ease to these friends.
I know I can have solid advice as quickly as I can send a text. I know these friends will see me through the harder times and will be just as eager to have lunch with me as I am with them.
Look for friends and acquaintances in areas (and age ranges) you are unfamiliar with. The world is a really big playground. It’s okay to change your outlook and scenery.
As an adult, I am truly grateful for the group of people I call friends. Though hindsight might have me wishing for the support of these types of friends back in the day, I realize the lessons I have learned making friends as an adult would not have been so meaningful if I had been surrounded by friends when I was younger.
If you’ve missed some opportunities to find close friendships, don’t fret. There is no time limit on letting others in, learning how to stay open in our interactions, or building great relationships.
Friendship can be a remarkable and precious resource for us all, and one which reminds us of the sweetness and richness of living.
Friends taking selfie image via Shutterstock