The Gratitude Challenge’s ninth topic is “Friendship”.
Each friend represents a world in us, a world that is possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only in that encounter that a new world can emerge.Anaïs Nin
The idea of potentially endless new worlds that are somewhere in us but only emerge if we find the right person to bring this side of us out is a very inspiring thought for me. As someone who enjoys a great amount of “me time”, I sometimes feel like needing to force myself to have social interaction. I would not describe myself as a full-blown introvert, but it is certainly the times of being alone that I need to recharge. At the same time, I really enjoy spending time with friends and having a good laugh (people say they hear me laughing before they even see me).
As someone who “led the pack” in primary school, I soon realized how people who once followed can turn into “enemies” that come together to mob their dethroned leader. I learnt that I’m best off with myself, trusting no one and only relying on myself. Even though – or maybe exactly because – these were early childhood experiences, this subconscious mindset accompanied me for a long time in my life. I never again felt the urge to put myself into a leader position which at the same time would put me into the spotlight and make me a potential target of harsh criticism or mobbing.
In contrast I still enjoyed being the drummer of different bands, giving presentations in front of everyone, voicing my opinion on many topics. I do not shun the spotlight, but I do not want to assume the responsibility that comes with a leadership position. Maybe that’s why I feel very happy in my current job as consultant: My opinion is valued, I am recognized for my technical hard skills and my soft skills that allow me to establish trustful relationships with very different personalities, but the eventual decision and responsibility is assumed by somebody else.
However, apart from professional relationships I often found it difficult to establish lasting relationships in a private setting. Either I did not invest enough because I wanted to remain free and independent to be able to move around the world at any given time and without regret. Or – with my female friends – I slid into a very flirty role where I received a lot of attention, keeping my “friends” in line, just giving enough hints to keep them interested while always emphasizing that I was so glad to have them as friends as I could never imagine a partnership with them. I used “friendship” as a construct to receive attention without having to assume responsibility in a romantic relationship. For many years I thought that these were just normal friendships, and I explained the fact that most of my “friends” were female simply with having more interests in common with women than I had with men. But looking back, I also simply found it quite boring to hang out with guys, because I did not receive all that attention from them.
While it is certainly normal for all of us to yearn for attention and recognition, I think it is important to be aware of what and why we are behaving in a certain way with people and maybe not describe such relationships as normal “friendship” while being oblivious about what’s actually happening. Leading people on and not committing to anything is not fair to anyone involved and it can be very hurtful as soon as a romantic partner comes into the equation, who for a good reason might feel betrayed, neglected, or treated “just like all the other girls”. When I hear people’s complaints about their partners or why a relationship did not work out, I reckon that I am certainly not the only one who enjoyed responsibility-free attention at the expense of deeper and more intimate relationships.
Apart from that I also feel uneasy when people do me a favour because I feel pressure to reciprocate. I would rather pay for it so that I do not need to feel being indebted to someone. Also, the feeling to be a burden for someone is something I hate and this together with my previously explained “only relying on myself” leads me to solve problems all on my own instead of going the easier route of asking friends for help. Interestingly enough, in a professional setting, I do not have a problem at all to ask for help and to acknowledge that such solution might be much more efficient and effective. Maybe this is because in a business setting I do not feel as much pressure to reciprocate as I do in private? “It’s their job anyway”.
Not wanting to be a burden also kept me from opening up and talk about personal problems, struggles, fears or mistakes. Only recently, when I realized how my overly positive self-perception differs dramatically from my actual actions, I finally opened up to some of my closest friends because my realization was too overwhelming to deal with it myself as I usually did. And to my surprise, my friends did not turn away in disgust, instead they stood with me, calmed me down, showed me how they could relate as they talked about their own experiences. My fear of being abandoned when I showed weakness proved to be a major reason why I seemed to be unable to establish the deep and trustful relationships that I saw in others. If you never had this issue, this realization might seem almost ridiculous or overly obvious, but I can tell you, it took away a lot of pressure and fear to find out that people won’t dislike me when I admit mistakes, talk about weaknesses and fears instead of always being happy, upbeat and “perfect”. It’s these real friendships who make me believe that the initial quote comes true: Infinitely many worlds in us that encounters with other people bring out and make us experience something completely new and exciting.
At the same time, investing in and developing attachment to relationships of course makes it more difficult to move around as I used to do the last 10 years of my life. Saying goodbye becomes more difficult, leaving a place with many people and memories behind is not an easy decision anymore. When people said they would like to explore more places and live there but they do not want to start all over again with finding and building their circle of friends, I almost pitied them because I never felt this. But now with the realization who are my real friends and how great it is to have them around, I start to understand. I still think that a good friendship survives any distance, especially in times of video calls and free phone calls around the world, but meeting in person is of course always better. Only when experiencing such relationships, we feel the magnitude of the – albeit rationally understood – concept of “every moment is unique” and that it might be the last time to be with someone or in a certain constellation.
Talking about relationship problems also showed me who are my actual friends and who are my “attention friends” who would see their chance finally have come when I mentioned quarrels with my partner. And thinking back, in all these cases it was nothing really surprising or unexpected, I just ignored my feelings as this would have required me to acknowledge that most of my “friendships” actually did not deserve this title. It was of course still valid connections with people I got along well with and could spend fun times together, but it was not the same as my few real friendships. Having a highly-sensitive partner who often feels what’s up earlier than I do but at the same time is not unreasonably jealous or insecure but instead very understanding and patient certainly puts me into a very privileged position that allows me to take the time to breath, see and realize what for a long time I did not want to admit to myself.
I am grateful for the real friendships I have, for these wonderful people with whom I indeed experience an own world, for being accepted with all my flaws and shortcomings, for their vulnerability to share their own vulnerabilities and shortcomings with me, and for realizing the difference between friends and “friends”, as well as my gradually growing understanding about how to deal with them – and for a partner who gives me the time and understanding to work things out and to do what I feel is appropriate, as long as I am aware and honest with it.