The friendships we establish in childhood form the basis for the relationships we develop as we grow older and our lives become more complex. We often find our first real friendships in the formative years when we are starting school and having our first real relationships outside the immediate family. This year as we go back to school it looks a little different. Friendships are now more than ever important to help us feel connected and continue growing. Friends can act as mirrors in which we begin to see a reflection of ourselves, our values, our standards and expectations, and our interpersonal needs. But what makes a friendship a healthy one?
Friendships can serve a variety of purposes throughout our lives; through them we experience love, heartbreak, envy, kindness, and the whole range of interpersonal emotions that characterize who we are as individuals and as social beings. In learning how to be a friend, and how to have and keep friends we learn about communication and feedback, and experience the consequences when communication and feedback fail. As human beings, we are inherently relational creatures, meaning that we come into the world craving connection, nurturance, and love from our first breath. Friendship, and the deeper expression of that in sisterhood, is based on our need to feel that we belong somewhere and have a place where our feelings are understood and reciprocated. We seek, and sometimes find, something approaching unconditional positive mutual regard, and can find solace in feeling that we know another person’s heart.
Deep friendships require the willingness to make an effort to understand and empathize with the person with whom we have this kind of connection. It requires emotional stamina to create meaningful, long-lasting connections (some people find this for the first time in individual therapy). Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to maintain friendships over time, distance, and life transitions. And it is not good fortune alone that allows this to happen; it requires a mutual desire to maintain the relationship, and the willingness to put in the work that friendships require as well as the tolerance for the imperfection of our long-time friends, and of ourselves.
Female relationships can be at risk when a sense of competition is present. It is natural for all of us to be occasionally competitive even with our closest friends; recognizing this and being willing to address these feelings is important in any long-term relationship. In the context of female friendships, finding reciprocal relationships with friends who genuinely support and lift one another can be a challenge. The feminist mental health perspective posits that as children women are conditioned to compete with rather than to empower one another, and that this competition has its roots in the traditional male-dominated, patriarchal society. Finding friendship and sisterhood with women who are determined to grow and able to celebrate each others’ successes is a wonderful goal and can be very difficult to achieve.
Lillian Rubin, an early pioneer of feminist sociology, wrote a novel in 1985 titled “Just Friends: The Role of Friendship in Our Lives” . In the novel she describes American women’s friendships as having the capacity to elicit “the best parts of ourselves”. She indicated that we all have “many selves” that are correlated with “many friends”, and that friendships that inspire growth, confront and deal with jealousy and other negative emotions, and project love for all parts of each other should be the standard rather than the exception. Here are some key characteristics of healthy, meaningful relationships to consider as we start the school year.
“A flower does not think of competing with the flower next to it.
It just blooms.” – Zen Shin
Friendships are spaces where we can practice the unconditional love of another person, exactly as they are.
In a world where competitiveness, ambition, and status-seeking can dominate our sense of worthiness, friendships offer a place of acceptance. Acceptance also requires humility and patience with one another, as we all work to uncover and enact the most authentic versions of ourselves.
Strong friend relationships are those that are structured around building up the other person and empowering them to reach farther and know themselves better.
Empowerment works alongside acceptance in that it is our responsibility as friends and sisters to uplift one another by identifying strengths, providing feedback on potential “blind spots”, and instilling feelings of power and bravery in each other. When we empower one another, we not only demonstrate our acceptance of the person, but also challenge them to reach higher to unlock their potential and purpose.
Good friends become Active Listeners when it is needed, putting themselves and their opinions, biases, and personal experiences aside to hold space for the other person.
Our worlds can be completely so dominated by our individual experience that we often find it difficult to let go of our own issues long enough to provide care and compassion for our friends. The varied levels of listening can range from Listening To Speak, Listening To Evaluate, Listening To Emphasize, and Listening As One. When we are able to reach the level of listening “As One”, we begin to know the person more deeply and are able to let go, for a time, of our focus on ourselves.
Friendships that are filled with humor and lightheartedness create an environment of safety and comfort from the rest of the world.
Laughter is often characterized as the gateway to the soul, and for good reason. Laughing is one of the key elements of social bonding (wonder why we rarely laugh out loud when we are by ourselves?) and releases feel-good neurochemicals called endorphins. It is a beautiful phenomenon that when we are engaged in meaningful connection laughter is the way that joy escapes our body. The ability to relate to another person through shared humor unlocks a dimension of understanding that is founded in feelings of comfort, ease, and safety.
Friendship is “treating people as if they were what they ought to be, and you help them become what they are capable of being.”
– Johann Wolfgang van Goethe
These are just a few of the ways in which we can begin to build strong, meaningful friendships that are durable and capable of withstanding the challenges we all experience as we grow and develop. As we kick off this new month that starts with more interpersonal connection, we challenge you to take some time to reflect on your friendships. Where are the spaces you feel the most joy? Who are you with when you feel most like you? Friendship is a beautiful opportunity to define ourselves and how we navigate the world based on who stands beside us.
For more information on building healthy, meaningful friendships and relationships and how therapy can help, contact us now!