To Have a Friend, You Must Be a Friend, Part 2
In Part 1 of this blog, I talk about my friend who closed an email to me with “Your tenuous friend,” and, even though my friend was joking, how that brought up old insecurities. In Part 2, I tell how I overcame the old beliefs and habits that limited my friendships.
A good friend of mine tells this story about her childhood: “Remember,” her mother would say, “to have a friend, you must be a friend.” Simple and sage advice but advice I wouldn’t follow. I grew up in a home where the most important relationships were not safe and, to cope, I learned not to risk being a friend first, instead choosing the safer and lonelier path of waiting for people to befriend me.
When I look at my late teen and early adult years, I see a pattern of unavailability in all my relationships: to feel safe, I would limit my exposure. Withdrawing or becoming invisible may have helped me survive a tough childhood, but those strategies also led to a lonely adult life. By declining to be a friend first and putting extreme limits on friendship, I missed out on the magic of someone having my back, or the gratification of having their back. That place of joy, safety, and support wasn’t available to me when I pitched my tent in the camp of withdrawal.
In recent years, I’ve had several teachers who have helped me explore alternatives to withdrawing. What I’ve learned is that I must believe in my own worth first—having healthy self-esteem—so that I know what I’m offering and why, what I would like in return, what I will and won’t settle for in a friendship, and that it’s not my friend’s job to fill some missing piece of my psyche: those wounds are mine to heal.
I have also learned that friendship between adults is always conditional. Believing that love between two adults should be unconditional is a recipe for a codependent relationship. If I want to be in relationship with you, I need to make that choice each and every day, and so do you.
The only place where love is naturally unconditional is that of a parent for their child: that love, that bond, is biological. When two people create a life, they change the world, and they take on an accountability for which the child is not responsible or even aware: in the early years the child is totally dependent on the parents for its survival.
The opposite is not true. A child has no say in their conception, they don’t choose you as their parent. Their sole obligation to you is gratitude for the gift of life. And, if you believe that at some cosmic level you chose your parents, that’s your business and the cosmos’s, not your parents’.
And how did I overcome the fear of rejection? Well, in my experience, it’s not possible to overcome that fear. The fear is there for a reason: It helped me navigate an uncertain and dangerous period of my life. Just as the turtle pulls in its head when the dog starts getting curious, I learned to withdraw from uncertain outcomes. What is possible is to explore the idea that I am no longer a child, that I might be able to manage the fear and protect myself without hiding behind emotionally constructed walls. This first step—the idea that I might have some agency that was not available to me as a child—led to a wider view of what my life might become.
I began to understand that the coping strategy I chose in childhood equated rejection with the threat of dying. (This is instinctive: an abandoned child can easily die.) I began to understand that the fear of dying was not caused by a crouching tiger but was constructed in my mind. That led me to try a different approach: If I want what people tell me is wonderful about friendship (but I haven’t experienced so I’m not sure I believe them), I must take a risk. I must wager that I can survive the pain so that I can get to a place where I can feel the feeling they tell me is wonderful.
How do I calculate the wager’s odds of success? How do I minimize the risks? Well, it doesn’t work that way. What I had to do was leave behind a way of thinking and a set of beliefs to step into the unknown: To me, it felt like jumping off a cliff. If there was any bet being made, it was that the pattern of forever restricting the depth of my friendships was crazier than the craziness of jumping off Rejection Cliff.
Even if I was willing to jump, what about these other questions: How will I protect myself from friends taking advantage of me? How do I choose the right kinds of friends? How will I know I can trust them? What if one of them betrays me? What if I’m not a very good friend?
Those are excellent questions. Prior to the wager, I protected myself from these possibilities by limiting the number, depth, breadth, and quality of my friendships. What I had to learn was that, rather than setting limits on my friends, I had to answer another set of questions: What do I expect in return for my friendship? What are my limits? What does a healthy friendship look like for me? If I give, how do I know when I’m giving too much? So, what I began to do was set reasonable limits for myself and to trust in my ability to take care of myself if things didn’t go as planned or desired.
Accordingly, I began practicing the beliefs of healthy self-esteem: I am worthy of good friends just as I am. I am a good friend. I am trustworthy. My friends are grateful for our friendship, as am I. I am human and sometimes humans make mistakes, so I will make amends for my mistakes, and I will remember that making a mistake doesn’t make me a bad person. From this place, I began to ignore the childish urge to please, or placate, or entertain, or to take care of something that wasn’t my responsibility. I began to discover the freedom that comes with self-responsibility and setting and maintaining healthy limits.
I stopped blaming my friends for what I used to see as transgressions and started owning my choices in friends and what I was willing to accept about their behavior. I learned how to end a friendship that no longer served, to explore a new friendship that seemed to have possibilities, and to be there when my friends needed me. I began to see my behavior as my responsibility, and their behavior as their responsibility. My relationships began to rely on mutual respect and interdependence rather than codependence.
It’s ironic—to have satisfying and robust friendships, I looked first to my own needs: What am I willing to contribute as a friend? What’s in it for me? These things sound selfish, but these questions are essential. Selfishness is part of the human condition. It’s necessary for survival and is hardwired into our nervous systems. If you want more robust friendships, find the self-protective part of you, get to know it, and have a serious conversation with it about what’s in friendship for you.
And how are things with my tenuous friend? Well, I can’t speak for my friend, but I have not let the reasonable tenuousness of their friendship in its early stages stop me from being their friend. Their emails no longer contain the word tenuous in the signature. And neither do mine. Our friendship is growing and deepening. Where it will go, I don’t know. And that’s OK with me.