Thoughts / friendship
Remember that book "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus"? It felt like it was everywhere. And it kind of was.
The book was on The New York Times bestseller list for more than two years. And while it's viewed with a sceptical eye by many experts who say the book reinforces gender stereotypes, the whole idea that men and women are inherently can resonate with many of us.
All too often, we might magnify the importance of sex differences. For example, research on men and women leaders reveal more similarities than differences. The same thing goes for male and female friendships. We’re all humans and we all have a need for friendship.
Having said that though, there are some overall gender differences that seem to influence the way we form and sustain our friendships.
Firstly, male friendships are more “instrumental” and less “emotional.” Men are less likely than women to share their emotions and feelings (no surprise, huh?). But men’s friendships are more “transactional”—involving shared activities (e.g., golf or playing poker), or working together on projects. One UK study found that working class men tend to focus on material goods and services (such as fixing each other’s cars, or exchanging tools), while upper and middle-class men tend to share leisure activities, such as attending sporting events, travel, or entertainment.
The stereotype of men bonding by watching the State of Origin on the couch drinking a beer is rooted in some truth. When comparing friendship intimacy levels in men and women, a UCLA study found "men were more likely to prefer doing some activity with friends, were more likely to engage in activities with their best friend and were more likely to talk to their best friend about activities. Women's friendships appeared oriented toward personal sharing of information; men's friendships showed an emphasis on joint activities."
Female friendships, by contrast are more emotionally intimate, and bonding time is more face-to-face. In one study, researchers found that women prefer to foster friendships one-on-one through conversation, which creates a lot of opportunity to get close. All that talking about thoughts, feelings, and other mushy stuff really builds up intimacy.
Secondly, men don’t appear to do as much relationship ‘maintenance.’ While women tend to meet, call, or text their friends regularly, men don’t feel as much need to stay in touch with their male friends. I used to be somewhat gobsmacked when a male partner would hear from a ‘close’ friend only to find out that they had lost their job, split with their partner, had a child or some other major life event had happened to which my partner was oblivious too. But it wasn’t that he wasn’t a caring and committed friend, it was more the way these friendships worked.
Thirdly, male friendships tend to be less intimate and less supportive. This is certainly no surprise. Although men can have close friends, the level of social support among male friend besties is nowhere near the same level as among women. There is some evidence, however, that women’s friendships can be more fragile than those of men. Whilst both men and women friendships can erupt into anger, with emotional outbursts, women can hold a grudge for some time, whereas men are more likely to get over strained friendships more quickly.
The similarities between male and female friendships far outweigh the differences listed here, and, of course there is huge individual variation, as always. But is there anything about these differences to be concerned with?
Perhaps that the kind of bonding and connection that happens while watching a flat screen doesn't establish the same kind of intimacy as a one-on-one gab session over a bottle of wine.
The result? Men tend to rely heavily on romantic relationships for that super-close feeling of connection.
There's nothing wrong with having expectations that your romantic partner would fulfil your real, human need for intimacy. The problem might occur if men receive the message from society that they can only have a close emotional relationship with their romantic partners. This could cause men to prioritise romance in a way that many don't. For example, one survey found that 79% of men would need "a strong, loving marriage" to feel they were "having it all" while 66% of women felt the same.
That ends up putting a whole lot of pressure on romantic relationships to fulfil their need for emotional intimacy. That means that when a breakup happens, men without these strong, intimate friendships tend to feel more alone and isolated.
Since the way women often form their platonic friendships places less pressure on getting their connection needs met from one romantic relationship, the feelings of isolation from a breakup are usually less extreme.
Maybe it's time we change how we view male friendships. That means no more "bromance" jokes.
I mean, when you think about it, it's a little weird that we have a different label for close male one-on-one friendships. And notice that the word choice likens their close bond to a romantic one. We don't have a comparable term for female friendships, so why should we for men?
Let's normalise close, one-on-one friendship for men and boys. Because it’s really just a need for friendship and connection. And we all have that need. Whoever we are.
Surely the hardest four-letter word to utter to our friends has got to be – H E L P.
As a self-described overachieving recovering perfectionist, I’ve struggled to utter this word throughout my childhood, adolescence and some of my adulthood. What do you mean I can’t handle every single thing that comes my way? Not a chance!
But it’s much more than that. When we live in a society that prides itself on self-sufficiency, independence and achievement, the idea of asking others for help can be daunting. When we’re surrounded by messages based on helping our self – have you noticed the voluminous self-help sections at the bookstore? – the idea that we may need to learn better ways to ask for and receive assistance, may seem a little odd.
This topic of asking for help is one that isn't new to me. One string of situations centred on an episode I had of mental illness. I had admitted before that something wasn’t working, but often that was after my parents and sister prodded me. It wasn't until daily functioning became impossible and everything seemed to be completely unmanageable that I called home and said, "I need to get help. I can't do this anymore." Shortly thereafter, I entered hospital for the first time.
After that experience, it would seem like it'd be easier for me to ask for help, right? Sometimes, but not always.
I’m still today reticent about asking for help. I struggle with it at work sometimes. There are moments I could ask more of my friends. And I see others around me sharing the same reticence. As with so many things that would serve us (and others), our fear is what gets in the way. Fear of over-stepping a friendship. Fear of appearing too needy. Fear of imposing. Fear of rejection. Fear of appearing weak. Fear of revealing our struggle and having people realize we don’t have it all together after all.
The danger, however, is that stalling – due to unfalsified anxiety - can let the situation grow from a problem into a crisis. Whenever we seek assistance earlier, the less help we will need and the more effectively it can be handled. It’s basic preventative science. If that’s a thing.
And here’s another thing, most of us humans are extremely keen to help when we notice a need. But we have a bit of trouble identifying that need because mostly we are continuously distracted, taken up with our lives and unlikely to spot that there is anything at all the matter with people around us unless the problem is spelt out in the clearest, most unambiguous terms. But say they are spelt out, we generally will swing into action and bring the whole of our intelligence and will to bear on another’s pains. In other words, we respond well to screams, but terribly to hints.
We see this all the time when a natural disaster hits. People come from everywhere to help. Readily. Hungrily. They are just there. At the ready. We also see this issue come to the fore in tragic circumstances where someone we know takes their own life. We are certain that we would, if we had known how desperate they felt, have done pretty much anything to help. At the same time, we also know that we didn’t enquire very much, didn’t look too closely for hints and must surely have given off an impression of constant busy-ness. We feel, understandably, entirely wretched and callous.
We need to learn to scream for help. We need to change the story that being in need is a weakness. But that asking for help takes courage and is a strength. We need to remember that whatever the appearance of distraction of others, we are surrounded by people who, when faced with an emergency, will come with a broom to our flood-infested home to help clean up.
When we don’t ask for help when we need it, we assume a burden that might easily (and gladly) be shared. But don’t forget, we’re no good at reading minds. The next time we are in trouble, we must remember not to beat ourselves up for not being self-sufficient, independent perfectionists but compassionately remind ourselves that we are social creatures who work best en masse. And let’s be hopeful in the knowledge that those around us will respond when it reaches their ears.
Happy Valentine’s Day to you all!
The 14th February. That weird day made by society for couples, but where couples face weird pressure for no apparent reason. A day where people are obliged to express their undying love for each other, when they could just express their undying love for each other on any other day. Where according to the retail giants, we’re going to waste our money on silly things like over-priced chocolates or stuffed animals. A day that generally helps promote good old-fashioned gender stereotypes. The day where the strong single person might just need to be a little stronger. The day your Mum probably wishes you were married already.
And the history of Valentine’s Day is all a little bit on the dark side. During the Roman Empire, people celebrated the feast of Lupercalia where men sacrificed a goat or a dog and whipped women with animal hides. An act that was believed to increase a woman’s fertility!
There are different legends about who St. Valentine was. One tells the story of a Christian priest who was imprisoned and fell in love with his jailer’s daughter. Before his death, he signed a love letter to her with the words “from your Valentine.”
Another legend tells about a priest who ignored Emperor Claudius II's ban on marriage for young men in his army. The priest continued to marry couples who were in love for which he was eventually executed.
What helped St. Valentine’s Day take root across the ocean in the United States was the nation's emerging consumer and popular culture, boosted by the influence of advertising and the following developments in printing and mass production.
In the 1840s, an American newspaper called The Public Ledger endorsed the holiday saying that people needed “more soul-play and less head-work” and more opportunities that allowed for an “abandon of feeling.” The meaning of “valentine” transformed from signifying a person to referring to an object of exchange.
In the following decades, the marketing machines of many companies turned their wheels to lure more and more customers into celebrating the holiday, and convince them to purchase valentines—in the forms of cards, chocolates, flowers, and jewellery—for their loved ones.
It’s all a bit of a dark comedy really!
To be honest, I’m all for the declaration of love and Valentine’s Day has certainly contributed to the way in which western culture celebrates and expresses love. I just don’t think it needs conditions – one person, romantic in nature, and on a specific day.
That’s why our Love Cards this year are declarations of love for anyone near and dear to you. Let’s call them Friend-alentines! And given we’ve only got around to releasing them today, on the 14th February, you can send them to whoever you want – whenever you want!
They’re all available here.
The other day I had the pleasure of spending time with one of my oldest and dearest friends. We’ve known each other for well over two thirds of our lives now. At the age of 11, pure circumstance brought us together when my family moved into the house next door to hers. And even though we didn’t go to the same school, we spent a bucket load of time together during our adolescence. Mostly we just sat in the gutter outside our homes, speaking into each other’s hearts. Nearly every day.
And I am eternally thankful that she was there, because adolescence was all just a bit hard.
Transitioning from a child to an adult – or being a teenager – are pretty vulnerable years for heaps of reasons. One being how we build social connections.
One of the main biological drivers of adolescence is the urge to belong – to our peers. The desire to create friendship circles outside of our family. This involves stepping back from our parents as we build autonomy and independence so that when our pre frontal cortex has finished developing and the executive functioning part of the brain that makes mature choices is complete, we can go out into the world as a fully functioning and sustainable adult (well, that’s the theory anyway).
I remember the majority of the social dynamics in my adolescent world as challenging and fraught. I was not sure whether I “fit” here or there and I remember certain ‘friends’ who caused some particularly brutal wounds (in a weirdly passive way). I remember an incredibly strong need to be liked by everyone and was eager to please anyone around me. Except my parents of course. They had the privilege of experiencing my surly and dark moods.
As teenagers, we learn a great deal through the friendships we make. We learn unspoken codes of conduct that they will take with them throughout life. Being sanctioned by our peers is one of the fastest ways to create the catalyst for an adolescent to change an unhelpful behaviour or uncaring communication. Friendships can make or break an adolescent in many ways.
Throughout my adolescence, I was no different. I learnt a lot through friendship. But I reckon I learnt the most from the one friendship where I spent the hours chatting in the gutter.
Research suggests that the turmoil of the teenage years cannot only be mediated by good social relationships, but there’s also research to suggest that bonds from adolescence might have an outsized role in a person's mental health for years.
In a study published last year, researchers followed 169 people for 10 years, starting when they were 15 years old. At age 15 and again at 16, the participants were asked to bring in their closest friends for one-on-one interviews with the researchers. They were asked who their closest friends were, and detailed questions about their friendships in general. The interviewers also asked them about anxiety, social acceptance, self-worth, and symptoms of depression. They were then asked these questions again at age 25.
They triangulated the teens’ responses, making sure best friends concurred on being best friends, and those who said they were popular had reports from others of actually being popular. “High-quality friendships” were defined as “close friendships with a degree of attachment and support, and those that allow for intimate exchanges.”
The study found that those who had strong relationships in adolescence – good communication, asking for advice and support, connecting with the other person – paid dividends in adulthood. the researchers evaluated the participants at the conclusion of the study, the ones who had close, emotional links showed improvement in their levels of anxiety, depression and self-worth. In other words, they reported less depression and anxiety and more self-worth at 25 than they had at 15 and 16.
Furthermore, those who had more stable relationships — who brought the same best friend to the study at 15 and again at 16 — seemed to do the best. The participants who didn't exhibit the same kind of closeness with their friends didn't show much change in symptoms of depression and anxiety or in their sense of self-worth over the study's 10 years.
The study also looked at how popular or well-liked the participants were at 15 or 16 to see whether those factors had more to do with the drop in depression and rise in self-worth than having close friends. But the researchers only saw a correlation with strong friendships.
The research mirrors other studies which show that there are two types of popularity: people who are likable—their peers trust them and want to be with them—and those who seek status, and often try to wield that popularity as power. Mitch Prinstein, a professor at the University of North Carolina has argued that people who seek to be likable tend to end up in healthier, in better relationships, with more fulfilling work, and even live longer. Status-seekers, on the other hand, often end up anxious, depressed, and with addiction problems.
It's tough to know exactly what is going on here, but we can probably made some educated guesses. One is that unwavering support acts as a kind of protective buffer against insults to your self-worth or feelings of depression. This can be especially beneficial during adolescence, a formative period when peer feedback has extra gravity.
These friendships could also help with our emotional development. Adolescent relationships might help us learn certain social and emotional skills that benefit us for life. It's the first opportunity for people to learn how to be trusting and vulnerable with another person, and using those skills to establish closer, more stable relationships throughout life may be beneficial as well.
Friendship means everything to a teen. It did to me. In order to be socially and personally acceptable we need to be seen to have friends. The biological urge to belong is so strong that adolescents can do all sorts of things to be part of a crowd. Nothing is as threatening in the social network of adolescents as being alone. Being a loner occasionally is not unusual, but it is developmentally unhealthy to be alone all the time and to avoid hanging out with a friend.
Luckily for me, even if my friendships became fraught or challenged at school or sport, I always had my place in the gutter beside a beautiful friend during my adolescence. I had someone who made sure I never felt alone, was right there beside me, someone to talk to and cry with. Someone to share the joy, laughter and achievements with.
I’ve learnt about the value of friendship many times over in my adventures through life and I also know that I would not be the same person without my lovely friend’s 20-plus year presence in my life. Our friendship has taken on all types of different meanings over the years, but when we were teenagers, and I felt unsure of myself, the people around me or the world, she was always there. Without judgment, just with love.
It might be unclear exactly why having a best friend matters in the teenage years, but maybe all we need to know is that simply the presence of a best friend matters. That makes sense to me.
Friendships are not always easy. When we have a friend who is experiencing a mental illness it can be tough going. In reality, it can be bloody hard work.
The reality is though that when we have a mental illness we can get by with a little help from our friends. I know this, because I’ve been really lucky. My friends have been exceptional during my episodes of mental illness. I also know that the research is in – positive social support and friendship has a positive effect on an individual’s recovery and prognosis following a mental illness episode.
If you’re lucky enough not to have experienced a mental illness of some form, then you probably don’t understand what all the fuss is about. “Why does everyone seem to have mental health problems all of a sudden? Depression? Anxiety? All the things?” You might wonder, as you go about your daily life, eating yoghurts and paying bills, generally living in ignorant bliss. And fair enough.
If you haven’t experienced a mental health condition, it can be difficult to comprehend and why would you want to? Take depression, for example. Depression is like an awful houseguest that you definitely didn’t invite to stay. But, here they are anyway, eating up your energy and making a huge mess. Depression doesn’t care that you have work to do. It doesn’t care that there are dishes in the sink and the bins need to go out. It devours your time and strength and will to continue.
Depression can leave you with crumbs. Crumbs are useless. You can’t do anything good with crumbs except make a delicious picnic for insects. Do ants even need picnics? Depression can feel like your head is full of cotton wool and static electricity. It’s not a good time. Well, it wasn’t fun for me. I guess that’s why it got called it depression and not Happy Party Fun Brain.
The point of this is: how can you help someone you love when they’re experiencing a mental health condition that you pretty much have no idea about?
LEARN ABOUT IT
In general, I find that the more I know about something, the easier it is to comprehend and the less difficult it becomes to deal with. (Unless the thing is climate change. The more I seem to find out about climate change, the more panicked I become.) If we’ve got a loved one with a mental health condition, we can value the friendship by learning more about the illness to understand how it might make them feel and maybe increasing our confidence in providing love and support to them.
PRACTICAL HELP GOES A LONG WAY
People experiencing an episode of mental illness need all the things other people need. Food, water, a billion dollars in unmarked bills – the usual. But it can often be a bit harder for us to gain access to those things at this time, on account of having our brain being hijacked by a piece of meatloaf. Yes, empathy and solidarity are wonderful things, as are flowers and little notes. Sometimes though, a little bit of help with the washing, or the cooking, or tidying away some of the clutter that builds up during a phase of mental illness would be the stuff of splendid dreams.
Unfortunately, it’s really, really, really difficult to predict how long it might take for a person’s mental health to show improvements. When I experienced depression and anxiety, not knowing how long it would take to get out of the slump, and perceiving exasperation (whether real or imagined) from my loved ones only heightened the anxiety and pressure. If you can, relax. Remember that no one invites their mental illness in, to fester in their brains, and you can’t send it scurrying back to wherever it usually lives. Please relax. Just being there is good enough. Your friend will no doubt be working harder than you can imagine to stay alive and get through each day, so don’t try and rush them, or question what's going on inside their head. Just look at the outside of their head (where their face might be) and say “You’re strong. I’m here with you through this. You are going to feel better.”
TRY NOT TO SAY DUMB SHIT
Dumb shit would include: “you should eat healthier and exercise more”, “my friend Penelope had depression once and she got better by going to a psychic”, “but you don’t have anything to be sad about” “[Invitation to do something self-destructive and dangerous]”. If your friend is acting in a way you really can't get your head around, the thing to remember is that they are still your friend. So being genuine and caring is your best option here.
Try not to nag your friend to describe what their mental illness is or convince you that it is a real and serious condition that has very little to do with being sad/nervous/weird. Your friend probably doesn’t have time for this as they are busy being unwell. Treating mental illness like it’s an indulgence or an embarrassment is validating the very real shame that we already feel. Trust me. The world asks us to be ashamed. It asks us to be quiet. What we need from our friends is for them to say “you don’t need to hide this. You don’t need to be ashamed. This is happening, it’s real, and it’s not your fault. Also you want a delicious biscuit that looks like a button? Here you go. Here is a button biscuit. It’s so small, right? And tasty. Wow. Amazing.”
LOOK AFTER YOURSELF
There is really no need to martyr yourself for our emotional health. That’s not how any of this works. Do what you can do. Don’t do more. Don’t make yourself weak to try and make someone else strong. Your wellbeing is important, and I promise you you’ll only exhaust yourself, and end up resenting us if you make it your job to nurse us through the whole ordeal. So don’t. When we have a mental illness we can really struggle to be good or engaged friends at times and you’re allowed to feel frustrated about that. Take time off from it all if and when you need to. You aren’t failing us by looking after yourself. We love you. We might just be a bit weighed down by the univited house guest to express our appreciation right now. Also, don’t take our shit. Unacceptable behaviours don’t get a pass just because I’m unwell. You don’t deserve cruelty or abuse so please tell us if we're out of order; if not immediately then when our episode has passed.
AND … KNOW YOUR OWN LIMITS
I’ve been on the other side of this friendship too and had friends who have been struggling with their mental health. Despite receiving treatment, their reliance on me has at times become emotionally draining and some days it has taken a toll on our friendship. While we may feel an obligation to care and ease the pain for those closest to us, at the end of the day we must understand our limits and look out for ourselves too.
HELP US STICK TO GOOD BEHAVIOURS / A HEALTHY ROUTINE
What were once ‘easy’ or ‘normal’ routines can become really difficult during mental illness. Breakfast needs to be eaten everyday. A walk in the afternoon is a good idea. Green tea can help. Everyone needs water. Taking medicine has to happen as prescribed. Whatever. These things seem simple but are often monumentally hard tasks when a particularly bad spell of depression comes around. When nothing matters, these things happen less.
Gentle reminders are good, or an all-caps text message that says “YO! DID YOU DRINK WATER TODAY? ALSO LOOK AT THIS PICTURE OF A FRENCH BULLDOG DANCING IN A SOMBERO. SO CUTE.” These sorts of gestures go a long way. Gently nudge us into behaving like humans. That way when the fog lifts and we can look around at our lives again, we won’t feel horrified at all the things we let slide. Maybe we'll give you a little kiss on the head, too – for being a pal. Thanks.
In the previous post, we looked at the joys and benefits of friendships. It can be one of the high points of our existence.
Yet, in reality it can sometimes be routinely disappointing. We might be at dinner at someone’s house. The host has evidently gone to a lot of trouble, with an impressive spread of food and drink. But the conversation might be meandering. Devoid of any real interest. Maybe the discussion flits from an over-long description of the failings of a local restaurant to a strangely heated discussion about crypto currency (again). We might go home, incredibly touched by the intentions and efforts of the host, but we may still wonder what the whole performance was about.
Let’s consider if we didn’t engage in such performances. What might happen if we avoided human contact?
Alone in an unchanging environment, the sensory information available to us, and the ways in which we process it, can change in unpredictable ways. For example, we normally spend most of our time attending to and processing external stimuli from the physical world around us. However, monotonous stimulation from our surroundings may cause us to turn our attention inward, which most of us have much less experience handling all that well.
No, or limited, human contact can lead to a profoundly altered state of consciousness. We may begin to question what’s going on in our surroundings: Is that creaking sound upstairs just your old house pushing back against the wind, or something more sinister? This ambivalence leaves us frozen in place and wallowing in unease—especially if we’re alone. When we’re uncertain, the first thing we usually do is to look to the reactions of others to figure out what is going on. Without others with whom to share information and reactions, ambiguity becomes very hard to resolve. When this happens, our mind can quickly race to the darkest possible conclusions.
Unpleasant things can also happen when small groups of people experience isolation together. Much of what we know about this phenomenon has been gathered from observing the experiences of volunteers at research stations in Antarctica, especially during the “wintering-over” period. Antarctica's extreme temperatures, long periods of darkness, alien landscapes, and severely reduced sensory input create a perfect natural laboratory for studying the effects of isolation and confinement. Volunteers in these studies experience changes in appetite and sleep patterns. Some stop being able to accurately track the passage of time and lose the ability to concentrate. The boredom that results from being around the same people, with limited sources of entertainment, causes a lot of stress—and everyone else’s mannerisms become a grating, annoying, and inescapable source of torment.
What does this say about the way we’re wired? It’s clear that meaningful connection to other people is as essential to our health as the air we breathe. Given that prolonged periods of social isolation can crack even the hardiest of individuals, it’s probably best we continue to engage in our performances with our friends.
It's been proposed that one of the issues with friendship is that these relationships lack a sense of purpose. Our attempts at friendship tend to go adrift, because we collectively resist the task of developing a clear picture of what friendship is really for. The problem is that we are unfairly uncomfortable with the idea of friendship having any declared purpose, because we associate purpose with the least attractive and most cynical motives. Yet purpose doesn’t have to ruin friendship and in fact, the more we define what a friendship might be for, the more we can focus in on what we should be doing with every person in our lives – or indeed the more we can helpfully conclude that we shouldn’t be with them at all.
It's been suggested that there are at least five things we might be trying to do with the people we meet:
- Networking. Before you sigh a collective sigh, consider this, we are all pretty small, fragile creatures in a vast world. Our individual capacities are entirely insufficient to realise the demands of our imaginations. So, of course, we need collaborators: accomplices who can align their abilities and energies with ours.
- Reassurance. The human condition can be full of terror. At times we can be on the verge of disgrace, danger and disappointment. And yet such are the rules of polite conduct that we are permanently in danger of imagining that we are the only ones to be as crazy as we know we are. We badly need friends because, with the people we know only superficially, there are few confessions of regret, rage and confusion. The reassuring friend gives us access to a very necessary and accurate sense of their own humiliations and follies; an insight with which we can begin to judge ourselves and our sad and compulsive sides more compassionately.
- Fun. Despite talk of hedonism and immediate gratification, life gives us constant lessons in the need to be serious. We have to guard our dignity, avoid looking like a fool and pass as a mature adult. The pressure becomes onerous, and in the end even dangerous. That is why we constantly need access to people we can trust enough to be silly with them. They might most of the time be training to be a neurosurgeon or advising middle sized companies about their tax liabilities but when we are together, we can be therapeutically daft. We can put on accents, dance our hearts out or share our weird fantasies. The fun friend solves the problem of shame around important but unprestigious sides of ourselves.
- Clarifying our Minds. To a surprising degree, it can be pretty hard to think on our own. The mind is a bit skittish and squeamish. As a result, many issues lie confused within us. We feel angry but are not sure why. Something is wrong with our job but we can’t pin it down. The thinking friend holds us to the task. They ask gentle but probing questions which act as a mirror that assists us with the task of knowing ourselves.
- Holding on to the past. A number of friends have little to do with who we are now, but we keep seeing them. Perhaps we knew them from school or university, or we once spent a very significant holiday with them twenty years ago or we became friendly when our children were at kindergarten together. They embody a past version of ourselves from which we’re now distant and yet remain loyal. They help us to understand where we have come from and what once mattered. They may not be totally relevant to whom we are today, but not all of our identity is ever contemporary, as our continued commitment to them attests.
Even Aristotle attempted to figure out the purpose of these social relationships we keep. He postulated that there were three types of friendship:
If we’re a bit more precise about what we’re trying to do with our social lives, we can bring a greater awareness and understanding to the process of friendship. Bringing more meaning and celebration to the experiences that both enrich our lives and keep us emotionally healthy.
It’s February! That month where greeting card companies sell you love.
We're no different here at Hope Street Cards. We’re going to be selling, spreading and sharing the love this month. One of the most glorious forms of love – friendship.
How good are friends?
“In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. They keep the young out of mischief; they comfort and aid the old in their weakness, and they incite those in the prime of life to noble deeds.”
When I was younger I came across the saying - “your friends are a reflection of you”. I didn’t quite get this for a while. Mostly because my friends have always seemed to be consistently and significantly attractive. The reflection did not seem all that obvious, But as I’ve gone on and seen how other people make friends, and how truly honoured I am to have my friends it starts to make a bit more sense. I’m not so worried about the superficial attributes such as looks, money, success or status but rather I fall in love with those who bring laughter, joy, honesty and who can be there for me and also give me a firm kick in the butt when I need it. I always find it intriguing to meet friends of people I know because I can really get a sense of that person by the company they choose to keep in their life.
As human beings, we become so busy with our jobs and career, family, household chores, daily activities that we often neglect one of the most important aspects of life; friendships, the relationships that develop over time that hold a very special place in our heart. Friends are family members that we choose to allow and keep in our lives. From our first childhood friend to those lifelong friends we have known for decades; friends are treasures that can bring so much positivity into our lives. Yet we often become too busy and can neglect to reflect on the wonder of these important people.
Here's some of the reasons why we think friends are great (and why we’ll be spending all of February banging on about friendship)
- Friends are there to lift you up in joy and comfort you in sorrow
- Friends help you develop social skills
I am a bit of an introvert. I love people, but usually in small considered doses. When someone invites me to a party or to a wedding, I cringe on the inside because I know I will have to be around a lot of people that I don’t really, which gives me anxiety. However, if I know my friends will be there, I know it will be okay. They can help push me out of my comfort zone and always get me into social gatherings. From childhood, friends are there to invite us to birthday parties, have play dates and as we get older we dinner with our cherished friends to catch up on the week or the past month. These events make life so much more special.
- Good friends will give us a reality check
- Friendships at a young age can help you develop healthy romantic relationships
- The Happiest People are the Most Social
- Happiness Is Contagious
- Friends Cut the Small Talk—and That Makes Us Happy
- Our Friends Help Us Feel Optimistic
- Friendships Improve Our Health
- Our Friends Help Us Live Longer
A Swedish study found that when men do get enough social support during stressful times, they tend to live longer than those who didn’t have someone to lean on. There’s ample evidence that friendships don’t just make our lives better, they make them longer. Women who have at least one confidant survive longer after surgery for breast cancer, for example. And a review of 148 studies found that people with stronger social relationships have a 50 percent lower risk of mortality. In addition, older people without close friends are more likely to develop chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and depression than their counterparts.
Obviously it’s not all roses though. Sometimes we bicker with our friends, feel envious of them, or even gossip about them. But they’re worth the bother. Our friendships enrich our lives in profoundly meaningful ways. And throughout February we’re going to find out exactly how …. Stay tuned.
Let's do a very quick experiment. Grab a pen and some paper. Go on, this will be good fun!
Firstly, quick as you can, without too much conscious thought, list all of your most favourite things about your bestest friend.
Easy? Got a massive list of amazing qualities? Excellent!
Now, with that pen and paper, list your most favourite things about yourself. Quickly. Off you go.
How was that? A little bit harder? Was your list a little bit more difficult to cultivate than that of your besties? A bit slower to get off the ground? Maybe your BFF’s qualities look a little longer than your own when written down on paper by you?
It’s interesting isn’t it? In general, we are way nicer to our friends than we are to our self. We humans can be much, much better at being able to love the people around us than we are at loving ourselves. To improve our relationship with our self it might be worthwhile to consider the practice of ‘self-compassion’.
At its core self-compassion is about treating ourselves kindly. Extending towards our self the same kindness and sympathy that we might extend to a good friend.
Over the past decade self-compassion has gained popularity as a related and complementary construct to mindfulness, and research on self-compassion is growing at an exponential rate. Dr Kristen Neff a pioneer in the self-compassion field has explained:
Self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of just ignoring your pain with a “stiff upper lip” mentality, you stop to tell yourself “this is really difficult right now,” how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?
Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?
In essence, compassion for our self is similar to the compassion we feel for our loved ones. When we feel compassion for others, we feel kindness toward them, empathy, and a desire to help reduce their suffering. It’s the same when we are compassionate toward our self. Self-compassion creates a caring space within us that is free of judgment—a place that sees our hurt and failures and softens to allow those experiences with kindness and caring.
To explain it a bit more, it might help to outline what self-compassion isn’t.
Self-Compassion is not self-pity.
When we humans feel self-pity, we can become totally immersed in our own problems and forget that others have similar problems. We can ignore interconnections with others, and instead feel that we are the only ones in the world who are suffering. Self-pity tends to emphasize egocentric feelings of separation from others and exaggerate the extent of personal suffering. Self-compassion, on the other hand, allows us to see the related experiences of self and other without these feelings of isolation and disconnection.
Self-Compassion is not self-indulgence.
Self-compassion is also very different from self-indulgence. This took me a while to understand and some other (struggling) perfectionists may also have difficulty with this one. I was initially reluctant to be self-compassionate because I was afraid that without my inner self-criticism I would let myself get away with just about anything and everything would fall to shit. This, however, is self-indulgence rather than self-compassion. Being compassionate to oneself means that we want to be happy and healthy in the long term. In many cases, just giving oneself pleasure may harm well-being (such as taking drugs, over-eating, being a couch potato), while giving yourself health and lasting happiness often involves a certain amount of displeasure (such as quitting smoking, dieting, exercising). We are often very hard on ourselves when we notice something we want to change because we think we can shame themselves into action – the self-flagellation approach. However, this approach often backfires if we can’t face difficult truths about our self because we are so afraid of hating our self if we do. Thus, weaknesses may remain unacknowledged in an unconscious attempt to avoid self-censure. In contrast, the care intrinsic to compassion provides a powerful motivating force for growth and change, while also providing the safety needed to see the self clearly without fear of self-condemnation.
Self-Compassion is not self-esteem.
This is a really important one. Although self-compassion may seem similar to self-esteem, they are different in many ways. Self-esteem refers to our sense of self-worth, perceived value, or how much we like ourselves. While there is little doubt that low self-esteem is problematic and often leads to depression and lack of motivation, trying to have higher self-esteem can also be problematic. In modern Western culture, self-esteem is often based on how much we are different from others, how much we stand out or are special. Accordingly, it is not okay to be average, we have to feel above average to feel good about ourselves. Unfortunately this can mean that some attempts to raise self-esteem may result in narcissistic, self-absorbed behavior, or lead us to put others down in order to feel better about ourselves. We might get angry and aggressive towards those who have said or done anything that potentially makes us feel bad about ourselves. The need for high self-esteem may encourage us to ignore, distort or hide personal shortcomings so that we can’t see ourselves clearly and accurately. Finally, our self-esteem is often contingent on our latest success or failure, meaning that our self-esteem fluctuates depending on ever-changing circumstances.
In contrast to self-esteem, self-compassion is not based on self-evaluations. People feel compassion for themselves because all human beings deserve compassion and understanding, not because they possess some particular set of traits (pretty, smart, talented, and so on). This means that with self-compassion, you don’t have to feel better than others to feel good about yourself. Self-compassion also allows for greater self-clarity, because personal failings can be acknowledged with kindness and do not need to be hidden. Moreover, self-compassion isn’t dependent on external circumstances, it’s always available – especially when you fall flat on your face!
But the two do go together. If you’re self-compassionate, you’ll tend to have higher self-esteem than if you’re endlessly self-critical. And like high self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with significantly less anxiety and depression, as well as more happiness, optimism, and positive emotions. However, self-compassion offers clear advantages over self-esteem when things go wrong, or when our egos are threatened. Research indicates that in comparison to self-esteem, self-compassion is associated with greater emotional resilience, more accurate self-concepts, more caring relationship behavior, as well as less narcissism and reactive anger.
The bottom line is that according to the science, self-compassion does in fact appear to offer the same advantages as high self-esteem, but with less discernible downsides.
So, how do we focus on cultivating a compassionate and kind relationship with our self? Well according to Dr Neff, self-compassion entails three components and in order to be truly self-compassionate we combine each of the three essential elements.
Self-kindness is being gentle and understanding with ourselves rather than harshly critically and judgmental. Self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism. Self-compassionate people recognise that being imperfect, failing, and experiencing life difficulties is inevitable, so they tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences rather than getting angry when life falls short of set ideals. People cannot always be or get exactly what they want. When this reality is denied or fought against suffering increases in the form of stress, frustration and self-criticism. When this reality is accepted with sympathy and kindness, greater emotional equanimity is experienced.
The best way to think about being kind to yourself is to think about a friend. Go ahead. Do it now. Visualise your best friend. Again. Now imagine they come to you and say they are hurting because they were passed over for that promotion at work that they’ve wanted for so long. Would you say to them, “Well, it’s probably because you didn’t work hard enough. And you’re too weak. You should have spoken up about wanting a promotion a long time ago.” What? You wouldn’t say that to a friend? Would you say it to yourself? It’s more likely that you would hug your friend and say, “Oh no! That’s terrible. I know how long you’ve been hoping to get that promotion. Come on, let’s go get some coffee and talk about it?” You can be kind to yourself in this way, too. Treat yourself as you would treat a friend who is suffering. Just as you would hug your friend, soothe yourself as well. Put your hands over your heart or locate the spot in your body where your hurt is hiding and gently place both hands there. Speak kindly to yourself. Call yourself by an endearing name. “Oh, honey. I’m hurting because I wanted that promotion so badly. This is a really hard place to be in right now.”
2. Common humanity
This is my favourite bit. Self-compassion requires recognition of our common humanity, feeling connected with others in the experience of life rather than feeling isolated and alienated by our suffering.
Frustration at not having things exactly as we want is often accompanied by an irrational but pervasive sense of isolation – as if “I” were the only person suffering or making mistakes. But we all suffer. All the humans suffer. Turns out the very definition of being “human” means that one is mortal, vulnerable and imperfect. And yes, that’s shit, but with self-compassion we recognise that suffering and personal inadequacy is part of the shared human experience – something that we all go through rather than being something that happens to “me” alone.
Many times when we criticise or judge our self, we can feel very, very isolated. It can seem as if we’re the only person in the entire universe with this problem or flaw. And yet, we are all imperfect. We all suffer. And so we are all connected by our shared humanity.
One of the wonderful outcomes of self-compassion is our enhanced sense of belonging, the feeling that we are all in this together.
The next time you are looking in the mirror and not liking what you see, remember that you are an integral part of a flawed, wonderful, wounded, miraculous human tribe.
3. Be mindful
Third, it requires mindfulness—that we hold our experience in balanced awareness, rather than ignoring our pain or exaggerating it.
Self-compassion also requires taking a balanced approach to our negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. Mindfulness is a non-judgmental, receptive mind state in which one observes thoughts and feelings as they are, without trying to suppress or deny them. We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.
How will you know that you are suffering if you are repressing your pain, rationalizing it, or busy with problem-solving?
We can allow awareness of our pain to enter in. Being mindful is about noticing what is happening in the moment and having no judgment about it. Notice our hurt and just be with it, compassionately and with kindness. And note that trying to make pain go away with self-compassion is just another way to repress pain and hurt. Self-compassion is about being with your suffering in a kind, loving way, not about making suffering disappear.
Taken together, the research suggests that self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?” By tapping into our inner wellsprings of kindness, acknowledging the shared nature of our imperfect human condition, we can start to feel more secure, accepted, and alive. – Kristen Neff
It does take work to break the self-criticising habits of a lifetime, but at the end of the day self-compassion is just asking us to be friendlier to our self. Asking us to relax, allow things to be and love our self with a little more kindness.
For more good stuff on self-compassion, check out the website of one of the lovely ladies I completed my psych training with here. Dr Brooke is a self-compassion guru and she's got an awesome #bemyownbestie Insta campaign going to keep your practice on track!
In the hierarchy of relationships, friendships are usually somewhere toward the bottom. Romantic partners, parents, children—all of these tend to come first.
This is true in life, and in science, where relationship research tends to focus on couples and families.
But our friendships are pretty unique relationships because unlike family relationships or working relationships, we choose to enter into these networks. And unlike other voluntary bonds, like marriages and romantic relationships, they lack a formal structure. You wouldn’t go months or even a year or two, without speaking to or seeing your significant other (hopefully), but you might go that long without contacting a friend.
Despite all of this, the smart people doing all the research and the surveys that all the peoples continue to do repeatedly show us just how important our friends are to our health and our emotional wellbeing.
The reality is the people who have close friendships appear to be happier.
In 2002, two pioneers of Positive Psychology, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, conducted a study at the University of Illinois on the 10% of students with the highest scores recorded on a survey of personal happiness. They found that the most salient characteristics shared by students who were very happy and showed the fewest signs of depression were "their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them."
But I was a University student once. And I reckon I was probably in that top 10%. My friends were without doubt my priority. I was very committed to them. And the shared experiences/regular binge drinking excursions with them. More so than anything else. My part-time job at Donut King. University. My liver.
As we get older though, we tend to have more demands on our time. Many of them more pressing than friendship. After all, it’s easier to put off catching up with a friend than it is to skip your kid’s recorder recital or an important business trip. Or in my case the other day, writing a grant application for work. The ideal of our expectations for friendship is always in tension with the reality of their lives.
William Rollins, Professor of Interpersonal Communication at Ohio University has studied friendship for decades.
“The real bittersweet aspect is young adulthood begins with all this time for friendship, and friendship just having this exuberant, profound importance for figuring out who you are and what’s next,” Rawlins says. “And you find at the end of young adulthood, now you don’t have time for the very people who helped you make all these decisions.”
The time is poured, largely, into jobs and families. Not all of us couple up or have kids, but we’re all likely to have friendships affected by others’ couplings. “The largest drop-off in friends in the life course occurs when people get married,” Rawlins says. “And that’s kind of ironic, because at the [wedding], people invite both of their sets of friends, so it’s kind of this last wonderful and dramatic gathering of both people’s friends, but then it drops off. You find at the end of young adulthood, now you don’t have time for the very people who helped you make all these life decisions.”
In a set of interviews he did in 1994 with middle-aged Americans about their friendships, Rawlins wrote that, “an almost tangible irony permeated these adults' discussions of close or ‘real’ friendship.” They defined friendship as “being there” for each other, but reported that they rarely had time to spend with their most valued friends, whether because of circumstances, or through the age-old problem of good intentions and bad follow-through: “Friends who lived within striking distance of each other found that… scheduling opportunities to spend or share some time together was essential,” Rawlins writes. “Several mentioned, however, that these occasions often were talked about more than they were accomplished.”
But if you plot busyness across the life course, it makes a parabola. So for those of us who might be in this peak period of busyness now and our friendships may be at the bottom of the pile, we might have a bit more time later on. Once people retire and their kids have grown up, there seems to be more time for the shared living kind of friendship again. People tend to reconnect with old friends they’ve lost touch with. And it seems more urgent to spend time with them—according to socioemotional selectivity theory, toward the end of life, people begin prioritizing experiences that will make them happiest in the moment, including spending time with close friends and family.
But when there’s so many benefits to cultivating loving and meaningful relationships who wants to wait til then? Not I.
Like romantic relationships, sustaining and nurturing true friendships in the present requires time and effort. But the reality is that it’s well worth it, because having good friends can:
- Improve your mood. Spending time with happy and positive friends can elevate your mood and boost your outlook.
- Help you to reach your goals. Whether you're trying to get fit, give up smoking, or otherwise improve your life, encouragement from a friend can really boost your willpower and increase your chances of success.
- Reduce your stress and depression. Having an active social life can bolster your immune system and help reduce isolation, a major contributing factor for depression.
- Support you through tough times. Even if it's just having someone to share your problems with, friends can help you cope with serious illness, the loss of a job or loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or any other challenges in life.
- Support you as you age. As you age, retirement, illness, and the death of loved ones can often leave you isolated. Having people you can turn to for company and support can provide purpose as you age and be a buffer against depression, disability, hardship and loss.
- Boost your self-worth. Friendship is a two-way street, and the "give" side of the give-and-take contributes to your own sense of self-worth. Being there for your friends makes you feel needed and adds purpose to your life.
And just because you’ve been friends with someone since you were both in nappies, doesn’t mean they will be there forever either. Whether we hold onto these old friends or grow apart seems to come down to dedication and communication. In a longitudinal study of best friends, the number of months that friends reported being close in 1983 predicted whether they were still close in 2002, suggesting that the more you’ve invested in a friendship already, the more likely you are to keep it going. Other research has found that people need to feel like they are getting as much out of the friendship as they are putting in, and that that equity can predict a friendship’s continued success.
Technology has indeed shifted the definition of friendship, but the research vividly points out that our most important and powerful connections happen when we’re face-to-face. There is significant evidence that talking to people face-to-face, even via Skype, is much more satisfying than text, email and Facebook. This in itself isn’t surprising – as humans we respond to visual cues that can never be replaced by emoticons. So make it a priority to stay in touch in the real world, not just online.
Relationships are one of the biggest sources of happiness in our lives. Yes, we get busy and it’s so very easy to get caught up in our responsibilities and other relationships, but losing touch with the people we have chosen in our lives can be one of the most common end-of-life regrets. Let’s make an effort to stay connected and nurture our relationships. Because lovers may come and go, work may carry us half way around the world, but friendship tends to be a point of stability in an otherwise rapidly changing world.
My last two weekends could not have been experiences on further points of the spectrum.
Weekend one - I stayed home. Alone. I went out to do the things I needed to do and engaged with some peeps along the way. And I read a book. It was a really, really, really good book. And it was a long book. Which meant there wasn’t time for much else.
Weekend two - I also stayed home. With heaps and heaps of people. I had people from inter-state come stay. I hosted a party and invited new friends and old friends. Really, really young friends and not quite so young friends. Friends I’ve known since childhood and friends I’ve known for a month or two. People that weren’t friends yet, but are now. Friends of friends came along. The weekend was full of people.
Interestingly If I was to pick a side, I’d probably pick myself to be on the introverted team. I really enjoy being alone. I like solitary activities like reading and cross-stitch. I’m one cat away from becoming the stereotypical ‘cat lady’. For a long time, big social events were not really my thing. I enjoyed them, but never actively sought them out. But things seem to be shifting.
The consequences I felt following each of these weekend experiences were just as incongruous as the weekends themselves.
Following the first weekend, I felt tired. And a bit flat. I returned to work a bit deflated and unmotivated and it took a little while to get my groove going.
The second weekend though, I was zooming. Energised. Motivated. Stimulated. Challenged. Enthusiastic. Optimistic. Joyful. Grateful. Dare I say it. I think I was feeling pretty happy.
I doubt that most of us don’t disagree that friendship is a totes wonderful part of life. But sometimes, it seems like we might see it as a bit of a superficial part of life. Maybe not the biggest priority. The part to enjoy when we’ve taken care of the other (more important) stuff. Like work. And partners. And children. And creating niche greeting card businesses with your sister.
But as it turns out this is totally not the case. If we put more value into our friendships, it might actually help us with the other stuff. Like work. And partners. And children. And creating niche greeting card businesses with your sister (this, I already knew).
Friendship, together with other close relationships, is frequently responsible for large boosts in our well-being. Interestingly, people often seek counselling for family difficulties, though rarely for matters of friendship. Yet, in our modern lifestyle we operate less as members of a tribe or a community and more as autonomous individuals.
According to the really smart people (those who do the good research) having friends at work makes you more productive, innovative, happier and even more satisfied with the amount of money you earn than if you didn’t have any pals on the job. Friendships have also been shown to spur creativity and innovation. If you’re married or partnered up, the more friends you have the stronger your couple relationship will be. Similarly, sharing with friends who are experiencing similar transitions such as becoming parents, raising children and teenagers can provide support, advice and relief as required.
[And whilst there’s no formal research into this one, we can anecdotally report that without the support, encouragement, advice, ideas, belief, woodworking skills, media relations advice, honesty and inspiration Hope Street Cards would not be up and running.]
And then there are all the physical reasons for not staying at home alone on weekends and reading a book.
It's true that just being with a friend lowers our blood pressure. Other health effects of solid friendships are among the most surprising; friends can help us break bad habits or lose weight, simply because we are so driven to adapt the values and behaviours of those in our social group. Laughing with friends can increase physical pain thresholds by about ten percent. Friends enhance our intelligence (since you're comfortable with them you're more likely to freely share insights until something brilliant surfaces. You should have heard some of the ideas we came up with for shark deterrents over the weekend!) and they can even save your wits. Elderly people with active social lives are much less likely to experience cognitive decline and dementia than those without.
The ultimate argument for the positive influence of friends is their startling effect on our life spans. One study found that breast cancer patients who were socially isolated had a full 66 percent increased risk of dying compared to women with a supportive circle of friends. Having a spouse did not reduce the patients' chances of dying. According to a meta-study, people with a solid group of friends are 50 percent more likely to survive at any given time than those without one. And here's another goodie: having few social ties is an equivalent mortality risk to smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even riskier than being obese or not exercising!
The clincher for me though has been the warm and fuzzy feeling I’ve been carrying around all week. Us humans are wired for connection and a sense belonging is one of the deepest sources of human fulfilment. The energy that can exist between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can given and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship - that shit is special. When I’m with my peeps I know that I belong. It implies that I am taken seriously; I am connected; I am supported.
It’s hard to get that feeling from a book.