One of the best parts about having so many littler people in my life is that my opportunities for play dates have increased one billion fold. Suddenly there is time for trampoline and legos and bubbles and chalk on pavement and cubby house and imaginary picnics and hide and seek. And OMG it is fun.
Play – for all of us - is actually pretty serious business. This might sound paradoxical. Because it is. Play is something that comes so naturally to us large-brained mammals (and birds, according to some authorities) and is so much fun, but it is also so vital. Play is a banquet for the brain, a smorgasbord for the senses, providing nourishment for our body and our spirit. It’s a bit sad then that it took all of my friends to procreate before I realised that so much of it was missing from my life.
Some biologists and theorists define play as any activity that is neither ‘serious’ nor ‘work’. Active play, says Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play in California, is a timeless state of being essential to humans. It is also a state of mind, an attitude of curiosity and wonder. And neuroscience, Brown argues, is beginning to show how true that is. Play, he says, is what builds complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and flexible brains, which in turn build complex, skilled, responsive, socially adept and flexible people and societies. Lizards, turtles, rats, birds, primates, most mammals, and even some fish play in their youth, but few animals continue to play into adulthood. As humans though, we can.
As children, play is how we begin to understand ourselves, and how the world works, without risk. From an evolutionary perspective, play primarily evolved to teach us skills as young people: to build cooperation and sharing, to assist us with survival.
In the 1960s, Brown identified play’s importance through the study of 26 young (male) murderers, beginning with Charles Whitman. In August 1966, Whitman, a 25-year-old architectural engineering student at the University of Texas at Austin, killed his wife and mother, then mounted the campus tower, shooting dead a total of 17 people and wounding more than 30 before being gunned down himself.
Brown and his colleagues expected to find a history of physical abuse in Whitman’s and the other murderers’ pasts, which they did: but they also discovered that “play deprivation and other major play abnormalities” were present in most cases. For example, Whitman’s playfulness was systematically beaten out of him (literally and figuratively) by his overbearing father. Neighbours testified that he was not allowed to play with other children. A Texas state committee, convened to investigate the university shootings, concluded that lack of play was a key factor in Whitman’s killing spree: if he had been allowed to play, it theorised, he would have been better able to cope with life’s vicissitudes without recourse to violence. (Others have hypothesised, however that Whitman’s glioblastoma, a type of brain tumour, helps to explain his actions.)
Brown went on to catalogue the detailed play histories of more than 6,000 people over the course of his career. He writes: “What all these studies repeatedly revealed…was that…normal play behaviour was virtually absent throughout the lives of highly violent, antisocial men, regardless of demography.” It seems that Jack Torrance’s threatening repetition of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” in The Shining has more than pop resonance.
Brown’s work reveals that severely play-deprived children manifest multiple psychopathologies: conversely, the histories of successful, creative people show social play’s vital part in healthy development. It seems that emotional control, social competency, personal resiliency and curiosity accrue through developmentally appropriate play experiences. Other studies, such as the work of Swiss researchers Marco Hüttenmoser and Dorothee Degen-Zimmermann, have also found that play-deprived children manifest responses on a scale ranging from unhappiness to aggression.
Why is play deprivation so damaging? John Byers, professor of zoology at the University of Idaho, says that among “mammals with well-developed play, the behaviour represents a substantial energy expenditure and may involve physical risk. These two facts indicate that play most likely is involved in post-natal brain development (in mammals, a larger adult brain size requires a longer period of development), and the benefit of play must be substantial (to outweigh the energy and risk costs).”
Byers’ research over the past 40 years has also shown that in a number of mammals, “the ages at which play reaches a peak rate coincide with the ages during which there is performance-based selective elimination of synapses in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that permits sophisticated movement.” A theory postulated as play as a form of brain “hygiene?”
That same brain hygiene exists for us as adults.
As adults, play creates rich, new neural connections that fire together in new ways. In animal studies, life without play is bleak. Scientists have found that, deprived of play, young rats’ brains develop abnormally, just like rats with a damaged prefrontal cortex. And that, when presented with a cat odour, only rats who’d played eventually came out of hiding and began poking around, testing the environment.
Playful adults have the ability to transform everyday situations, even stressful ones, into something entertaining. Studies have found that highly playful young adults — those who rated themselves high on personality characteristics such as being spontaneous or energetic, or open to ‘clowning around’ — reported less stress in their lives and possessed better coping skills. It’s possible that those of us that have these attributes because they are better able to keep stress in perspective.
There’s a reason that adult play exists in modern society. One theory is that we play because it’s therapeutic — and there’s research to back that up. At work, play has been found to speed up learning, enhance productivity and increase job satisfaction; and at home, playing together, like going to a movie or a concert, can enhance bonding and communication.
In today’s world, work seems to give us our sense of identity and purpose. Being busy has become a way of showing high status. Leisure time - what the ancient Greek philosophers held as the aim of ‘the good life’ - is seen as silly, unproductive and useless, as are other unproductive states, like sleep.
But if the younger people in my world are teaching me anything, it’s that we need to be able to justify our play time again. Play is reminding me about my better self and just how happy I can be. When I get to play, there’s a wonderful lightness to my being. It’s blowing my mind.
I’m not a big risk taker in general. I’m not a huge fan of thrill seeking. I don’t really like any type of activity where I have to take my glasses off for too long a period of time. Huge adventures are not really my forte either. I’m more into being fully prepared and organised before committing to anything. Overall, I like things to be safe, controlled and comfortable in the warm, little bubble I’ve created for myself.
But lately it feels like I’ve been taking a lot of risks. Like every day. Over and over. In all sorts of ways – creatively, professionally, emotionally, financially. And whilst I did manage to go on a motorbike ride, my glasses have remained firmly planted on my face. It all still feels a bit risky though.
Why? Because I’m putting myself out there.
Let’s think about emotional risks. Emotional risk taking is expressing our deepest needs, fears and desires and exposing our delicate, vulnerable self without knowing if the person we are opening up to will be able to meet and fulfil our needs. If we don't allow ourselves the opportunity to be open with others then we never have the chance of actually having our needs met. If others don't know what we need how can there be a strong possibility that our needs will be fulfilled? It is only by taking a risk to reveal our self and our needs when there are no guarantees and there is a chance of rejection or disappointment.
Taking a risk and revealing our authentic self can be overwhelming. Because being vulnerable raises our anxiety. This fear, which is in all of us, is deep and remote. It might be evoking our earliest experiences. The dread could be reminding us of our most harrowing questions from childhood: Will I be cared for? If I work and work and work at it, will I be embraced or rejected? If we put ourselves out there in some meaningful way, we are likely to experience some form of this anxiety. But it means we’re probably doing something right.
As I’ve banged on about time and time again, vulnerability is defined as the courage to show up and be seen and heard when we can’t control the outcome. It’s what happens when we put ourselves out there when there’s a chance it could all go to shit.
It’s an uncomfortable position. It’s filled with uncertainty and risk and emotional exposure. Because of this, we’re hard-wired to try and avoid the feelings of fear and anxiety that it produces.
But anything that requires a little bit of courage – going on a motorbike ride, saying ‘no’ to something at work when you normally always say ‘yes’, opening yourself up to someone, starting a new project, getting yourself a mortgage, accepting the generosity of others, asking for forgiveness, (I am really busy right now!) – involve copious amounts of vulnerability.
And vulnerability presents a dilemma. We have a goal and we need to take a risk to reach for it.
But it might be worth remembering where the risk is. The real risk is not in exposure, but in withdrawal. By pulling away from the world either by refusing to put our work or our creativity or our voice or our emotions on the line again we guarantee failure. We deny our self the opportunity to forge the connections that make life worth living. Exposing our self and showing up is the only way we can develop emotionally, professionally, creatively and personally. We can slice it and dice it a million different ways, but growth, real growth, lasting and meaningful growth, comes from one thing and one thing only: Risk. If we can keep at it, if we can push through the fear and self-doubt to let others see us as we are, our self and our message will be received. It may not happen exactly as we envision, but it will happen.
To be honest, I’m not a huge fan of dishing out ‘skills’ and ‘tips’ for relationships. I’m definitely not a relationship expert. And there are an infinite number of communication skills I could endeavour to develop. But mostly I reckon that we all have within us the ‘skills’ we need to communicate effectively; most of us do it fine in the majority of our relationships. But once our relationships become a bit more significant to us, or maybe somewhat more intimate, we seem to start getting it a bit wrong.
Probably because the stakes are a bit higher. We might start protecting ourselves a bit more. Or our partners. Or our children. And the messages we try and send get less clearer. More muddier.
Let’s pretend we’re meeting our sister for a dinner party. She’s late. Once again, she’s neglected to send us a text to keep us updated. When she finally manages to arrive, we end up erupting: “You’re always late. You never text me to let me know!” These could be pretty true statements. But there also could be better ways to get our frustration across.
In my work we like to use the “I feel” statements. And we use them a lot. We ask our clients to use them. As colleagues we use them with each other. And the other night I found myself banging on to a friend about how to use them as well. So much for not dishing out the skills.
At first when I encountered the plethora of “I Statements” coming from my smart, informed, and sensitive clients and colleagues, I was a bit perturbed. I began to argue against them. I’d whinge about the processing of our feelings and behaviours would get in the way of our actual work-related output. But once I got used to it, I started to learn so much more. About communicating. About relationships. But mostly about myself. There is a kernel of something true and important in the idea of an “I statement” that in my opinion, is worth taking a pause to consider what’s actually going on.
As a rough guide, expressing our feelings and needs through an “I statement” can work a bit like this:
- Making a non-evaluative observation.
For example., ‘When you don’t show up on time …’
- Identifying how you feel in response to the observation.
For example., ‘When you don’t show up on time, I felt hurt.’
- Linking your feelings to your thoughts or needs.
For example., 'When you don’t show up on time, I felt hurt, because it makes me feel as if you don’t care about our arrangements.'
- Making a request.
For example., ‘When you don’t show up on time, I felt hurt, because it makes me feel as if you don’t care about our arrangements. Would you be able to send a text next time if the arrangements need to change to let me know? What’s it like for you, hearing me say this?’
An “I” statement is helpful in a few different ways. For both the listener and the speaker. Using the “I” means that we take full responsibility for our thoughts, feelings and/or actions. Instead of blaming the other person, we can (hopefully) clearly emphasise our thoughts and feelings to the listener.
In general, people tend to be more receptive to hearing about how we feel, rather than taking on blame or criticism for something that they allegedly did – which is often how a “you” statement can come across. A “you” statement can trigger the fight or flight response in a person, whereas an “I” statement can keep the other person feeling safe. Our most productive conversations are going to happen when both people are calm and their thoughts are in their rational, pre-frontal cortex part of the brain. If we are able to actually listen, process and internalise feedback, rather than getting caught up and feeling defensive, that’s when the magic happens. The magic of intimate relationships.
What does all of this do? Yes, it does tend to reduce the sense of accusation, and therefore the possibility of a defensive response. But more importantly it forces us to really think about what it’s like for us. What is this moment of pain or distress that we are in and trying to communicate. And then it forces us to try and let our significant person into that space and what it’s like for us.
Isn’t this the very essence of empathy? The ability to put one’s self in the shoes of another, to place our self into the experience of someone else? When I think about what something is really like for ME, I can touch the depth of feeling at the heart of that experience. And when I share that with someone close to me, I engender a sense of empathy in him/her. And now we are connecting.
The “I statement” isn’t so much about the “I” and where it is, but more about sharing our experiences with those important to us. If we want to have close relationships with people around us, we can choose to speak in depth about your own perceptions, intentions, and feelings. We can define our relationships by speaking to what they are like for us.
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.
Being in relationships – of any form – can hurt us. Because as human beings we’re not perfect and we’re capable of doing really dumb shit.
Some time ago, someone at work tried to make me look bad. In an inter-agency meeting, they suddenly spoke to the lack of support they felt they were getting from my department – or me in particular. I was taken aback, but only slowly did I begin to realise what was going on: it was a hostile attack meant to damage me in front of other parties. I shut down and tried all the techniques to stop myself from bursting into tears. Over the next few days, the strong anger dissipated and I started seeing what I think caused the attack: they were feeling threatened. They were scared that their job was on the line and I was going to take on their job and responsibilities. And to be honest, it could have looked that way to them. Without ever talking to the person about it, I thought a lot about it, and by the end of the process, I held no grudge. I had forgiven them.
It can be so hard to forgive because – so often – we simply are in the right and the scale of the folly, thoughtlessness and meanness of others seems utterly beyond our own measure.
But healthy relationships with our colleagues, friends, family and neighbours all depend on the power of forgiveness. Daily life is full to the brim of moments in which we hurt others, by accident or on purpose. If we want to continue to be social organisms then mutual forgiveness is the only way forward.
One way to increase our chances of cutting others a little slack is to think on how the other person may have got there, to this place of idiocy and cruelty. Every “irritating” fault in another person has a long history behind it. We don’t just become irritating overnight. They have become like this because of flaws in their development, which they did not choose for themselves. They were shaped by troubles which we cannot see but which we can know exist. Perhaps the arrogant person was trapped (at some key point in their personal evolution) in an environment where being modest and reasonable seemed to guarantee they’d be trampled on. Maybe the hyper-critical individual has lived too much, as their personality was growing, around people who couldn’t take a gentle hint – so they came to rely on blunt assertions. It’s possible that the frustratingly timid, mousy person was (at some stage) terrified; the show-off learned their irritating manner around people who were hard to please. Behind every supposed failing – behind everything that we feel is infuriating about those we meet – is a decisive trauma encountered before someone could cope with it properly. They are maddening but they got to be this way without meaning to. To forgive is to understand the origins of evil and cruelty.
Secondly, and very strangely, there are probably some difficult things about ourselves too. Yes, that’s you. Personally, I’m happy to admit that there are things that I do just because of who I am that would be incredibly irritating to certain people and require forgiveness at time. In my own way I have betrayed others. In my own nice way I’ve been a coward. I often forget my own privileges. Unthinkingly, I have added salt to the wounds of others. A lot of this is entirely unintentional, but it happens because I am flawed and human. This is certain. We must forgive because – not right now, not over this, but one day, over something – we need to be forgiven.
I still have a long way to go on the path to forgiveness. For me, the hardest part is being confronted with my own shortcomings. It can be hard to accept the careless things that I have done and said. And I get angry with myself, because with hindsight I feel I should have done a much better job with both myself and others. Like most things, the capacity for forgiveness probably starts with ourselves. Our willingness to be gentle to ourself and learning to forgive our own less positive characteristics before we can be able to fully forgive those of others.
We would – in the past – regularly have looked up to the heavens for this forgiveness. We do that less and less. But that doesn’t attenuate the need for some moments when we limber up to utter that most implausible word ‘sorry’ – or indeed stretch our ethical imagination in order to pronounce those even more arduous and unnatural words, ‘I forgive you.’
I’m trying to make friends with someone at the moment and it’s not going too well. We both like each other. We have similar interests. We spend plenty of time together. But there’s something missing. And I think I know what it is.
It can be tough to figure out exactly how we get into good friendships. It seems to happen rather mysteriously: we talk of somewhat randomly “clicking” with people. Trying to plan for it sounds like cheating. But there is something at the heart of many friendships that seems important to identify and – in a way – to get good at: vulnerability. And this is what’s missing from the relationship with my ‘would-be friend’. He’s like a closed book. He’s struggling to get vulnerable.
It can be easy to assume that what makes us likeable are our strengths, our accomplishments, the things we’re proud of. Certainly this can be impressive, but it generally isn’t what draws others to us. We get close to someone the more they – and we – find ourselves able gracefully to depart from the official story of what human beings are meant to be like and can start to show the awkward truths which underlie the cheerful facade.
“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and we honour the spiritual connection that grows from offering with trust, respect, kindness and affection. Love is not something we give or get; it is something we nurture and grow. A connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them. We can only love others as much as we love ourselves.” Brene Brown
Another friend commented recently on the fact that she can be open with me, and it’s not a way she normally is with most people. I responded that it must be in her or we wouldn’t be such good friends. She insisted it must be me and that’s when I realised what it was I did. One of our first decent conversations, I put a piece of my heart on the table, it was a painful piece, a piece that forever changed who I was. A few hours later she did the same, put a painful piece of her own down next to mine, a piece that changed her life too. Our friendship changed after that, those two pieces laid bare fundamentally altered how we could interact. No longer did we have concerns over whether we could trust each other, whether we would judge each other or treat each other with disrespect. The things that changed us lay bare on that table and we each accepted them just as they were.
Vulnerability is the driving force of connection. It’s brave. It’s tender. It’s impossible to connect without it.
Somewhere though, we’ve tried to make ourselves ‘strong’. We’ve toughened up, hardened up and protected ourselves from being hurt. We’ve protected ourselves from vulnerability and disallowed the surrender. And here lies the problem. When we close down our vulnerability we are shielded from hurt, but we are also shielded from love, intimacy and connection. They come to us through the same door. When we close it to one, we close it to all.
Without vulnerability, relationships struggle. Vulnerability is, ‘Here I am – my frayed edges, my secrets, my fears, my affection. Be careful – they’re precious.’ In return, it invites, ‘Oh, I see you there. It’s okay, you’re safe. And here – here’s me.’ It builds trust, closeness and a sense of belonging. Relationships won’t thrive without it.
Vulnerability is openness to experiences, people and uncertainty. It’s terrifying at times, and brave always.
Occasionally we will get hurt. Relationship pain is an unavoidable part of being human. When it happens it can steal you. I know. But we can see this for what it is – a mismatch of people, a redirection, a learning, a happening – or we can take it as a warning and protect ourselves from the possibility of being hurt again. In this case, we make the decision to not be vulnerable. We shut it down. By shutting down to the risks of being vulnerable, we also shut down to the possibilities – the possibility of joy, intimacy, closeness, gratitude and connection.
We can look at friendship as the dividend of gratitude that flows from an acknowledgement that one has offered something very valuable to someone: not a fancy present, but something even more precious, the key to one’s self-esteem and dignity. It’s deeply poignant that we should expend so much effort on trying to look strong before the world – when, all the while, it’s really only ever the revelation of the somewhat embarrassing, sad, melancholy and anxious bits of us that are what makes us endearing to others, and can transform strangers into friends.
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.