“What is friendship?” redux
I’ve changed somewhat in the handful of years since I wrote the Firestarter titled “What is Friendship?” I like to think my opinions have grown and matured somewhat as well. This is, therefore, a sort of musing friendship redux.
In retrospect, my writing seems a bit rough to me, and the article itself is pretty short, both in length and in actual content. I suspect I was a bit too directly addressing a particular issue in my life at that time; I find I usually learn more when I try to branch out while researching a subject. Also, the sole incident I mention in the Firestarter is so vague as to be meaningless to the reader. I may take this opportunity to clarify it further, but for now I’m simply musing on what I’ve concluded since then regarding friendship.
Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned over the past five or so years is that friendship is not assuming control over someone, and it’s not a list of demands. Expecting others to live up to your unstated expectations is a rather unfriendly act, and I know I would not appreciate someone expecting me to jump through constant and unpredictable mental hoops for them. The people you (generalized “you”) call friends are emphatically not expressions of your self-worth, after all. Further, for me at least, someone worth having as a friend will not allow the discourtesy of incessantly testing them so.
What is Trust?
An indefinite time ago, while I was trying to cope with excesses of stress in my life, I found a book by the Dalai Lama which I decided to read in order to make myself feel better. In a sense I had already mentally plotted out what I would do with this book when I bought it: implement the book’s checklist of things I need to do, and presto! Instant peace.
If only. The Dalai Lama defined the main ingredient in internal peace as compassion, which was defined as trust in others. Frankly, I’m not a very trusting person. To be told flat out that I needed to relax and trust was rather jarring. Just… trust people — random strangers, even? Uh… hell, no! I had to put the book aside for a while to think about it.
I did think about it, and it took quite a while, but eventually I started trying it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, learning to trust has been enormously hard for me to learn; I’m still working on it. However, I mention this because I feel trusting has not only helped me decrease some of the stress I myself had put into my life… but also helped me realize two other important things. They are, of course, blindingly obvious once you think about them, but in the noise and mental clangor of quotidian life they’re easy to overlook:
I really shouldn’t bother trying to maintain rigid mental walls between the categories of “friend” and “acquaintance.” Doing so means I’m in effect setting up a mental hierarchy of “Usefulness to Me” for people to unwittingly compete against — never a good idea — and is an expenditure of both mental energy and self-righteousness which really doesn’t benefit me much. It also entails that unpleasant previously mentioned list of demands, i.e. “if you don’t live up to my friendship standards, you’ll get downgraded to ‘acquaintance’ — or worse!” Refusing to rank and de-grade friends has led me to not be quite so demanding of them, which I consider a very good thing.
Friendship is based in mutuality — you cannot apply beneficial double standards to your behavior, as opposed to everyone else around you. Put simply, if I expect to be treated with respect, I must also grant respect. If I am looking down my nose at someone who is always late, I should check and make sure I am not myself always late as well.
Curiously, due to these thoughts I find myself wondering if the defensive mechanism of psychological projection (also known as Freudian Projection) is far, far more common than we realize. I know I’ve been shocked and dismayed to spot it in myself, as I worked out some of my trust issues. Here’s the definition:
…the operation of expelling feelings or wishes the individual finds wholly unacceptable — too shameful, too obscene, too dangerous — by attributing them to another.
Projection concerns our externalizing issues that we need to deal with ourselves, or are unable to manage properly. We irresponsibly dump our emotional issue onto someone or something outside ourselves, then justify the behavior by blaming them for the disappointments and problems we do not want to feel; it somehow becomes their fault. Ultimately it is the person projecting who loses, however, as they never really sort out their own problems.
More unpleasantly, there’s the following:
Strong expectations concerning other people are also a form of projection. We project our own wishes, desires, and aversions onto them and then become disappointed when they will not, do not, or cannot live up to them.
In the end, that’s the real issue for me: I don’t intend to carry emotional baggage around for all my life. If psychological projection is a short-term gain for long-term loss… then it must go. So once I recognized I was doing that, I tried to see what it was I was projecting onto others, then stop doing that — while simultaneously dealing with the insecurity of the emotional issue within myself.
I sometimes wonder if this relatively newfound calm acceptance of the foibles of others is me finally learning to embody compassion rather than projection. Am I actually able to be a good friend now, for having worked at this? Was my previous somewhat… fanatical level of internally insisting others always live up to my self-aggrandizing standards really useful? Or is this current emotional state of mind just me being too tired to care fiercely anymore?
I don’t know what’s completely right; I wish I did. Perhaps in the end it’s simply my realizing I have plenty of foibles of my own which will also need forgiving. If that makes me a better friend, then I guess I’ve succeeded.
Compassion is one of the hardest things in the world to embody sometimes. I know that I appreciate your compassion, since I’m sort of a wreck a lot of the time.
Re embodying compassion: lordy, tell me about it! I still struggle with this on occasion. Just yesterday I had a small hissy fit my sweetie was kind enough to patiently cuddle me through, about a friend who was unintentionally causing me to feel very pressured. I got over it and worked things out, but it was certainly an immediate and vivid reminder that creating one’s Self is a constant process.
Re me: Aww, thank you, Waya! That’s very encouraging to hear — makes me feel like I’m doing at least something right! :) Seriously though, I think you’re far too hard on yourself. I don’t know if you realized it, but you’re one of the folks that encouraged me to finally start just relaxing and trusting.
Thoughtful, insightful, and interesting.
I hadn’t considered how compassion might be defined, but I found much to like in your first point about friendship and not defining a line. In my case, it would be sourced from my fairly isolated childhood with few close friends and acquaintances (moving around frequently as a military brat creates a situation in children where few long-term relationships can be maintained.) I find that I sometimes dither in deciding how to name my relationship between another and myself… is it “friend” or “work acquaintance” or something else? Am I presuming by adding a label that I feel indicates closeness when they may not consider me someone close to them? Being the sort that hates to intrude on others means that I am somewhat hesitant to apply a label that indicates trust and intimacy — and I’m notoriously poor at reading what others intend sometimes. It’s the legacy of a childhood in isolation.
I think your concept of inclusion instead of exclusion is a kinder and more compassionate view.
Thank you so much! It’s definitely encouraging to hear one’s behavior is at least approximating one’s internal goals — that’s something I always worry about a little.
Re “fairly isolated childhood”: my father was an electrical engineer rather than a military man, but by the time I was eighteen we’d moved on average once every two years. These weren’t across town moves where I could still keep friends, either — they were to other cities in other states, and twice to other countries as well. From what I’ve heard, military brats move even more often than that, and don’t have the benefit of language training before they go to foreign countries (which fortunately my parents did for me) — so yes indeed, you have my sympathies on that one!
Re “reading what others intend”: my family always had pets, so I got pretty darned good at reading animal body language, since I spent most of my time with them. I was dreadful at reading human body language, though — unsurprisingly, I far preferred the company of animals. When I went to college, though, I stumbled across a book which mentioned the troubles chimps raised in captivity have when they are released to the wild: they don’t speak the language! In effect, the captive-raised chimps have only humans and each other to read off of, so they don’t use facial expression very much to communicate — because we don’t either. Wild chimps, OTOH, are extremely facile at facial expression and “reading,” to the extent that the human observers recording both sets of chimps together would often describe the captive-raised chimps as having almost “wooden” facial expressions.
According to the observers, you’d often see the following: a wild chimp would give a small but clear (to them) warning to the captive-raised chimp to not do something, and the captive-raised chimp would continue calmly and obliviously doing whatever they were doing. The wild chimp would look puzzled, but repeat the warning signal a bit more strongly. The captive-raised chimp would still not get it. After about the third more intense warning the wild chimp would (almost every time!) get a positively incredulous expression on their face — what the human observers referred to as the “are you blind?!” look. Shortly after that, the captive-born chimp would usually get bitten — much to their shock and confusion!
Over time, of course, the captive-raised chimps would learn the new “language” and use it with the same facility as the wild chimps. However, reading that passage was a moment of real enlightenment for me: I suddenly understood what my problem was, and why I was so good at talking to animals — but so terrible at subtle communication with humans! Furthermore, if simple chimps could do this unconsciously, then so, most certainly, could I — and without getting bitten! As I sat there with the book in my lap I promised myself I would learn this human body language thing I was currently so bad at, so I would never have to worry about other humans looking incredulously at me and wondering if I was blind.
I’m happy to say over the next few years of intense observation of the human animal, I succeeded wildly — to the extent that I occasionally “read” things people didn’t realize they were saying. It’s been amazingly useful and fun over the years, and I highly recommend it. ;)
As far as labeling, I had an experience a few years ago which might be useful to you. I love birthday parties, and I have a sweetie who’s a dear person, but is just not holiday oriented at all. So a few years ago I decided to throw a birthday party for myself. I too am a somewhat shy person, and when I looked at my invitation list I realized I had a small clump of folks I knew personally who I considered friends — and a large clump of folks I knew from work that I liked and would be happy to celebrate with, some of whom I was sort of dithering over whether they were friends or not.
Up until that point in my life I’d been carefully keeping my entrepreneurial work “self” and my personal “self” very separate, and for a short bit I seriously considered two birthday parties — one for work, one for personal — but rapidly decided that was not a financially viable option. Unbeknownst to me this dithering was causing me some really unnecessary stress — because when I had the mental breakthrough: ‘invite them all — let them decide if they’re friends or not!’ I felt a palpable sense of relief.
The party was a smashing success, and I had a very good time — somewhat to my surprise! So that’s part of how I try to behave towards both friends and acquaintances now: treat them with friendly trust and kindness, and let them decide when they’re ready to call me friend. It’s not like a label will change who I am, after all… so why worry about it? ;)