Therapist Q&A: How do I find real, deep friendship?

How do I find and nurture real, deep friendship?​ Em Capito, LCSW

How do I find and nurture real, deep friendship?​ Em Capito, LCSWQuestion: Do you have any advice that may help me create a greater awareness in my friendships?

I’m curious about your concept of stress-testing relationships. I often feel my friendships are not evenly balanced, and that I give more energy and effort than my friends.

I have girlfriends who give advice along the lines of, “If you’re wondering if a guy likes you, he probably doesn’t, because you’ll know when he does.” Yet, some of these same friends don’t always return texts and don’t reach out to make plans to get together. I’m typically the one initiating. So, if following their advice, they wouldn’t be in my life either. 

This question of how to find the right friends comes up more and more.

It turns out, many of us, especially women, are unsatisfied with the the quantity or quality of our friendships.

This awareness starts nagging at us as we transition from the career-driven or marriage-oriented mindset of our twenties and thirties and recognize that our earlier friendships have withered in the absence of our attention and the loss of shared life circumstances.

The problem also becomes terribly apparent following a significant adversity. We reach out to our go-to group of people, and many are less than responsive, leaving us feeling isolated in the midst of crisis.

Make an inventory of your friends (which often includes family), and then honestly assess what type of friendship you currently have with each.

There are a variety of other types of friendships, which are still of value, but very different in what you can expect of them, and this status can change over time.

I place friends in three broad camps:

Fair Weather Friends are those friends who show up when you’re having a party or they want to hash out their own crisis, but they fail to show up for you when it’s inconvenient for them.

Convenient Companions can feel very close while you are in proximity, but when you leave the job or separate after college, the friendship fades into nothing, sometimes so dramatically that you can feel betrayed by what you thought was an enduring friendship.

Wholehearted Allies are your people. Your emergency contacts. Your first call from jail. The people you can sob uncontrollably with, and ultimately be exactly as you are. Wholehearted Allies (1) show up, (2) unconditionally. This, by the way, also means that they are honest with you when you need to be challenged.

By recognizing the different types of friendship in your circle, you can be more selective in who you invest your time and energy into, and have realistic expectations of the others.

At this point, you may find that your inventory has come up short, with a lack of those Wholehearted Allies who nurture your well-being and hold you to your values. Where do you go from there?

To have Wholehearted Allies in your life, you must first be one.

Start by looking at your list and asking:

What’s going on their lives? Do I even know? When was the last time I was fully present for them without judgment or any agenda of my own?

Begin by showing up unconditionally for your loved ones.

Even and especially if you are in the midst of a challenge, this is incredibly healing. One of the best interventions for when you are feeling lost in your own circumstances is to step outside of your turmoil to give of yourself.

Then you can layer on the idea of stress-testing these relationships.

As Maya Angelou put it, “When people show you who they are, believe them.”

Stress-testing is all about letting people tell you who they are, and how they see your relationship.

We often project our own attachment and values onto a relationship without really looking at the evidence or asking for the assumed commitment.

In evaluating your friend inventory, you can ask:

Does this person show up for me, unconditionally?

When you look back at texts or calls, does your friend write or call you back right away? Do they completely ignore some of your messages? Do they suddenly get in touch when they need something from you?

Our culture tends to encourage us to be self-contained beings. We worry about being “needy” or a burden when we ask for help, but the truth is that we are social creatures who heal in the context of relationship. 

This is why therapy is so powerful and why the therapeutic alliance remains the most powerful factor in clinical outcomes – far beyond any specialized intervention or even the client’s own readiness to change. Relationship is a powerful mirror.

As you invest in your friendships, allow your friends to communicate their attachment and commitment to the relationship. 

This means asking for help when you need it, and seeing who shows up without judgment.

That nonjudgment part is hard! When you note a lack of responsiveness or consistency, try accepting that information with curiosity. Consider communicating your concern through vulnerable communication to gain clarification.

Communication is the ultimate underused, undervalued tool in relationships.

Most of us are running around expecting others to read our minds!

Instead, try a face to face conversation.

Sure, we all get anxious about what the response might be, but as we build up our sense of self, we can increasingly shift into a resilient mindset of letting people who don’t belong in our tribe weed themselves out. It’s a win-win, not a loss or a judgment of you.

Through nonjudgmental curiosity and communication, we can avoid dead-end relationship disappointments, and we know exactly who we can turn to when we need someone to actually show up.

Intentional friendship is a critical foundation of resilience.

Wholehearted allies are the first line of defense when tragedy strikes.

When your people show up to listen and hold space, they can make the difference between a total spiral, and a mild bump in the road.

Understanding yourself is a huge piece of being intentional in your relationships.

Without self-awareness, we project our past blindly onto our present, and manifest a cycle of the same outcomes over and over in our future.

Attachment impacts us across relationships, and an anxious or avoidant attachment creates all sorts of hiccups in friendships, especially between women where communication is often passive rather than direct.

We must do the work to build greater self-awareness and security within ourselves while having those vulnerable conversations with our friends.

When we invest in a secure sense of self – through meaningful pursuits, personal development, and healing of old wounds – we automatically become better friends and partners. We are able to truly focus on others, rather than ourselves in relation to others.

Do your own work, show up unconditionally, bravely and vulnerably. Then, stand back and see who weeds themselves out, and who rises to the opportunity.

Keep in mind: the results generally have much less to do with our worth that we like to think. Some friends simply aren’t your tribe. Others haven’t yet addressed their own insecurities and attachment injuries, and so lack the ability to be fully present for you.

As with all worthy endeavors, we must invest a lot of effort to generate rare results.

While nurturing your existing friendships, cast a wider net for new friends. Reach out and invite new and different people into your life.

How do you make new friends? Three steps:

  1. Set the intention to connect with new people so that you notice all of the opportunities as they arise. Write it down.
  2. Put yourself in new circles. Attend Meetups around your interests and say hello to strangers.
  3. Follow-up with an invite to coffee or tea. If you enjoy the conversation, then set it up again a few weeks later. If they become non-responsive, they’ve let you know what you need to know.

As you get to know one another, you can sprinkle in increasingly vulnerable topics – get more real – and see how they react. Ask for advice on a relationship problem to get a sense of their values and sense of self.

Do they listen well? Tell you what they think you want to hear? Reinforce the negative? Challenge your assumptions? Leave you feeling heard?

Remember: The golden rule is to BE what you wish to attract. Are you listening, fully present, positive and real?

Your tribe of Wholehearted Allies will love you just as you are – and therefore will most resonate with you when you love yourself just as you are, and put that exact unedited self out there to connect.

As you move forward with new connections, you’ll naturally put less energy into the relationships that are a net drain on your efforts.

Sometimes they notice this and kick up their own effort to bring more value to the table, but most of the time they fade into the “It’s so good to see you! We should do coffee sometime” camp that you run into at yoga or the grocery store (and never actually do that coffee).

Meaningful relationships take work and a painful level of humility! They test our self-esteem, show us our flaws, and push us to grow – and it is these very relationships that are the most worthy investment in creating a life worth living.

“The dynamic of friendship is almost always underestimated as a constant force in human life: a diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence…

…but no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self; the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”​

— David Whyt, from Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words

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