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Posts Tagged ‘friendship’

I will be single on Valentine’s Day this year.

Actually, I did some quick math, and I’ve been single for about 70% of all the Valentine’s Days in my life, so this is actually nothing new or unusual.

In general I’ve always been fairly sanguine about Valentine’s Day. A few years ago I spent the evening with a friend of mine who was having trouble with their relationship; we talked about it a fair amount over sushi, and I felt kind of relieved I was single rather than being in a relationship that made me unhappy. Then we watched a silly action flick and all in all, it was one of my favorite Valentine’s Days. I mean, I wish my friend had been happier. But personally, I had a nice time.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m also not anti-Valentine’s Day. I mean, it’s a weird holiday. If someone were proposing it as a new holiday, I don’t know that I’d be in favor. But since it exists, I am not opposed to putting aside a bit of time to feel happy and appreciate a significant other. Plus sometimes I get big bouquets of red roses for Valentine’s Day, and I like roses, so that can work out pretty well.

This year I might get myself flowers, but maybe not roses. I wonder if tulips are in season? I’ve been wanting some tulips ever since I saw this beautiful display of them at Pike Market, but I couldn’t get them then because I was staying in a hotel. And that was almost four years ago, so I’ve been waiting four years for tulips.

Whatever, they’ll totally be worth the wait.

Anyway, a lot of my Valentine’s Days blur together, and since it doesn’t have the strong foundation of tradition that, say, Christmas does for me, it’s hard to get too worked up over it. But I do remember both my best Valentine’s Day and my worst Valentine’s Day.

Worst one first, shall we? I was in college; it was in the first year after my mom died, and she always got me an adorable card for Valentine’s Day, and sometimes also a stuffed animal or sugary treat. Our last Valentine’s Day together, she’d given me a stuffed tiger I’d named Marmalade. So this Valentine’s Day wasn’t going to be good no matter what.

Also this guy and I had started showing a mutual interest in each other (actual concrete dating at Santa Cruz was not super common, at least in my experience), and I liked him a lot, and it wasn’t out of the question that we would spend Valentine’s Day together, but then it turned out he was having some issues with his ex-girlfriend that made it sound like she might not remain his ex-girlfriend. So no Valentine’s Day for us, which was disappointing.

And then on Valentine’s Day itself I got an email from my dad announcing that his girlfriend had moved in with him. This news came in spite of the fact that six weeks before I had told him I wanted to come home for the summer and asked him if he could hold off moving in with her until the following fall, and he had agreed. But now magically it was as if that conversation never happened. (I later found out on my graduation trip that she had actually moved in with him maybe a week or two after we’d had that talk, which made for an interesting graduation trip.) When I called up my best friend, I sounded so stricken he thought someone else had died.

Definitely my worst Valentine’s Day.

Now to cleanse our palates with my best Valentine’s Day. I’d taken the day off work to go look at an apartment in San Francisco. It was a great apartment with a bay window and a lot of character, and if I craned my neck enough, I could just barely see the ocean from the bedroom window. Two weeks later I moved in. And after the interview, I drove down to see the guy I was dating at the time. My memory is a little fuzzy on this point, but I’m pretty sure I beat him home, and he’d left all these Valentine’s Day presents for me to find: flowers, candy, a stuffed animal. And I was surprised and thought it was amazing. It wasn’t super elaborate or anything, but it meant the world to me, and really, that’s all that matters.

This year on Valentine’s Day I’m going to be thinking of my friends, and how grateful I am for you all. You shine, you really do. It’s not that I don’t want or value romantic love, because I do, but I find my friendships matter to me more than I ever would have guessed.

So then that’s what I wish for everyone on this Valentine’s Day. May you be loved by some great people. May you be appreciated. May you feel cherished.

I was going to post a photo with human friends, but then I didn't want to leave anybody out, so here is me with my best dog friend instead.

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In the past, I have had people take advice I didn’t mean to give from this blog.

I rarely mean to give advice. When I sit down to write, I’m not thinking, “Now then, let me tell people how I think they should do x or how they should feel about y.” I’m generally talking about my own experiences, knowing very well that people are different and their concerns are different and what works and doesn’t work for me might have nothing much to do with you. I talk about things I find interesting and things I have learned, but they are all very much colored by me being me.

But advice, well, advice can be tricky. I was reminded of this fact by this post about advice, which contains many examples of two pieces of directly conflicting advice, both of which can be valid. It’s really illuminating to read so many examples back to back. I’ll give you just one here to give you a taste:

“You need to be more conscious of how your actions in social situations can make other people uncomfortable and violate their boundaries” versus “You need to overcome your social phobia by realizing that most interactions go well and that probably talking to people won’t always make them hate you and cause you to be ostracized forever.”

I know people for whom the first piece of advice is probably best, and people for whom the second piece of advice is probably best. I even know people who might benefit from both pieces of advice. So yes, advice is not simple.

Ultimately I think good advice depends a lot on context. Generalized advice is all well and good, but nothing can replace the insights of a therapist or a close friend or family member who knows the specifics about who you are and what your situation is. (This person must also be wise and experienced enough to have helpful insights.) Often situations have many factors at play, so one piece of generalized advice can easily miss a lot of nuance.

In learning how to better set boundaries, for example, I found it very useful to have people I call “sanity checkers:” people who know me and my background and who are very skilled at setting boundaries themselves, who I can get feedback from, run things by, or get help with wordings. I find I need their help less and less as I get more experience, but even so, it’s nice to know I can ask for their expertise if I need it. And sometimes I still definitely do!

The other interesting thing about advice is that you can’t force people to take it. It doesn’t matter if you do know them and their situation, if what’s going on seems really incredibly obvious to you, or how painful it is to watch them suffer. People do things on their own timeline. They’re ready when they’re ready, especially when it comes to accepting hard truths and making difficult changes. Sometimes they’re never ready.

Which means I always feel fairly wary of giving personalized advice. You have to find a way to do it that is gentle enough that it doesn’t alienate the two of you when they probably don’t take the advice. And I try not to give advice unless it’s actually been asked for. There are exceptions to this (oh, nuance!), and we all slip up at this from time to time, of course. Some people feel they need to give advice to be useful, which isn’t really true but can certainly feel true. And sometimes it can be really hard to sit and witness the suffering of someone who is simply stuck and has been for months or even years. That tends to be when I’m most likely to slip up.

Advice over milkshakes!

Advice over milkshakes!

In conclusion:

Generalized advice: can be helpful, but must be considered in context

Personalized advice: can be helpful, but must find people who are insightful and get you

Giving advice: can be helpful, but usually only if asked to give it and if not too attached to the outcome

So yes, these are my thoughts (but not advice!) about advice.

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Almost every day, I take a walk with Nala. We have a couple of regular routes that depend on how much time I have and what the weather is like and how my toe feels and how long it’s been since I last picked up the mail. In the past, this walk has also been a time to catch up with significant others, but for the last few years, it’s almost always been just for Nala and me.

Nala on her leash

Nala on her leash

I don’t take my phone on these walks. This wasn’t a mindful choice; it began because in the summertime I often don’t have any pockets, and it was a mindful choice not to have to lug a purse around for a simple walk in my neighborhood. But lately I’ve noticed how much I enjoy not having my phone.

Don’t get me wrong, I love my phone. It tells me how to get where I’m going. It lets me access my schedule. It lets me keep in touch with a host of lovely people. It gives me information exactly when I need it (and yes, I did check a recipe in the grocery store today in order to choose the correct size of cranberry bag). It lets me take photos that help me remember what I have done and where I have been.

I love my phone too much. I want to check my phone. I want to see what’s happening on Facebook and Twitter. I think of things to google. I flip into schedule mode at the drop of a hat. I want to see if anyone has texted me. I want to text someone. Hell, I simply want to know what time it is.

But I also don’t like my phone. I go to social events, and I notice when everyone has their phone out, and everyone is talking to people who aren’t there, via texting, instead of talking to the people who are there. I don’t think I judge (I know what it’s like to be shy, to want to avoid an awkward moment), but I do notice. Sometimes, when I am not at my best, I think, “Aha! This means I’m allowed to look at my phone too.”  But more often I think, “What’s going on here? How can we re-establish a connection right now?” Because that’s really what’s happened. The social connection has gotten difficult or a little slow for some reason, and instead of waiting it out and sitting with the slowness, we’ve retreated into our phones.

I like noticing. I like having some daily time when I remember what it’s like not to have the impulse to check. I like not always being available.

I revel in the opportunity to be actually alone. When my phone is there, it is a constant reminder that I don’t have to be alone. But sometimes the company provided by my phone can feel hollow. I remember that according to Facebook, my life is an uninterrupted stream of exciting events and cute outfits. According to Facebook, I live a magazine kind of life, and yet that isn’t actually what my life is like at all. My life is so much more complex than that.

I like having uninterrupted time with the people who are important to me when we just…talk. And sometimes we sit in silence. And sometimes the conversation is not the most scintillating thing ever, and most likely there’s something really exciting happening somewhere on the internet. And I don’t care.

Because it is in that space that conversations deepen. It is in that space that conversations spread out to become some of the most interesting I’ve ever had. It is in that space that I learn things about the world, and about the people in that world.

It is in that space that I get to feel what it is like to be you.

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I write a lot about friendship.

A few days ago I saw someone share an article about friendship, and someone else responded to their post by saying that this was literally the first article about friendship they’d ever read. This made me feel good that I’m already writing about it, and also sad there is a relative dearth of information and thought about friendship out there.

When I write about boundaries and friendships, I know some of you are wondering what kinds of boundaries are common to need to set in the context of friendship. I think this varies a lot from person to person and from friendship to friendship, but I do have some general thoughts on what I look for in my friends and what kinds of boundaries sometimes come up.

Kinds of issues that come up in friendships that sometimes require boundary setting/enforcing:

  • Responding to invitations
  • Responding to favor requests
  • Having to cancel plans due to illness or emergency
  • Arranging logistics (including scheduling, timing, transport, choosing restaurants, choosing activities, issues of payment)
  • Addressing mobility/health issues
  • Asking for empathy instead of advice
  • Negotiating the flow of the house guest (either being one or hosting one)
  • Figuring out frequency of communication/visits, response time, safeguarding work time, etc.
  • Seeking safe spaces at public (or semi-public) events
  • Dealing with problematic behavior in communities and friend groups
  • Responding to sexual requests
  • Responding to peer pressure
  • Asking for and giving emotional support
  • Speaking up on issues of social justice
  • Asking for consideration
  • Taking someone into your confidence

I’ll be honest for you: I look for friends who don’t need much boundary enforcing because that’s the part I find the most difficult and tiring. I can often set a boundary now, especially if I have a little time to consider, but enforcing it against push-back wears me out extremely fast. And no wonder. Boundary enforcing means your boundary has already been crossed (or is not being taken seriously after being stated), and it often involves hurt feelings, or at the very least disappointment, especially if it’s a repetitive issue. So it’s much easier to reach a point of diminishing returns if you’re having to enforce regularly. (Also, one way of enforcing is to introduce space into the friendship, and if you have to introduce enough space, you’re not interacting much with that person anymore anyway, so selecting for low levels of enforcement tends to happen at least somewhat organically.)

I look for friends to whom I can say no. Sometimes that will be no to a favor, and sometimes that will be no to an invitation. In an ideal world, I could say yes to everything, but the reality is that I have lots of commitments to fulfill, as does any adult: in my case, to my work, to my own physical and mental well-being, to my dog, to my boyfriend, etc. I have idiosyncracies to work around for maximum well-being, like my general dislike of driving too much, especially in traffic, and my sleep issues. I have budgetary restraints. I get sick and injured. All of these things mean that sometimes I have to say no, and I look for friends who will understand that it’s not personal and that I would help them or hang out with them if I could.

I look for friends who will make a commensurate effort. This doesn’t have to be equal in an obvious sense: for example, I have friends who always come over to my place and other friends who I always visit at their places, and as long as everyone is cool with that, it works fine. But both people have to be willing to find time for each other and to care about how the other person is doing. And both people have to be getting some of their friendship needs met.

I look for friends who are generally kind. I used to think, oh, it’s okay if my friend is sort of an asshole, as long as they treat me well. But I’m not as on board with that line of thinking anymore because it’s so easy for that kind of behavior to eventually spread out to include you. Obviously no one is perfect, but I think kindness is probably the most important trait I look for in friends.

And in that vein, my closest friends are generally pretty good at empathy. I become closest to people with whom I can be honest and genuine about myself and my life without fear of judgment, with whom I can share openly and who will share openly with me, who can listen well, and where there is interest and care on both sides.

Finally, one of the great part about friendships I’ve learned while negotiating these things is that they can be flexible. They do not need to be all things, all at once. While my closest friendships are usually built on empathy, I also have great friendships based upon a shared interest (shocking, I know!) and great friendships based on compatible senses of humor. I have friends who I get to see one-on-one and friends that I almost always see in groups. I have friends who I talk to all the time and friends I only get to see once a year. I have friends who I don’t ask for certain things because I know they cannot give them to me, and I appreciate what they do bring to the friendship and ask for those other things elsewhere.

I used to think friendship came in one certain mold, but in learning the many ways friendship can present itself, I’ve found a lot more interest and connection with the world. I thought by setting boundaries I’d be limiting myself, but instead my boundaries allow me to be more present and more accepting of who my friends are.

Even myself. Maybe especially myself.

Oh look, it's my best doggie friend.

Oh look, it’s my best doggie friend.

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A year ago I imagined a better life for myself.

I didn’t really believe it could happen, but I did believe it was what I wanted. So it was worth going all out for, even though I thought my efforts might very well end in failure.

I don’t think I’ve ever been as intensely social as I have been during the last year. I’ve been to so many parties and so many events, so many dances and movies and shows and luncheons and bruncheons and dinners and coffees and teas and outings. I’ve had the same small talk conversations maybe hundreds of times, and I’ve gone deeper whenever I saw the chance. I’ve spent time with hundreds of people, many of whom I’d never previously met.

I thought, I will find my people. I will find my balance. I will figure out what gives me joy and what does not. I thought, I will practice setting boundaries until it gets a little bit easier. I will practice saying no until that gets a little bit easier.

I thought, I will find the people who believe me and are patient with me and love me as I am. I will find the people who see me. I will find the people who make me feel safe, and I will love them with everything I have.

I thought, I know these people exist because I’ve already met a bunch of them. And I want to spend more time with the ones I’ve already met. And I want to meet more of them. And so that is what I’ll do, even though I kind of hate humanity right now and all I really want to do is wrap myself in a blanket and watch Pride and Prejudice over and over again. (The A&E miniseries version, if you really need to ask.) And maybe also Star Trek: The Next Generation because I’d just started watching that and it seemed like a good idea.

I thought, do the things you know you should do and be as hopeful as you can, and then if it all ends in misery, you will totally have an excuse to do something drastic like become a hermit or move to a foreign country or write angsty beat poetry.

And now a year has gone by, and it turns out it did NOT all end in misery. It turns out all those things I knew I should do were actually great ideas. It turns out all that social time resulted in me starting and/or continuing some fabulous friendships and feeling connected and getting a lot of practice and becoming more and more clear on what is important to me.

And now I am very happy with my friends and my communities and my boyfriend.

And I am also really freaking tired.

Nala is also tired.

Nala is also tired.

I get invited to large events where I’ll know hardly anyone, and I think, do I really have to go? And then I think, hahahaha, no, I do not! And that is very exciting for me. I look at the week ahead, and I know I should schedule-fu things up. And then I think, hahahaha, no, I can take things easy this week. And, you know, maybe wait for people to invite me. And in the meantime do an Orphan Black rewatch, because when is that not a good idea?

My sprained toe has forced me to take a slower pace, but once I realized that didn’t mean I’d be sitting around in enforced isolation for two months, it’s actually been kind of nice. Well, minus the pain and frustration and cabin fever, anyway. The slower pace has been nice. The reduced volume of small talk has been nice. The permission to focus more on self-care has been nice.

I’m so glad I made all the efforts I made, and they have paid off in spades. Enough so that now I can give myself a little break.

And soon I’ll be going on vacation, and it feels like the perfect time. But, more about that next week!

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I feel very protective of my close friends.

I forget this is true until one of them tells me a story of some awful thing someone else has done to them. And I don’t even have to think about it. I want to tell them how amazing they are and how much they don’t deserve that kind of behavior, and I want to listen to them vent if they think that will make them feel better, and I want to validate the hell out of them.

And I’m angry on their behalf. Much angrier than I would be if the same thing happened to me. And none of the weird delayed reaction anger either. I’m pretty much angry right away. Angry and sometimes indignant.

One time a close friend of mine called me up on the phone with this story of some really bizarre and inappropriate behavior of a mutual acquaintance of ours. And I realized this mutual acquaintance could, no doubt, use his access to me to make things even worse for my friend. And I knew the mutual acquaintance would have no qualms in doing so.

I decided then and there to let that mutual acquaintance go. It was one of the easiest interpersonal decisions ever. If there had been inappropriate behavior directed towards myself, I would have agonized over it, and wondered if I was being reasonable, and wondered if I needed to give some more benefits of the doubt, and worried about possible repercussions and burned bridges, and worried about what people would think, and wondered if it was somehow all my fault. But because it was about my friend, doing the right thing was easy. To this day, I think about the boundary I set with satisfaction and zero doubt.

This, then, is what it means to become your own best friend. It can be a powerful thought experiment. It is advocating for yourself the way you would advocate for your actual best friends. It is wanting for yourself the kind of respect and appropriateness you would want for your actual best friends. It is stopping and telling yourself the story of what’s going on right now as if the story was happening to your best friend instead of to you, and then noticing the difference in reaction and allowing that to guide you accordingly.

And it is also about learning to see and appreciate yourself the way your best friends see and appreciate you. I think my best friends are fabulous. I am blown away on a regular basis by all their good qualities, and I feel so lucky to know them and have them in my life. I love hearing about what they’re doing, their successes and their failures, their joys and their sorrows. I want them to be happy, of course, but when they are having a hard time, I see how courageous they are. I see how hard they’re trying. I see the risks they are taking. I see how deeply they feel and care. And I admire them so hard.

To be my own best friend, I need to admire myself that hard. To be my own best friend, I need to be blown away by my strengths, not only be bogged down by considering my weaknesses. To be my own best friend, I need to remember that my hard times don’t automatically reflect poorly on me.

To be my own best friend, I need to embrace the idea of being as protective of myself as I am of the other people I love.

One of my amazing besties!

One of my amazing besties!

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I remember the first holiday when I had nowhere to go.

I was twenty-two years old. I had just graduated from college, and in a few weeks I was moving to London. It was Christmastime. It would have been the last Christmas in my childhood home, as the plan was to sell the house sometime the next year. Would have been, because my dad and his girlfriend decided to go on a romantic getaway for Christmas instead. I made plans to spend Christmas with my boyfriend and his family. But then we broke up like a week beforehand.

And I had nowhere to go.

*

I read an essay in the New York Times last week that hit me hard in the gut. Life: An Unspooling, it was called. The writer, Rachel Louise Snyder, was writing about loneliness:

“I imagine myself alone in ways other people are not…. People who know where they’ll go on holidays and with whom and for how long. People with plans. With extended family they complain about, but then spend the most important days of the year with.”

I imagine myself alone in ways other people are not. There’s the rub, isn’t it? We have these ideas in our minds, maybe even expectations, about how things are, about how things should be, about the way other people live their lives. We feel the rawness of the intersection of how we imagine other people live and how our own lives fall short of this ideal. And all of these mental gymnastics make the loneliness ache that much more acutely.

And then there’s that feeling of free fall. Because there are most important days of the year, however arbitrary they may be, and to have nowhere to go for them–to lack that comfortable sense of belonging–it is hard. And knowing there are many people who also lack that certainty about those important days doesn’t lessen the loneliness of it.

Those of us who know this reality have to create anchors in other ways. And there is no instruction manual on how to accomplish this.

*

I read this essay in the Times, and then I got in my car and drove to the movies to see Mr. Holmes with one of my close friends.

Oh, Mr. Holmes. The movie is a meditation on loneliness. Every character is lonely in his or her own way, alienated in his or her own way, and the loneliness we see is profound. Alienation between father and son, between mother and child, between two best friends, between husband and wife, between oneself and one’s aging and failing body. People who fail to understand one another, who let each other down in terrible ways. Who feel like they do not belong.

Oh, this movie. I love it, I hate it, thinking about it now makes me want to cry, the ending is sublime. I want to find my own field somewhere and a bunch of big white rocks (even as I was watching, I thought to myself, where in the world does one obtain rocks like those).  I want to remember the people who are not here anymore. The people whose absence still speaks. The people who, in their own ways, have taught me about loneliness, all unknowing.

*

This last Christmas I did my best to let go. It was actually a very good Christmas. I spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with two of my favorite people, and I looked through the year’s photobook for the first time, and I spent time with Nala, and I ate well, and I Skyped with my sister.

Tree Day, however, I spent alone.

Tree Day, for me, is perhaps of an equivalent importance to Christmas Day itself. It is the first Saturday of December. It is the day I go pick out a tree and bring it home and string up the lights and decorate it. It tends to smoosh out into two days and sometimes even more.

For last Tree Day, I thought about asking around and trying to find someone who would go with me, someone who would help me carry the tree in from the car, someone who would decorate with me and perhaps even listen to the occasional memory ignited by one of the many old ornaments in my collection. I thought about it, and it was an exhausting thought, and so I just went by myself and hoped for the best, and then a neighbor I didn’t know helped me carry the tree into the apartment, and everything worked out.

I was happy because my anchor held. I could do it on my own. I could let go, and I wasn’t deeply unhappy about it. I was just a tiny bit unhappy. And I was still able to create the beauty I wished to see.

It looks like fairies live here.

It looks like fairies live here.

But I was also sad. Because I knew–because I know–that I will always want that. I will always want people I belong to and who belong to me. I will always want one or more people who will of course spend Tree Day with me because it is one of my Most Important Days. I will always want a place to be.

It’s okay. It’s okay that I will always want this and I won’t always get it. But it is also sad.

*

I want you to know the only reason I can publish this piece is that I’m not feeling particularly lonely right now.

Also, the holidays are still a safe distance away. I won’t start to feel a hollow pit of dread until at least October.

I hope you won’t feel sorry for me. I hope, instead, that you will experience some kind of resonance, reading this. That you will think of your own way of being lonely, whatever that looks like, and that perhaps its edge will be slightly dulled hearing about one of my ways. That you will gain a greater appreciation for the place you have to be, or that you will find courage in not having that place, in knowing that the not having is workable and that it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you.

That perhaps we can continue to understand each other better, you and I.

*

I spend a lot of time feeling deep gratitude towards the people who give me less obvious places to go.

I don’t know if these people know what they’re giving me. Every invitation, whether accepted or not, I gather them up and they become part of that all-important anchor. They help me remember my place in the world.

I did not have to spend Mother’s Day alone. I did not have to spend Christmas alone. I did not have to spend Thanksgiving alone. There is no price that can be put on things like this.

That Christmas, back when I was twenty-two, it had a happy ending. One of my best friends from college invited me into her home. Her entire family welcomed me and included me in all the festivities. To this day, I think about the generosity and warmth they showed me, and I tear up, and it changes how I see the world.

They didn’t have to offer me a place to go. But they did.

It meant everything to me. It still does.

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That’s great you have a support system, Amy, but how did you get here?

I’m going to write about how I built up my support system in the last three or so years, but I need to begin with a caveat: Your mileage will vary. A lot of factors can affect building a support system: personality traits, geographic location, age, whether or not you have kids, financial/work situation, etc. What I’m going to talk about is what worked for me.

Begin with what you’ve got. I didn’t begin completely from scratch. When I realized things were really bad, and I’d need a support system to weather the storm, I sat down and took stock of what I had. The answer was: Nala, a loose sprinkling of local acquaintances from the last ten or so years, the writing community, game night, one non-local friend I had opened up with, two local friends I thought I could bear to open up with, a couple of professionals. This is what I had to build from. It wasn’t great, but it could have been a whole lot worse.

Friendship.

Friendship.

Find your professional supports, if possible. These are the people who form part of support systems professionally. Often you will pay them, Sometimes you will not. These are your therapists, body workers, teachers, coaches, ministers/priests, trainers, sponsors if you’re doing AA-related stuff, doctors, hospice workers, etc.

The great thing about these people is that providing a certain type of support is their job (be it paid or volunteer). This simplifies the relationship in some ways. The downside is that not all professionals are created equal, and it can be a fair amount of work to find the ones that work the best for you.

Up your self care and communication skills. This way you’ll have a much better idea of what you need. And then you can ask clearly for what you need, which gives you a lot better chance of receiving it.

Okay, now we’re going to move to the life mountain metaphor, which I love and first talked about here. Summary: Each of us stands on the peak of our own mountain. Our closest friends are on the top of the mountain with us, then our friends, then our kind of friends, with our acquaintances at the bottom. Got it?

More is better on the mountain. Why is this true? Well, when you’re building a support system, you ideally want a lot of layers and fail-safes built in. After all, you want your support system to hold some load. You want more people because: 1. you can spread the load out over more people, 2. if life happens to some of your key support people, you have other options, and 3. when change happens (as it inevitably will), you can potentially move some of the people who are lower down the mountain up.

But it should be a good more, not a desperate more. If people are repeatedly treating you badly or if you just don’t get along well with them, they probably shouldn’t be on your mountain at all, or else be at the very bottom.

It takes time. And when I say time, I mean both time to spend with these people who populate your mountain, and a longer timeframe to develop these relationships with strong foundations of mutual respect and trust. You can’t build a support system overnight.

(Exception: If you participate in an intense experience that is specifically organized to bond people, then you can become very close very fast. I tend to be slightly suspicious of this though because you’re away from your regular life and often a lot of possibly important information and context is omitted. Not that I don’t think this can’t work, but I’d use caution.)

Learn to be okay with rejection. Learn to walk away. Not all people you invite to various tiers of your mountain will want to be there. Usually these people won’t reject you outright; they’re more likely to be vague and/or very busy and/or noncommittal. Let them go. Some people will want to be there, and it will turn out they’re really not good for you. Let them go too. Sometimes you will want certain people to be higher up on your mountain, but no matter what you try, they never rise above a certain tier. Let them stay where they are. Find different people to bring higher. (Which, yes, takes even more time.) Do whatever you need to do to learn to be okay with all of this.

Find hubs and communities. This does speed up the meeting process a bit. Hubs are people who seem to know “everyone” and enjoy connecting people. They are often hard to get close to themselves, but they are gold to know. Communities tend to have regularly recurring events, which makes forming friendships easier. And communities often provide a form of support in and of themselves.

“Friend” everyone you meet. Especially local people. I’m a big believer in weak ties. You never know which ones might turn into actual friends. You can use Facebook to communicate with them and potentially develop the friendship. And you will receive a lot more invitations this way, and you can meet more potential friends at these events. (Yes, this is all also great for dating.)

Say yes. The more you participate, the more friends you’ll meet, the more populated your mountain will become. Say yes when you can. Say yes even if it’s a little outside your comfort zone. (Say no too, of course, for self care.)

Learn to stay in touch. A little can go a long way. The random text message. A short IM chat. A tweet, Facebook comment, or even a like. An invitation to a party or event. A bit of extra effort made for friends you like who are visiting from out-of-town, if possible. Or even (cough) a blog, so people feel they have some idea what’s going on with you.

You have to be the one to reach out first. Yeah, I know, this is totally unfair, but also the most effective. People are busy and used to their own routines. You have to be the one to show interest, to extend that first invitation, to check in. Once the friendship is more established, this will balance out to a more equal distribution of effort (not always, but often). When it doesn’t balance out, what tends to happen is that as you fill your mountain with other people who do balance the effort, the friends who don’t will naturally move further down the mountain.

When I started, it was really hard for me to issue that first invitation. Now it seems like a completely normal thing to do. Practice pays off. It also gets easier to…

Find the “excuse” to hang out. Yes, it should be something you’d like to do, but you have to have something you’re inviting a potential new friend to do. Usually this will revolve around either participating in a common interest or talking about that interest. If it’s going to be primarily talking, it also commonly revolves around food and/or drink. I have friends that started as writing friends, theater friends, dancing friends, board game friends, movie friends, foodie friends (which can simply mean that you both love pie), etc. Over time, this might expand to encompass all kinds of subjects and activities (and might even eventually not have anything to do with how you first bonded), but at the beginning, you just need that first excuse.

For example, one of my closest friends and I met at game night. So we had board games in common. One game night he mentioned Japanese curry was one of his favorite foods. I had never had Japanese curry. He mentioned it one or two more times, and then I asked him if he’d like to go to curry with me so I could try it. And that was that: the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Open up trial and error. At some point in the friendship, in order to move a friend up the mountain, you have to open up to them. This can be terrifying, and it’s not all in your head. It is an actual risk, and you must take it. And sometimes it will end badly. Sometimes you will realize you cannot discuss a certain subject with a certain person. Sometimes you will realize you cannot discuss anything sensitive with a certain person. Sometimes people will judge you harshly. Sometimes people will give you really obviously bad advice, very sincerely. Sometimes people will be unkind. Some of these people should not be allowed to progress to the top of the mountain.

With practice, much of this can be weeded out ahead of time. But you can never know for sure until you’ve done it. It gets a bit easier when you have other friends you trust. But when you’re starting out, well, it’s like jumping from a plane.

Recently when I did this, here is what I said: “So…we’re about to either become better friends or have an awkward moment. You game?”

He was game. We are now much better friends.

Learn what kind of support you can successfully ask for from different friends. Friends have different strengths and weaknesses. Ideally when asking for support you can play to their strengths. Some friends are great for when you’re in tears. Some friends give great romantic advice, others give great career advice. Some friends are perfect for giving you a distraction. Some friends excel at connecting you to other people. Some friends are great listeners. Some friends get you out of the house. Some friends are great for logistical issues. Some friends make great soup when you’re sick. Asking people for what they’re good at giving makes both of you happy and brings you closer together.

For example, I am horrible at being asked for rides. There are a few exceptions, but really, I’m often just no good at this. And I’m not great at non-emergency last-minute practical favors either. But I’m good in an emergency, and I’m good at listening, and I’m okay at distracting.

Finally, know this is not easy. It takes lots of time and effort. There may be setbacks, sometimes major ones. There may be discouraging days. There may be times when you need large chunks of alone time. There is nothing wrong with you if it feels like an uphill climb.

It certainly felt like an uphill climb to me. And I’m sure there will continue to be bumps and obstacles. All I can tell you is what I told myself: Yeah, maybe you’ve failed. Maybe you’ll fail again. But keep trying anyway. Take a break if you need to, but never completely give up.

This is how I got to where I am right now.

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I remember wishing for a support system.

I don’t remember exactly when this was. It couldn’t have been high school because I didn’t aspire to anything as lofty as a support system in those years. So it must have been college, when my mom was dying. I needed a support system while she was sick, and I knew I’d need one just as much after she died. I remember writing lists, plotting out how I could create this support system that I so desperately needed.

I failed. I couldn’t find a support group. I couldn’t figure out the mental health services on campus. I found very few peers with whom I could speak openly. My mom had two wonderful volunteers who came to visit her while she was sick and then helped us organize the memorial after she was gone. But then they went back to their regular lives. I desperately wanted my relationship with the rest of my family to be close, but it was not close, and I could not force it to become close, however much I tried.

I didn’t get what I needed.

I tried a few more times later on to create this support system I’d been so convinced was a good idea. Each time I failed. Each time I became less convinced it was even possible. I never completely gave up, but my efforts became more and more half-hearted as time went by.

It occurs to me now, writing this, that when you’re chronically not getting what you need–when, in other words, you are starving–then you’re in no position to set strong boundaries. You’re in no position to set many boundaries at all.

I’ve been thinking about support systems again because the last couple weeks have been on the rocky side, and in the breaks between bumps, I’ve been watching how I handle it.

When I think of the Me of ten years ago, or even three years ago, I don’t recognize myself.

Part of the difference is that I’m now an expert in Amy care. And the rest of the difference? It’s that support system I always wanted. I have it now, and I don’t hesitate to use it. Within a few hours of my first awareness that I wasn’t exactly a happy camper about some things that were going on, I was on the phone with one of my best friends. And every step of the way through the following days, I’ve felt supported, in several different ways, by a wide variety of people and communities (and little dogs).

Granted, these have been relatively little bumps I’ve been experiencing. But I know if they had been bigger, those same people and communities would have been there for me.

I am getting what I need.

Here, then, is a message to Past Me: Your idea about support systems is as good as you think it is. I’m so sorry you don’t already have one, and I know it’s really hard to put one together, but hang in there and keep trying. You’ll eventually figure it out.

You’ll eventually get what you need.

And here is a message to those of you who are part of my support system now:

Thank you for feeding my heart.

Photo Credit: sullen_snowflakes via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: sullen_snowflakes via Compfight cc

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What Makes a Good Friend?

I hung out with one of my close friends last night. I hadn’t seen him in a while because I’d been sick, and then more sick, and then he’d been out of town. We sat on my couch for a few hours, catching up, swapping stories, and possibly consuming a sugary substance. And when he left I realized us hanging out had been like taking a nice big gulp of fresh air.

I was going to post a photo with human friends, but then I didn't want to leave anybody out, so here is me with my best dog friend instead.

I was going to post a photo with human friends, but then I didn’t want to leave anybody out, so here is me with my best dog friend instead.

There’s something special about good friends. They make us feel more connected, more grounded, and more known. So I’m taking a moment out to appreciate all the awesomeness that is a good friend.

  1. A good friend sometimes contacts you, out of the blue, just because.
  2. A good friend will sometimes let you pick where you’re going to eat, like when you’ve been having a sushi craving for the last week and a half or a peanut butter pie craving forever.
  3. A good friend lets you tell a weird story that kind of doesn’t have any point but is also kind of interesting. Hopefully.
  4. A good friend respects you and your opinion.
  5. A good friend listens.
  6. A good friend calls you on your bs.
  7. A good friend participates in your annual birthday week glut of celebrations with good humor.
  8. A good friend doesn’t mind when you call them up crying.
  9. A good friend talks to you about their life: their excitements and their problems and their thoughts and their hopes.
  10. A good friend asks you about your life too.
  11. A good friend celebrates with you when something happy happens and comforts you when something sad happens.
  12. A good friend doesn’t judge so you can relax and really be yourself.
  13. A good friend tells you when something is wrong.
  14. A good friend doesn’t make you feel bad for feeling how you feel. But a good friend also helps you stop wallowing.
  15. A good friend can tell when you’re interested in someone even when you weren’t intending to talk about that.
  16. A good friend knows you aren’t perfect and likes you anyway.
  17. A good friend takes an interest in your dog just because they know how much you love her.
  18. A good friend asks about your book. But they don’t ask how the agent hunt is going because they know you’d tell them if there was anything interesting to tell.
  19. A good friend laughs with you. A lot.
  20. A good friend understands when you have to say no.
  21. A good friend knows how to empathize.
  22. A good friend knows how to have fun.
  23. A good friend can geek out with you about whatever you both love: Star Trek, or Settlers of Catan, or Orphan Black, or dancing, or London, or baking cookies, or something else.
  24. A good friend believes in you.
  25. A good friend sometimes offers to bring you soup when you’re sick. Or tissues. Or cough medicine.
  26. A good friend tells you how much you mean to them.
  27. A good friend allows you to be silly. Even very silly.
  28. A good friend doesn’t push you when you don’t want to talk about something.
  29. A good friend lets you make your own decisions.
  30. A good friend knows who you are.

What does being a good friend mean to you?

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