Life Lessons | This Happened To Me

How To Be a Good Friend

What I’ve learned as an adult about friendship

This week, I stumbled on old photos from my times at various summer camps in my teens, and as I went through them, I found myself feeling something unexpected. I kept looking at the faces of all of these girls I’d met years ago and thinking, “She was probably pretty cool. I wish I’d known enough to become friends with her.”

Let me preface all of this by saying that I came into potential friendships with a bit of baggage. I had a strange relationship with my mother that left me feeling like girls weren’t totally “safe,” and on top of that, my mother never failed to remind me that preteen and teen girls are “the worst.” I generally expected girls not to like me.

What this meant in a practical sense was that friends had to come to me. They had to do the initial work because I both didn’t know how and was afraid to try. I’m sure no one likes rejection, but I really couldn’t handle it, especially not from girls and women. And so I found myself as friends only with the people who seemed to innately know these secrets of friendship that I am just now becoming conscious of as a woman approaching thirty.

Most of the time, you have to try to get to know people

Maybe this sounds obvious to you, but it was far from obvious to me. For many of my child and teen years, I took dance classes at one particular studio, but I never made any real friends there. Many of the girls went to the same schools and came in with those outside friendships, and I always felt a little left behind. Add to that the fact that dance classes aren’t prime opportunities for meaningful interaction. You’re not going to stumble upon a meaningful similarity or shared experience (outside of both taking dance classes, which at that point, is meaningless).

Not once in my many years of dance classes did I approach a girl to ask her how her day had been, what she’d done at school, or whether or not she had anything planned over the weekend that she was looking forward to. I always had this feeling that the girls weren’t interested in me, or perhaps didn’t like me, but the truth was, I never did anything that would have indicated an interest in them or who they were as people.

Some of the time, of course, you’re lucky enough not to have to “try” to get to know people. Many of the friends I made in my twenties were coworkers at one particular organization. We had all of these shared experiences that came with working there together — jerk bosses, frustrations with other departments, crazy subordinates — that made us feel close and revealed things about each other. My coworkers noticed and learned things about me that I didn’t even know, and it was in large part because of the things we went through together.

You need to have empathy

Because my coworkers and I had these shared experiences, we knew what each person was going through and thus we came to identify with them emotionally and care about them. Empathy was practically built-in. There were coworkers I found a love for even before I knew I liked them. It was a place where you had to take care of each other. And because we cared about each other and knew each other so well, we came to sort of love the stupid things about each other, much as you may come to love the stupid things your partner does.

My mother, who I’ve already mentioned blessed me with some baggage in this department, had a very difficult time with friends herself. She was great at making them. She wasn’t great at keeping them. The problem for her was that she’s very sensitive and has a very black and white view of what’s okay and what isn’t. A friend would hurt her feelings or would do something that she believed she wouldn’t do, and that was enough to end the friendship for her.

When I look back on my preteen and teen years, I realize that I did the same thing. On some level, I didn’t understand that friends are their own people. Sometimes they will upset you. Nobody is perfect. If you want to have real friends, then you have to be ready to work through the bumps in the road. My coworkers taught me how to do that. We certainly got upset with each other at times. Then we talked it out, we saw where the other person was coming from, we apologized if necessary, and we got over it.

Now there’s one more thing I believe is really important for lasting friendships, and admittedly, I’m not yet very good at it.

You have to put effort into maintaining the friendship

I haven’t seen those old coworkers of mine in a while, and unsurprisingly, we don’t talk as much as we once did. I still consider many of them to be dear friends, but I’m aware that if someone doesn’t put the effort into maintaining communication, then over time, the friendship will disappear.

There have been so many friends I’ve made over my life who were fantastic, interesting people, but whom I haven’t talked to in a decade. Lives go in different directions. You move, change jobs, change schedules, and often, you lose touch. Sometimes, you get lucky, and you have a friend who’s good at keeping up communication and holding you accountable because that’s just who they are. Or, come to think of it, maybe it’s because they already know this to be a truth about friendship and they’re trying.

I’ve been blessed recently to gain a group of friends through a women’s writing group who have been excellent role models when it comes to those three important aspects of making and keeping friends:

  1. They show their interest in me as a person and their openness to friendship by asking questions and actively trying to get to know me.
  2. They always display empathy, accepting my quirks and faults without judgment, and participating in caring dialogue.
  3. They work to grow and maintain the friendship. Prior to COVID-19, they took the initiative to plan outings, and throughout the pandemic, they’ve created opportunities for continued (socially distanced) time together.

I hope that you’ve been lucky enough to have these sorts of friends in your life. And who knows, maybe you are that special friend for the people close to you.

I’m putting these thoughts out there — these elements that I’ve found to be so critical to real friendship — because, as simple as they might seem, they were far from obvious to me. But they help. I hope they help you too.

Elan is also a writing mentor, helping aspiring writers hone their craft and develop their authentic writing selves. If you’d like to subscribe to the write with elan! email list, click here: https://www.subscribepage.com/b5j6t7

Writer and Writing Mentor. Screenwriter. Honest. Human. She/Her. @elancassandra on Instagram, @ElanCDuensing on Twitter. https://linktr.ee/elancassandra

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