In the aftermath of the Covid19 pandemic, I find myself and many of my clients are reassessing their priorities in their life. This includes their relationships.
This article begins my new Heart@Work series on relationships. I would like to start by sharing common questions, struggles and insights on the connections that will hopefully carry us through life: our friendships.
Unlike romantic and family relationships, I find that we don’t talk enough about what we are looking for in friendships. Why they are crucial for our physical and mental health. Also, what we can do to create and maintain meaningful and uplifting social connections.
1. Why bother reflecting about our friendships? - 'No Man is an Island'
One of my favorite authors, Esther Perel, who is a Belgian psychotherapist and expert in relational intelligence, said “the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.” Deep connections are essential for our longevity and health.
An interesting fact is brought by physician Vivek Murthy in his book “Together – The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World”. He shares studies that show that people with strong social relationships are 50 percent less likely to die prematurely than people with weak social relationships. Our friendships are like food and water (!) vital for our body, mind and soul and even for how long we live. We all need to know that we matter and that we are loved.
Strong personal relationships add joy and meaning to our lives. They buffer stress and make it more likely that we’ll have the help and support we need. Especially when we go through life challenges or transitions like illness, job change, the loss of a loved one…
According to Esther, one reason why many romantic relationships are crumbling is that we expect too much from one partner. In the past generations, a whole community would provide those things. It is interesting that we have a thousand platforms to find “the one”, but rarely any to make friends.
Bronnie Ware is an Australian nurse who spent several years working in palliative care. In her book called “The Top Five Regrets of the Dying”, she shared that people wished they had stayed in touch with their friends. As we get caught up in our daily lives, building careers and families, it is easy to let friendships slip by. Bronnie shares that there were many deep regrets about not giving friendships the time and effort that they deserved. „Everyone misses their friends when they are dying."
2. What are you looking for in a friendship?
As described, we all need social connections to survive and thrive in our life. Even if you are more introverted, like spending time on your own and prefer one-on-one interactions over being in a big group. You need strong relationships to feel a secure sense of belonging.
The good news is that you don't have to win the popularity contest on social media and find 1000 of followers. Quality over quantity.
According to research, people with 3 to 5 deep and meaningful friendships report the highest levels of life satisfaction. Anyway, instead of focusing on a number, what matters is that you feel a sense of belonging. That you can be your whole self around the close people in your life.
Seasonal friendships are also super valuable, not everyone needs to be a “lifer”. For example, if you are a mum and spend time with other mums and their children as playdates during this stage of your life. Those looser connections definitely have their place, too (it takes a village!!).
Here, I would like to focus more on those rarer deep connections, where we don't have to engage in the weather and news small talk. I am talking of soul-to-soul relationships, where we feel seen, loved and championed.
Remember, the great thing about friendships is that they are connections you can freely choose. Of course, if reciprocated (the favorite word of one of my professors at uni).
What are you looking for if you are intentional with the kind of people in your life? Can you connect with the other person without feeling judged? Can you show up with every facet of yourself? Do you have a common ground, values, passions that connect you beyond age, gender, etc?
For me, an important indicator is how you feel after you have spent time with someone (even on the phone). Do you feel they sucked the life out of you or do you feel it was an uplifting energy exchange?
3. What are your beliefs around friendships?
For me, friendships are my life and love stories. Going through life together. I always connected very deeply with women. I had to learn not to trust too easily and detect red flags early on. Things like constant gossip, talking badly behind other people's backs, because - guess what: someday they will talk about you like that! I have no patience for small talk or people who don't live their truth. Some just follow the cultural norms and have nothing interesting to share besides what's on the TV or news.
My friends are my biggest cheerleaders and I am theirs. They feel happy for me, they cry with me. They speak hard truths in a loving way. Our connection feels expansive and open. No topic is off the table. Even if we are in completely different life circumstances, there is a bond that goes beyond.
I have one friend I have been in touch with for 30 years. We are living completely different lives, but our history and how we grew up together connects us.
I realized that my deepest connections have entered a period of my life where I was going through a transition. For example, mourning the death of my father, or moving to a new place or country.
I met my soul twin almost 10 years ago at work, when we both started working at the same company and HR department during an office breakfast get-together. We both had moved to a new city (or better, village) and started spending lots of our free time together. Even when we both moved away, we maintained our bond. And even though we see each other much less frequently, it is a celebration every time we do get together.
How to make friends as a (more introverted) adult?
When we grew up, we made friends with people we spent most time with at kindergarten, school and university. After the age of 25, our number of friends decreases.
If you are like me and you live in a different country, it is more challenging to maintain your original friendships from home. Even more so when your childhood friends also moved to a different city or spent some time abroad. As an adult, you are also likely to get busy with your own career, spouse and children. You may feel you don’t have much energy left to engage with your friends.
The last years also enforced isolation and social distancing from people outside our nuclear families and homes. We had fewer chances to socialize and make friends. If you run your own business and/or work remotely, you have to be more intentional to socialize and grow your network.
Steps to make friends
A first step to make friends is to become aware that you long for meaningful connections outside your core family.
Knowing what you are looking for in a friendship will sharpen your lenses and how you go through your day. Be open to interacting with people you don’t know yet. I know it’s not easy in a culture where lots of people have the deepest relationship with their phone and block themselves with earbuds.
Think about where your kind of people hang out. In a nightclub or a yoga retreat? Is there a social or environmental cause close to your heart where you could volunteer your time and meet like-hearted people? Or get a dog ;) They are usually a nice conversation starter. Go to a meetup in your city, networking event or conference in an area of your interest. Join a gym, sports/book/language club yoga or dance school. I have met friends at coffee shops that I used as an unofficial co-working space.
Introduce your friends to each other and ask to meet the friends of your friends. A helpful activity you can do is to think about your own network of connections on a piece of paper. Draw a circle in the middle with your name on it. Then write down the names of people with whom you have strong connections — put them close to your circle. Write the names of those with whom you have weak or distant ties farther away from your circle. Finally, ask yourself who should be in your network? Place them (either by name or role) farthest out on your paper. This reflection can open your eyes on the patterns of your connections, and if it reflects the kind of network you would like to have.
Please remember you can also reconnect to former friends. Who were your people at school, university or in your last job that you have lost touch with over the years and think of them a lot? Be brave and reach out. Tell them that you miss them.
4. How to be a less sucky friend to others
Like a romantic relationship, it takes time and effort to build trust and deep connection. Part of building trust is your ability to be real and vulnerable with others. Your counterpart can sense if you are being genuinely invested in them. You can be present, actively listen and ask specific questions. They will know if you are only looking out for your own validation and self-interest.
If you have a romantic partner, you probably spend time discussing your relationship, your needs and common goals. Why not do that also with your beloved friends?
Expansive friendship questions could be for example:
How do you think our friendship is going?
What can I do to be a good friend to you?
How would you feel best supported by me at this time of your life?
Getting to know your friends better and showing interest in their life:
What are you doing that's exciting you right now?
What was the highlight of your week?
What is a challenge you’ve overcome this year/month that felt satisfying?
What new things have you learned?
What is a dream that you’ve never said aloud?
What do you think about…. (work, success, relationships, …) has this changed for you in the last years?
Virtual or face-to-face?
We can maintain relationships in the virtual space, but it is more meaningful if we at least hear each other's voices. Lot’s of us are Zoom fatigued, so creating memories like going on a trip together can fuel the deep bond. When was the last time you did something fun with your friend?
For me it is not how much you are able to see your friends face to face (as I am living far away from some of my dearest) as much as the energy you put into them (prayers from a far count). I like to think about nourishing relationships like watering and caring about our plants. I have friends who are excellent in showing their love by sending messages, postcards, care packages. One has two babies and manages to check-in with me in such a loving way, that really brings me so much joy almost every day.
Last but not least, assess what kind of friend you are. When was the last time you expressed your gratitude to your closest friends, how much they mean to you? Who do you owe an apology to? A phone call? When you are celebrating one of your last birthdays, what would you like your friends to share about you? What do you want your friends to come to you for right now? Which wisdom, ideas, encouragement, skills and have you offered?
I hope my thoughts inspire you to think about the friendships in your life and how important they are for your journey. Forgive yourself for where you might have been a lousy friend. Show compassion if someone you love might have let you down, like lacking the initiative of reaching out to you.
Let me know your thoughts, experiences and questions on how to create and maintain meaningful and uplifting social connections in our lives.
If you would like to get more personal insights on my and my clients' journey, connect with me through the Heart@Work Letter. A meaningful, spam-free love letter. I will send it to you every two weeks, with heartfelt tips on how to create a unique work life, true to your heart. Sign-up to receive it by clicking here.
Suzanne Degges-White: Friendships, Subjective Age, and Life Satisfaction of Women in Midlife, 2020 https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/adsp.12086
Exercise on circle of friends from the Center of Creative Leadership. https://www.ccl.org/articles/leading-effectively-articles/women-is-your-network-working-for-you/