There are few gifts in life more powerful than true friendship. From the ancient philosophers to our contemporary scientists, people who ponder the power of friendship agree: having strong social bonds is the most meaningful contributor to our happiness.
At their best, our closest relationships develop over time. They become a mirror, magnifying and strengthening our best qualities. They lift our spirits in myriad ways. They are our partners in our life’s journey and buoy us, make us stronger, and support us. They are also there for the belly laughs and inside jokes that add immeasurable moments of joy to our lives.
“Friendship is the only cement that will ever hold the world together.” Woodrow Wilson
Good friendships not only make us happier, they improve our health. A Mayo Clinic blog highlights benefits such as boosting our mood and reducing our risk of significant health problems (including depression, high blood pressure, and unhealthy body mass index). Friendships can even prolong our lives. Studies indicate older adults with rich, active social lives are likely to live longer than their peers with fewer connections. Blue zones are geographic areas around the world with an unusually high number of centenarians. All blue zone centenarians share, among other factors, a solid support network of friends and family.
Throughout my life, I’ve been blessed with so many cherished friendships. Between the age of 3 and 7, my best friend and I lived in New Orleans. Our connection was my first friendship outside of my family, and it was probably the most innocent, agenda-free, fun-based relationship in my life. To this day, we’re still in touch, and we know parts of each other’s history that nobody will ever quite understand in the same way. Later, my teenage friendships were the ones I made at Beverly Hills High School in California. These connections were also based on fun—as well as a mutual love of mischief (and the occasional surreptitious cigarette). These early friendships taught us who we are and who we want to be. Since then, my social network has expanded to fellow colleagues, moms, professionals, and good souls.
As great as these friendships are, I’ve also had friends who disappointed me. And it’s times like this when I learned to take inventory of my relationships.
Our lives are filled with a variety of human connections, all of whom have a different level of intimacy with us. There are acquaintances, such as the friend-of-a-friend with whom you exchange pleasantries at your daughters’ dance recital (“can you believe this weather?”). There are work friends with whom you’ve bonded over a shared day-to-day life, yet those connections may or may not last when you change jobs. Good friends can be newer, growing relationships that emerge out of common interests and a mutual desire to get to know each other better. And then there are the best friends: They are the deepest connections built around that magic combination of time, trust, honesty, and support. Best friendships are the family we choose, and we love them unconditionally. And they feel the same about us.
But friendships can derail, sometimes due to words and that deeply human indulgence: gossip. We know people like to talk, and usually, when they do, they don’t know all the facts and leap to judgment. For instance, when someone who doesn’t know you well gleefully tells your best friend a story about you, your trust may be understandably shaken by their gossip. There are several levels of betrayal here. First, why would they think that? Why would they SAY that? Do people really think that about me? And, most disheartening, why did one of my trusted friends participate in this conversation and feel the need to tell me later? Add this up, and now you’re in a real funk.
“What other people think of me is none of my business.” Wayne Dyer
I really love that saying, and most days, I live that philosophy. After all, talk is cheap, and there’s nothing you can do to stop people from telling stories. But when your inner circle starts to bring you tales and gossip about what others have said about you, you have to stop and wonder: why was that person so comfortable telling my friend these stories? And just like that: trust is broken. The damage is incalculable. You can’t help but wonder how your best friend represents you in the world. Are they loyal… or not? And if it happens over and over?
You know the answer.
“It takes your enemy and your friend, working together to hurt you to the heart; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.” Author: Twain Quotes
It’s awful when a person we’re connected with criticizes our dreams, actions, or goals from afar. It’s excruciating when they bend the ear of a trusted friend to confirm or solidify their opinion. The betrayal can seem like a true double-whammy. You may find yourself wondering: why are they not only allowing this conversation to happen but intent upon relaying the conversation to my ears? There are so many possible reasons: power, jealousy, even boredom, and a desire to stir the pot to see what happens. But no matter the excuse, the damage is done.
The Zohar says every word, good and bad, critical and supportive, that we utter in our lifetime remains eternal. And negative speech is the worst form of darkness.
So now could be the time to ask yourself a few questions about the quality of your friendships.
- When you talk about an exciting new idea with your friend, do they support or criticize you? If they criticize, is it out of a true desire to help you think through the details, or do they like throwing cold water on your dreams?
- How do you feel when you’re with your friend? Are you supported? Or do you feel deflated? Do you look forward to seeing them… or do you dread the time together?
- Do you want to be more like your friend? Do they inspire you with their devotion to hard work, or their far-reaching philanthropic efforts, or their joie de vivre, devil may care attitude? Do your values align?
- On the other hand, does your friend indulge in endless gossiping, judging, talking about others behind their back? Do you feel good if you participate in this, even if you don’t say a word?
- Do you trust them?
Now it’s time to ask yourself the same questions. To have great friendships, you have to be a great friend.
- Do you support your friends unconditionally?
- Do they feel good just being around you?
- Do you inspire them with your kindness, your good deeds, or your passion?
- Can they trust you?
Put yourself in your best friend’s shoes. How would they feel if you indulged in hurtful talk behind their back and then brought that information to them? I wager you don’t want to hurt or betray your best friend. In fact, I suspect the last thing you want to do is place distance between the two of you because they are the family you chose.
Rethink Moment: Are you an undercover spy, a teller, and relayer of tales? Sometimes there are things that you absolutely must share, but most of the time, that is not the case. If you find yourself unsure which category a tale may fall under, ponder this ancient question from Socrates: “Is it true, is it kind, or is it necessary?” It must meet at least one of those criteria, and 2 out of 3 is even better.