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What makes a good friend?
The first thing that springs to mind is someone who’s “always there”—a person perpetually available to others. Someone who will answer your call day and night, rain or shine.
That’s what I understand the gold standard of friendship to be, and I fail miserably at it.
I don’t consciously choose to be a “bad” friend. It happens because I can’t, try as I might, summon the energy to be available upon request. I feel guilty about this. And I wonder why I am the way I am, when it feels like so many other women are in eternity circles of sisterly support.
My inability to show up, however, doesn’t apply to the big moments—the losses, bereavements, the breakups, nor does it mean I’m not there for people at all. I’d like to think that when it counts, I’m at people’s sides. But, what I struggle with is being an ad hoc sounding board for the day-to-day.
This sounds harsh—but it’s true.
Sometimes, when the phone rings, I can virtually smell my mind short-circuiting as expectation grinds. I want to help, I want to fulfill the BFF role, but I just can’t. I’ve always felt huge guilt about this.
Acting as a balm to my perceived selfishness is the realization that I’m an introvert. My equanimity through lockdown has proved it. This goes some way to explaining why I struggle with the banalities of “always” being there.
I, like many introverts, invest huge energy in every conversation I have. Small talk doesn’t feature in my repertoire. It’s straight to politics, philosophy, personal issues, and existentialism, as soon as I’ve dispensed with “how are you?”
When a friend comes to me with a dilemma, I don’t just listen. I get into the trenches with them, analyze the issue from all possible angles, and emerge with a worse case of trench foot than they do. Because I become so involved and take on other people’s emotions, I can’t have these conversations often. Particularly not on the phone.
So, there you go—introversion is my excuse for being a sh*t friend.
Still, this seems like a cop-out. But, I’m pondering whether there’s a bigger issue at play than where I sit on the introversion or extroversion spectrum. I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about the notion of “always” being there, and questioning how reasonable and realistic it really is.
Being a people pleaser, I’ve always taken this quite literally and just accepted it. Now, I’m digging into my underlying beliefs, though I can see that I’ve basically believed it meant putting someone on par with myself, disregarding my own needs to meet those of others, and dropping everything to be there for someone, as many times a week or month as that may be. If you’re always going to be present, regardless of the weather, essentially, this is what you’d need to do.
Writing this now, I can see this is pretty ridiculous. I wonder why I’ve never been able to meet the standard—perhaps a part of me knew it was outrageous. The only person that should play this role in your life is a parent. And a partner, but only to a certain extent.
Friends should be there for one another, no doubt. But this notion of always being there is a hangover from our early years. The mantra is a simple way for parents to explain to children what the values of friendship are.
As we age and our priorities diversify, if we don’t question and redefine this childhood idea we may find ourselves overloaded. If you’re anything like me, prone to minimizing your own needs, you may end up setting the bar far too high and punishing yourself, as I have, when you don’t reach it.
I’m starting to realise that always being there doesn’t necessarily mean always being available. It can also mean always standing by someone. Always being loyal. Always empathising. Always being present in their life. Always seeing the best in them. There are plenty of ways to always be there for someone that don’t involve disproportionate sacrifice on your part.
It’s liberating to understand that I can put up my own needs first, and be a good friend at the same time.
It’s all about boundaries. The best friendships have them, and the best friends understand why you need them.