Things I wish I knew about (all) relationships sooner
Yesterday, I got to see my friend Robin from study abroad. It was beautiful to see her, albeit rather strange, given the lens of having her in my home. She got to meet my dogs, and we went to eat dinner at a great place in town. I made her a plate of cookies and improve-ed a recipe for her to take with her, humorously naming the cookies after an inside joke and dang, those cookies were fabulous.
The thing that most surprised me, more than anything, was that seeing her didn’t faze me whatsoever. I always thought that my friends from study abroad again would be either weird or extremely happily huge, but for me, seeing her was mostly the gratitude of being able to savor being in her company, and being okay with the knowledge that it may be years before I see her again. She is my friend and I love her, so that doesn’t surprise me. The not-surprised, “okay” feeling is what surprises me.
I am not a person that does major changes well, or at least, I used to believe that. It is so weird now, to look back and realize how excited and spastic I have gotten for things like moving back into campus from winter break, or going on a vacation, or things that require a lot of change.
Part of it is being able to be calm now. But the need to get over-the-top excited AND worried with any kind of change has comfortably withered over the course of this winter break. As strong emotions, excitement and panic always seem to come together, and I just want to be around my friends and enjoy them. That peace makes me very happy. But, it also makes me wonder if knowing peace like this could have come sooner. I don’t think so. The fact of the matter is that it takes a person a long time to develop healthy ways of thinking about relationships if they don’t start with them. It depends on your experiences, and whether or not people work with you. Accepting changing how you think about relationships starts with forgiveness and being able to evaluate intentions as separate from actions, for better or worse.
In addition to being super excited to see my friends, I also used to feel responsible for their well-being. Now, to a certain extent, that isn’t a bad thing. But when it becomes more hurtful than it is helpful? Not even thinking through buckets of journals can unravel that before it’s due.
But let me share some things I wish I would have known sooner, when it comes to just letting your friends be who they are and enjoying them for nothing more or less than the best both of you can, given the situation. I feel like a lot of this knowledge is not commonly known within the people of my age group, and I also think that these are the conversations that are necessary to have if we want to have lower rates of emotional health problems or disorders, across people of any age group.
The first thing that would have been nice to be able to accept is that people don’t stop being your friend if you fail. Failure is part of any kind of human relationship, and certain amounts of failure are healthy. If you are perfect, then you can’t be human. If you are human, you are prone to be imperfect. What isn’t healthy is when others can’t accept that you are imperfect, or when you demand that perfection of them. The need to be perfect can be tricky if you are a naturally confident or assertive person, because people will probably assume you have your crap together when you definitely don’t. If you love your friends and you think it’s up to you to help them (it really isn’t; more on that in a minute), then this can put you in a precarious position of “solver”, and you will probably feel pressured to maintain that role until you realize you can’t. That will cause strain and pressure on your relationships by making you into someone no one can be. And the need to help others before yourself will effectively drive you crazy.
The second thing I wish I knew comes down to the role of time and distance in friendship. The expiration date for friendships questionably exists in my opinion. While not all friendships are mutually beneficial, healthy, or last over a period of time, the length (NOT THE VALUE) of a friendship boils down much more to attitudes and whether or not that relationship still makes sense to continue. People have different kinds of unique relationships based on things like their context, what is going on in their lives, common struggles or happinesses; that sort of thing. From that point forward, staying in touch is mostly up to you to keep in touch with the friends who you think are worth keeping. You need to know now that that will not always mean they reciprocate that and keep in touch with you, but that isn’t a bad thing, it just is. You can always make more friends, but sustaining contact with people you care about is a skill to cherish.
Yet while being able to communicate well and maintain contact with people is helpful, communicating on its own isn’t always the answer. Barring specific people I love and make an effort to maintain contact with, I am a person that really likes spending time with others. Sometimes when my friends are not in my corner of the Universe, it can be easy for me to think that that is indicative of my failure, or that they don’t value my time. That usually isn’t true. What is usually true is that good friends don’t stop being good friends over failure, but sometimes life marches on and it no longer makes sense to maintain contact with specific people. If you think of communicating with someone as a chore, you probably should make reflect on whether or not it is the act of maintaining contact that you dislike, or the person you are maintaining contact with, and what specifically about that relationship, if it comes down to personal differences. All though I believe most differences can be reconciled, sometimes it isn’t worth the effort.
That shouldn’t be a bad thing. If you grudgingly continue a friendship, then that is intensely cruel if another person still values that relationship. Really, you should pick friends who want the same thing of the friendship as you. Friendship could mean that you have a superfly lab partner than you just make inside science-y jokes with. Friendship could mean that you have a friend you see once every 2 years that was on your dance team in high school and makes you laugh every time. Or friendship could mean that after a while, there is no real basis to continue a friendship that makes you and the other person miserable. Coming home from study abroad, I’ve had plenty of times where I’ve had to evaluate what exactly was missing from one friendship or another, and often the answer was that there was no good reason to keep making an effort, because neither I nor the person I was friends with genuinely cared to keep in touch. That doesn’t make either of us bad people. It just means that the best thing to do for that time is to let things fade for a while, and see what happens in the future or if circumstances change. Apart from that, you can’t be friends with everyone forever.
Sometimes people change, and that isn’t just “okay”, that is excellent. Change is part of growing older. Growing older is NOT “growing up”; that’s another make-believe concept entirely. You don’t magically become an adult and never have to deal with this, but over time, the idea is that you get more comfortable with some of it, if you are able to. It makes you more valuable to the people you care about.
The third thing I wish I knew is that I was capable of being this chill in advance. I did not know how easy being easy-going could be, going into college, and a sense of relaxation was something I mostly improvised going into study abroad. I only realized that being chill and dealing with regrettable circumstances was a large part of my character when I came home, had a really up and down semester, and decided to fight for calm. The difference on my sense of enjoying my life is like night and day from before; being okay and content is so much easier now. The lack of discussion about how to cultivate a healthy sense of self in relationships is strange, because next to none of my classes in Psychology discuss this kind of thing; of being able to redefine negative patterns in your life, despite the fact that their audience is straight 20 somethings (or under), or people who are slightly older but in a new period of redefining their goals for their lives and ultimately, change. While it makes sense and is kind of obvious that professors would talk about health, I don’t understand why they don’t address the practical implications of what it means to live in it, rather than make us memorize dumb theories of dead people that have no real bearing on our lives. But to me, college is still way more about what you make of it (and what is important to you for that period of time) than for anything else. It helps to be lucid in your decision-making process, but not everyone will be.
Which brings me to the fourth thing I wish I had known, which is namely that I cannot “fix” anyone.
Now, that is obvious. Generally speaking, I talk about what it means to let God have control of my life fairly often these days, and now it seems fairly transparent that I can’t be held responsible for the problems of others without my consent. But if you come from a situation of being a caretaker, you genuinely love other people, and you have a lot of practical experience and factual knowledge about how to potentially help people? You can fall into this trap pretty easy.
I want to make it clear right now that no one in their right mind would choose that at 20 years old, or younger. Not one person. People need to be able to choose helping professions if they are suited for them and care too; not as children or adolescents or young adults. Unfortunately, there are so few people in the business of effectively helping that many young adults or children are forced into roles to “help” one another, which is code for making sure your friends who are struggling don’t commit suicide and absorbing the emotional burdens of taking care of family or friends (or as a bonus, teachers) while having no clear cut sense of self, except that your role is to help.
That is the most demented thing I have ever heard, but I lived it for a long time.
So let’s talk about that.
I still struggle to act my age. People have always told me to do that, and to have someone tell you to “act your age” isn’t just obnoxious and cruel, it is a slap in the face when a person can’t. I still love people. I still care for others. But being prone to overreact through years of experience in being made to assume responsibility that wasn’t mine was not pleasant for me, it was not my choice, and it puts me in a situation that can be dangerous to my own expectations. I love people, so that often makes me panic. But when you cannot help except to over-help? Well then, I can’t think of anyone would actively decide they want that.
You see, all the things I have learned over the years that I intensely value put caring for others as a priority. The question I had to ask myself eventually last semester is: Is it my role to care for others?
Hell no. It is something I enjoy. But it is not my role. If it is anyone’s role, it is God’s role, and he does it best. I love that he takes care of everyone, me included, regardless of what we think we need, and dependent on what he wills only. Being able to trust God to do it best takes off all the pressure.
But Haley, what do you do if someone is hurting themselves and you know information that might help?
Well, let me answer that with a question: Is it your right, ability, or choice to solve their problems for them?
Often, when people have any kind of information that may or may not be helpful, they blast it like some knowledge typhoon that really disrespects how difficult life can be to those who are already trying and or already know. Odds are, if someone is struggling or has a clinical sized problem, they probably already know about it, and they may or may not be okay with talking about it. They may not be willing to admit it or seek help for it, but somewhere, lodged in their brain is the voice of panic saying “this is not okay”.
So you have a couple options, if you find yourself in the role of friend and not caretaker. One is to become better informed about what is and what is not helpful for your own benefit, and to learn to be a more supportive person.
But if you have relatives who are not well, you can’t always be the one to spew this information. Part of the reason for that is that if you are in the immediate family of someone who is hurting, they will often not listen to you, regardless of if you have a strong relationship. You could be close as hell and have them write you off, because the shame that it comes with admitting any kind of weakness is the same excruciating pain for most humans, until they become okay with it. You can’t solve a person’s problems for them, otherwise they will not learn the skills they need to do it for themselves, and if you love them, they may only be going through the motions for you, because they recognize that it also hurts you to see them suffering. And if they don’t want help? You repeating words until they lose their effectiveness as a whole is probably not going to do anything helpful.
If a person makes a change to comply with another person’s wishes and doesn’t actively decide to make that decision primarily for themselves or for themselves and thus, others, it will rarely stick once the pressure is off. Unfortunately, it takes a lot to decide to change and very little to fall into the same cycles as before. This is not helped by being constantly in an environment that makes it difficult to maintain positive lifestyle changes, or among people who see one person’s attempts to do better as an indication that they have failed or are a terrible person. This happens with families, whether or not it is fair. The need to please others and still choose oneself usually ends in conflict, from what I have seen. From my experience, it helps to start with oneself and work outwards.
That is popularly sold as selfish, but it’s actually just reality. If it is you changing, why wouldn’t you do that for yourself? If you are the one who will feel better, shouldn’t that come from you (and in my book, God)? I couldn’t rise above a lot of this without God’s help, and it made the difference in terms of giving me the endurance I needed to persevere through painful circumstances. But being able to cultivate an attitude of self-reliance can really make or break the business of making positive choices. To choose your own health isn’t to choose yourself over others, it’s to choose yourself first so that eventually, you will be able to bless others by the same information, and the health that you practice.
To me, this knowledge is basic and extremely crucial, however poorly advised or practiced. You have to be willing to take responsibility for yourself and ownership of your actions and the consequences they produce to really be mature enough to deal with any kind of negative circumstance gracefully. You can’t blame others for your choices, but you can choose to work to be better and eventually, learn to make better choices for the sake of your health, and over time, the health of others. You can’t save them. But an investment in yourself is an investment in the people you love, because you are probably wounding them somewhat, even if you don’t want to, by being unhealthy. That isn’t your choice, but you can do something about it, over time. It is your choice to do nothing, and to choose to let things remain the same when they hurt is to choose to accept being miserable. From what I’ve experienced, the hardest part is running into the things your are running from, trusting you will come out the other side, and incorporating that goodness into all of the rest of the crazy, only to do it again (and again and again…).
The point is, all of life is a process. You don’t choose how you were born, but you can choose to live better than whatever you are afraid of confronting. Not all negativity can be seen, and generally speaking, people have the same amount of terrible in them, some of it is better recognized or appreciated than other parts. People’s opinions on what is awful shift from culture, language, ethnicity, age, etc., so it’s best to just do your best, call it good, and keep moving forward, disregarding what wounds and being grateful for what doesn’t.
To me, healthy relationships both acknowledge the effect you have on others, but do not condemn you for any failures you may have practiced, instead supporting in a way that helps both people be mutually edified and create healthier habits over time. It has to be a unified effort, and one person can’t be held more at a disadvantage than others, or judged harsher.
People crave meaning, and it should be normal to have friends that appreciate you for who you are, enjoy spending time with you or interacting with you, and yet, do not punish you for what you do wrong. Mutual respect and compassion is the same foundation as you would find interacting respectfully with a stranger, and the same foundation of care that leads to healthy marriages. It is a habit that becomes happiness over time, and especially when shared. It is important to value the friendships you have, but also to cultivate the practice of being aware of what is fair and what is not, gathering evidence from your emotions, which tip you off to problems long before they become clinical. It is equally important to use logic in evaluating painful circumstances, which may help to assess conflict from the viewpoint of intentions over actions, and assessing what exactly is wrong about the actions of yourself or another person. The fact of the matter is that people often don’t realize how they fail, and it isn’t up to you to point it out so much as to be someone a person can trust, care, and accept care well. Some of that means setting boundaries for what is acceptable for you or others. But most of it comes from being a kind, trustworthy person, and becoming better at it over time.
As always, I hope that you find meaning in your friendships, relationships, and life.
All the best,