Friendships: The Challenges and Joys
Friendships: The Challenges and Joys
By Joy Carol
A friend is one who knows you as you are and understands where you’ve been, accepts who you’ve become and still, gently invites you to grow. - Anonymous
Often women ask, “What would I do without my friends?” If we have first-class friends, they help us laugh; allow us to grieve and cry; listen to us when we are happy or upset; and share ideas about relationships, work, life. Indeed, healthy friendships may be one of the best things that can happen to us. Such relationships are joyful, fun, powerful, almost miraculous.
On the other hand, women’s relationships can be difficult, frightening, even wounding. We are afraid a close friend could hurt us. Someone we trust might betray or abandon us. We’ll feel the sting of a friend’s disapproval more than criticism from a non-friend. If we’re sensitive and personalize what a friend says, we can get upset. We could easily conclude that friendship is risky, at best.
It’s true that women’s friendships can be hindered by problems. A major stumbling block is that women have unrealistic expectations about their relationships. Since they share the same gender, they assume they will automatically be friends without effort. All too often we take friendships for granted, believing we don't have to work hard to be a good friend or to have one. So we don't nurture our relationships, and before long they slip to "the back burner.” Most of us wouldn't do this to our families, spouses, partners, or colleagues. Yet we easily do it with friends.
At times we let relationships drift away because something more important comes along: a love relationship, marriage, children, a job, even a pet. Our friendships aren’t taken seriously, so when things go wrong, that too isn’t taken seriously. Obviously, this is a formula for disappointment and hurt.
Perhaps one of the main causes for problems in women’s relationships stems from hundreds of years of oppression and mistreatment of females as second-class citizens by cultures, institutions, men—and by women themselves. Many women have accepted, internalized, and even practiced these repressive traditions, resulting in negative feelings toward their own sex—and toward themselves. These attitudes are often reflected in how they treat one another.
Fortunately there is also good news. Many women who’ve experienced these difficulties have found workable solutions. So we too can resolve pitfalls we encounter and avoid being disappointed by relationships that don’t meet our expectations. And we can make our friendships stronger and more genuine.
Meaningful friendships—the kind you can count on—are not simple nor effortless. They can be challenging, demanding, and complicated. But is there anything in life that doesn’t take an effort—marriage, families, jobs, religion?
We start by having a clear sense of who we are. Friendships are enhanced when we know ourselves and have self-confidence. This is basic to resolving problems that emerge in relationships. Rather than feeling envy about someone’s talents and accomplishments, we can examine and improve our own skills. Instead of competing in a toxic way, we might try enhancing our abilities and choose if and how to compete in a healthier manner. To avoid inappropriate anger, we benefit if we recognize how we’ve been wounded and learn how to heal our pain. If someone walks all over us, we can establish boundaries. And we can express our real feelings and needs, because we are deserving, worthy people.
And if we don’t feel good about ourselves, we can do something about that too. Most women feel better about themselves if they do some kind of meaningful work, join a singing group, do volunteer work, participate in sports. Women who are involved with caring for others often lose some of their insecurities in the process. Also there are helpful resources available such as counseling services, therapists, spiritual directors, support groups, health centers, religious institutions.
When we feel good about ourselves, our whole outlook on life changes and we are better, more mature people. When we are mature, we are open, willing to grow and change, more capable of developing our potential, and more likely to have quality friendships.
Also we may want to clarify what we mean when we use the word “friend”—a word used to describe a wide range of relationships. We may be talking about a committed soul mate who is trustworthy, who understands and accepts us, and encourages us to grow. However, we use the same word to describe a casual relationship with only occasional, somewhat indifferent connections. And we call people friends just because they have been around for some time.
- We know that having positive, realistic, dependable friendships is a benefit to our emotional and physical health and certainly is a goal worth striving for. But it requires commitment and hard work. Here are some questions and suggestions that can help you have healthier friendships.
- Do you feel good about yourself? If women have positive feelings about themselves, they feel positive about other women and their relationships with them. When you are satisfied with your capabilities, you will be more relaxed, happier, and stronger—and a much better friend. If you are confident, you will appreciate other women including their strengths and weaknesses. You will be able to let problems roll off your back.
- Are you able to really listen? Women can improve their relationships by being good listeners. When you truly hear what someone is saying, you can correct minor irritations before they become huge. Listening with an open mind to what someone is saying without running it through filters, without thinking you know what she is going to say, or without imagining she will criticize you are ways to improve communications. And if she says something critical about you, listen carefully to her words to see if there is truth in them and make changes, if necessary.
- Do you know how to make friends? Old friends are wonderful, but they can move, die, or get involved in a consuming activity. It’s a good idea to regularly make new friends. Are you looking for a spiritual friend, a serious sports woman, an environmentalist, a film buff, a hiker? Once you know what you want, you can find someone by joining special interest groups, going to continuing education programs, volunteering, searching the internet. One woman meets women in her bookstore; another makes friends in the supermarket by asking questions about the vegetables. It’s worth trying whatever works.
- Can you diversify your friendships? Many women are unrealistic about a “best friend” being all things for them. They end up being disappointed or dumped, because one friend can’t meet all their needs. It’s better not to put all your eggs in one basket. Try broadening your horizons by having friends of different ages, races, religions. And remember: not every friend has to be emotionally or geographically close to you.
- Can you see “friends” for who they really are? Realistic women recognize who is or isn’t a friend. They’re less likely to be disappointed by unmet expectations. Sometimes what you think are “friends” really aren’t. Some women can be counted on, they talk over problems, they understand you, and they handle changes in the relationship. Other “friends” may be women you’ve grown accustomed to having around even though they aren’t supportive. Still others are pain-givers, although you might call them “friends.” So take a good look at your friendships and evaluate them realistically.
- Are you willing to not run away when things aren’t going well? Often women aren’t willing to confront problems openly or work through difficulties because pride, guilt, and fear get in the way. If a friend says something you don’t like, try not to shut down. Or if you do something to a friend you really shouldn’t have done, don’t just disappear. Stick around and understand what’s going on. Barriers that seemed insurmountable can be resolved and your relationship might be worth saving.
- Can you stop assuming? Many women make assumptions about things that aren’t correct. If your friend whispers to someone, don’t assume she’s talking about you. If a friend frowns, don’t presume you’ve done something wrong. Whenever you assume the worst, stop and give things a chance to unfold. Asking questions, listening to what was said, and using good judgment are better solutions than assuming.
- Can you recognize if you or someone are projecting stuff on each other? When people project, they see a part of themselves in someone. They view someone’s behavior based on what they may wish they could do but can't. If people hurt you or accuse you of something that has nothing to do with you, it could be their “stuff” that they’re projecting onto you. Try not to personalize or let things hurt you. And when you feel critical of someone and what they’re doing wrong, you may want to check yourself. Perhaps you’re projecting your stuff on them.
- Can you recognize when a relationship is unhealthy? Even though a relationship is harmful, women often fear there won’t be someone to replace their “friend.” If you have tried to make a relationship work and it’s unhealthy, it’s better to accept that and let it go with kindness. Talking about what happened is better than just walking away, but it takes courage.
- Do you have a thick enough skin? Women who are people pleasers may be overly sensitive to uncomplimentary things and get their feelings hurt. If you have this problem, try to de-sensitize yourself and not take things personally. When off-putting words are used, think about the intention behind the words. Sometimes negative comments are someone’s less-than-positive feelings about themselves misdirected at you.
- Are you willing to swallow your pride and forgive—your friends and yourself? Psychologists say it’s not unusual for people who have low self-esteem to inflict pain on others. If someone hurts you, take the high road and be understanding and non-judgmental. If possible, try to forgive. You might free yourself of some extra baggage. Sometimes you may need to ask for forgiveness for inflicting your pain on someone.
- Are you able to practice openness with kindness? If you aren’t truthful with your friends, you likely have an artificial friendship. But candor requires care. If openness isn’t wrapped in compassion, you may be hurtful and inconsiderate. No one has the right to injure someone with brutal honesty. Practicing truthfulness with kindness is much nobler.
- Do you have a sense of humor? Laughter is good medicine; in fact, it helps people heal. If you can learn how to face problems with an appropriate sense of humor and laugh at absurd things, you may find that an “armor” of humor can protect you from anguish and give pleasure to others and yourself.
- Are you flexible? Flexible women don’t have expectations about how a friendship should be. They accept themselves and their friends for who and what they are. If you can be open to women you meet—even those who might not meet your requirements for friendship, you might establish some pleasant relationships. Let a friendship unfold and accept it for what it is. And choose friends who don’t want you to be someone you aren’t.
- Do you appreciate your friends? Friends are important to our emotional and physical health. Yet too often women take them for granted. Friends are far too precious for you not to treasure. Remember your friends will be gone someday. Try to savor every minute of your friendships and appreciate friends while they are in your life.
Without a doubt, meaningful, healthy relationships with women can be challenging. Friendships require patience, commitment, maturity, and effort. But anything of value has a price tag; it doesn’t come free. Once you have a genuine friendship, you will find the returns are satisfying. An authentic friendship is powerful and awe-inspiring. It can give you joy, energy, optimism, new hope, new dreams.
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About the Author
Joy Carol is an author, national speaker, spiritual director, workshop and retreat leader. Her recent books include The Fabric of Friendship: Celebrating the Joys, Mending the Tears in Women’s Relationships, Journeys of Courage, and Towers of Hope: Stories to Help Us Heal (Sorin Books/Ave Maria Press). Over the last 30 years, Joy has been an educator (the Outstanding Young Educator of the USA), counselor, women in development specialist, and manager of international development programs. She has lived and worked in the developing world for organizations such as the Ford Foundation, the United Nations Development Programme, Save the Children, and the Christian Children's Fund. Joy holds an honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters from Nebraska Wesleyan University, master's degrees in Spiritual Direction from the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church, and in counseling psychology from the University of Maryland. She has also done graduate studies in Asian Affairs, women and development, and management at Scarritt College, New York University, and Harvard University. Fourteen years ago Joy had three close encounters with death and has since dedicated her life to spirituality and healing. She is a volunteer for the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, the Central Park Conservancy, and Imagination Playgrounds. She has been trained and is experienced in trauma counseling, grief and bereavement counseling, hospice work, healing techniques, Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, imagery, and meditation. Read more about Joy and her book, The Fabric of Friendship at her website, www.joycarol.com.