Like most holidays in America, Valentine’s Day has come to stand in for the entire month of February. While romantic love is all good and well (as are cheap chocolates and roses), WWAC Lifestyle is celebrating love of the platonic variety (and the many variations therein) this month.
Is there anything worse than realizing that you aren’t being a great friend? Friendship is meant to be simple—after all, you get taught the basic rules before you know how to write your name. Share your toys. Let them have a turn on the slide, too. Above, all, be a good listener. A friend is someone who listens when you’re sad or mad, so you don’t have to go through hard times alone.
It took a long time for me to realize that being a good friend didn’t simply involve listening. It means talking, too. Not just idly shooting the shit or chatting about whatever pop culture ephemera has caught my eye, but a genuine sharing of the bad things in life, too. Fears about the future, dysfunctional family histories, past traumas; all those things that are important but are hard to talk about. Friendship means trusting someone enough to let them see you vulnerable, which can be scary. Sarcasm and self-deprecation can make for really great armor in this world, but you’re supposed to be able to take it off.
I didn’t realize I had armor on for way too long. Deflection and repression was the name of the game through my high school and college years, and for all my constant talking, I got very good at not saying much. It started as a survival mechanism when I was young and settled into an ugly habit I didn’t even notice. I was one of those high-energy, over-achieving types, which neatly combined a need to keep busy and desperate drive for external validation, and I was so good at seeming emotionally healthy I even convinced myself. Except for when things bubbled up for no reason and abruptly left me a weeping mess, I was totally fine. There was no conscious effort to hold my friends at arm’s length, I just didn’t realize that was what I was doing.
I also didn’t think that what issues or problems I did have were worth talking about; that they only bothered me because I wasn’t good/strong/smart enough. Or I was the root of all my own problems and should just have to cope because I deserved whatever suffering it all caused. Why would I want to subject my friends to having to deal with my dumb bullshit issues, you know? My self-loathing knew no bounds, and I was years away from recognizing that at all.
Perfect opportunities for commiseration passed me by, like when my college friend was dealing with her parents’ messy divorce. Instead of being able to open up about my own horrific divorce saga and find common ground, I could only muster a vague hand-wave about how “my dad had issues, too” and nod sympathetically. In my head, that was me being a good friend. Sharing my own story would be like trying to upstage her or make it seem like I was trying to make things all about me.
Don’t get me wrong, there are times when shutting up and listening is exactly the right thing to do for a friend in need. But for me it wasn’t about that. I never wanted to be the friend in need. I felt it was my job to be “the responsible one” and help my friends, which somehow translated to never letting them see my so-called weaknesses. Admitting vulnerability to friends felt like revealing to them just how pathetic/weak/miserable/broken I really was. As if somehow talking about it all would make it even more real. I just pushed things down and kept on going.
Then law school happened. Everything got worse. The high-intensity competitive culture was the perfect pressure cooker to make my self-loathing and anxiety bubble over into incapacitating depression. My family was hours away, and the support group and emotional outlet I’d found in my college theater group was gone. While I made a few excellent friends in law school…well, they were also in law school, which meant they were just as high-strung and stressed as I was.
Unable to pretend that everything was okay but unwilling to share why, I withdrew from the whole world and especially my good friends. I couldn’t face them, because I didn’t have any explanation for my problems except that I was awful. I didn’t want them to know how awful I was. I felt like I wasn’t fun to be around, and if I couldn’t be fun, what did I have to offer? Really, I was doing them a favor by not returning their phone calls. My perspective was completely skewed and self-involved, but at my lowest point it genuinely seemed sensible.
It took getting called on my shit by a good friend to realize that, uh, no, I wasn’t being a good friend by becoming a recluse. That I didn’t have to be okay, or fun, or happy for them to want to talk to or see me. They just wanted to know what was going on with me, good or bad, and help any way they could. Because being there for me was important to them…just like my being there for them was important to me. This may sound like the most obvious thing in the world, but it was genuinely a revelation to me.
So, since then…I’ve tried to be honest. I resist the urge to minimize my problems and actually try to talk about my problems, even if there’s still a voice in my head telling me that no one will care. Because, shockingly, they do care! And talking about things helps! It turns out that, along with robust mental health care, friends are an excellent bulwark against the negative garbage my brain comes up with. Don’t mistake this for some sort of narrative where “the Power of Friendship Defeats Mental Illness” because it took both serious therapy and medication to get me feeling back to myself…but it got easier when I peeked out of my lair of isolated sadness.
Things didn’t get better overnight, and it took time to repair friendships that were strained by my distance. I now refer to the years of 2008-2011 as being the time of my Great Malaise, which satisfies both my need for melodrama and makes it easier to discuss when I don’t have to be super serious. It turns out my friends are actually pretty great people, and, with time and honesty, things are better than they were before. Friendships that could have calcified into old acquaintances are still people I have active connections with. They aren’t always easy conversations, but they’re worth it. My friends know me better. I know me better. Enough that when my friends tell me I’m awesome, I’m actually starting to believe them.