I have a confession for you: I’m a terrible friend.
It feels pretty good to admit it out there in the open like that. It’s something I’ve agonized over for years. While there are certain people out there that always seem to make time for people, say “Happy Birthday” on everyone’s Facebook wall, send adorable “family update” cards at Christmas, plan surprise parties, show up to events with cute themed baked goods, and reach out at the perfect time, I have always struggled with, well, NOT being that person. I let meaningful relationships fade away and don’t cultivate the new ones, I do or say the complete wrong thing at the wrong time. I miss important events and milestones, I’m too busy, I’m late, I make excuses, or I just don’t say anything at all.
And for a while, I thought I was either unique in my failures, or worse, a card-carrying member of the Official Bad Friend Club™ where they send all the people that suck at maintaining meaningful human connections like a caring, civilized person. There’s a lot of residual guilt hanging over the members of the OBFC, most of which stems from the fact that our inability to follow all the prescribed social norms for friendship means that we Obviously Don’t Really Care And Are Terrible. It’s a very sad and isolating thought to think that you are incapable of properly connecting with others, doomed to be alone and wallowing in your terrible friendship abilities forever, tricking people into thinking they have a chance with your “sense of humor” and “having a good time together,” only to ultimately disappoint or hurt them.
But as I’ve gotten older (I’m a Real Adult™ now that I’m 30, and therefore Super Smart And Introspective) and interacted with more people from different backgrounds, I realize that there are tons of us out there desperate for better human connections. Seeing articles like this make the rounds only help to reinforce this thought even more. In fact, if I’m going to extrapolate from this totally scientific data, I might propose that we’re ALL members of the OBFC, even the card-sending, themed-pastry-baking people among us.
Friendships in a digitally connected world
The rise of human communication through the internet – first through early forums and mailing lists, then through blogs, and now a decade of social media permeation – has transformed how we connect and maintain those connections. For the first time, we have a passive avenue for friendship, a way to keep tabs on a much wider network of connections than we could ever actively maintain. This has had benefits, to be sure: having friends all over the world, whose lives we can still witness, and whom we can reconnect with years later without feeling like we missed a beat. Referral networks for jobs or clients (crucial in my industry, for sure), sources of interesting information, and a wider sphere of influence than we ever could have when our friendships were based on proximity and action.
Of course, the downsides to this are all pretty well documented. As we become more concerned with curating our online personas, constantly worrying about how we’re presenting ourselves, they start to become almost caricatures of who we actually are. Being constantly bombarded by the glossy, sanitized, Instagram-filtered version of everyone else’s lives makes your own seem messy and imperfect by comparison. We compare our behind the scenes to everyone else’s highlight reel, even when we know we shouldn’t. And so that fear of “Am I the only one that is messed up? Everyone else seems so happy.” is playing out on an even larger scale, always in front of us, a swipe away.
However, I don’t think technology is to blame for our modern struggles with forming authentic, deep friendships. Historically, Western culture hasn’t exactly been great about enabling people to be their true selves. We have hundreds of years of history encouraging conformity, suppressing of “bad” thoughts and emotions, and putting on a happy face for the general public. Mental health was a non-issue at best, and a horrible stigma at worst. In fact, it’s only recently become “cool” (for lack of a better word) to admit that we’re weird, imperfect, and in pain, and actually start opening up about these issues. I think we are still witnessing humanity’s growing pains as we try to reconcile finally giving voice to our desire for authentic, raw connections with our repressive history. Even still, though, we are in for a rocky road ahead, and I think in order to come through it, we’re going to have to really reexamine our expectations for human friendships and relationships.
There’s no such thing as unconditional
It sounds cruel, but humans are inherently selfish creatures, and all of our interactions with the world are based on the benefits they provide to us. I might lose some of you here, but I’m not saying that we’re all manipulative, rational creatures only out for number one and looking for who can do us the most favors. Rather, we are seeking to maximize the net positives in our life, and make our decisions based on what feels like will be most positive given the circumstances. It’s not all logical – many decisions (like giving to a charity, volunteering, smiling at a stranger, doing something for someone else without expecting anything in return) are made because they result in net positive emotions – feeling good, like you did the right thing – even if they aren’t logically self serving.
Humans are incapable of unconditional relationships. We cannot emotionally guarantee that “no matter what you do, I will be there for you.” Even relationships between a married couple, or a parent and child, can only remain healthy as long as there is a mutual net positive for the people involved. When that positive justification moves outside of our own minds (“This relationship is good because it makes me feel good and does good things to my life”) and instead becomes something external (“this relationship is good because it is better for society/the other person/social norms”) relationships become strained, unhealthy, draining, and toxic. We’re just not built to sustain relationships that aren’t personally fulfilling for very long without destroying ourselves in the process. It doesn’t make us bad people when we stay in unhealthy relationships (life is complicated and nuanced after all, and many factors of logic, emotion, economics, and preservation go into our decisions) but we can definitely see the consequences of imbalanced relationships on our own mental health.
The reason I bring this up is because there is a very real fear making people wary of sharing their weirdness, pain, and suffering with others. Now that we’re giving more priority to mental health, fewer people feel compelled to stay in relationships they feel are toxic. Ironically, this can hurt the very people that are trying to be more open. There are no guarantees that people will not push them away, be hurt by what they hear or experience, or reject them because they can’t deal with that relationship. I don’t think we will ever be able to put this fear behind us, so the thought of being vulnerable still carries a lot of risk. I doubt that we will ever stop having the “sanitized” public version of ourselves and the “real” private version, but I am glad we’re starting to realize we should be able to be honest sometimes. Now we’re just lost trying to figure out how.
This doesn’t mean that we can’t try anyway
I cannot speak for humanity, but I can speak for myself. I’m a shit friend and an imperfect human being who will probably say and do the wrong things a lot, but I don’t want my own humanity (which, frankly, we all have) to be the thing that scares me away from trying to have meaningful connections. I want to be the best damn imperfect shitty friend I can be, and these are the promises I can make to you:
- I am bad at reaching out and will probably forget your birthday, but I’m always thinking of you. If we have been friends, lovers, partners, besties, conference buddies, worked closely together, or even just shared a meaningful conversation, you actually are in my thoughts quite often. At random times, I will find myself wondering about you, and your life, and how you’re doing. I think about the times we shared together, good or bad, and how I totally suck because I don’t connect with you more. I have probably agonized over my shitty friendship-ness towards you while falling asleep.
- I may not have the best answer or a perfect solution, but I’ll always listen to you. I may not always be available, but if you say you need me I will make time to be there when I can. I probably will say something awkwardly supportive at best, insensitive at worst, or existentially reference my own inability to solve your problems, but I want to be a sounding board for you if you need that. I’ll try to point you to resources if I have them, or just share a mutual “that totally sucks” if that’s all I can do.
- I will have opinions about you, and may not always be the best one to support you, but I will not judge you. I do not always agree with everything my friends do, say, or think, but I know that everyone has their own stories and their own reasons. I know everyone has their weird, deep shit and dark skeletons in their life from past decisions or things that happened, which make us all a little fucked up. I’ll worry about you and want you to get help for things that are dangerous or damaging to your life. I might get angry, frustrated, or scared about your decisions. I may not be able to be directly involved, or be able to help fix you. But I know we all have to live our lives our own way, and I want to be there for you anyway.