What Does Authentic Friendship Look Like? Because In Reality, Many of Us Don’t Know.

It looks like many things, but to name a few of the core aspects…

image by Sam Manns from Unsplash.com

Showing up. It sounds deceptively simple but for many, it isn’t. This means putting in the effort (even when at times, it might be inconvenient) and choosing to prioritize spending time with those to whom you are close (or with whom you want to be close).

Let me detail some of the ways we fail at showing up. Nowadays, many of us use texting as a substitute for spending one-on-one time with one another. Canceling or changing plans last minute has become commonplace, even the norm. Many a person now informing their friend when meeting up, “I only have an hour. Then I have to run some errands” (or watch my favorite TV show, or go to the gym, or vacuum the living room, you name it). This giving the time with your friend a sense of pressurized rushing. It doesn't allow for both of you, relaxing into your time together and reveling in it fully. (While sometimes this is, of course, acceptable and even necessary, it should not be the default approach when spending time with your loved ones).

A vast majority of us are allowing our time with friends to be punctuated and thus, interrupted by our mobile devices. Checking them every few minutes or even looking away from our friend mid-story to respond to a text. What is in actuality, abhorrently rude, has now become acceptable. Such behavior is a clear message to the person in front of you that you’re unwilling to give them your focus and attention, and that the electronic device is of higher, pressing importance. Even if one may not intend this to be the meaning, it is.

To be a great friend, put in the effort to show up. Mentally and physically.

Genuine listening. This is rare nowadays. Many of us think we are listening when in fact, it’s a low-grade form. In reality, only partial listening. This is because listening well requires total concentration, and this takes effort. It isn’t easy. You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time. Otherwise, your listening is watered down and half-assed.

Thinking about what you are going to say in response? You aren’t listening. Playing with your dog while someone is talking to you? You aren’t fully listening. Reading through your to-do list while on the phone with a loved one? You are not listening. Not fully.

Why is listening, like showing up, so important?

Because both say to the person, and in the loudest sense, that they are of value.

The act of listening fully says: you are of enough value to me that I will go out of my way for you. I will focus completely on you. I will make the effort to extend myself for you, because I respect you and because you matter to me.

Truly listening is never effortless. It takes work. Yet, it is one of the most rewarding skills you can acquire, as well as one of the most valuable gifts you can give another. It’s the bedrock of a real connection between two people.

Openness and Transparency. First, to define each because they are different.

Openness means being interested in and cultivating growth, both of others and of the self. It means being able to hear the truth, even when it's difficult. It also means being able to deliver the truth, even when this might be painful.

Transparency is the trait of revealing oneself to others. Being willing to show others what lies within your heart and who you truly are. This means choosing bravery in vulnerability, instead of pride and hiding this away.

So while these two concepts play off each other, they are different qualities and behaviors.

People who are open can maintain and establish intimate relationships far more effectively than those who are closed.

Being open is, in a sense, a form of honesty (both with the self and with others), whereas being closed is, in a sense, a form of dishonesty.

To be open means being both willing to tell others, in a loving way, when you feel they are doing something to harm themselves or others, as well as being equally open to hearing this difficult feedback from the people that you care about.

It means being interested in learning, new ideas, and growth. To be open means allowing oneself to be intrigued by and to continually explore new knowledge and concepts.

Being closed is, of course, the opposite. Closed people cannot hear feedback from others, which could otherwise be likely to result in significant personal emotional growth. Those who are closed off do not share these observations with the people they love either. Those who are closed tend to think that what they know is all there is. That the ideas and values they hold are the right ones. They have no interest in exploring the other infinite possibilities and ways of thinking that life offers.

People who are transparent are willing to reveal themselves to others. Not just their strengths and accomplishments, but their challenges and mistakes as well. Transparency is essentially being willing to share with those around you, one’s own humanity. Most of us walk around wearing masks through much of our daily lives. That’s why transparency is so refreshing and such a draw. Because it's not a quality that we see very often.

That is not to be confused with oversharing or narcissism, two qualities that have taken off, running rampant throughout our culture as of late. That is not transparency. This “look at me, look at me” aura and behavior of our culture of late are not the same as transparency. Instead, that is attention-seeking, self-centeredness, insecurity, desperation, and bad boundaries.

Transparency is being willing to reveal to others to whom you are growing close, personal aspects of yourself. It's being willing to take the risk of being known. Transparency is a form of trust and self-love. It’s an invitation.

Oversharing, on the other hand, is a form of dumping. It's desperation and suffocating. It is not a two-way connection, but more of a one-sided relationship.

Loving honesty with one another. To piggyback on the previous point as this is similar to openness, in true friendships there is a willingness and bravery both, to be honest with your friends, as well as to hear their honesty as well.

Any genuinely close, loving relationship is one of mutual honesty. And yes, this sometimes means saying something difficult or painful.

This is an act of love though. Seeing someone you care about either stunting their own personal growth, doing something that causes harm to themselves or to others, and being willing to say something.

This is, in a sense, being willing to risk the relationship for the other person's physical or mental well being because you love them so.

Choosing instead to ignore it and say nothing is akin to stuffing one's head in the sand or figuratively saying, “I don’t care for you enough to voice where I see self-harm, or harm to others, being caused.” It is also cowardly and avoidant.

Now, with all of that said, an important note on this topic of loving honesty. This does not mean constantly telling someone when you disagree with the choices they are making in their life, or when you feel they are doing something wrong. That is being self-righteous, arrogant, and judgemental.

Further, when someone is continually making bad choices, it is the natural consequence of these bad choices that best stands to be their teacher. Not you. Let them suffer the fallout of their dysfunctional, unhealthy, or toxic decisions and behavior. This will be (if they choose to take it) the teacher which guides them toward something different and (hopefully) something better.

In giving loving honesty to another, we have to always consider that with it comes the impression of arrogance. In a sense, when telling someone you are worried about something they are doing, it’s a form of saying, “I believe I know better than you do, what will make you happy/be good for you.”

Therefore, if one is to offer loving honesty to someone they care for, it’s important to examine the motivations carefully. Might you potentially be mistaken in how you are seeing their supposed poor choices? Do you know enough about the situation or see the picture clearly enough that your thoughts have weight and validity? Do you have another motivation for offering the honesty (such as jealousy or judgment)? In which case, it wouldn’t be loving, healthy honesty but instead, something else.

Only in carefully examining why you are offering this honesty and how qualified you are to be giving it should the decision be made to do so. And, loving honesty should be delivered with humbleness. Otherwise, there is little chance of it being received well and actually contributing to the growth of the other.

With that said though, sometimes we do know what’s best for someone else (yes, more so than they themselves might). In not being the main player who is emotionally involved, we are sometimes able to see another’s situation more clearly while observing from the outside in. Even so, though, loving honesty is not a license for constant feedback and attempting to direct another's life.

It's only to be used in the event that one observes the person they care about: behaving in such a way that is stunting their own growth, causing hurt to themselves, or hurt to others. Simply disagreeing with a choice your friend makes isn’t an automatic license to voice it, since we all live our lives differently and that’s not just ok, it is good, and far more interesting that way. Who wants to be friends with someone exactly like them? That would be boring and one dimensional.

Healthy and Inspiring Influences.

To name a few that do not fit into this category:

  • The friend whom you always feel pressured to be as thin as or even thinner than.
  • The friend who peer pressures you to get wasted with them every weekend.
  • The friend who gossips incessantly about others, tearing them down and talking vehemently about anyone and everyone.
  • The friend in whose company you find you “aren’t quite yourself,” and not in a good way.
  • The friend who is hyper-focused on looks, status, appearance, and popularity, thus, bringing your own focus (and insecurity) toward similar junk values.
  • The friend who puts you down or discourages you.
  • The friend who never truly listens.
  • The friend who explodes at the drop of a hat, making loving honesty and openness between you an impossibility.
  • The friend who is all about their appearance on the outside, with little interest in what kind of person they are within.
  • The friend who is the perpetual victim, in that their life is the worst, everyone is always wronging them, nothing ever goes right for them, and the world just stinks.

These are all examples of “friends” (and I leave that in quotations on purpose) who are neither mentally healthy nor inspiring.

And yes, to answer the obvious, genuine friendships are both of those things. Healthy and inspiring friends are the ones who bring out the best in us. They are those whose influence pushes us to greater heights. They are not ok with watching their friends engage in behaviors that cause themselves harm. Thus, real friends dare to challenge you when they think you’re wrong.

Healthy friends do not encourage unhealthiness or self-sabotaging behaviors. They are the ones with whom spending time fills you with light. Their company makes you feel happier, warmer inside and encouraged. They are the friends that inspire growth instead of stunting or even reversing it.

Trustworthiness. This should go without saying but I feel a need to say it anyway. True friends are people you can trust. Whether that’s telling them a deeply personal, private story and knowing it will stay with them, or not having to wonder if they will be there for you in a time of need (because a real friend will make a point to be).

Trust takes many different forms. Trust means knowing you can count on someone. It's the awareness that if there is a problem between the two of you, it will be voiced and talked about (rather than left to fester, which would be something an emotionally immature person would do).

Trust means knowing that your friend will keep their word. That they mean what they say, and say what they mean. Trusting that a friend isn’t just going to tell you what you want to hear (because remember, that isn’t a real friend) but that they will be lovingly honest. Trust is feeling safe in believing in the steadiness of the relationship. Without trust, a friendship isn’t a real one.

Fun and play. True friendships have both of these in abundance. This is one of the purposes of friendship, is it not? Aside from friendship eliciting in both parties, the possibility of inspiring growth, the other purpose is to share joyfulness together. Connecting over shared experiences and building memories.

This is what a relationship is. A safe harbor, something that should regularly be offering an opportunity for growth, and a place within which to enjoy each other’s company and character. Every human interaction is an opportunity for growth and learning. And, friendship should be something that adds much light, joy, and laughter to your life.

Fervent writer. Ravenous reader. Impassioned with words. Relationship researcher. Social Scientist. Social Justice Advocate. Author. www.brookeenglish.com

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