Learning to Be a Good Friend (from my Friends)

Over these last few months, I’ve had the blessing to reflect on a lot of things both internally and externally. One thing that has stood out for me that I never expected to notice, was the impact that my friends have on my quality of life.

Growing up as not just an introvert, but a shy, reclusive introvert, I didn’t think it was possible for me to gain true friendships. Not only that, but due to some of the “friendships” that I did cultivate, I thought that as a part of my chronic issues with my depression and anxiety, that I could only gain a certain type of friend. You know–the ones who make you feel worse than before you first spoke to them.

It’s not until you start crawling out of yourself, do you finally notice the number of hands that have been reaching out to you all along.

I can’t make up for how poor of a friend I might have been in the past, but I want to be a better friend to those who are with me in the present. To do this, I’m making a conscious effort to remember the following lessons that all of my dearest friends (and a few former ones) have shown me.

Friendship is a Two-Way Street

The first lesson should be fairly obvious, but–yeah, well, what can you do?

I have one friend who is always on the ball at finding things to do around Atlanta, and she is always happy to invite me to go with her. Seriously, I don’t know how she does it. Sometimes I lovingly refer to her as my connection to the outside world.

That being said, her on-the-point invitations made me realize how much I sucked at asking my friends to hang out.

Like, I have no excuses. I suck at it. I would always wait for my friends, however close they were to text, invite, even just say hi. It literally never crossed my mind to say hi first.

And that…is a problem on my part.

If I want to see my friends, shouldn’t I–oh, I don’t know–make plans to see my friends?

Yeah, Captain Obvious and First Mate Common Sense to the bridge, amiright?

(On a side note…I think I might copyright that last line. 😌)

It’s not as if I don’t know how it feels to be on the other side. I’ve had people in my past where I’ve been told to give them a call or text them; they’re always free!

And then…they’re not.

Or, worse: no matter how the conversations went–even if they initiated it–they’d still wait for me to reach out again…and again…and again.

Which begs the question: why do I feel like I’m chasing them down?

A true friendship is balanced–both parties enjoy each other too much to worry about keeping tabs on who is “ahead.” When it becomes blatantly obvious that one friend seems to be chasing the other (or, the other friend seems to enjoy leading the other friend on), it may not be the type of friendship worth cultivating.

And I certainly don’t want my friends to feel like I feel that way about them.

Being Selfish Can Be Selfless

I mentioned once my thoughts on my own giving love languages (see shameless plug below), and why my order of them differed so dramatically from my receiving love languages.

See “Why Don’t My Giving Love Languages Match my Receiving Love Language?, Theory 1: Self-confidence” 😑

Due to my wobbly self-esteem, I often assumed that I as a person was a very expendable friend, and that anyone else was a better choice to hang out with:

  • Oh, he’s brighter.
  • Oh, they have more in common.
  • Oh, they’re sitting closer together.
  • Oh, she tells better jokes/wears more skirts/looks more mature/wanted to be a neurosurgeon. Why would anyone want to talk with me when they’ve got her around???

And so on, and so forth.

I assumed I was doing my friends favors when I bowed out of some activities. Imagine my shock when one friend just outright told me, “But B, I really want you to be there.”

I stared at her, temporarily dumbfounded. “You…do?” Understanding suddenly struck me. “Oh, you need me to help set up, or be a designated driver, or something.”

But she waved that off. “I don’t really care what you do. I just want you to be there.”

Really? “Really?” I asked her.

“Yes,” she blurted. “This means a lot to me, and you’re one of my closest friends!”

I…am? “I…am?”

She looked ready to swat me. “Yes!”

To which I responded in eloquent, pure B fashion. “…Oh.”

That interaction showed me how my lack of self-esteem had made me handle the friendship poorly yet again. While I thought I was being selfless by keeping my “boring self” away from my friends, my friend–through her “selfish” wish to have me at her event–showed me that my self, “boring” or no, was very much wanted. I appreciated that. And I thank goodness for friends who aren’t afraid to tell me exactly what they want from me–because I can be that dense.

It’s Okay to Be Vulnerable

While I’ve dabbled in the realm of roommates and part-time lovers over the last decade or so, I’ve remained independent most of my adult life. I don’t use the term “super introvert” lightly; I enjoy my alone time and relish in my ability to make decisions about my life without having to consult with anyone else.

Because I’m so used to relying on myself, I often don’t like to spend a lot of time worrying about my emotions or physical ailments. Just take a deep breath and keep going until what needs to get done gets done.

And yet.

There I was, on the phone for the first time in my life, terrified and panicked–and admitting openly to someone else that I needed help.

On the other end of the line was someone whom I hadn’t been good friends with for that long. However, he was kind and considerate and had reached out barely a month before to get to know me better. I had been amazed at our ability to chat openly, to laugh and connect creatively about almost everything.

At the time of my panic attack (which I’d never had before), I hadn’t known who to call. This was just another annoying obstacle, something I needed to just “walk off,” like I’d always done.

But he had called for other reasons…and I’d picked up. He’d just happened to get me at a really bad time.

“B?” He’d immediately picked up on the agony in my voice. “Are you okay?”

I couldn’t talk. I could barely think. Not since my college years had I asked for someone to help me with anything. The last time I had, I’d been told to “figure it out myself.” So, I’d taken that philosophy to heart and learned to care for myself–or at least cope.

But there, in the midst of my pain, with my new friend waiting on the other end of the line, I couldn’t hold in my self-preservation. I opened my mouth…and I croaked out the truth. “I’m…sorry. I’m not doing too well right now. Can you just, maybe…stay on the phone for a while?”

I waited for his sigh of disgust. I waited for impatience to fill my ear. I waited for the sounds of awkwardness, of confusion, of not understanding what my freakin problem was, and why was I wasting his time.

Instead, I heard without hesitation, “Of course, B. I’m so sorry you’re in pain. What’s wrong? What do you need? Do you need me to come over? I can come over right now. I can sit with you.”

My next words caught in my throat. Or maybe it was a gasp. That someone would take the time to come to me–especially in the horrors that was Thursday night traffic–just to sit with me during what was one of the darkest down days I’d ever experienced, shattered me into speechlessness.

But he didn’t rush to hang up. He didn’t make excuses or make me feel low or pathetic. He made me feel like it was okay to show my most shameful side, the side I’d tried to hide from everyone, family included. He did the one thing that I’d never expected someone to do when my “true” self was revealed.

He stayed.

At last, I managed to respond. “Just…please. Stay on the phone with me for a little while longer?”

His compassion flooded me as he spoke again, his tenderness palpable and warm. Under his words and the weight of my cell phone, I began to cry without restraint. “Of course, B. I’ll stay on for as long as you need.”

When to Hold Tight, and When to Let Go

It is always a painful moment to realize that your perception of a friendship may not be the same as how they see it. It’s especially hard when the friendship is with someone you admire greatly.

But then, if you do feel a sort of distance growing between you, you have to ask yourself two questions:

Are you holding onto the friendship because you really like hanging out with this person…

Or…are you simply holding on because that’s “the way things always were”?

Are you using more of your energy to save something that, for the benefit of both of you, may be healthier to release?

The nice thing about friendship is the same thing about life: there is no definite path on how things are “supposed” to go. We cannot–nor should we–control their strength or longevity. Just as we can’t stand in the middle of a river and push the current in the opposite direction, we can’t force a friendship to always remain as it was. It must grow, expand, evolve, redirect, or…perhaps, for a while…taper off.

Good friendships are organic and rich. Before you know it, you’re chatting for eight hours straight in the middle of nowhere and wondering why the sun is rising. You can sneak up on them from behind and literally see their eyes light up when they realize it’s you. Twenty years can pass–and when you meet again, it’s as if you’re still children, tripping over each other in the excitement and pure joy of being together once more.

I’ve got a long way before I feel like I am a “good” friend to my friends. But with all that I’ve seen and experienced from them, I hope that I can show them how much I appreciate their selflessness, their kindness, and their love.

Not for my own conscience, but because, dagnabbit–they deserve it.

3 types of friends:  for a reason, a season, and a lifetime.

How to Survive (and Enjoy) a Party as an Anxious Introvert

“It’s okay,” I told myself as I drove down the interstate through an unforgiving, almost mockingly spontaneous downpour. “It’s alright.  You’ve trained for this for the last six months. You can do this.”

It was time for my mother’s birthday barbecue party, in which all extended family members–dozens of them–would be attending. My mother had announced to me since the Christmas holiday how excited she was for this cookout.

“I’m inviting all of our family,” she gushed. “You’ll need to come early, B, to help out. Do you have the date down? Did you write it down? …Write it down, B, so you don’t forget.” The beautiful, warming lilt in her tone belied the loving, threatening edge of her order.

For the last two of my mother’s birthday parties, my depression and social anxiety had conspired against me and overtaken any sense of…well, common sense I had.  Overstimulated, feeling out of place, shaken, and frightened by the crowd of strangers (aka, extended family)…I’d hidden in a closet and fallen into a vegetative state for over four hours.

Yeah…not my shiniest moments.

Since that last party (and many much-needed therapy sessions), I vowed to myself that I would not so much as notice a closet or isolated space at her next party.  It was part of my 2019 resolution to focus on the needs of the people that I love, not myself.  And this party was about my mother, as it always was, should have been, and should be.

Of course, that didn’t mean my chest didn’t seize up every time someone mentioned the party.

For various reasons, I would be arriving at my mother’s party during its peak hours. I knew that, if I wanted to a) enjoy myself, and b) remain consistently visible throughout the party, I couldn’t arrive without a plan. And so, using my overactive imagination and a sexy spy hook theme song on my Google Play Music library (not sponsored), I established the following objectives to maneuver through this super-extroverted party while appearing social, positive, and engaged.

1.  Arrive with FULL Expectations

ONE WEEK BEFORE:

“Ohhh,” my mother had drawled over the phone, pondering on what she knew would freak me out, “it’s just gonna a few people.  No more than immediate family, maybe a few cousins.”

“Uh huh.” Sitting in my SUV as I drove into the parking lot of my weekly voice over class, I had allowed myself to imagine the multiple half-circle of chairs under tents, the stacks upon stacks of ribs and chicken awaiting their turns on the smoking grills, and the hours of introductions as I was passed across first cousins, second cousins, third cousins, and many more.

One tactic that has helped me deal with social situations is being honest with myself on how many people will be attending. As an introvert, I prefer smaller crowds of people that I know intimately. Since I still struggle with anxiety, I am thrown when I am spontaneously placed in front larger groups than I anticipated, or people who I have no idea of their identity.

  • Are they family? Are they in-laws?
  • Are they part of the family/friend side that we “like”?
  • Are they…different like me? Can I trust them to accept my weird, random self without blinking at me or blowing me off?
  • Or, is it simply the generic meet-n-greet with a handshake, a smile, a couple of small-talk inquiries (“You come from out of town? The weather’s been crazy, amiright??”), and a customary awkward pause before I say, “Well, nice to meet ya!” before moving on to do it all over again?

I know. I could be in worse situations. We all could.

But if we don’t like certain situations, we don’t like certain situations. We will all be in situations that will make us uncomfortable. All we can do is be aware and mentally prepare as best we can.

2.  Establish Your “Core Team”

If you’re going to a party where you know at least one or two people who will also be there, you can establish these people as your core team. This core team will serve as your party anchors to whom you can temporarily latch onto to regain your mental bearings after a particularly awkward or stressful situation.

Here is what’s important. Your core team must be people whom you can trust not to be cruel or condescending should you get overwhelmed and even give up halfway through the party.

I’ve been around guys I considered dating who laughed at me when strangers entered the room, and I’d nervously backed up to adjust to the change.

I’ve even had close family members roll their eyes at me when I was struggling to recover from a panic attack in public.

These…are NOT core team people.

My core team at my mother’s party consisted of my mother, my two sisters and my nephew, who were also attending the party. They are all very aware of my social anxiety issues, including my social “incidents” from my mother’s previous parties. Despite my past behavior, they’d never belittled me or made me feel any less. They projected nothing but love and support, even as they’d opened the closet door and asked me, gently, if I was doing okay.

These…are absolutely core team people.

3.  Focus on Your Target: Be a Social Bee, Not a Butterfly

One thing that I have observed with some of my more social friends is that they don’t actually speak with the same people for extended amounts of time. Instead, they flutter from cluster to cluster, asking how everyone is doing and rotating at regular intervals to make sure they’ve greeted everyone equally.

Yep. I’m not there yet. Too many faces, not enough time for intimate exchanges.

What I am learning to do is get a layout of the party, find a single target within certain areas of the room, and aim for those.

The technique is not to force yourself to speak to everyone, but to engage with enough people to make yourself seen. In my case, my aunts and couple of cousins to whom I was closer to were littered throughout the yard. These were family members I’ve been familiar with, yet hadn’t seen for years. Thefore, it was the perfect opportunity to set targets through what would otherwise be…walking through a horde…of…strangers.

Thus established, I drifted over to each member and greeted them warmly while passing a friendly smile to the group with which they were engaged. Introductions were made; I gave a shy smile and a few comments. Whenever I felt a little nervous, I returned to face my “target” as a reminder that I wasn’t alone.

4.  Find A Job to Stay Busy

Idleness isn’t just in the devil’s workshop; it’s also part of an anxious person’s nightmare. For me, standing somewhere in the middle of crowds, doing nothing, makes me feel like I should either be talking to someone, or doing something. I’m not a big “bend over my smartphone” kinda gal–or rather, I try not to be. I like to feel needed and productive.

What better way to do that (and to reduce the nerves of facing simplistic chitchat) than to get assigned a job?

I was lucky that at the cookout, my immediate family was hosting. That meant that, as soon as I parked my SUV in my mother’s yard and climbed out, I was put to work.

“Go send this chicken up to your cousin at the grill,” my mother barked, loading my arms with aluminum pans of raw poultry. Like a soldier hurrying to help support the flag, I rushed up the hill to where a pair of deluxe grills were mounted.

“Is your mother doing hot dogs, too?” my cousin asked, with one hand waving the grilling tongs majestically over the slabs of ribs smoking over the coals.

“I’m not sure; I’ll go check!” Down the hill I raced, tossing smiles at people I passed.

“Hot dogs? In the fridge. Take two packs!” Off I went, from kitchen to grill and back again.

Having a job can help give purpose and direction as well as keep your thoughts from being too preoccupied on the excessive surrounding stimuli.

Not only that, but watching some random person run wildly back and forth with supplies can be a very entertaining sight for the party-goers.

And I might be an anxiety-prone introvert–but I am also a performer, dagnabbit.

5.  Remember Your Post-Event Life–aka Life After Party

The trouble with social anxiety is that it makes you all encompassed on the moment causing the anxiety. The only thing that fills your thoughts is how many people there are, and are you able to make it through, and man, you are so tired and why won’t everyone just shut up for a second.

But remember: as overwhelming as this moment is, it’s not the only moment. Once the party is over, you have–well–the rest of your life to relax from this exhausting moment.

Me? I had a full week of relaxing and playing with my immediate family–my mom, et all–to look forward to. It had been six months since I’d seen any of them, and I–I missed them.

I wanted to show them the new improv games I’d learned in my 8 weeks at the Village Theater. I wanted to test out my new voices I’d honed from my intensive voice acting course. I wanted to hear about their lives, their relationships, their highs, their lows. I wanted to reconnect again, find my bearings amongst them all.

If I had to make it through a few hours of heavy interaction with strangers just to get to the more intimate rest of the week, I would.

And…I did.

And you know what?

The party wasn’t half-bad, either. 😌

Featured article image by tangjiao990 from Pixabay.com.