This Sunday, August 1st will be International Friendship Day, and I am not sure how I feel about it.
There is a glaring lack of research on close relationships among middle aged people, even though when it comes to describing oneself as “happy in life”, friends (or lack thereof) factor in as one of the most crucial elements.
I think of myself as “middle-aged”, (although I seriously doubt I will live to be 112!), and this question of companionship and friendship weighs heavily on my mind. I have a gnawing suspicion: I don’t play the game too well. I am and always was, a recalcitrant introvert. In addition, I suffer from chronic pain, and I am given to bouts of depression that are synchronized with my pain getting the better of me. I’m sure I come across as moody and a bit withdrawn. I am no social butterfly.
Nevertheless, I am well aware that friends play a vital role in achieving a good quality of life.
Often taken for granted, friends weave in and out of our lives. We lose touch when we move or change our lifestyle to any significant degree. It seems to be inevitable. However, it remains a fact that your friends shape who you are in many significant ways. Studies reveal that even friends who are now forgotten, leave an indelible imprint in your life. You might be unaware of it, but they still contribute to the person you see in the mirror.
There are many benefits to having friends, such as a sharper mind, having a happier disposition, knowing yourself better, being more determined, enjoying improved career success, and generally living a longer and healthier life. We can all agree these are desirable attributes. What is a lonely girl to do? How do I navigate what to me seems like a maze of awkward conversations, anxiety inducing chit-chats and the occasional tense meet-up?
Truth be told, I haven't yet mastered the art of keeping in touch. I drop the ball constantly and unintentionally, and then I feel awful about it. I think about my friends quite often and wish only the best for them, but making a phone call out of the blue still makes me break in a cold sweat.
I read once that just as in romantic attachments, we tend to gravitate towards people who we think are like us. We tend to prefer individuals who feel similar to ourselves in one way or another. I always wondered if my friends were experiencing the same degree of cold feet when it came to reaching out. I suspect some might, while others are phone ninjas who can easily manage three simultaneous calls on their smoking Iphone! Sometimes, I admire that ability, and wonder how they acquired the skill.
Despite my shortcomings as a proactive friend, I am lucky not to have fallen prey to that ingrained bias that makes people look for their own reflection. I think it can be a dangerous double edge sword. While comfortable, having a circle of friends with almost identical opinions, concerns and ideas, can keep you from “stretching yourself” psychologically. I would find that echo chamber stupefyingly boring. Though more unpredictable and uneasy, it is more likely you'll learn new things from a diverse group of friends. Ideally, friends come from different backgrounds. They are of different ages and ethnic origins, and have quite a good range of professions and personal interests. In simple terms, if your friends are almost your identical twin in most ways, there’s no opportunity for growth. I don't think I could cope with more than one of me, to be honest.
I have also realized (and this is particularly important) that you don’t need hundreds of friends to reap the full benefits of friendship and connection. In fact, as you get older you should give particular attention to the ones who really impact your well-being here and now. Not every friend stands the test of time, and that’s ok. Look back with fondness at those old friendships, and realize that they had a purpose. Then focus your efforts on improving your current relationships, and on trying to strengthen the ties you have with specific friends in the present moment.
That’s why it is essential that you are prepared to say no to former friends who disappointed, stressed or even deceived you. There is no reason to stay in touch with people who don’t have your best interest at heart. Friends who behave in deceptive ways are not real friends, and their friendship probably will never blossom as such.
Isolation is painful, especially when you are living with loneliness for a protracted period of time. Sometimes, we let people into our hearts because we don't want to be alone. On occasion, I have tried to establish a friendship because societal pressure kept telling me that being alone was not acceptable as a woman of a certain age. While the idea of a vibrant social life can be a tantalizing one, not everyone thrives in such conditions. I, for instance, prefer fewer yet closer connections. I would much rather know that I can count on someone even if we don't see each other constantly. It gives me the sense of security that a casual acquaintance could never afford me. In my personal view, this is yet another reason to put time, energy, and attention into finding and cultivating a small but close circle of friends.
This coming Sunday, all you have to do is drop them a line telling them you appreciate them. I will overcome my introversion and do just that. Now, while socially distancing, is probably more important than ever. I will make sure to tell my friends I care for them just as they are. No fanfare. No gushing. Just affirming the simplicity of an enduring bond.
Not bad for an high caliber introvert...if I may say so myself.