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Strindberg & Helium: What Can a Cartoon Show us about Unbalanced Friendships?

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Thanks to the internet, many creative endeavors surface and circulate. Recently, a friend shared with me Strindberg & Helium, an animated series featuring the morose philosopher, August Strindberg, with his unlikely companion, Helium, a floating pink balloon on a mission to care for and cheer up the dead pan and depressed thinker.

In the episode, At The Beach, Strindberg annunciates how the fates conspired to ruin his "dismal" vacation from the start. He tells of the ducks killed by a weasel, a maid's illness and then he forgets the "third." As Strindberg recounts his tale of woe, Helium, ever the sympathetic listener chimes back, using great active listening skills. "Murder" he cries out. "Disease!" he concurs, showing the expertise in in parroting back without judgment, the approach advocated across the country in relationship counseling sessions. Strindberg carries on in his diatribe, all while going for a swim in the clear blue waters.

Watching this film reminded me of the context of friendship a lot of women find themselves in. Many of us have that one person in our lives for whom nothing is right. Their clothes don't fit, their jobs suck, their kids are out of control, they can't find a boyfriend. Every time you engage with this friend, you try to point out the positives, you try to express sympathy, you offer suggestions. And sometimes it seems to work; your friend brightens, they smile a little and express something positive. This lasts about a week or maybe a month, and then your friend returns to the depths of their personal despair.

Like Helium, we continue to listen; we offer the cupcake or the drink or the hug at the end of the day. Unlike Helium though, we cannot always float around this relationship. Being a good friend here takes up time and energy. The suspicion that nothing you can say will ever help your friend to reach their goals or find happiness occurs to you. Maybe you avoid their calls or emails. Maybe you don't avoid them, but instead take on more and more of their heartache and sadness until it feels like your own.

Melissa Kirsch offers some great advice of how to "Break-up" with toxic friends; so does Irene S. Levine. But this advice doesn't tell us how to keep these relationships without letting them poison you. Maybe breaking up isn't always the answer; but unlike a marriage on the rocks, there isn't friendship counseling to turn to. And as every book on relationships tells us: we can't change anyone but ourselves.

I've always wondered how you could be a good friend, set boundaries, and still be connected meaningfully to the people you care for -- even if they have a tough time caring for themselves. Recently my search has turned towards the Course in Miracles, which teaches us the power of forgiveness and love in the world. Gabrielle Bernstein, author of Spirit Junkie, offers a cut the cord mediation to help people release themselves from relationships that weaken energy, "energetic vampires," as she calls them.

By using this tool, you can release yourself from these connections and heal from within. When you are healed from within, your light and love can shine out. Hopefully, your example will then work to inspire those around you to heal themselves and live in this love.

Perhaps with more of this love in the world, there will be fewer Strindbergs and more helium.