Please note: This post isn't intended to speak about the cases that include mental disorders, criminals, drug abusers, or those who willfully are hurting us. The intention of the post is to speak to the vast majority of relationships we are walking away from, without conversation or efforts to enforce our boundaries, because we write them off simply as being "negative."
This is a two-part series, in my next one I'll talk about how to approach friendships we feel are unhealthy, but I want to write this prerequisite post to help clarify the difference between the roles of friends in our lives versus others with whom we're called to still live beside in the same world.
There is something in my soul that stirs with a dis-ease every time I hear some form of the increasingly popular advice: "Only surround yourself with positive people. Get rid of negative people!"
Good Advice? "Only Surround Yourself with Positive People."
It can be found in little cute quote boxes shared everywhere on Facebook saying things like "People inspire you, or they drain you. Pick wisely." It's advice that is freely given from self-help experts with little explanation other than what sounds like a command, "If their presence can't add value to your life, then their absence will make no difference." It comes in many well-intending forms, all with the goal of making us better people: "Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher."
We've actually been hearing this barrage for so long now that I suspect most of us just accept these quotables as irrevocable truth. But these single-sentence aphorisms can be misleading at best, damaging at worst.
Needy People in Our Lives
The question isn't whether we let needy or depressed people into our lives. The question is how much do we let them in, and for what purpose.
The truth is that we have to learn to be around hurting people -- not only because it's unrealistic that we can avoid them, but how else will we serve this world with what we each have to offer? We can, and must, be around people who judge, whine, attack, and defend. We're related to some of them, we work for some of them, and sometimes we have been or are those people. The more important issue is whether we're counting on these individuals to be our closest friends.
Our friends -- the handful of people we choose to let close to our hearts -- must fulfill the four requirements of friendship by being, more often than not, a) consistent b) contributing c) self-revealing, and d) positive. You clarify those quotes above with the words "closest friends" instead of "people" and I won't squirm. (Or at least not as much... truthfully, even our friends can't always be all those things without there being misunderstandings and hurt feelings at times. But I'm okay with us striving toward those qualities with our inner circle.)
But before we evaluate our friendships in the next post, let us own what is ours to own: We are not victims to other people's pain. We are healers. Ultimately it's around hurting people who we're meant to be around, each of us giving the gift that is ours to give to those who need it.
This isn't a world made up of friends and enemies, rather it's a world of friends and people to be friendly toward. Enemies must be crushed and eliminated, whereas hurting, jealous, toxic, unhealthy people must be loved and healed. Just because someone isn't our closest friend doesn't mean they don't have value in our lives.
To be clear, we don't have to be close to them; in fact, we should be very mindful and intentional about who we pull into our lives in a close and trusting relationship. But if we know our boundaries, feel we have extra love and energy to give, and are sure that we can show up in a healing way, then certainly that is an option more of us can consider.
Elimination Is Not Always Necessary
To suggest that I can't be around anyone who isn't at their best because it will bring me down glosses over my own strength. Any of us who have been pastors, social workers, therapists, or in any other people-helping industries can attest to the fact that as long as we are practicing our own self-care, have our own support system in place, and are clear about our role in the lives of people who are hurting, then our positive influence can be greater in their lives than their pain will be in ours. Light is more powerful than darkness. And hurt people need love and light.
The answer isn't just to eliminate and ostracize hurting people, the answer is to learn how to shine our lights so brightly that we can enter any darkness and know that our light cannot be extinguished.
And not just that our light can survive, but actually that our light gets stronger and more compassionate and more life-transforming as we show up in genuine moments with others, no matter what condition they are in. We are blessed and grown in those moments just as much as they are.
We do not become the people who this world needs simply by turning our backs on anyone we don't like, trust, or deem healthy enough to be in our presence. No, in fact, those are exactly the people we need to let into our lives. Not just for their sake, but for ours. To serve others is what we're called to do in this world -- your calling centers around it. To learn how to forgive is the greatest lesson any of us can ever hope to learn (which means we will need to practice it a number of times). To sit with someone in pain increases our ability to empathize, which increases our ability to trust and love, which is ultimately what you want: more love.
If your light is dim or flickering, then perhaps you may need to set some boundaries and limit time with people who you feel can't support the happier and more powerful version of yourself; but that's temporary, and something to own in yourself rather than blame in others.
Re-Defining the Good Advice
Here's how I re-interpret these ever-popular quotes to put the responsibility on me, rather than the blame on others.
"People inspire you, or they drain you. Pick wisely." I am not picking people, rather I am picking my response. I get to decide whether I am inspired or drained. I can be around someone who is shining and walk away drained by jealousy, or I can sit with someone who is chronically depressed and walk away inspired and grateful. My power doesn't mean I get to pick who's valuable, it means I get to pick whether I'm able to see the value in everyone.
"If their presence can't add value to your life, then their absence will make no difference." This is such a dangerous quote. Taken to the extreme, wars are fought, holocausts are allowed, and racism and classism are justified. No, if their presence doesn't add value to your life, it's either because you haven't taken the time to get to know them yet or you haven't yet seen who you can become because of them. It is not because they are without value.
"Surround yourself with only people who are going to lift you higher." In the closest circle of your life, I agree that this is a good ideal. We want to create relationships that nurture, uplift, empower, and love each other well. But even this has its limits -- because it's not others who end up deciding whether we lift higher or not, it's our call. Sometimes it's the person who wounded us the deepest that pushes us to grow and lift. The universe can use anyone and everyone to help us become our best selves.
This was a hard post to write -- so many caveats I want to give, possible misunderstandings I want to avoid. I end it with a prayer that these words will land where hearts are receptive and ready to see just how powerful we are, how others cannot limit us, and how much the world, as needy as it is, needs us to not turn our backs. For what's the point of getting healthy if not to turn around and love others to their best as well?
My next blog will be about what to do when our friendships aren't living up to all four of the required qualities in a friendship and how to make decisions about the best approach to either healing them or limiting them in our lives. Subscribe in the upper right corner here. And my book, Friendships Don't Just Happen!, talks in length about the four requirements for friendship and how to respond to the five friendship threats including judgment and jealousy.
For more by Shasta Nelson, M.Div., click here.
For more on conscious relationships, click here.