What is a friend?
In honor of International Friendship Day, I decided to write an article about friendship with my dear friend Glenda Shaw. We both work in similar fields. My coaching work is about keeping my clients emotionally and psychologically balanced and Glenda has done years of research and writing on how to find purpose and balance through friend networks.
I've traveled to 60 countries and have met hundreds of potential friends from all walks of life, and Glenda has lived in three countries and eight cities. For both of us, friends have had an immeasurable impact on our lives.
So let's start with defining what a friend is. The New Oxford American Dictionary states that a friend is a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.
If you're someone's friend, it means that you have chosen that person through mutual affinity and interest. There are many ways and places to find friends in your everyday life, including college, social or sporting events, the workplace, your child's friend's parents, your neighbors, the Internet, personal introductions, etc. You are not born into a friendship -- you're in someone's life because you chose each other.
A good friend is a blessing, a true gift. A good friend is extremely important to provide emotional support and to share your journey (your ups and downs), independently from your family.
Family carries a pre-existing architecture -- parents, children, siblings, aunts and uncles and cousins. You will always be the middle child, or the youngest daughter, or the father, etc. Your role is firmly entrenched in your brain.
The terrific opportunity in your friendships is that you can share in your own architectural creation, redefining your role and determining your own limits and boundaries.
Do we need friends if we have a large family?
In many cultures, a family is the focal point to a person's well-being, so there's little encouragement to venture outside the family unit. The only exception is if you need to conduct business or find the success needed to sustain the family from the outside world.
A Hollywood example of a large family culture is Brad Pitt's and Angelina Jolie's highly-visible and growing household. In a recent Esquire article, "A Life So Large" (published in the June/July 2013 issue), Brad was clear: "I have very few friends. I have a handful of close friends and I have my family and I haven't known life to be any happier. I'm making things. I just haven't known life to be any happier."
And Angelina Jolie revealed in a Marie Claire article, "I have no friends." Jolie admitted that she doesn't have a friend circle. "I don't know, I don't have a lot of friends to talk to. He [Brad] is really the only person I talk to."
However, to venture outside the family is to experience new ideas, negotiate personal power, and communicate outside the familial shorthand to find personal expression. Forming friends at an early age asserts your individuality apart from the predetermined role you hold at your birth.
As you get older and mature, you can change your friends, too. A childhood friend, while a memory keeper, may not share your life's dreams. He or she may want to start a family at an early age while you launch your career 1,000 miles away. However, these childhood and high-school friends are people who provide you with a historic timeline and offer a different version of your truth, secrets and confidences that you didn't reveal to your parents or siblings.
Is blood thicker than water?
Even if you're not in a large family and have many friends, is there any truth to that old saying, "Blood is thicker than water?"
Well, you need both to survive. Blood delivers nutrients and oxygen to your body, but you can't live without water for more than 3 to 5 days. And water comes in all sorts of packages and tastes, from flavored to bubbly to straight up to sodas, SmartWater, Volvic, Brita, Evian, Aquafina, Glacier, Culligan and tap (not advised in many states).
While families lay down a significant architecture for our lives, they are becoming more fractured. A 2011 article in the New York Times, "Married Couples Are No Longer a Majority, Census Finds," which was based on the 2010 U.S. Census, said that married couples consist of only 48 percent of the population, and only one-fifth of families currently live in a traditional family structure.
So pass me the water.
The friendship group breakdown.
As the saying goes, "A friend helps you move boxes, but a real friend helps you move a body." While we don't encourage body moving (especially on a regular basis), it's important to understand the different relationships you have with various friends in your network.
From my years of coaching and counseling people all over the world, and Glenda's years of researching friendship systems, we have both found that one of the biggest problems in people's lives stems from lack of organization. Friendship is no different. Are people in your life there because of convenience, or do they just show up and stay? Too many people are not aware of how friends affect their well-being and contribute to stressful and unfilled friendships.
We discovered that when you organize your friendship circles, just like you would a child's room or your kitchen cabinets, your life runs more smoothly and the emotional and psychological clutter dissipates.
Glenda and I have fun getting together and spending frank and exciting evenings noshing over how to create functional systems that help people set up clear boundaries, target their reality-check friends and understand the value of time management with friends. With so many opportunities thrown at you daily, it's important to learn how to say "no" as a way of gaining back control over your life. Through our union and hours of discussion about friends, we have discovered a way to prioritize what and who is important to us, and it's a simple system anyone can use.
Categorize your friends into A-list, B-list and extras, so you can spend time with those you really cherish. Stop wasting time on marginal friends who can sap your energy, waste your time and definitely would not help you "bury a body."
A great friend starts with you.
If you want to have great friends you have to learn how to be a great friend. Many times when there is an imbalance in your life your friendships will suffer. Think about if you're a giver or a taker. Is it difficult to make friends or keep friends?
The most important factors to being a friend are respecting your friends' boundaries, being a good listener, not interrupting or judging your pals, knowing how to keep a secret sacred, being reliable and being there for them in a crisis. If you don't embrace those qualities, be clear about what you can offer -- otherwise you'll cause stress in your own life and your friendships will suffer regardless of how much time and effort you've put into them.
And before you even think about embracing new people and creating strong bonds with others, create that bond with yourself first. If you don't know who you are, you will not be able to decipher who is good for you and what you want in a friend. So decide who you want to be in the world and what kind of friend you want to be. Then choose your A-list friends accordingly.
Remember, International Friendship Day starts with you.
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