Friendship is Not an a la Carte Option

I recently received an email from a client that asked “why should I continue to try to be friends with people, when people will invariably disappoint me?”

Generally, from what I see with my clients, isolation and loneliness are more damaging and more painful than disappointment. One of our core needs is the need to be accepted, to belong. When we isolate ourselves from others because we find it difficult to tolerate disappointment, then we deny ourselves getting this need met. Without this need we are not whole. Belongingness and acceptance are not things we can provide for ourselves, and are only truly available from others. In fact, former head of the American Psychological Association Abraham Maslow argued that our self-acceptance is grounded on feeling a sense of acceptance by others.

If we refuse to allow others to occasionally disappoint us (because of earlier experiences in which disappointment was associated with real needs—like food, shelter, affection), then we insure that some of our needs will go unmet. We may become so starved for belongingness and acceptance that we perceive the disappointment as rejection—being valued is seen in rather all-or-nothing terms. Sometimes our friends really do care about us but do not know how to show it in a way that we can perceive. Sometimes we have to lovingly invite a conversation about it how feels when we are disappointed.

Sometimes our friends seem unable to change the behavior that disappoints us. Then we have a choice. We have to decide if the behavior that offends weighs more than the value that the friendship offers. Often times a big part of what makes the behavior offensive is that we cannot understand it. Developing compassion for why our friends are unable to change their behavior (right now)—or at least what motivates the behavior—may make the offending behavior easier to tolerate. It may also be worth recognizing that the behavior does not mean the same thing to the friend as it does to you. Sometimes the behavior is just a quirk. It might also be worth remembering that we disappoint our friends too—hey, nobody’s perfect.

There are also times when we experience a friend’s behavior as genuinely intolerable. Sometimes our friends’ behavior is damaging or exploitive to us. Even if their friendship offers us something good, we may need to sever the friendship. It is important to balance self-preservation and growing to be more compassionate of others. There is no simple answer here.

The psychological reward from friendships is in the sense of companionship and having a confidant. Friendships should make us feel better about ourselves. Friendships have been shown to improve one’s mental health, physical health, and longevity. If what you have a is a real friendship, then the disappointing parts are probably worth finding a way to not be bothered by them, but if the “friendship” does not build you up and make you feel more sure of yourself, then it might be time to move on. Either way, we cannot get the good without the bad.

Self–Esteem vs. self-esteem

I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And doggone it,
people like me.

Stuart Smalley

In the last few decades there has been a movement toward an “everyone is great” attitude. This idea was (not so?) subtly addressed in the move The Incredibles. Syndrome points out the problem with this position when he says that “when everyone is super, no one will be.” This idea is repeated when Dash is graduating from the 4th to 5th grade and Mr. Incredible says “It’s psychotic! They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity.” After a while Self-Esteem becomes grounded in nothing, and consequently also becomes meaningless.

The claim that one is special becomes as empty as Stuart Smalley’s affirmations. Affirmations have been shown to be an effective tool to change one’s thinking—BUT ONLY when the person can actually believe the affirmation. Otherwise, affirmations are as likely to reinforce the idea that one falls short of the very thing he or she is trying to believe or achieve. This is what happens when we build up Self-Esteem in the absence of any foundation for it. In fact, telling people that they great in the absence of a basis (e.g., actual achievement) has been shown to be detrimental to both performance and emotional wellbeing. Martin Seligman, one of the leading researchers on happiness, has claimed that the increased interest on Self-Esteem has actually led to increased occurrence of depression. However, high Self-Esteem has been correlated with better performance, initiative, and happiness. People with high Self-Esteem tend to be more comfortable in social interactions. Consequently, Self-Esteem as a psychological phenomenon has become rather controversial.

When I talk about self-esteem with clients I talk about it terms of what do they actually value about themselves, or what do they feel that they have that they can contribute or that will draw people toward them. Self-esteem gives one a sense that he or she will be accepted (or is acceptable); this is essential to one of our fundamental needs—belongingness. It allows us to take risks, both a good and bad thing, because we less fear rejection. In my experience, valuing something specific about oneself makes a difference. Few of us believe claims (especially about ourselves) in the absence of evidence.

I see many clients who are anxious or depressed because they lack initiative or confidence and socially isolate themselves specifically because they do not recognize what they have to offer. I try to get them to list the traits they perceive in themselves and then help them recognize how some of those traits may be valuable to others. I ask them what they like about themselves. Sometimes I have them ask important others in their lives what those people like about them. This sometimes helps the client see that a trait he or she did not recognize as valuable is in fact valuable to others—and will consequently promote acceptance and belongingness.

This is a technique that many of us could benefit from. Make a list of what about you is valuable and keep it around for those times when you become less certain about how likable you might be. Just make sure these are traits that you believe (a) are valuable to others, and (b) that you actually have. It can be good to proud of oneself, as long as one is proud of something about oneself. That makes for healthy, beneficial self-esteem.

Lessons on Love from Country Music

And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d of had to miss the dance

“The Dance” by Garth Brooks

Had I known my heart would break
I would’ve loved you anyway

“I Would’ve Loved You Anyway” by Trisha Yearwood

Many of my clients laugh at me because I tend to quote country music songs to help them see the ways in which they are getting in their own way. A kinky, well-educated, gay man from the Northeast looking to redneck music for wisdom? Regardless of what one thinks about country music, there is wisdom in those lyrics. Both of these songs are about the pain of having lost love and embracing the idea that to have avoided the pain, they also would have had to avoid the joy. I fully believe that in order to be available for love, we must also be available for pain.

Around the time that I went back to college I met a really wonderful man, Frederick. We tricked and I fell for him, hard. He had a T-cell count of 17. This was before protease inhibitors, and I realized that most likely if we started dating I might fall in love with a man and then watch him die. I thought as seriously about on what I might miss out by not being in a relationship with him. We ended up dating for about 5 years, really wonderful years. We grew in different directions and we are now both with different boyfriends. I am so glad that I took the risk of loving a “dying man” and had the wisdom to see that the potential joy outweighed the potential pain.

A few years later I was faced with a similar situation. I met a wonderful man, Dwayne, who was HIV+ and had a T-cell count of 4—and this was after protease inhibitors were released. I again thought as much about what I might miss out on by passing up on this “dying man.” I made the same decision and we began dating. He died about 8 months later from opportunistic infections. It was excruciating for me. It was the right choice nonetheless. I sure wish we had gotten more time together, but I am grateful for the time we did get.

I like to explain to my clients that the “hole” in our walls through which love passes is the same “hole” through which pain passes. We don’t get to choose the level of intensity of our individual emotional experiences. We either experienced life with muted emotions—usually longing for greater joy, or we experience life with full-contact emotions—good and bad. I always recommend to treat life as full contact. From what I have seen with clients and friends, the stunted emotional life is usually more damaging than the fully experienced pain of life—though I recognize this can be rough too. Love is risky business; potentially wonderfully rewarding risky business.

To quote another country song: “when you get the choice to sit it out or dance, I hope you dance.”