Healthy Friendships – Make Sure It’s Authentic. Part 1

Are My Friendships Easy?

By Holli Kenley

Healthy Friendships, Part 1 - Make Sure It's Authentic

Friendships!  What would our lives be without them? We develop friendships in the most natural of gatherings including our families, school, work, places of worship, service organizations, community causes, and sports interests. In more recent times, our network of friendships has grown exponentially as we connect with individuals in our cyber lives. Friendships meet all kinds of needs and serve us in all kinds of ways. Some are extremely important to us; others are less so.  With TV shows, media, and social networking redefining friendship, it can be confusing as to what healthy friendship is.

Friendship is a critical component of many relationships, such as marriages or partnerships. However, for the purposes of  this series, we are focusing on any close friends currently in our lives. These are friendships which may be relatively new or they may be longstanding. Either way, we have chosen to invest ourselves, our time, and our resources into these individuals who are important to us.  And, as is true with other relationships in our lives, sometimes we stay in friendships for the right reasons; sometimes we stay when it is unhealthy for us to do so. As we do in other areas of our lives, it is beneficial to take a step back and reassess whether our friendships are healthy or not.  And, how do we know?

Are my friendships easy?

Easy? That doesn’t sound right? Aren’t strong friendships supposed to be hard work? No, they are not. However, in order for our friendships to take on the quality of being easy, what they do require is a commitment to identifying and integrating three essential characteristics to make it authentic and easy.

Healthy Friendships, Part 1 - Make Sure It's Authentic

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First, easy comes with being authentic

The word “authentic” is used quite frequently in our daily lives.  It is a word which captures our attention because of its meaningful connotations. Within our friendships, we are being authentic when we are true to our own personality, spirit, and character. We are real with our friends, when we don’t pretend to be something we are not.  And, perhaps most importantly, in healthy easy friendships, it is safe to be who we are.  We are not fearful of being judged, evaluated, or mischaracterized. Being authentic also means that we do not have to “pretzel” ourselves in order to assuage the unhealthiness of someone else or to compromise our own wellness.  In easy friendships, we are free to be who we are.

A few weeks ago while waiting for an appointment, I struck up a conversation with a very nice elderly man. He was so easy to talk with and we seemed to connect on many levels. As I listened to the challenges he faced growing up regarding his inability to be himself, to be authentic, I was in awe of his extraordinarily positive mindset and purposeful direction in life. When I asked him how that came to be, he responded, “Holli, when I turned twenty-six, I made a decision that I would always seek out friendships in which people were more intelligent than me, and more importantly, they were healthier than me.”  He paused. I listened. “That has served me well. I have a happy and healthy life.”

While it is desirable to maintain authentic friendships, there are circumstances which may require us to adopt a false or guarded persona in order to navigate challenging friendships or unhealthy behavioural norms of family members, work relations, or when we are in other social gatherings.  These friendships are not easy; they require us to develop a clear sense of their complexities and to implement boundaries in order to safeguard our wellness while respecting and honouring ourselves in the process.

However, more often than not, we have a choice about how we want to spend time and with whom. It is up to each of us to minimize time spent with individuals who expect us to conform to their unhealthiness while jeopardizing our own. It is up to each of us to maximize our opportunities to be who we are, to be real, and to be with others who welcome us as we are.

Being authentic means being our true selves. Healthy friendships flourish in the ease and acceptance of one another.

Healthy Friendships, Part 1 - Make Sure It's Authentic

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Secondly, easy comes with being honest.

Being honest is necessary in healthy easy friendships. Honesty is based on two factors:  truth and transparency.

Friendships which are easy are based in sharing truth with one another. It doesn’t mean we have to unveil every detail of our colourful pasts or unravel our painful experiences with every friend. It doesn’t mean we need to disclose anything which may violate or injure us in any way. It means we have come to a place of peace and acceptance with ourselves about who we are and how we came to be. It means that if and when we choose to disclose what is important to us, we do so with self-respect, self-regulation, and with self-regard.

In easy friendships, not only to do we share our truths but we do so with transparency. There are no hidden agendas or underlying motivations. We are clear, open, and genuine.  Our attitudes, words, and actions are in alignment with who we say we are.

Several years ago, I belonged to a small authors group of women. We met every month, gathering at one of our homes and sharing our poetry, short stories, and essays. Aside from our common love of writing, we bonded through our creations born out of times of sorrow, joy, youthful escapades, family histories, and adventures in nature. Over the months and years, we developed strong friendships rooted in honesty. We allowed ourselves to become vulnerable with one another, witnessing how each woman’s stories were based in truth and lived out through the legacy of transparency. Although we were all very different, diverse, and independent women, our friendships flourished in the ease of mutual honesty.

If we find ourselves in difficult friendships, there may be a lack of honesty or self-awareness. Although there are many reasons for this, some individuals develop strong defense mechanisms such as denial, anger, resistance, or false narratives in order to cope with challenges from their pasts. In attempts to assuage their pain, some folks self-medicate with addictive behaviours, substances, or maladaptive patterns of thinking, behaving, or feeling. This, in turn, serves as a foundation from which they develop relationships, including friendships where they have difficulty being honest, with themselves and with others.

It is important to be empathic and compassionate toward all our friends, especially those who are struggling. At the same time, if we find ourselves constantly defending our truths because of someone else’s lack of awareness of their own, these friendships will not be easy. It is our choice to cultivate friendships rooted in honesty.

Being honest means being transparent about who we are. Healthy friendships are fuelled by our our truths and the ease in which they are shared.

Healthy Friendships, Part 1 - Make Sure It's Authentic

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Thirdly, easy comes with being trustworthy.

Lastly, in order for friendships to be easy, they must be trustworthy. When we think of someone who is trustworthy, there are meaningful words or phrases which come to mind such as loyalty, someone who has our back, someone who can hold our secrets, individuals who are there when we need them, and so on.

However, for our purposes as it relates to friendships, our definition is straightforward yet all-encompassing: trustworthy friends are individuals who can be counted on. These are individuals who are worthy of our trust because they have proven it through their words and their actions. They are considered loyal because their faithfulness has never been questioned. These are individuals who have our backs without talking behind them.  These are friends who don’t give excuses for not being available; they always show up. When we pause and think, “Who can I count on?”, these friends comes to mind immediately.

During my years as a public school teacher, I was fortunate to teach hundreds of amazing kids. The last seven years of my career, I was honoured to teach high school  juniors and seniors in a class entitled “Theory of Knowledge.” An extremely rigorous course based largely on Socratic discussion, the students were stretched in their responsibilities to the curriculum and their other classes and activities. There were days when I knew the students were burnt out trying their best to keep up with all the demands. And yet, no matter what was going on, there was always one student, David, I could count on to ignite our discussions, take on a leading role in a play, or lend support to another student. He had done so without reservation. He never said no. His word was backed up by his actions. David was worthy my trust and of his classmates’.

If we find ourselves in friendships where we question the reliability of others or we doubt the integrity of their words or actions, we will find ourselves working overtime in these difficult relationships.  And, if we continue to invest into friendships which are not worthy of our trust, we will not only be disappointed, but we may sabotage our health in the process.

In our fast-paced social networking society today, we place importance and value on how many friends, followers, and connections we have.  Quantity of friendships has taken precedence over the quality of them. Friendships are invited and then unfollowed with a click of a key. Friends are encouraged and uplifted one moment; then torn down the next. These cyber friendships can be confusing and isolating, especially for young people growing up without a sense of real friendship based on face to face connection and on trust established and earned over time. It is important to remind ourselves that within our repertoire of friends, both online and off, if we have one or two whom we know, without a doubt we can count on, we are indeed fortunate. Let’s cherish them.

Being trustworthy means being able to be counted on. Healthy friendships flow easily in a current of mutual trust.

In conclusion, take a few moments and reflect upon the following questions. Then, respond to them by writing down your thoughts. There are no right answers, only what is healthy for you.

  1. Am I satisfied with the healthiness of my friendships? Why or why not?
  2. Do my friendships fall into the “easy” category? Which are they authentic, honest, and trustworthy? Which are not?
  3. Which one  of the three qualities of being easy  is most important to me in a healthy friendship? Why?
  4. What shifts or changes do I need to make in my friendships? How will I do this?
  5. Do I consider myself a healthy friend to others?  Why or why not? What can I improve upon? Am I being authentic. 

Publisher’s Note: Holli Kenley is an American Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and the author of “ Daughters Betrayed By Their Mothers: Moving from Brokenness to Wholeness” and “Power Down & Parent Up!: Cyber Bullying, Screen Dependence & Raising Tech-Healthy Children”

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