Saturday, January 31, 2015

How to Make & Keep New Friends ...

The ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.
Hello, everyone,

The above quotation is from a lovely new book of prose called, Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Life, written by the much-loved poet, David Whyte.  In it, he writes short but profound reflections on fifty-two words from our everyday lives - from alone to ambition, denial to disappointment, forgiveness to friendship and vulnerability to joy.

While reading the four pages given over to friendship, I was reminded of a workshop participant who approached me after a workshop last fall to say that he had enjoyed the day but that several of the resilience suggestions had involved doing activities with friends or "self-care buddies" and he didn't have any friends, other than his wife who was living with a life-threatening illness. I was stunned, both by my thoughtlessness in not considering that possibility and by the depth of his sorrow and isolation.

In fact, this gentleman was probably not the only person in the room feeling a lack of connection. Those of us who have experienced the kind of trauma or loss that created our hypersensitive empathy as helpers, can also have difficulty forming and sustaining close relationships - until we've done some of our healing work. The same primary traumatic stress that contributes to our compassion fatigue also gets in the way in our everyday relationships.

But we need those relationships. Friends are necessary to our health and well-being and to our compassion fatigue resilience. As David Whyte says, they stand witness to our lives. They also help us through difficult times. They celebrate our successes. They show us the world through a different lens. They boost our mood. They improve our health. And, at their best, they help us to become our best selves.  

Once we've done some of our healing work, we can practice developing healthy friendships. Here are a few steps to try:

1.  Meet some new people:  The first step is to find people with common interests. This means determining your own interests and then finding ways to meet others who share them. You might want to try volunteering (in an area different from your work if you have a high trauma exposure there); take a class; join a club; walk a dog in a dog park; invite a neighbour, someone from your spiritual community or a work colleague to go for a walk or to a movie; try carpooling; connect with your alumni association; look for old acquaintances on the internet; attend art gallery openings, book readings, lectures, or music recitals or go to favourite recreational or sporting events. 
2.  Learn to engage in conversation: Not everyone has had the opportunity to learn how to converse with others. If you don't know how, or are feeling rusty, try one of these suggestions to open a conversation. Remark on the surroundings or the occasion. Make an honest compliment. Ask an open-ended question (one that requires more than a yes or no answer). Notice anything you have in common with the other person then ask follow-up questions. Keep the conversation light during the early days and avoid potentially divisive topics like politics or religion. 
Learn to pace the sharing of your personal history. It's generally not helpful to share your deepest, darkest secrets on the first meeting because you might then feel too exposed to meet again. Share just a bit of yourself at a time and then imagine yourself sitting on your own shoulder observing the interaction. If your information is received kindly, then you can risk sharing a little more. If it is received disrespectfully, note that and don't go any deeper.
The flip side of conversation is listening and it pays to learn to listen well. Really pay attention to what the other person is saying and encourage them to continue, using verbal cues like saying "yes" or "uh huh". (Note that it is not "good listening" to immediately follow someone's story with one just like it from your own life. People don't necessarily hear that as an empathic response. Continue to keep the focus on them for a while.) 
3.  Be a good friend:  Try to live by the golden rule in your friendships - do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Follow through on commitments. Be thoughtful. Keep confidences. Share yourself and your time within the limits of your own needs. 
Support and encourage your friends. Invest in the relationship but don't be too dependent or clingy. It takes time for a relationship to evolve - let it happen naturally and give the other person space to breathe. 
Learn to apologize and to forgive. Everyone makes mistakes and there will be conflicts in most relationships. When there's a problem, address it calmly, directly and honestly and find a way to work it through. It is this working through that deepens our intimacy.
Should any of these suggestions fail and a budding friendship not work out, try not to take it too personally. The other person may have something else claiming his or her attention or just may not be up for a new relationship at the time. If this happens, as the song lyrics say,  pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.

Good luck!

No comments: