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!

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Friend Indeed ...

Hello, Everyone,

This morning, I want to say a bit about friendship, having learned of the death of an old and dear friend, Susan (Mitchell) Voth, on the first day of this new year. (My heartfelt condolences to her family and friends.)

I met Susan in 1970 during my urology rotation in nurses' training at St Paul's Hospital in Vancouver.  I was an eighteen year old junior surgical student and she was a relatively new RN from the Maritimes who kept everyone - patients, students, staff and physicians - in stitches much of the time. While she struggled with a learning disability that made her handwriting and spelling atrocious, she had the kind of natural wisdom and intuitive knowing that made her an invaluable partner on nightshift when a patient's condition was going south and the issue hadn't quite declared itself. Her heart was as big as all outdoors and she stayed in touch with many of her patients and families over the years.

Susan and I became fast friends during my training days and were roommates, on and off, over ten years until each of us married. She and her first husband, Al, who was later killed in an airplane accident, moved to the prairies to farm and we eventually lost track of each other. I was happy to have the opportunity to reconnect with her briefly when she visited Vancouver years later after marrying her second farmer husband, Henry.

Susan was a good friend to me and I realize, now, that we understood each other so well because we  shared the effects of our particular childhood trauma - Susan had lost her mother at the age of two and I had experienced significant medical trauma and maternal separation at birth. We had also lived through many years of our fathers' alcoholism. Those shared experiences gave us a natural empathy for each other and our friendship helped fill many gaps from our younger years.

From Susan, I learned to cook, camp, canoe, enjoy a little good scotch, choose a good lobster, like pop music, socialize in large groups (I was very shy), play my guitar in public, drive a car (first a volkswagon beetle, then an MG Midget and finally a volkswagon van that took us 23,000 miles around North America in 1978),  to laugh more and worry less, and even to recognize that I had a spiritual life worth developing (though our paths-of-the-spirit soon diverged). Her family - her Dad, Helen, and siblings, Nancy, Peter and Mary - welcomed me into their homes and offered rich adventures on the ranch in Manitoba; in Cornerbrook, Newfoundland; on the St Stephen, NB - Calais, MA border; and by the sea in St Andrew's, NB, adventures that I would never have had otherwise and will never forget. I owe a debt of gratitude to each of them.

We know from the literature on trauma and social bonds that all human beings need social support to survive and thrive. When we have someone we can trust with our stories and our feelings and from whom we can receive support without judgement, we heal better and faster from the wounds of life.   Susan was one of the first of a large network of valued family and friends who have provided that kind of friendship to me. I am forever grateful.

If you have a friend or friends who have been particular supports to you, why not take some time today to think of them and their value in your life and then, perhaps, pick up the phone or write a note to tell them, specifically, how much they mean to you and why.

If, on the other hand, you're feeling isolated and alone and can't even think of a person you'd call a friend, watch this space next time when we'll look at the process of making friends. (An important skill for those who have never had many friends or whose support networks have shrunk significantly through ongoing care-giving or compassion fatigue.)    


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

New Year's Rituals ...

Happy New Year, Everyone!

I hope you've had a restful and refreshing holiday season.

I'm just back from visiting my surrogate family in Nanaimo (on Vancouver Island) and it's time, now, to put the holidays to bed and to greet 2015. I have a few rituals I've developed over time that help me to consciously cross the threshold into a new year:

1.  Cleaning Up the Old and Welcoming the New
My first ritual is to tidy away all the holiday decorations and pack the boxes into the crawl space, ready for next year. That always leaves the house looking a little drab and mournful so I've learned to do two things, apart from the usual house cleaning and pine needle collecting, to brighten things up a bit. The first is to wash all the windows and all the curtains, which somehow seems to let in a little more light even on our rainy, grey Vancouver days.
The second thing is to take an early morning drive to Granville Market and splurge on a couple of bouquets of brightly-coloured flowers to replace the sparkle of the holiday lights. What a difference these two simple acts make to my perception of the winter days yet to come. 

2.  Reflective Journalling 
Once the house is back in shape, I like to light a big fire and settle down next to fireplace with a cup of tea and my journal to do some reflective writing about the year ahead. This year, I used as a guide,  Parker J Palmer's, 5 Questions for Crossing the Threshold, based on a poem by Anne Hillman:

We Look With Uncertainty
We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for
clear-cut answers
to a softer, more permeable aliveness
which is every moment
at the brink of death;
for something new is being born in us
if we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
awaiting that which comes ...
daring to be human creatures,
vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
Learning to love.

  • How can I let go of my need for fixed answers in favour of aliveness?
  • What is my next challenge in daring to be human?
  • How can I open myself to the beauty of nature and human nature?
  • Who or what do I need to learn to love next? And next? And next?
  • What is the new creation that wants to be born in and through me? 

3.  Choosing a Word (or letting a word choose you) to Guide Your New Year
This last ritual is one I've been using for the past five years. I first learned about it from my friend, Elaine, who read about it in an Abbey of the Arts newsletter. I find it a wonderful way to focus my attention on an area of discovery and growth for the whole of the new year. I've written about the process of "receiving your word" here.

What about you? How do you mark the transition into a new year?
Wishing each of you a New Year filled with hope, promise and possibility,


(Photo by Janet Ritchey)