I recently wrote a blog post about the importance of asking our good friends for what we really need. I received a lot of feedback, most of it expressing gratitude for being given permission to need and ask for a certain kind of undistracted attention from good friends. Many people identified with the feelings of loss and loneliness in the gap between what we need from friends and what we actually receive. So too, people raised the issue of fear, and how scary it is to ask — anyone — for what we really need. It is this fear that I want to address here.
When we ask a friend for what we really need, we take a risk — a big risk. We risk that the friend will not want to or be able to give us what we need. We take the risk that it is to expose our vulnerability, to show our true selves, rather than protect a version of ourselves, that we believe is likeable. We risk removing the armor from around our heart and as a result, getting deeply hurt. We risk being judged for our need. We risk feeling shame. And finally, we risk rejection altogether. By asking for what we really need, we risk discovering that we are not valued as we believed we were.
Some years back, I experienced this risk firsthand. I still remember it as if it were yesterday. I was struggling with a serious personal dilemma. I reached out to a dear friend and asked if we could meet, sharing just a bit of the difficult situation I was in. As we are both working mothers, it was hard to find time, but a couple weeks later she called and asked if I wanted to stop by her place that evening. I came back with a quick “Yes!” immediately aware of how much I had been craving her friendship. What proceeded was completely understandable and completely heartbreaking, both. As I arrived, my friend was releasing her babysitter. Her young daughter now wanted her mother’s full attention, which my friend heeded for some time as I sat and waited. After a while, my friend asked her daughter to play on her own, next to us, which the little girl naturally rejected. Soon the two were rolling about on the floor with my friend’s face buried behind her daughter’s small hands. Between “ooohs,” my friend offered me a muffled, “I am listening, really I am listening to you, go ahead, tell me…”
What followed wasn’t a choice. My feet pushed me upright and set me in motion toward the door. Without thought, my words excused me, explaining that I simply could not do “this” tonight. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but I could not pretend that I was okay and that what was happening was okay, for me. She was doing what she had to do and I was doing what I had to do. It was that simple.
Nonetheless, when I got home, I emailed my friend and apologized for having to leave, and again explained that I understood that tonight was not possible. At the same time, just now, I was in pain with this situation and needed my dear friend’s undivided, adults-only attention. She replied promptly with “No worries.” We should try to get together in a couple weeks when she would be more available. Despite numerous attempts on my part, I never heard from her again.
Do we take a real risk when we are honest about what we need — when receiving what we actually need becomes the priority rather than keeping the friendship going? You bet we do. Do I wish I had done it differently? No.
What I told my friend was the truth, with empathy for both myself and her. The truth I discovered was a sad truth, but a sad truth is preferable to a happy lie. What dies as a result of sharing the truth is not the friendship, but rather our illusion of what the friendship actually is.
All friendships have limitations and boundaries, some more extreme than others. We can and do choose to happily reside within such limitations. Such is the human condition. When we are honest about what we need, the response forces us to look at the truth of the friendship, its limitlessness as well as its limits. Our truth beckons the larger truth of the friendship into the light. From there, we can mindfully decide which friendships we want to continue investing in, and to what degree.
While it is not always easy or pleasant to look at the truth, illusions will always evaporate… eventually. The illusion of a friendship is not the same thing as a friendship, no matter how much we try to fill in the holes. In this life, we need foxhole buddies, friends who are there for us when the missiles are firing. The only way we can know a friend is to offer them the opportunity to know our truth — to take the risk that it is to be honest about what we really need, and thus who we really are.