We all go through hard times now and again. And when the hard times come, we need good friends to help us through. I have been hearing a lot of stories about friendship lately, and it has gotten me thinking about what we really want and need from our friends, particularly when we are in the rough seas that every life includes.
We all want to help our friends when they are suffering. But do we know how to help them — really help them? And on the flip side, do we know how to get what we need from our friends when we really need it?
How do we fail each other as friends?
Some common offenses:
We offer advice and stick to it even when our friend tells or shows us that our advice is not helpful and not going to be followed.
We project our own experience onto our friend’s situation and stop hearing what our friend is actually living.
We are too busy or distracted to give our friend the focused attention that she needs.
We talk when we really need to be listening.
Having been at the receiving end of each of these responses at one time or another, I know how incredibly painful these experiences can be to endure. We reach out to a friend with the hope that we will be heard, comforted and ultimately helped, only to receive one of these heartbreaking misses. These moments are little deaths. There is a precise instant when we realize that we are not going to receive what we need, that we will not experience the emotional hug that we crave. Exquisitely painful in their clarity, these deaths are repeated over and over, leaving us not only with our original pain, but now, simultaneously, with the loneliness of the missed connection.
Sometimes we allow the friend’s advice to go on long after we have shut down inside, aware that we are not going to be properly heard or understood. Sometimes we allow the friend to kidnap the moment, make it about themselves, thereby giving up on getting what we really need. Sometimes we allow the friend to use us as a projection screen, to work out something about themselves or someone in their life — none of which helps us. We let it happen because we cannot fight or take the risk that it is to try and receive what we actually need.
There are an infinite number of ways to die these little deaths, but each is profoundly disappointing, even heart-breaking.
What is it we really need when we are in pain? I believe that it is much simpler than we imagine. We need to be heard, understood and cared about. We need a friend to hold our pain with us, for a moment, without judgment, to hear and care about how we are, in truth. Most of all, we need our friend’s focused, undivided, and caring attention. Not solutions, not tales of our friend’s similar woes, just the simple hug that is true and heartfelt listening.
There are times in life when our pain is very strong and we actually do not want to get together for a lunch in which we get the allotted amount of time to wrap up our suffering, and then move on to the business of trading stories. You get your five minutes, I get mine. There are times when we need to be allowed to fully dip into our pain, and not just describe it and then move on.
Here’s the good news: We can ask for the kind of focused attention that we need. We can ask if it’s possible that a good friend just hold the space and listen to us, for today, and maybe even tomorrow. We can ask if just now, we can not hear about her life situation, but really make this moment about ourselves. We are taught that it is not okay to ask for this kind of attention, that it would be selfish to request it, even occasionally. And yet, what is remarkable is that we all need it, and we all try and make do without it, pretending it’s okay. We keep our mouths shut while we die little deaths, silently, again and again, on both sides of the table. The longing is crystal clear and yet we hold back, afraid to demand too much, even from our dearest friends.
To pretend that we get what we need when we really don’t, in fact, doesn’t do us, our friends or our friendships any good. A part of friendship is taking care of and knowing each other. No one is taken care of or known when we walk away from our interactions feeling lonely and emotionally unfed.
When we request what we really need, we not only give ourselves the chance to receive the care that we long for, but we also deepen and sanctify our friendships. We set an example and standard of truth that the friendship can then rise to. I suggest that we step up and be brave — take the risk that is the truth. We can be the first to voice what we really need, knowing that deep down it is the same thing that we all really need. Ask for the best from your friends, and you will receive the best friends that you deserve.