This past weekend I attended a Women of Faith Conference. I love these conferences because I always come away with nuggets of wisdom and new ways to look at life’s issues. This year was no exception. One of my favorite speakers talked about finding and keeping friendships among women. I won’t repeat all that she said, but truly she told us to give ourselves permission to make healthy choices around friendships. She shared many wise and honest insights but the one that stuck with me most was that we have to feel “safe in our relationships.” That means we need to be able to feel free to be who we are with friends without the threat of them trying to make us over, criticize our person or disrespect our interests. We especially need to know they will keep our confidences. The content of this presentation reminded me of a conversation I had earlier this year.
I sat with a friend a few months ago enjoying a luncheon and celebrating her birthday. She and I have been friends for over 15 years. She is one of the people I know I can be authentic with and not fear judgment. We talked about our kids, our interest in dance and music, books we have been reading and health issues. During the course of the conversation she said something that really struck a note with me. She said, “You know there are not many people we can be authentic with. There are few we can have truly satisfying relationships with as far as friends go.” Even though we were celebrating her birthday, she gave me an amazing gift. Once again I was reminded that this woman is a treasure in my life.
In that moment I began to define a new attitude on the subject of friendships. Here I sat, enjoying time and conversation with a woman who inspires and encourages me, gives me the gift of her authenticity and accepts me just as I am, flaws and all. I had to ask myself a couple of questions. Why do I spend time with people who I cannot be authentic with and who try to make me into something that is more acceptable to them? And why do I hang onto friendships that I do not now or perhaps never have found satisfying for me personally? Being in the company of a true friend helped shed light on some work I needed to do in my life where unhealthy relationships were concerned.
First stop on the road to finding answers was to pray and ask God about this dilemma. After reading scriptures on treating all people well, the answer still was not forthcoming. So, I filed it for further thought and began to work on some house projects while continuing to chat with God about this and other things. (Some people think I am just talking to myself, but God and I know better.) One of my projects was cleaning out a few closets. Eureka and Hallelujah!!!!! God, in his wonderfully creative way was offering me my answer in a form that appeals to the writer in me and I have grown to love – the metaphor.
While gleaning items, I found some that no longer fit, or that I no longer feel comfortable in. I found several items that were given to me but they were not items I would have picked out for myself. This revelation led to a further investigation into my closet and my friendships.
In my closet I have things that were given to me by someone else and I have felt the need to retain them so I don’t hurt that person’s feelings. This is true of a couple of “friends” in my life. They basically came when I married my husband. He had known these women for years before I came along, as they are married to friends of his. Every time I have an encounter with one of these two women, I come away feeling bad about me. I cannot wait to escape – just like shedding a poorly fitting garment. I swear I will never wear that item again and then with time and perhaps memory loss, I return to that same ill-fitted piece of clothing.
I also discovered clothing pieces I was hanging onto because at one time they worked for me. But now I am not comfortable in these items because my body has changed, my tastes have changed and frankly the garments simply no longer fit me. This is true of some relationships. We change, outgrow, alter opinions or tastes and so do other people.
Please understand I am not saying the garments are “bad.” They are just not right for me. The entire time I wear them I feel confined, constrained and ill at ease. So, if I can go through a closet and remove, give away (or release if you will) items that simply do not work for me, why can I not do the same with relationships? Ah, you say, “Laura, people are not things, items or dispensable garments.” I agree, and we should never treat anyone in that manner. But I will argue that relationships can be examined and if need be, relinquished. I believe the principle is the same.
Enter the idea of the friendship closet. When examining personal relationships I asked myself these questions.
1. Do I walk away from a personal encounter feeling good about me or bad about me? I am not talking here about disagreements or conflicts. I am speaking of chronic patterns. Now please hear me when I say that true friends will tell us the truth when we ask and it may not always be what we want to hear. But they do it out of love and with gentleness – not jealousy, resentment or a need to criticize. It can be tough to tell the difference. One clue, however, in discerning a true friend from a critic is that we seek and respect their advice. It is not thrust upon us unsolicited from a posture of superior wisdom, laced with insensitivity.
2. Does the other person refuse to listen to or just dismiss my point of view? Some people never ask what another person thinks, and they practice the philosophy, “everyone has a right to MY opinion.” Is my encounter with them one of win/lose or is it one of honest dialogue with all points expressed and examined with mutual respect?
3. Do I find myself trying and trying to please this person or be in company with them only to come away feeling or hearing rejection and believing that I will just never measure up?
4. Does this person enjoy pointing out my flaws claiming they are just trying to make me a better person (in her opinion)? Worse yet, do they point out my faults publicly to others and perhaps behind my back? Remember folks when you are tempted to gossip about others – if someone will talk to you about others, they probably will talk to others about you.
5. Do I feel obligated to be in company with this person because of a relationship my spouse has with their spouse or with them? In other words, is this a relationship I would choose to be in without the influence of say a husband or perhaps even another friend?
If I answer the questions above honestly and come up with a picture of a poor fit for me, then it might be time to gently (now notice that word) put that relationship aside. Just like clothes in the closet, I cannot make some pieces fit. The point is this. When I have clothes that I love to wear and friends I love to be with, why spend serious and quality time in clothes or with people that simply do not enhance the quality of my life? And if the ill- fitting pieces of my life are taking up time and energy, then how much time or room do I have for adding new pieces to my life that I find satisfying and healthy?
So, when evaluating friendships that may not be good for me, I am trying to do this. First and foremost I pray and ask God for guidance. He will never let me down. Second, I have made a mental box for giving ill-fitting and unhealthy relationships away. I don’t nurse a desire to hurt the other person, just bless them on their way with, “I know you will work for someone else, just not for me.” Sometimes I may have to actually say this in a way that portrays boundaries. That is hard to do and only with God’s guidance can I personally find the right words and/or actions to stand my ground. Third, I have found it helpful to have a mental box called “acquaintances.” In this box I place relationships with people I know on some level, but they are not in my inner most circle of trusted girlfriends.
I cannot always avoid being in situations with people who do not like or accept me. And guess what? Not everyone I meet or know will like me. That is fine. But I can limit the amount of influence those folks have on me. I believe I am always called to be courteous. But mentally and emotionally I have let go of a need to be in ill-fitting relationships or allow them any power over me regardless of obligations, tradition or others’ expectations.
On the surface, I may have laid out a simple plan here. But believe me, there is nothing harder than drawing boundaries around our own health and keeping at bay those people who do not fit into the plan for our well-being. And no doubt this may seem harsh to some folks and I may come under fire here. Likely that may afford me opportunity to return to the friendship closet, have a closer look, pray, pray, pray and once again glean and pack away those pieces of my life that I have outgrown, never were or never will be a good fit.
Copyright October 2011
Lakewood, CO 80401