How to Be a Good Friend in Five Not-So-Easy Steps

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March 13, 2014 by Julia

I’ve been reflecting lately on what it means to be a good friend – which is a little embarrassing to admit, because many of my friends read this blog and are possibly rolling their eyes right now. I mean, I’m pretty sure I come across as a caring, decent person most of the time, but I am also sure I have failed as a friend more times than I can count. No doubt those failures come to the forefront of my friends’ minds as they read this.

I will make it up to you with Dollar Store-quality, Spring-themed gifts!

I will make it up to you with Dollar Store-quality, Spring-themed gifts!

Which brings me to my first reflection on friendship: let’s cut each other some slack!

Keeping mental scorecards of who owes what to whom, and who has wronged whom more times, is for marriage, not friendship. (I kid! I kid!)

Ummm…let me know how that works out for you guys


I think most adults have a pretty good handle already on what we’re supposed to do in our friendships, but allow me to list some things that come to mind:

-Listening is usually much more helpful than offering suggestions for change. Advice is often interpreted (correctly, if we’re being honest) as criticism, and will only make us paranoid that people have been judging us on that issue this whole time. Insecurity throws our defenses up; our trust in the “advisor” goes down. So just listen and relate where possible. Only offer advice if it’s asked for, and do so with thoughtful consideration.

-Withhold judgment as much as possible. We all have blind spots, and we all have weak areas, and just because it’s easy for you to master one aspect of life, that doesn’t mean it’s easy for your friend. Meanwhile, they might be much better than you, at say – multi-tasking and remembering details. The graciousness that you extend in friendship will return to you when you need it – which you most certainly will, at some point, no matter how strong you feel today. 

-Come as you are: tired, disheveled, energized, ecstatic, discouraged. As long as you are still capable of being a friend, don’t worry about what they may think of your current state of mind. For instance, if I am in a terrible mood but have a lunch date, I might keep the lunch date, mention my feelings and the surrounding situation to my friend, and then move on to discuss what’s happening in her life. I can be upset without being rude or monopolizing the entire conversation. As long as I am still acting as a friend, I don’t want to worry about her possible distaste for my less than sunny demeanor. If my moodiness bothers her, she no longer needs to schedule lunch dates with me. But I assume most people prefer authenticity, and feel more comfortable being themselves with open friends.

-Reach out to friends in time of need. A phone call or visit under difficult circumstances can feel forced, but is necessary. Because even if they (or we) don’t want to talk about it, and would rather watch TV or go to bed, we all need to know that there is someone who cares enough to put their own lives on hold, listen and help. Someone who will not judge you for your weird anxieties, or your pent-up bitchiness, or your black hole of despair. Someone who will sit and listen while you articulate the craziness in your head, and endure the sound of your crying, or laugh with you at the absurdity of life. Laughter through tears is possibly the most cathartic feeling ever.

-Be happy when good things happen to your friends. In some cases, this is hard. I might have a tough time if one of my closest friends suddenly published a novel. I might try to think of reasons they don’t deserve such a “lucky break,” making assumptions about how hard they worked as compared to how hard I work. But how would I feel if I was the one who got the “lucky break,” and the people I thought were rooting for me are actually envious and resentful? How empty the joy would be. It would be terrible. I know some of us joke that we want to be the envy of our peers…but we don’t REALLY want that. So let’s not make our friends’ successes about our own losses or failures. Let’s celebrate from the heart with the people we care about, because we genuinely care for their well-being. I have a theory this might be just as important as being there in times of need or despair.

Now, those are some guidelines for friendship that could help us all, and they might keep us busy for life.

But I don’t want to get so preoccupied with trying to be a good friend that I crowd out the magic. I’m aware of how arrogant it sounds to suggest that I might even get “that good” at being a friend. The point I’m awkwardly trying to make is, no one wants to feel like like they are merely the object of someone else’s self-help project. I don’t want reach out to a friend because I’m checking it off one of my “do the next right thing” lists; I want to reach out to friends because I am thinking about them and their lives and I actually care.

I have to acknowledge that often the best parts of friendship have nothing to do with “doing it right.” (Just like in marriage.) There is no step-by-step process to achieving the perfect friendship. Natural chemistry and happenstance are just as much a part of it as trying to be good people. I have to reliquish the control and see what happens when I get out of my own way.

Because while we need friendships that are reliable, balanced and appropriate to get us through the daily grind, we also long for true, organic fellowship.

To me, fellowship is being able to laugh together – really laugh. It’s a meeting of souls on the same plane, a comparing of notes on similar experiences. It’s conversation so engaging you don’t want it to end. It’s the absence of social anxiety about what we should do or say next. It’s the feeling that you can verbally strip away layers of your selves and hold them up to the light without shame. (Is that a gross metaphor? I apologize.) It’s experiencing something beautiful with someone who gets it in the same way – whether it’s a hike through woods with our imaginative children, or a particularly affecting episode of Breaking Bad, or a campfire on the beach at night, or a John Singer Sargent painting in a museum.

That part of friendship, I don’t know how to accomplish. I am just glad I have been blessed by it. Thank you, dear friends.



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