Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Isolation, resilience and butterfly acquaintances

This post is inspired by a series of Facebook posts I've been seeing recently where people are crying out for attention and love.  There's an adage 'the person with the most advice has the most problems' so what I'm writing here is from my own difficulties in negotiating friendships and what I've learned from them.

Friendships are a tricky hill to climb, for adults and for children.  One of the hardest things about maintaining friendships is not taking things personally, and perhaps seeing the friendship for the type that it is.  The old classification 'friend for a reason, friend for a season, friend for life' still holds true and can be a helpful thing to teach kids when they are upset about a particular friend not wanting to be around any more. 

If you or your child are someone who cares deeply about each friend and are the kind of person who feels like they are always giving to these relationships, but are left in the lurch when you need it to be reciprocated, look at how you have classed the friendship.

If you are like me and have a lot of social connections you regard as friends, perhaps many of these are actually acquaintances and not friends at all - stop expecting a reciprocal level of care from them as they don't see you in that way.  I get a uncomfortable when I see those Facebook posts 'I'm always the one giving, but when I need help I'm alone' - many times in the past that was me feeling this way, but it is neediness and a victim mentality that can be outgrown.  It actually read 'my self-esteem is fragile and depends on the opinions of others'.  If we give our time and our care to others, it has to be without the expectation that it will ever be reciprocated or very soon we start to cut people off.  We imbue others with more interest than they feel, so when it is not reciprocated and we walk away, what we have actually lost is what they always were - an occasional pleasant social interaction, a convenient person to spend time with, and all we gain is isolation. 

How can we handle it differently?  Perhaps by only giving what we actually feel able to without expectation. If the other person isn't like you, they wouldn't walk 20 minutes through the dark to evict a spider for you,  why do you feel the need to do it for them?  They wouldn't rearrange their schedule to make time for your kids party, then why do you feel need to do it?  Once you get rid of the expectation that they are able or willing to reciprocate, maybe they will be fun to hang out with when it's convenient - the 'flakey friends' that you don't depend on.  This is a tough lesson and one that it's tough watching your kids find out for themselves.  All you can do is help to give them the confidence that being let down is not usually because of them, it's oftener because of the other person's issues.  Judging who is your real friend, and who just finds you convenient is a really tricky job, but ultimately perhaps it's time to stop overthinking things.  By building your own self-confidence and that of your child, you ditch the poor-little-me attitude that's ultimately causing you to care too much about what others might think of you.  The brutal truth is that most other people aren't thinking of you at all - they're wrapped in their own lives and their own problems.

Take this situation: you've been regularly spending time with someone, perhaps weekly coffee or a play date with the kids.  Suddenly they cancel the following week's meet up.  Then they stop responding to your social network posts.  You text to see if they want to hang out, they don't respond.  You see them tagged in other friend's posts about something fun they've done together.  Do you a) assume that they are deliberately trying to exclude or hurt you because they're actually a mean person and have been using you b) panic that you have done something wrong and they don't want to be friends any more because they think that you are a detestable person, c) worry that something is very wrong as this is out of character for them, they must be having problems, perhaps start sending more messages, d) don't put much thought into it - you're busy, they probably are too, you were hanging out when it was mutually convenient but hey, people move on.  The answer you pick probably says more about your state of confidence and what you feel you need from that person than it does about the state of the relationship.

So I guess this is the big secret to happiness, good relationships and resisting feelings of isolation - our happiness comes from us, not from other people.  I personally feel like I'm going a little crazy if I don't have plenty of social interaction, but I've also had to accept that acquaintances are just that.  When we're happy we attract acquaintances like butterflies to nectar.  When we're down the butterflies move on and we notice, if we're lucky, the couple of people that are still around - the real people amongst the butterflies, the folk who have travelled hours to see you or care enough to be dependable.  They've seen you behaving badly and still stuck around. There's certainly no point being cross at a butterfly for flitting off - it's a butterfly, that's what they do.  There's even less point blaming yourself - there's only so much nectar sometimes and if you're going about your life in a genuine way then you won't be attractive to everyone.  I'm long done with angst and isolating myself from everyone because a few butterflies let me down and I thought I must be an unworthy friend.  I'm lucky to have a few genuine friends, and to have enough butterflies for added interest.    The resilience to know that even when you're down you won't be that way forever, and to notice and nurture the real people in your life who love you for you, that's the trick to model for your kids.  Build yourself up, build up your kids, build up your loved ones so it doesn't hurt when butterflies move on.