“Stay close to people who feel like sunlight” – Xan Oku
This quote offers a sense of fullness and clarity; it may even make you smile as someone you love pops into your mind. The person who appeared in our mind is not a flesh-and- blood relative, but we consider her a sister. She is sunshine in human form, even when she’s giving ‘tough love’. In fact, that makes her even more of a treasure because she’s authentic and really desires the best for the people she holds dear.
The Purpose & Types of Friends
Some think that the purpose of friendships are to help relax us, bring joy into our lives, and provide cushion from our quotidian troubles. Friends are celebrants on life’s highway, and its shock absorbers – especially during times of major trauma or loss.
They say that there are three types of friends: those who come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. As we all proceed through adolescence, our young adult years, and beyond, there will be times we have to evaluate our lives, needs, and how our friendships fit. There will be acquaintance-friends you have a class in common with and, after the semester ends, so does the connection. Like winter squashes or snow boots, some friendships will last a season – perhaps you were in a graduate school program together, you were both fledgling entrepreneurs or new moms, but because of distance, misunderstandings, or a length of time without communication (and now it feels awkward to), the friendship has faded.
The third type of friend is rare and very special – it is like when you’ve found your ‘ride or die’ marriage partner. You and this person were drawn together by your similarities and/or your differences (which only makes life more exciting for you both) and you continue to grow, as individuals and as friends, together. Like any marriage or long-term relationship, this doesn’t mean everything is rainbows and unicorns. You’ve likely had arguments, times when you felt misunderstood or like throwing in the towel, but you didn’t. You both put effort and goodwill into restoring and rebuilding the relationship…and in many ways, you feel stronger because of the testing of your foundation. These people feel like family to you, perhaps as much or even more than your biological family. There is a sense of unconditional love and acceptance.
There’s also a fourth type of friend: the so-called ‘frenemy’. This person may be judgmental and lob thinly-veiled insults into every conversation, but they aren’t all bad, so we keep them around…at a high cost to our health, it turns out.
At the University of Utah, Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Bert Uchino researched these ‘ambivalent relationships’ on our health. It turns out that these fickle friendships actually cause our blood pressure to rise even more than our enemies – people we actively dislike and from whom we know to expect negative interactions. Why does this happen? To use a phrase from sagacious Forrest Gump, these friends “are like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” Will your next interaction with the ambivalent friend be a snide remark or funny anecdote? Will they say, “boy, you clean up well!” or genuinely compliment you on your style sense? The suspense, the not-knowing, is what raises our blood pressure, as we prime ourselves for the worst. If there is a sting, it is worse than that of a known enemy, whose comment we could more easily shrug off.
Even worse, there could be long-term effects of dealing with our ‘frenemies’. Another study by Uchino found that participants who had a larger number of ambivalent ties in their social networks had shorter telomeres (a measure of cellular aging known to be tied to stress). In short, our frenemies are likely more hazardous to our health than our enemies!
The Case for Pruning
Think of a bonsai tree; it needs regular pruning for maintenance and shaping. If that pruning doesn’t happen, its inner and lower branches will eventually die because the tree’s tendency is to concentrate on growing upwards and outwards. The ‘friendship tree’ is quite similar: unless we regularly evaluate the growth of it and remove old friendships that are no longer serving us – we will have a unkempt tree with some of the important, inner branches dying due to neglect. Pruning needs to happen for the health of the tree.
This brings us to another point; the Rule of 150. This idea from anthropologist Robin Dunbar is described as the “suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.” This theory suggests that, beyond 150 people, a social system will lose cohesiveness and communication. The way this relates to our friendships is that we can really only have so many people in the innermost “circle of trust” and in the outer rings of close friends, people you know well enough to grab a beverage with, and acquaintances. You may be able to be friendly with everyone you come in contact with, but if depth is the name of the game in your relationships, it’s best to focus, just like with the Bonsai tree, on fostering growth within the inner branches.
How to Prune your Bonsai Friendship Tree
All of this is to say, as mentioned in Female Friendships: Part I – realize that you don’t need to be friends with everyone and not everyone needs to be kept in your friendship tree. And now, we’ll help you figure out how to curate your friendships:
First, do a Friends Inventory
Just like with your closet, you don’t know what is in there and what might be missing from your wardrobe, until you pull everything out. It’s a process – we see how many clothes we actually have and then we curate – choosing the ones that make our skin brighten, the jeans that hug us in the right places – and releasing the items that no longer fit with our personality or time in life (uniforms, dancing/club clothes, ill-fitting college t-shirts).
It’s the same with friends, so grab a favorite beverage and take a few minutes to write down a list of the following: your ‘ride or dies’ – the people you already know well and love, the close friends, and then acquaintances you might want to have as friends. Remember to add the weaker, strained, or parched friendships as well as your ‘frenemies’.
Second, do the ‘Sunshine test’ and Choose your Top 5’s
Select 5 or 6 friends or acquaintances you’d like to know better, and possibly promote to your inner circle. Highlight or circle these.
Next, in another color, highlight 5 people who you feel are weaker or toxic connections, or those with whom you just don’t mesh with anymore. It may feel a bit ruthless and distressing, but remember that pruning your friendship tree helps it, and YOU, stay healthy.
Wondering who to invest in more and from whom to divest? Consider:
- Is the relationship fairly equitable, a two-way street? Do you both reach out to make plans, share news and inquire about the other’s life? If you’re the one reaching out 99% of the time, if your friend texts you her announcements and doesn’t ask about your life, or if she ‘ghosts’ for weeks at a time or cancels your plans, this is likely a one-way friendship.
- Does your friend share your values? Perhaps the deeper connection is that you both value compassion, caring for fellow human beings, learning, exploring new cultures and being open to new ways of thinking.
- Evaluate if there’s any ‘bad blood’ between you. If so, is it something that can be repaired and do both of you want to put in the work for the relationship? If only one person is willing to communicate and do the work, just accept that your friendship is a chasm with a broken bridge.
- Do you know your friend’s ‘love language’ and do you use it to connect with them? If your friend values quality time or words of affirmation more than gifts or acts of service, learn how to connect in a way that is meaningful to her. Alternatively, does your friend know your love language and use it to communicate with you?
- Overall, do you find it easier to list the friend’s positive or negative attributes? Even if you’ve had the friend since kindergarten, if your first thoughts are of her faults, it could be a sign to cool the relationship down and let go.
- Think of your interactions. Do you notice an intensely negative, brooding, cynical perspective, or biting sarcasm? Perhaps they give you back-handed compliments, make the conversation all about them, or display passive-aggressive behaviors.
- Do you feel safe with this person? Not just physically safe but emotionally and mentally safe to share your vulnerabilities. As you share your mistakes, trauma, or just unique and unorthodox way of being and perspective of the world, do you feel accepted and loved?
- Along with the previous evaluation, how do you feel during, and after, your interactions? Perhaps you feel like you just can’t wait to get away or that you are being slowly sucked dry. Maybe you feel anxious and avoidant – like you are walking on eggshells so you don’t set off her ticking time-bomb. Or do the hours just fly by and you feel an inspired, joyful lightness of being?
- Do you have fun with the person without any ‘buffering’ such as alcohol, shopping, or eating as a way to soothe yourself? Do you enjoy this person sober? Maybe she’s really fun and smiley after a few drinks, but, without alcohol, she’s judgmental, cynical, and inflexible.
- Does your friend often cancel at the last minute or only text you on sunny days, knowing you have a pool in your housing complex? A friend who habitually cancels at the last minute is probably not worth keeping. In the second instance, she seems to be a literal fair-weather friend….and possibly only interested in contacting you because of what you can do for her.
- Finally, the ‘sunshine test’… because, just like clothes, you can try to reason with keeping them, even if they just don’t fit you right...
Does this person elicit a sense of joy in your heart when you think of, or are around them? Do you feel like you are basking in their good vibes whenever you meet…and does their glow transmit so that you too radiate like sunlight?
Bonus for self-reflection, the tricky part: reverse these questions and reflect upon your actions or effects on your friends. Are you a ‘sunlight’ friend? Ponder over how you could better radiate positivity, authenticity, care, and acceptance.
Thirdly, take Action on your Top 5
To better those Top 5 connections you want to grow, and to make new friends, refer to the list of ideas here.
For those Top 5 weaker connections, you have a couple of options:
- See if the the relationship can be strengthened and improved. You could assert yourself, express your needs and desire for this to be a healthy, two-way relationship. To clear out the ‘bad blood’ start a small conversation and gently inquire about the event or situation that started it. This could be a misunderstanding that is easily cleared up.
- Alternatively, your friend may not be willing to talk about the bad blood between you or maybe you are past the ‘mad phase’ and there have been enough strikes that you’re over it and they are out. IMPORTANT: this does not require an overt action. It is ill-advised and unnecessary to send an email with a litany of your former friend’s negative character attributes and announce your split from them.
For those you want to let go or distance, slowly back away and space out your meetings. You can choose to have a minimalist friendship or to unsubscribe, unfollow, and delete their number.
Now that you’ve made space in your friendship tree by promoting and ‘firing’ friends, remember to make yourself a better friend too. Self-growth will encourage your friends to grow. Putting time and effort into your connection will make you and your friend feel happy and close. Challenge yourself to be more adventurous in finding things to do together or new people to meet. Be patient and persistent in seeking people who are a great friendship-fit for you. Remember, this will be an ongoing process in life as you add and release people from your friendship circles and that quality always trumps quantity.
Fourth, be Grateful
While you’re inspired, send a note of gratitude to your friends, thanking them for being who they are and let them know how much you treasure their friendship. Easy, right?
Here’s the hard part: your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to find within yourself and the friendships you’ve now outgrown, a way to be thankful for the warm memories, what they taught you, and how you’re better off for having known them.
The Bottom Line
We all deserve to be surrounded by friends who bring out the best in us, make us laugh, and bring us some joy. Time and energy is precious; it’s best alloted to those people and things which show value and help move us along our human paths.
Stay close to people who feel like sunlight…and aspire to be sunlight to others.