While focusing on gratitude this month, I've, of course, been giving a lot of thought to what matters most to me and what I'm most thankful for. Not surprisingly, one of the first things that comes to mind when I think of thankfulness is the good fortune I've had when it comes to the friendships in my life. It's been a tough couple of years for me and I know I would never had made it through them without the the support and love of my friends. Friendship is one of the greatest joys in life (cheesy as that is to write!), but, like all great things, maintaining it requires energy and effort.
Great friendships don't just happen — they're created by two people connecting with one another and choosing to maintain their connection over a period of time. By the time you're in your thirties, like me, you've probably experienced a variety of friendships: the we're-family-but-I'd-choose-you-as-a-friend lifelong friendships; the BFFs of childhood (some that last forever, some that fade away); the cliquey, girly groups of "friends" in high school; the true friends that stick by you during (and long after) all of the high school drama; the party-driven, late-night, boozy connections at college; the tumultuous twenty-something, soul-baring bonds that form when you're still trying to figure out what the heck you're doing with your life; the we-work-together-but-you're-pretty-awesome colleague-based friendships; the you're-my-mom-but-also-my-best-friend eternal, maternal friendship; the boyfriend / best friend bond; and a variety of other surprising friendships that spark up along the way.
There are so many different kinds of friendships — from the casual ones of convenience to the everlasting ones of a life-long bond — and they all have one thing in common: they require connection, interaction, and work. I'm so thankful for the effort and time others have put into the friendships I've had and I hope that I've shown others how much they mean to me by being a good friend. I know I haven't always been the perfect friend (sometimes my impatience and selfishness has gotten in the way), but, as I've gotten older, I've realize how important it is to focus on friendship and, more importantly, how vital it is to put in the time and effort to make friendships last. After giving the concept of being a positive friend some thought, here are some of the do's and dont's I've come up with for cultivating a friendship that withstands the ups and downs of life.
DO GIVE YOUR FULL ATTENTION.
Have you ever spent time with someone whose mind is clearly elsewhere (or who is constantly looking at her phone)? It's kind of the worst. I know I've been guilty of this before — taking the presence of a friend for granted and focusing my attention on something other than the present moment. It's a pretty big buzzkill in the friend department, and it's definitely something I want to work on personally. To be a truly good friend, you have to give your full attention to the person you're spending your time with. Listen closely to what others are saying and pay attention to their body language. When you give your full attention to someone else, you create deeper and more meaningful bonds, which will lead to stronger and longer lasting friendships.
DON'T GIVE UNWANTED ADVICE.
It might seem like part of friendship is giving advice to those you care about. After all, you just want what's best for them, right? That may be true, but giving unwanted advice can be detrimental to a friendship. If a friend asks for your opinion, by all means, go ahead and speak your mind, but a good friend shouldn't be doling out advice without any indication that it's desired. (I think I might be guilty of doing this, seeing as I like to give advice for a living!) It can be hard not to offer your two cents every time a friend presents a problem to you, but one of the best qualities of a good friend is being able to listen and support without giving advice.
DO RANDOM ACTS OF KINDNESS.
When we think "random acts of kindness," we often think of paying for a stranger behind us in the Starbucks line or letting someone with fewer groceries go ahead of us in line, but random acts of kindness shouldn't be limited to those we don't know. In fact, they should be a big part of your friendship upkeep. Nothing is more lovely than receiving an unexpected (handwritten!) note from a friend or getting a friendly text from someone who cares about you when you're having a bad day. Being a good friend means doing little things to make your friends happy, particularly if they're going through tough times or coping with change.
DON'T BE AFRAID TO BE YOURSELF.
One of the best ways to make (and keep!) friends is to be true to yourself and not be afraid to show your true self to others. Actually being yourself is one of the bravest things you can do in life, and people will pick up on that courage if you open up and show them your true self. One of the best things about a true, meaningful friendship is that you can speak your mind, express how you feel, and act like yourself and your friend will still love you no matter what. People are drawn to authenticity and when you show yourself to others, you'll bond more deeply with them. (Also: be accepting of others when they show their true selves. Judgment is a sure way to end a friendship!)
DO ALWAYS TELL THE TRUTH.
Have you heard that honesty is the best policy? Yeah, it's an old saying, but still a very true one! It's especially true when it comes to friendships. Nothing kills a friendship quicker than not telling the truth. Whether the issue is big (relationships, careers, etc.) or small (what to wear for a night out), always be honest with your friends. This doesn't mean you have to be brutally honest — "I'm not sure I love that one" is a lot better than "God, you look terrible in that! Take it off!" — but you should always tell your friends the truth, even when it's not the easiest thing to do. (Bonus: respect your friends when they tell you the truth. It's not an easy thing to do so be thankful for it, even if it's painful.)
DON'T HAVE UNFAIR EXPECTATIONS.
Unfair expectations can really hurt relationships. (For more on this, check out this post about loving without expectation.) Having some level of expectation for your friend isn't a bad thing (for example, expecting him or her to treat you with respect), but some unrealistic expectations can ruin your friendships. If, for example, you expect your friend to be available to hang out with you whenever it's convenient for you and are then resentful when they aren't available, you're putting too much pressure on your friend and the relationship. Friendships should be balanced and expectations should be made clear. If you have reasonable expectations and they aren't being met, talk to your friend about it. Communication is key!
DO PRACTICE ACCEPTANCE.
No matter how much you love your friend, there are bound to be some difference in the way you think, speak, and act. One of the best ways to cultivate a positive relationship is to practice acceptance for the differences. It's okay if you don't believe the same things and if you have differing opinions on certain topics. Don't allow these differences to become bigger than the connections you share. Instead, celebrate your friend for who s/he is, and focus your attention on what s/he brings to your life. The more accepting you can be of your friends, the easier it becomes to bond with them. As a nice bonus, accepting others for who they are will bring you greater inner peace too!
DON'T FORGET TO STAY IN TOUCH.
The older you get, the more difficult it is to maintain friendships. When you're young, you have the benefit of seeing your friends every day at school, but when you're no longer seeing friends on a daily basis, the relationships are more challenging. Even though it's not always easy to stay in touch, don't give up on the good friends in your life. Send cards if they live far away. Pick up the phone and call them. Text a quick "hi!" to check in and see how they're doing. In the grand scheme of things, these little acts don't take much time, but reaching out to friends and staying connected is one of the very best ways to be a positive friend.
Whether you have one best friend or dozens of buddies, being a good friend is so important for living a positive, present life. Not only does it help strengthen the relationships you have, but it opens you up to new ones, and it also provides you with the positive mental state that comes from connecting with others. Finding (and keeping!) great friends is one of the best things about this crazy life so make sure you're putting the effort into creating meaningful connections with those that matter to you.
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