Tuesday, May 19, 2015

I'm Blogging For Mental Health 2015: Want To Know Who Your Friends Really Are? Design Your Dream "Friendship House"


How do you know if someone is your friend? For that matter, how do you know when someone who you think is your friend really isn’t? How do you decide when an acquaintance has become a friend? When is someone who was once your friend officially a friend no longer? How can you keep frenemies out of your life? As a psychotherapist, I’ve explored these questions with many clients. I’ve considered them from a personal perspective as well. In January, I gave a talk called "Why Can't We Be Friends" at TEDxVail discussing some of my thoughts on friendship: 


In my talk, I explain how I developed the idea that each of us needs to design a “Friendship House” to help us answer important questions about friendship.  The friendship house is a practical metaphor for defining and understanding what you want and need from your friends.

Whenever you build a house you have to start off with a solid foundation or the structure will not stand. The foundation of your friendship house will be constructed of those qualities that you decide MUST be present for someone to be your friend. For example, the building blocks that make up the foundation of my personal friendship house include common interests, integrity, respect, kindness, trust, being there when I need them, reciprocity, and emotional stability.


Once the foundation is set, it’s time to think about what you want from your friends, but don’t necessarily need from every friend. Do you want a good listener? A cheerleader? Emotional support? Soup when you’re sick? Someone to share a meal or go to the movies with? People to chat with in the evening or provide practical advice when you need it? Someone to help you move your furniture? Someone to discuss books with? Someone who knows your history? Someone who encourages you? A pragmatist who can get your head out of the clouds when you need it? A travel buddy? A nightly gaming companion?


Your friendship house should be designed with multiple rooms because different friends who meet different needs will find their place in different rooms. When you meet new people and get to know them well enough to grow from acquaintances to friends, you can welcome them in to your house because you can be confident the foundation will support them. New friends may stay in the entry hall while you get to know them better and figure out which room they belong in or even if they will be allowed further into the house. 

My personal friendship house currently has a kitchen, hall, living room, family room, office, library, computer room and game room. Friends who are also members of my family find their place in the family room. Those I like to hang out and watch movies with belong in the living room. Since I’m a compulsive reader, the library is a particularly special place in my friendship house. It’s not where I keep my books, it’s where I keep my literary friends who support me in my writing and love to read and discuss books with me. My online friends, who I deeply cherish, find their home in my computer room. My game room is filled with the people I like to play and have fun with. From childhood, my kitchen has always been the heart of my home and my kitchen table has always been my favorite place to settle in for great conversation. So, the friends I feel closest to gather around the table in my kitchen. My friendship house has a home office. The professional contacts I consider to be friends may not belong around my kitchen table, but they do have a place in my friendship house, in the office.

There is a gate to enter the yard and a porch. Acquaintances start out in the yard. If they seem nice enough, they progress to the porch. When I get to know them better, they may be invited in through the front door. Or I am likely to learn that some of these people are not right for me because they don’t value the things that are important to me, in which case they will be escorted back out the gate. My roof is strong and sturdy to keep acid words or bombshells from finding their way in to my house. I’ve built stout walls with big windows, that allow me to see what’s going on outside but don’t allow just anyone to mosey on in. The roof, walls, doors and windows represent the healthy boundaries that are fundamental to all good relationships.

What is not in my friendship house is as important as what is in it. There is no toxic waste. There are no black holes. There are no snakes, back-stabbers, vampires, psychopaths or queen bees allowed in my house.  Someone new may get as far as the porch and show me they don’t value honesty, trust and reciprocity; in which case, they will be escorted out.

I know someone who’s already ensconced in my house needs to leave when they no longer fulfill the minimum expectations that serve as my house’s foundation. I may also come to realize that we’ve changed so much there are no longer any rooms they fit into. It’s definitely time to clean house when the only place it feels like someone belongs is in the toxic waste dump or one of the black holes that are outside my protective walls and fence.

Like my physical house, my friendship house has grown over time to reflect my ever-changing needs, values and tastes. The design was much simpler when I was younger. The foundation was not yet strong because I didn’t yet know how to build it properly. There weren’t many rooms because my life was less complicated and my needs weren’t as clear. The front door was too flimsy which made me vulnerable to letting the wrong people in. There was no garden gate and no porch. There were some rooms in my friendship house that may not have belonged there. My friendship house remains a work in progress. So long as I am alive, I will be remodeling, changing, adding more of what I cherish and clearing out the clutter that drags me down and doesn’t belong in my life.

If I feel lonely I can take a look at my friendship house and see all the ways I can feel connected again. I can also think about which rooms need more people in them or whether I might need to do a little renovation or even build an addition. Or maybe it’s time for spring-cleaning because I’m not happy with some of the people in my friendship house and I realize that my needs are no longer being met in these relationships.

So what about your friendship house? What do you need to build a strong foundation? What rooms belong in your floor plan? Be sure to construct good boundaries in the form of solid doors, stout walls and a sturdy roof. Remember to keep your house clear of clutter and to regularly take out the trash. Make sure there are no toxic people in your house poisoning the air you breath and draining your life away. Fill all of your rooms with people who make your heart sing and make your life better because they are a part of it. Building and maintaining your dream “friendship” house brings you one giant step closer to enjoying a happy life rich with healthy, fulfilling and supportive relationships.

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