The Key to Being a Better Friend
Strengthen your relationships by letting friends know what you need.
Posted Sep 20, 2016
Welcome to "I’ll Tell You What," an occasional feature in which I answer questions about life as an introvert. If you have a question, send it to me at email@example.com.
"As an introvert, I don't have a large number of friends. I'm extremely comfortable with that because I have a bunch of closer acquaintances, including some relatives. I'm really happy to have those people in my life.
"Yet, after a certain stage, I feel like I can’t contribute more to my relationships with them. I struggle to make the bond grow stronger. I don’t know whether it is because I don’t talk long when I'm in a conversation with them, or if I lack of empathy and interpersonal skills. I feel guilty for taking them granted, but I don’t know if that feeling is real or not." — Good Friend or Not?
Dear Good Friend,
Let’s deal with the easy answer first: Are you taking your friends for granted? I say no. After all, the fact that you are concerned enough about the relationships to worry about them indicates that you value your friendships and want to live up to them. If you truly took your friendships for granted, I doubt this concern would cross your mind.
The rest of the question is trickier. What is our role in creating intimacy in our relationships? And what roadblocks might we put in our own way? In what ways do you feel you “can’t” contribute more to the relationship?
As introverts, we don’t need or want a large number of people in our lives. But that means that we require more from the relationships we have. While I’m sure I’ll hear from the misanthropes among us who insist they would rather talk to their dog than other people, I remain adamant in my belief that we need intimate relationships to live happy, emotionally fulfilled lives.
But some introverts might find that breaking through their natural reticence keeps relationships superficial. We don’t easily reveal our deep thoughts and wait—often in vain—for others to make the effort to draw things out of us. It’s not that we have nothing to say, we just aren’t convinced that others will be interested. And, let’s face it, we fear what we think of as the babbling of many extroverts, and we don’t want to be like that.
I assure you, though, that there is middle ground between reticence and bloviation, and therein is the path to taking the friendships you truly treasure to a deeper level.
A personal story: Many years ago, I lost someone very close to me. It was a devastating loss and a very unhappy time, during which I retreated into quiet and solitude to nurse my misery. Finally a close friend admitted that my behavior made her sad and hurt her feelings, because I had withdrawn rather than leaning on her for support.
This was a revelation to me. I thought I was being strong and sparing people my pain, and she was saying she would consider it an honor to be a shoulder to cry on.
What I’m saying is this: People want to know us. All we have to do is let them. Even if it makes us uncomfortable at first.
In her book Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness, Shasta Nelson talks about the “intimacy gap”—the lonely space between what we have in our friendships and what we want. The entire book is a thoughtful prescription for closing that gap, but one message that came through most strongly to me was the idea that deepening the relationships we have often requires stepping out of our comfort zone. It requires allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, say what we really feel, admit what we really need, and express what we are afraid of. (For more on vulnerability, you can also check out the fabulous Brene Brown.)
“Growth begins in the gaps,” Nelson writes. “...it’s in realizing that we don’t have what we want—or that we don’t want something we have—that encourages us to seek out what we do want….If we are willing to admit feeling hungry for greater connection, then we’re better able to choose the actions that will lead to more meaningful friendships. So ultimately and ideally, our gaps invite our growth.”
What does this mean for you, Good Friend? You fear that you are not contributing enough to your relationships: You feel a gap between the friend you are and the friend you want to be. Granted, that’s a new twist on an old problem; more commonly people complain that they are not getting what they need from their friends. But both problems have the same solution—opening up to the people who matter to you and telling them how you feel about the issue. Confess to your friends (and again, I mean the ones who really matter) that you worry you are somehow not holding up your end of the friendship, ask what they want from you as a friend, and have a conversation—an awkward, vulnerable, heartfelt conversation—about your friendship.
Doing that will take the friendship to a deeper level, even if your friends say you’ve been a good friend and don’t have to change anything. Even if your friends say that they feel like they hardly know you and wish they knew you better. Even if your friends look at you blankly and don’t know what to say. It doesn’t matter what happens next—you will take the friendship to the next level simply by sharing your feelings.
And then, keep doing just that. Choose the people you love and trust most and say how you feel about things. You don’t have to go on and on, but say what you think. Talk about your anger when you feel it. Talk about your sadness when you feel it. Share your joy when you are fortunate enough to feel it.
That’s all intimacy is. It’s as easy and as difficult as that.
Give it a try.
Check out my books:
- Introverts in Love: The Quiet Way to Happily Ever After
- The Introverts Way: Living a Quiet Life in a Noisy World
- 100 Places in the USA Every Woman Should Go
- The Yankee Chick’s Survival Guide to Texas
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