4 ways to be a better friend this year

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How many times have you flaked on dinner with friends, ignored a suggestion to go out for coffee, or have been stuck in an endless loop of “I miss you! Let’s see each other soon please!” but will go for months before actually seeing each other? Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In an age where every hour seems to bring a new piece of bad news and the world feels like it’s falling apart at the seams, healthy support systems matter now more than ever.

Everyone needs and wants loving friends to keep them afloat — but the question is, are people working at being being better friends themselves? How many of us have ever actually stopped and asked if we’re treating those around us well? This new year, as we’re all aiming to become our best selves, let’s start with improving ourselves as friends.  

Here are a few important ways to build better friendships in 2019.

1. Show up

How many times have you flaked on dinner with friends, ignored a suggestion to go out for coffee, or have been stuck in an endless loop of “I miss you! Let’s see each other soon please!” but will go for months before actually seeing each other?

As we get older, it’s not surprising that we find ourselves seeing our friends less and less. Some days it could even feel like your schedules conspire for you to never see each other at all. And while it’s tempting to tell ourselves ‘We’re adults and we have responsibilities, missing another dinner won’t matter’ — more often than not, it does, and it says a lot about how important that relationship is to you.

As difficult as it could be to make time for each other, this only highlights how friendship is an active choice that needs work. It’s great when being friends with someone is convenient, like maybe you’re work buddies or neighbors, but it’s often when we choose to show up for each other over other countless of choices that often build strong relationships. As cliché as it sounds, the little things do add up. We often hear ‘quality time, not quantity time,’ but the truth is that quality time can’t happen if there isn’t any quantity of it to start with.

Strangely enough, it was only after college where I found myself happiest and most fulfilled with the friends I was keeping. It was after the systems and convenience of similar class schedules or org rooms were over that it became clear who I would cross the whole of EDSA for and who would do the same for me. It was more fulfilling to hold on to friendships where it was said through our actions that we were, in fact, important to each other.

2. Be more active when listening, initiating, and reciprocating

One of the easiest but most important things in a good friendship is listening actively. And no, not just listening for chismis or listening just so that it can be your turn to speak next — but truly listening for what your friend might be saying between the lines, or listening to get to know them better without any judgment. Perhaps you noticed that they’ve been talking about how exhausting their new job has been the past few months, or that they’ve been dreading a big move. Or you could simply listen to know what their favorite cocktail is or that they dislike hiking. It could all seem pretty trivial in the moment, but it adds up to knowing each other well enough to be there in ways that both of you need.

On the same note, listening actively leads to initiating and reciprocating actively. If you know they’re moving next month, free up your schedule to help them out. Or if they’ve had a rough week at work, you’d know exactly what sort of food they turn to for comfort. If you’ve noticed that they’re the ones who keep initiating get-togethers, perhaps you can offer to host the next time in order to reciprocate.

And while this is all about a healthy give and take, in the long run, listening and initiating actively can also create a safe space for your friends to open up to you about more personal and vulnerable things. Maybe the reason they’re tired all the time is because they’ve been going through a depression, or there’s been some trouble at home. A safe space will allow them to share these things with you, and in turn, you can actively offer to lend a hand however way you can.

It’s worth noting as well that it’s helpful to be specific with offers, especially in sensitive situations. Instead of saying “Tell me if you need my help,” you can say “Do you need me to drive you there?” or “Do you need me to bring you food?” — there can be more pressure in asking your friend to say what they need instead of just saying yes or no to a specific offer.

3. Understand empathy and how to express it

We’re told over and over again that to be a good friend, we should put ourselves in their shoes. ‘How would you feel?’ our parents and teachers asked. Now that we’re grown-ups however, it’s not always that simple. Sometimes the idea of empathy gets lost in how each person chooses to express it, and it doesn’t always come across as helpful to the friend who is going through a tough time.

For example, let’s say your buddy went through a terrible break up and came to you for comfort. Sometimes our first instinct is to talk about our own bad relationships for the next half hour or perhaps try to make them look at the bright side — “At least we can go out clubbing again!” While this all can come from a good place, you should also ask if it’s truly helpful. Perhaps talking too much about your experiences is making the conversation about yourself, or forcing them to be positive is invalidating the hurt they’re feeling. Not to say that these things are inherently harmful, but it’s also worth asking if it’s what your friend needs at the moment.

Author Dr. Brené Brown said says that when a person goes through something, it’s like they’re at the bottom of big hole. She likens sympathy to looking down and saying “Oh, that’s pretty bad,” whereas empathy is climbing down into the hole and sitting with your friend in that vulnerable place.

A while back, when I had received news from the doctor that my cancer was getting worse, I was in a pretty deep hole myself. I was bombarded with messages like “Be strong!”or “My mother got through cancer, you will too,” or “Have you tried this doctor?”  

While I was very thankful for the good thoughts and support, there was also this feeling of people trying to take away this grief that was, at the time, inextricable from me. It was then when my best friend simply asked — “Do you want to talk about it?” When I replied that I didn’t yet know how to, she just said, “It’s okay. We can just hold hands and eat ice cream.”

It was so simple, really, but during a time where I was feeling incredibly overwhelmed and pressured to “be brave,” it was all I needed to hear. First, she had asked me what I was feeling or what I needed to do at that time, and then second and most importantly, she acknowledged the situation without any other pretense.

Empathy is honestly a difficult thing to learn and it varies so greatly from situation to situation. From cancer to depression, or even just a bad week from work — sometimes we feel that our duty as a friend is to make things better, to find a solution, or to make it go away. And perhaps we can. But often times, the grief is just not ours to fix. Instead, we can only truly see the situation our friends are going through and acknowledge it. Be there when necessary. Presence can make all the difference.

4. Know what a healthy friendship is and leave behind all the toxicity

“Toxic” was dubbed the word of the year of 2018 by the Oxford Dictionary and for good reason. We need to leave that all behind this year and perhaps we should start with our peers. It can be surprising how many of us disregard the harmful behavior of our friends. We often make excuses because of how long we’ve known each other, how close the bond is, or simply because we don’t want any conflict. Before we know it, we could be in friendships where unhealthy emotional co-dependencies have formed, negative influence is passed on, or bad behavior is enabled.

So just like Marie Kondo taught us to remove all the things that no longer spark joy in our home, it’s a worthwhile exercise to do the same for the friendships that you keep. After all, friendships arguably take up more time, energy, and effort than your possessions. Obviously it’s not as simple as discarding them into the trash or organizing them into boxes — but you can ask yourself if the friends you’re keeping help you become a better person or truly bring value to your life without pulling you down in any way. Not to say that friendships are only about gain, but you shouldn’t be getting hurt from them either. There are dozens of ways a relationship can be toxic and recognizing the signs will help both of you.

To be clear though, you can definitely still love someone and not approve of the things they do. If you can see that a friendship is still very much important to you but needs work — try to speak to them about how or you’re feeling or call them out if needed. A good friendship can and should be able to handle it well and good friends should hold each other accountable. In fact, it should be necessary if both of you are committed to each other and want each other to grow and improve. These days, we need it more than ever.