importance of vulnerability

The 3 Requirements of All Healthy Friendships

We all want friendships, but most of us don't even know what that means. How Do You Define Friendship?

When I ask audiences to define the word I get things like:

  • "Someone you like."
  • "Someone who makes you laugh."
  • "Someone who's always there for you."
  • "Someone who knows the worst of you and still loves you."
  • "Someone you trust."

Those all sound warm-and-fuzzy, but none of those are a definition by which we can measure a relationship with another person:

  • There are a lot of people I like but who haven't become my friends.
  • Plenty of people make me laugh-- some I only know via TV, does that mean we're friends?
  • No one is always there for me... nor am I for them... does that mean we aren't friends?
  • Yes, we want to be accepted by being loved by people who know us, but if this is our litmus test then does that mean we all have to confess our worst sins before we can be friends with someone?
  • Trust? Trust them to do what???  I trust the Starbucks barista not to spit in my drink-- does that make us friends?

And the dictionary doesn't help much by basically just stating that a friendship is a "relationship between friends." ha! SO helpful!

A Definition of Friendship

I've taken the liberty to create a working definition of friendship (based on compiling/summarizing the research of many sociologists and psychologists) so we can all better identify and evaluate the qualities and actions of a friendship.

"A friendship is a mutual relationship between two people that is satisfying, safe, and where both people feel seen."

  1. In order for a relationship to be satisfying, it must have a foundation of positivity While positive feelings are necessary in all healthy relationships; they are paramount to our friendships because these are the relationships we are entering by choice. We all want our friendships to add more joy, peace, and support to our lives.
  2. In order for a relationship to be safe, it must develop consistencyConsistency is the action of repeating our time together which in turn develops our trust as we begin to create and modify expectations of each other. The more consistency we have, the more we feel like we can anticipate how a person will behave in different situations. Consistency is what gives our new friendships momentum to get to know each other and, over time, it's what builds a shared history and increases our commitment and feeling of support in each other.
  3. In order for a relationship where both people feel seen, it must develop vulnerabilityAs we spend more consistent time together, we are also incrementally revealing and sharing more of who we are with each other.  The more we let someone see us (always increasing our positivity with responses such as affirmation, acceptance, and empathy) then the more loved we'll feel for who we are.

If you don't have all three: then you don't have a healthy friendship.

And the flip side of that is equally true: if you have any friendship that isn't feeling meaningful or healthy, I can guarantee it's because at least one of these three requirements is in lack in that relationship.

In other words, if you just have positivity and consistency (fun times that are repeated often) but lack vulnerability then it's just a social group that lacks you Frientimacy the three requirements: positivity, consistency, vulnerabilityfeeling really known and supported.  Or, if you have positivity and vulnerability (a meaningful time where you felt seen and appreciated) but lack consistency so that it's not ever repeated, then it was just a really special moment with someone, but not a friendship.  Or if you have consistency and vulnerability (deep sharing happening all the time) but lack positivity, then it's just a draining relationship that leaves you feeling weary.  We have to have all three.

To that point, consider this quote I recently came across from The Atlantic:

"I’ve listened to someone as young as 14 and someone as old as 100 talk about their close friends, and [there are] three expectations of a close friend that I hear people describing and valuing across the entire life course,” says William Rawlins, the Stocker Professor of Interpersonal Communication at Ohio University. “Somebody to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to enjoy. These expectations remain the same, but the circumstances under which they’re accomplished change.”

Did you catch the three?

  1. Someone to talk to (vulnerability),
  2. someone to depend on (consistency), and
  3. someone to enjoy (positivity).

Now that we have a definition we know what actions can start, build, repair, or end any friendships in our lives.

Want to know which of the 3 Requirements would make the biggest difference in your relationships? Take this quick Frientimacy Quiz!

Note: These Three Requirements are unpacked, at length, in my book Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness.

 

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With Whom Should I Be Vulnerable?

Relationship stress, parenting disappointments, financial scarcity, career failures, crippling fears, health challenges, exhausting depression, unmet expectations, identity crisis, paralyzing indecision ... There is so much in this life that hurts. As if those aches weren't enough, compounding the fear and angst, far too many of us suffer alone.

Heart and Key

Why We Don't Reach Out

We stay quiet for any number of reasons, including (but definitely not limited to):

  • It's harder to stay in denial if we have to speak it out loud.
  • We've been hurt before when we've shared honestly so it feels far too risky now.
  • It's important (to our job, to our ego, to our spouse/family) that we keep up a certain image.
  • We can hardly manage our own shame/grief around the situation that we doubt we could handle anyone else's feelings, too.
  • Our greatest fear is being rejected or judged so why would we ever want to look less than perfect to someone else?
  • We don't really know anyone well enough to share deeply.

Why We Must

Unfortunately I have to stay brief on this part since what I really want to talk about is how to determine who to talk with, but it's worth reminding our brains that external processing is crucial for growth.

Self-reflection is limited to that which we are already conscious of in ourselves; interacting with others is what pushes us to new ways of thinking.

Even for people who prefer internal processing (a descriptive of many introverts), they are limited only to their own thoughts (which often just keep spiraling and spiraling) and can't access all the new inspiration, ideas, resources, awareness of blind spots, and reminders of love, acceptance, and normalcy that others can give. (Similarly, I'd tell those who prefer external processing that there is also a huge need for them to spend time checking in with themselves and reflecting more! Both are needed!)

Furthermore, oxytocin, the hormone that helps us feel safe, connected, and loved flows through us when we are sharing, touching, and being seen.  This powerful chemical also prohibits cortisol which is released by our stress, so engaging with others actually protects our bodies from the impact of whatever is causing us pain or stress. Our stressors deplete us, but relationships fill us up. (We can't always eliminate that which is draining us, but we can always be responsible for adding more of the things that energize and heal us.)

So Who Do We Share With?

  • Do we share with the people we like the best?
  • Or the ones who we've known the longest?
  • Or the ones who have been through something similar?
  • Or the ones who appear to not struggle in this area?
  • Or the ones who have opened up and shared with us in the past?
  • Or the ones who seem to have time?

The answer is: none of the above.

While the person we practice opening up with may fit 1-2 of those descriptors-- in and of themselves, they are not a reason to be vulnerable with someone. The chances of backfiring are high with any of them if we don't take into account the real reason to choose someone.

In short the answer is: The person we practice being vulnerable with the big stuff is the person we have been practicing vulnerability with on the small stuff.

What does that mean?  Let me give you an example:  If you'd rate your pain/fear as a 7 or 8 on a scale of 1-10, then you're better off sharing it with someone whom you've shared with before and appreciated their response.  So hopefully there are a few people you've practiced being vulnerable with regarding matters that you'd consider 5's or 6's? The jump from a 5/6 to a 7/8 really isn't that risky.  You have a history of practicing vulnerability with them in a way where their response was meaningful or helpful so while it may still feel scary to share, you don't need to fear their response or wonder if they will still love you.

You two have practiced vulnerability so it's not a new dance, but rather just a more experienced dance move.

What If I Don't Have Anyone?

The other option if you don't have people around you whom you've practiced vulnerability with already is to intentionally and incrementally start deepening some of the friendships you do have. Think of the scale in your mind and make sure you're sharing only a little bit at a time to then have the opportunity to step back and assess how it feels before sharing more.  In other words, if your pain is an 8, share as much as feels like a 3, before jumping up to 5, and before eventually sharing the 8.

What does that look like? Maybe you're struggling with a possible impending divorce. Before you pour out your heart and dump on someone, see how it feels to share a small piece of it: maybe just a fight you've recently had or acknowledging in broad strokes how hard marriage can feel sometimes. Does she meet you there? Does she judge? Does she listen and ask questions? Does she validate your feelings? If she responds in a way that feels safe to you, then you can up the ante a bit and maybe share something more specific or deep.

But I'd caution you that if you've bottled up a lot and haven't shared too deeply with others, it's probably wise to not go from 1 to 8 in one sitting with someone, even if she is responding kindly and encouragingly. My best advice would be to see it a bit like a first-time at the gym-- don't overdo it; you can always do more next time, building up to higher numbers as you engage more often.  Your goal isn't just to find someone to vomit on, but to build a lasting relationship that can support both of you so make sure you ask about her life, share something positive, and be someone who she would look forward to getting together with again. (If you NEED to talk and don't have those friendships in place, it's usually wise to realize that what you need might be a therapist, pastor, or other professional whose goal is to help you, not to build up a mutually confiding friendship.)

I'm excited for my next book to come out next Spring (the title is Frientimacy) where I talkFriendship cover in-depth about how to deepen friendships, but if you want more now then see pages 163-168 specifically about how to share when you're feeling broken and hurt (and all of chapter 8 on vulnerability for more general sharing) in my book Friendships Don't Just Happen!

What I want for all of you, eventually, is the awareness that you have developed a net of supportive relationship under you, made up of people who have practiced going as deep as possible with you... so that you live with confidence and peace that when the 10 hits (and chances are high it will), you have a couple of people who can support you through it.

Far too many people say, "When I went through such-and-such, I learned who my real friends are" as though it's an indictment against all those who didn't stick by them, but often it says less about the people, and more about what level of relationship was developed.

We owe it to ourselves to develop the relationships that incrementally and intentionally foster safe and mutual sharing. I want that for you!

Leave a comment!  Does this make sense? What questions do you have? Do you have any experience with sharing too much/too fast or not sharing enough to feel supported? We'd be honored to learn with you!

The Friendship Formula

On Sunday I sat at the front of the room, with my phone in my hand keeping time, and I looked out a room-full of women laughing, talking, and leaning in toward each other. Only an hour earlier they had arrived as strangers, here they were looking a lot like good friends.  I knew that given a few more hours... I'd see women hugging each other good-bye with words like "See you next week!" excitedly hanging in the air.

Friendship Accelerators Bonding Women

There are actually few things more gratifying than facilitating Friendship Accelerators. Undoubtedly, speaking and writing are two of my favorite things since I love communicating and teaching, but the Accelerators give me a chance to go beyond inspiring and instructing an audience to actually helping cultivate the very connection people crave.  They're magical for me. All the motivational speaking in the world can't deliver friendships to people... but the Accelerators can; and for those results, I love them.

I, in fact, have joked that I feel a bit like a scientist in a lab inventing friendships.  Like any passionate scientist who might pour a little of this concoction, a dash of that, and a sprinkle of something else to create something greater than all the individual elements, I have learned that the very high possibility of meaningful friendships is something I can create.  Over the years I am perfecting the recipe, but the fact that the results are more predictable than ever has never dampened my glee when I watch it work, again and again.

Is there a Formula to Love?

Perhaps because I've been vocal over the years that I believe there is more of a formula to friendship than most of us want to believe, several women sent me the recent article in The New York Times titled, "To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This" and said variations of "This reminds me of what you do with friendship!"

In the article Mandy Len Catron shared the story of falling in love with someone through answering the same 36 questions that researchers had used in a study to analyze what helped people feel close to each other.

In that study, they developed a list of questions that were designed to help two people self-disclose in increasing intensity and included questions that helped the subjects talk about their relationship and each other.  The connection to each other was big enough for the researchers to conclude:

"One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personalistic self-disclosure."

Notice that the basis of the connection is self-disclosure and sharing, but that it also has to be consistent, mutual, and incremental.

Just as interesting as what did work in bonding people in a lab is what didn't work that they also tested:  1) leaving two people to engage in small talk for 45 minutes didn't work, 2) being matched with people who agreed with you on important views didn't result in an increased connection, 3) being told the goal was to feel close didn't make a difference in helping the pair reach the goal, and 4) being led to believe that mutual liking was expected based on them being a good match didn't help it pan out.

Think about how much of our dating includes those four things: hoping it will work, believing we're a match, both having the goal of finding someone, and spending time on a date talking... but none of those factors lead to intimacy as much as intentional and personal self-disclosure that escalated incrementally.

Is there a Formula to Friendship?

Similarly, while their research was more focused on romantic intimacy, it confirms what I have long known to be true in friendship, as well:  There are actions we can take to foster a bond.

In other words, it's not just "chance" that will determine whether we'll feel a connection, nor is it only if the other person proves to have the "right" qualities we think we want in someone.  Bonding has far more to do with the verbs we engage in with someone than the adjectives they possess.

It's why the women who join GirlFriendCircles.com attend ConnectingCircles: small groups of 3-6 women who gather at a local cafe and pick questions off a list of Sharing Questions to ask and answer.  We have found the success rates of women feeling connected to others increases when they engage in sharing questions about themselves rather than just let the conversation drift from movies to men to jobs.

And it's why I developed the Frientimacy Triangle which teaches that all relationships start at the base of the triangle and bond when they increase both their time together and the self-revealing they're willing to do. (Read another post or buy book for more explanation.)

Regular time together (leading to commitment) and increased vulnerability is what will help two people bond.

What's so encouraging is that these actions are within your control!  You can 1) initiate time together with people you want to bond with and 2) you can ask questions and share about yourself in a way that helps the two of you bond.

It has far less to do with you both needing to be moms with kids the same ages, both needing to be retired, or both single 30-somethings-- you can build a close connection that is meaningful with far more people than you believe you can.  I've seen it time and time again.

And that's why the Friendship Accelerators work: they commit to a whole day together that I facilitate to help create intentional sharing and then they commit to 4 weekly get-togethers where they will increase their time together and continue to share their lives.

Last summer I was invited to attend the one-year anniversary of a Friendship Accelerator group who was still getting together weekly 52 weeks after they met. I went to a birthday party last month where three women there had all met at one of my Accelerators a couple of years back.  I regularly see Facebook photos of another group who seemingly gets together all the time for fun stuff all over the city.

Last week I received an email from a woman who had been in one of my Friendship Accelerators a couple of years ago who said, "Two of the friends I met at our Accelerator 3 years ago are still very dear to me and an important part of my life.  Even though one moved farther away, we are still in regular contact and get together often.  In fact, I had dinner last night with one of those friends and the 3 of us are going to the theater to celebrate the other one's birthday next week. Thank you!"

The Two Necessary Ingredients in Bonding

Indeed, whether it's romance or friendship-- they both are built upon helping bond people-- we all too often expect more from the things that don't work and are too busy or too nervous to try the things that do.

If you want meaningful connections:

Time together + Intentional Self-Revealing = Feeling Close to Others.

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p.s.  If you want me to come to your city to lead a Friendship Accelerator you can add your email and zip code to our list to be notified when we schedule one in your area!