With Friends Like These – Dorothy Rowe

We value friends, but the path of friendship, like love, rarely
runs smooth. We may feel jealous of a friend’s achievements
when we want to feel happy for her. We might find it hard to give
friends objective advice, unrelated to the person we want them to
be. We can be reluctant to allow each other to change, sometimes
falling out in a way that is painful for all involved. And yet, friendships are vitally important; central to our enjoyment of life.
More fundamentally, friendships are essential to our sense of
who we are. Neuroscientists have shown that our brain does not
reveal to us the world as it is, but rather as possible interpretations
of what is going on around us, drawn from our past experience.
Since no two people ever have exactly the same experience, no two
people ever see anything in exactly the same way.

Most of our brain’s constructions are unconscious. Early in our
life our stream of conscious and unconscious constructions create,
like a real stream, a kind of whirlpool that quickly becomes our
most precious possession, that is, our sense of being a person, what
we call “I,” “me,” “myself.” Like a whirlpool, our sense of being a
person cannot exist separately from the stream that created it.
Because we cannot see reality directly, all our ideas are guesses
about what is going on. Thus our sense of being a person is made
up of these guesses. All the time we are creating ideas about who we are, what is happening now, what has happened in our world, and what our future will be. When these ideas are shown by events to be reasonably accurate, that is, our ideas are validated, we feel secure in ourselves, but when they are proved wrong, we feel that we are falling apart.

Friends are central to this all-important sense of validation.
When a friend confirms to us that the world is as we see it, we feel
safer, reassured. On the other hand, when we say, “I’m shattered,”
or “I’m losing my grip,” we might not be using clichés to describe
a bad day but talking about something quite terrifying that we
are experiencing: our sense of who we are is being challenged. So
terrifying is this experience that we develop many different tactics
aimed at warding off invalidation and defending ourselves against
being annihilated as a person.
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safer, reassured. On the other hand, when we say, “I’m shattered,”
or “I’m losing my grip,” we might not be using clichés to describe
a bad day but talking about something quite terrifying that we
are experiencing: our sense of who we are is being challenged. So
terrifying is this experience that we develop many different tactics
aimed at warding off invalidation and defending ourselves against
being annihilated as a person.

We are constantly assessing how safe our sense of being a person is. Our assessments are those interpretations we call emotions. All our emotions relate to the degree of safety or danger our sense of being a person is experiencing. So important are these interpretations to our survival that we do not need to put them into words, although of course we can. Our positive emotions are interpretations to do with safety, while the multitude of negative emotions define the particular kind of danger and its degree. Joy is: “Everything is the way I want it to be”; jealousy is: “How dare that person have something that is rightly mine.” We can be invalidated by events such as the bankruptcy of the firm that employs us, but most frequently we are invalidated by other people.

A friend told me how her husband had used her password and
pin to drain her bank account and fund his secret gambling habit.
Losing her savings was a terrible blow, but far worse was her loss of
trust in the person she saw as her best friend. When she described herself as falling apart, I assured her that what was falling apart were some of her ideas. All she had to do was to endure a period of uncertainty until she could construct ideas that better reflected her situation.

Friendship can be rewarding but, like all relationships, it can
also be risky. Other people can let us down, insult or humiliate
us, leading us to feel diminished and in danger. Yet we need other
people to tell us when we have got our guesses right, and, when
we get things wrong, to help us make more accurate assessments.
Live completely on your own and your guesses will get further and
further away from reality.

The degree of risk we perceive from our friends relates directly to the degree of self-confidence we feel. When confident of ourselves, we feel that we can deal with being invalidated; when lacking self-confidence, we often see danger where no danger need exist. Take jealousy, for example. Feeling self-confident, we can rejoice in our friend’s success at a new job; feeling inferior, we see danger and try to defend ourselves with: “It’s not fair.” We can fail to see that our friendship should be more important to us than our injured pride.

Our levels of confidence also relate to how ready we are to
accept change, and how able we are to allow our friends to change.
To feel secure in ourselves, we need to be able to predict events
reasonably accurately. We think we know our friends well, and
so can predict what they will do. We create a mental image of our
friends, and we want to keep them within the bounds of that image.
Our need to do this can override our ability to see our friends in the
way they see themselves. We do not want them to change because
then we would have to change our image of them. Change creates
uncertainty, and uncertainty can be frightening.

However, an inability to allow change can lead to the end of a
friendship. Falling out with a friend shows us that our image of
them, from which we derive our predictions about that friend, is wrong; and if that is the case, our sense of being a person is threatened.

If we lose a friend, we have to change how we see ourselves and
our life. Each of us lives in our own individual world of meaning.
We need to find friends whose individual world is somewhat
similar to our own so that we are able to communicate with one
another.

The people who can validate us best are those we can see
as equals, and with whom there can be mutual affection, trust,
loyalty and acceptance. Such people give us the kind of validation
that builds a lasting self-confidence despite the difficulties we
encounter. These are our true friends.