Finding Healthy Friends
I have known Lisa for ten years now. Last week, Lisa re-invented herself online. So far, this is the fourth time she has developed a completely new Facebook page. I was her counselor for two of those years, so she always adds me back on her page when it is reconstructed under a different profile. Therefore, I have a front-row seat for the continuing soap opera that is Lisa’s life.
(Just so you don’t hang in suspense, I have Lisa’s permission to share her story. Her name isn’t Lisa. But you already figured that one out.)
Lisa changes her Facebook identity to escape people she used to call friends. I don’t know if she sees it or not, but her friendships often go the same way each time. At first, she and the other person are doing everything together. They go clubbing together, take 100 selfies together, and work out together. They hit “like” for every single status update and remark constantly at how beautiful the other looks in every picture: You get the idea.
Then, after about a year, Lisa treats her BFF like a pariah. She publicly criticizes her for drunken texting, stealing her boyfriend, her car and her money.
Next, she enlists other friends to completely destroy this person’s character. Then, when the other person strikes back–quel surprise!–she goes all paranoid and retreats into her “safe” world. This always ends up with a few weeks of whining at how no one in this world ever treats anyone nicely. That’s when she changes her Facebook page and starts the entire cycle over again.
Lisa doesn’t know how to pick friends. Her 8,000 pictures of drunken escapades with her “friends” and the inevitable complaints of how the world has “done her wrong” bears testimony to this. But I can say with a lot of confidence that Lisa isn’t the only one. Most people have a lot in common with Lisa–she’s just the extreme.
I’ve often taught my counselees that healthy people attract healthy friends and unhealthy people attract unhealthy friends. But these days, I’m not sure which comes first. Do we get healthier with healthier friends or do we choose better because we are becoming better at spotting the healthy ones? It’s probably a little of both.
Have you ever wondered why there is so much drama among your closest friends? If you wonder that, you are not choosing your friends as wisely as you could. Just assuming you want to get healthier and desire to have healthier friends, this essay focuses on how to pick them.
In the Gospel of Matthew chapter Ten, Jesus sends out his twelve closest friends and tells them to announce he is going to be visiting the towns surrouding the Sea of Galilee. They are his advance party. Then, he gives them a clue into one of the most difficult skills–how to find out if people are safe to be around. Here’s what he advises the disciples about coming into a new town: (Matthew 10:11-13)
11 “Whenever you enter a city or village, search for a worthy person and stay in his home until you leave town. 12 When you enter the home, give it your blessing. 13 If it turns out to be a worthy home, let your blessing stand; if it is not, take back the blessing.
They were told to “search around” for a worthy person. What this implies is it is not always that easy to find new friends, and we all need to take our time to do so. I speak accurately when I say that the people we make friends with quickly often turn out to be less than desirable. Truly healthy people are mildly skeptical of bringing new people into their life. They like to take their time to choose close friends. Those who do it quickly will probably be gone just as quickly.
Then we see Jesus advising to look for a “worthy” person. The Greek word translated “worthy” truly means “balanced”. These are the people with many interests, not focusing exclusively on one path or idea. Hyperfocused people do not make great friends. If they are totally obsessed with a habit, sport, lifestyle or job you will never be able to compete with it. Worthy friends are those who know they cannot have a lot of friends, but neither can they allow themselves to have too few. They strike a good balance between work and fun, spiritual and physical, family and friends.
Well, all that sounds wonderful, spiritual and godly. But how does it work in real life? What would a healthy friend look like in my real world situation? Here are four things I would look for in a ‘worthy’ person:
1. Good Reputation: When you introduce this person to your other close friends and family members they are in general agreement this is a good person to have in your life. If all your significant people warn you that there is something wrong with the person–assuming you have people in your life who occasionally tell you the whole truth–you should probably sit up and take notice. Unless you are starting over from scratch with a whole new set of friends, those who know you best can spot the problem people long before you will. That’s why Jesus says to search around for them. The Greek word for “search” means to ask questions and inquire of others. If people you respect don’t like the person, it’s a good chance they are dangerous for you.
In this article in Psychology Today, the author warns that if friends bring out the worst in you it means you are mirroring the main features of their life. If you find you act better and healthier around someone, most likely they are healthy themselves.
2. They respect boundaries and encourage you to have other friends: If a person is healthy, they do not get jealous easily. They already know they are only a part of your life. Unhealthy people tend to become possessive and controlling when they feel their hold on others is slipping. An unhealthy person calls at all hours of the day or night. They tell stories about you that are inappropriate. By contrast, healthy people are glad that you are spending time with other friends and truly like to see you have your own personal space. When they do call, they often ask permission to speak to you for awhile.
3. How they deal with conflict determines how good a friend they can be. This is the high-water mark for friendships: How you handle conflict reveals how healthy you are. If they are a person who tells you–and only you–how they feel about things you have said or done, then you know they have learned how to do conflict properly. If they listen to your side of the disagreement, take time to understand your point of view and apologize when they are wrong, keep that friend for life. Obviously, the opposite is also true.
Lisa had one “friend” who slashed her tires because she called her a “drunken whore” in a bar one night. Now, I don’t think either of them handled things better than a five-year-old, but when someone resorts to felonies to get their point across, they are toxic.
4. They don’t have a lot of drama in their life. When you talk with them, a worthy friend is more interested in hearing about your life than constantly talking about theirs. Oh, they will eventually reveal lots of stuff from their inner world and will invite you to share in their private life. But they aren’t dealing with four exes who all want to kill them, three friends who have stolen from them, ex drug-dealers who want their money back etc. To some, they may seem boring, but they seem that way because they are careful with their friendships and don’t hitch themselves to losers. If you are their friend, count yourself fortunate.
Lisa and I have talked for hours lately on this issue of healthy friendships. She honestly told me she doesn’t think anyone she knows is healthy. I asked her if she knew what that meant. What she told me was both revealing and insightful.
“I am probably someone who is not healthy enough yet for healthy people to hang with.”
She’s right. But we’re working on it.