Friendships play a huge role in our lives, so how can we ensure we’re taking care of them?
Have you ever felt fear holding you back from turning an acquaintance into a friend? Are you finding it difficult to juggle friendships alongside a busy work and home life? Do you have a friendship that’s becoming sour, but you just don’t know what to do? If you nodded along to any of these, this podcast episode is for you.
In Friendship: Finding What Works, I speak to counselling psychologist Dr Rebecca O’Sullivan and marketing project manager (and long-term personal friend) Zoe Lavender-Stuart.
Rebecca shares ideas to help us overcome any fear of rejection, explores the mental health benefits of friendships and offers signs of friendships in need of attention. Zoe discusses life as an expat, making new friends in a different country, her brilliant tips for maintaining friendships (long-distance or not) and some profound reflections on the changing nature of friendships.
Listen to the episode here, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Transcript of episode
Kat: Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of Happiful: Finding What Works. Today we are going to be talking about all things friendship, and I'm joined by psychotherapist, Dr Rebecca O'Sullivan and marketing project manager Zoe Lavender-Stuart, thank you both so much for being here today. We're going to start off by asking you to introduce yourselves and tell us a bit more about the work that you do. So, Rebecca, I'll come to you first.
Rebecca: Yeah, sure, hi Kat and Zoe, it's really lovely to meet you today. As Kat has said - I'm Dr. Rebecca Sullivan. I'm a counselling psychologist and I'm currently working for a charity group therapy service, as well as doing a bit of private work as well.
Kat: Brilliant, thank you so much. And Zoe, can you tell us a bit more about yourself?
Zoe: Yep, as Kat said, I'm Zoe Lavender-Stuart. I'm a marketing project manager. I'm originally from the UK as you can hear from my voice, but I actually live in Zurich, Switzerland, so I'm excited to talk all things friendship – especially having a different perspective as well, living abroad and managing meeting new people and that sort of thing. So, I’m excited to be here.
Kat: Thank you, Zoe. And yes, listeners, I wanted you to know that Zoe is actually one of my oldest and closest friends and the reason I was so keen to invite her on is not only because being biassed, I think she's an incredible friend, but also because I've seen her move country, I've seen her maintain friendships long distance, create a whole new network of friends in Zurich, all whilst navigating career changes and motherhood. I just find it truly inspiring, so that is why I was so keen to have you on.
With all of that in mind, I thought we would start by talking about the role of friendships and why they can be so important. So, Rebecca, I wondered if you had any insight into this from either your own life experience or working with clients, why friendships can be so important and perhaps if there are any groups of people that might find creating a sense of community particularly important.
Rebecca: Yeah, such an important question and, I think one of the things that really comes to my mind when I think about this - from a mental health perspective there are so many elements that mean that friendships are really, really important - but I think within that finding our identity is a really important aspect of that.
I think when we have friendships, especially close friendships, and we're exposed to people that have all sorts of ranges of values, beliefs, perspectives and life experiences, it really helps us and facilitates us to hone in on what's important to us – being able to cultivate our own self-identity, our own self values. From a mental health perspective, there's overwhelming amounts of research that suggests that friendships are associated with much lower rates of things like anxiety, depression, and a lot of other psychological difficulties as well.
Just spending time with friends releases the happy neurochemicals in our brains. So I think it's been proven time and again that they're so important to have. I think even coming through the global pandemic as well and seeing the rates of loneliness and difficulty and the physical separation that we've had to go through, I think it's just compounded all of these reasons as to why friendships are so important for a lot of us. I think that probably most of us would have an experience of it being highlighted as to how important our friendships are throughout the past couple of years especially.
Kat: Do you think there's anybody in particular that is finding the need to create that sense of community or do you think we all need it at the moment?
Rebecca: I mean there are certainly groups of people that I think it is highlighted with and actually I think just in general it's the adult population. I think that, especially once we move away from school and university and start our career, life starts to get quite busy and it can be quite difficult to pursue hobbies and actually have the time and space to pursue friendships as a separate entity to everything else that we're having to do, it is really important. I think that people are finding it more and more difficult to create friendships. In the older population, isolation is overwhelming and I think that's something that as a community is something we should be looking to help and assist people with. But yeah, I would say overwhelmingly adults and the older population really.
Kat: Absolutely. That's something we are going to be going into a little bit more later because I definitely agree with you there, I think it can be such a tricky thing to navigate as we get older and we have all these other life responsibilities coming through. So thank you for that Rebecca. Zoe, could you tell us a little bit more about the role of friendships and what kind of role they've played for you in your life so far?
Zoe: Yeah, for sure. It's funny what you said Rebecca, about this identity – and I realised when I was thinking about this before chatting today, that friendships for me are kind of a mirror. They're people who reflect back to me who I am. I definitely remember, especially early on in motherhood when I was in the motherhood new bubble craziness (and during the pandemic and as an expat in another country) having catch-ups with my closest friends was like a reminder of who I was. So I think for me, it's the mirrors of my closest friends, they help me remind me who I am, but they also help me see who I can become. It's both because they compassionately and kindly and supportively challenge new perspectives as well.
So I think it can help you come back to your identity now but maybe also see how it's evolving. I totally agree with that. I think also, like you mentioned, fun, laughter, ease, just a sense of relief sometimes to be around your friends and to not have to overly think about what you're saying or who you are pretending to be, some scenarios in life - with true friends, you can celebrate each other and the truth of who you are. And the space to be seen. So I think in our everyday life we don't always – with the fleeting interactions we might have with people at work or with even with family members sometimes, it's so nice to just be really seen for who you are. So yeah, friendship is super important to me for those reasons.
Kat: I'd never thought of the idea of it being a mirror, but that's so true, and just giving you the space to be who you really are because there are so many times in life where we are putting on a bit of a mask, a bit of a performance as to who we are in the workplace, sometimes even with certain family members, things like that. Having friends who know who you are truly and deeply means a lot. Thank you for sharing that.
As we have touched on there, a group that can find this difficult is the older population, adulthood, and Rebecca, I'd love for us to expand a little bit more on this - could you talk about any reasons it can feel more difficult as we grow older to make new connections and what could be holding us back from those connections as well?
Rebecca: Yeah, for sure. I think something as I was reflecting on this that I thought was really important is, for most people when they're reminiscing of times where perhaps it felt a bit easier to be making friendships, we tend to - you know, not in all cases I would say, but school tends to be a time where for most people, one way or another tend to fall into a crowd or a group of people at some point that you have certain similarities with. I think the difficulty is, is that actually throughout childhood we're almost set up in a difficult way because we're set up with this expectation that making friendships is like a passive process, that we're thrown into school, we're thrown into these things and then at some point, it just sort of happens.
The difficulty is that in reality, making friendships is in fact exactly the opposite. It's a really active process. I suppose as we then enter into adulthood and perhaps again we find ourselves in certain careers where we're thrown together with lots of different people, we're not all a similar age group, we're not all doing similar things, it can be a little bit harder to sort of find those connections. I mean when I'm thinking about it, there are lots of things that can get in the way of creating new friends, especially in adulthood.
Quite often within the work that I do, I will hear people speaking about lack of time for one, I think if you're holding down a job and perhaps you have a family or a partner or you know, there are things going on that would otherwise be taking up your time, it can be really difficult to think, I don't have the capacity to be joining a club or to be putting myself out there in some other way.
There's perhaps not the capacity to do that, but if we are thinking about things that we could do in order to try and maximise our chances of friendships and managing this loneliness that a lot of people have been feeling, one of the things that you could do is increasing your chances of being exposed to people with similar values, similar sort of interests to yourself. So things like joining a club or helping at a charity event or joining a Facebook group or a particular Instagram thing. I think we need to not diminish the capacity to meet people on online platforms as well and actually think a little bit more outside of the box, especially after coming through a pandemic where we couldn't actually do these things face-to-face.
I think that is very important. One of the things that I think about with regard to giving advice about making friends is when you're seeing people or you're being exposed to people to actually talk to people. It's surprising - not surprising, I think it's very understandable, but when people have a value of friendship and friends and making these connections and having this authentic connection is really important to them, it's really amazing how that can then almost encourage us into silence. It's so important and it becomes so momentous and so difficult that it can almost stop us from talking to people or it can stop us from sharing or being vulnerable.
So I suppose my first bit of advice is to talk to people to use open questions, to be interested, to be inquisitive about what it is that they're doing. You know, the who, what, where, why, how kind of questions are very, very important when first having these interactions with people. I think in my personal experience, it's amazing the kind of conversations that you can have with a total stranger by just asking, how's your day going so far? You know, if you're ordering a coffee, just ask, why not, what's the worst that happens?
I think one of the difficulties that there can be with this is almost making the transition between having an acquaintance or a passing friendship that you have at these particular events. Whether that is a club, whether that's work, whether that's these things where you're seeing these people on a regular basis but you haven't quite made the transition to someone that you might text outside of work or that you might go and grab a coffee with or whatever it might be.
I think the difficulty here is that it can bring up quite a lot of self-consciousness because, to make that transition we have to ask that other person for an investment of their time. All of a sudden we are saying, yeah, we bump into each other in the corridor at work, but actually will you invest some of your time to come and get coffee with me? And that does bring about a certain amount of vulnerability because we are having to ask that.
But I'd be interested to hear a bit more about what Zoe thinks about this. In my experience and through my clients as well, most of the times when people have done this, actually the other person's been really relieved that they've asked, that they've also had a similar thought and that they've been feeling a similar way. I hope that that gives a little bit of advice and a little bit of guidance with that.
Zoe: Some of my friends, we used to joke with each other in the early days that it's like asking each other out on a date to be honest. It's a full-on awkward moment and in some instances I've actually made that joke, just to try and break what might feel like quite a big moment where you fear rejection. That's how I've approached it.
I think the fact that I'm an expat living in another country gives a different flavour, which isn't always the same for people who are not in that circumstance. I think the thing is once I've identified or I can see that someone is also an expat, that they're not a local person, we have another British accent or an American accent or something, we've automatically got something in common.
That is a big, big factor in why it can actually be quite easy for an expat to make friends. So I don't want to say that my experience is across the board for everybody, but I do think there are some interesting things to learn from that because, say I'm in Zurich and I identify an American accent and I start a chat or whatever, our thing in common is that we are both not local people potentially living in a strange place probably without a lot of family. But then if you take the instance of being in any city in the UK, at home for example, and chatting with someone, the thing in common with that person is that you live in the same city. So that's an identifier, that's something that could bring you together as something in common.
One of the first things I thought about this, and it's so much easier said than done depending on your personality type or what you feel comfortable doing, but when I first moved to Zurich, I had to put myself out there. I had to just buckle up and go for it. And that's easier said than done depending on what else is going on in your life or how you are feeling. So I don't want to diminish that as being easy because that isn't easy.
But the other thing, like you said about community events and not having time is that I've found if I'm doing the thing anyway - so yoga for me is something I try and make time for, it's building off of something I'm already doing. So rather than thinking, my friendship time has to be completely separate from other things I might be doing, that helps me manage it from a time perspective.
I also had a recent situation with a friend of mine and my husband's - he has a new partner and we went to an event together, it was a friend of a friend's wedding and I put myself out there and I've now developed a closer friendship with my friend's partner. So it's the untapped – your friends of friends and again you've got one more step closer in common. So we've been going spinning together and we've had dinner together and that's been great because I've just connected with this woman and I would not have met her otherwise. So yeah, putting yourself out there.
I remember when I first moved to Zurich, within about three weeks I went to one of these random meetup groups and that was 10 years ago and I still have two friends from that one thing that I went to. But it was hardcore, you know, I had to put myself out there, new country, but I was throwing myself in at the deep end. I'd moved to another country so I might as well go to this meetup, it was like one more little thing.
I think day-to-day, attending things that you would maybe attend anyway and also remembering, like you said Rebecca, that the pandemic and the loneliness that many people are feeling... Maybe it's worth having that in the back of our minds in that the other person is probably just as desperate as you to find a connection and yeah, maybe that will be the motivator or that last bit of inspiration to be like, oh screw it, I'm just going to ask if she wants to go for coffee after class next week or something. Yeah, can be worth it for sure.
Kat: I feel like I'm furiously taking mental notes from both of you <laugh>, because these are all really excellent points and it's something I have realised I want a bit more - that local connection because, you're one of my good friends, but you're in Zurich and rest of our group are down further south. I've got other friends around the country and a lot of my partner's friends don't live near here, so it's quite tricky to meet up.
So I've got a couple of people who I see every week in my Pilates class and I feel like we would get on but it's taking that next step and saying, ‘Hey, do you wanna go get coffee?’ I love the idea of attaching it to what you're already doing. So maybe saying, ‘Oh hey after class (because it's an evening class) do you wanna go to a bar or get a drink or something?’
But yeah, there is definitely that fear of rejection and also the fear that you're going to meet up and then you're not actually going to have anything more in common and then is it going to be weird afterwards? I don't know, that's something that goes through my head. I'm worried that - what if we don't actually don't get on? And then, what do we do with this friendship? So I guess my next question for you Rebecca, and Zoe if you have any thoughts on this as well, is what words of encouragement do you have for anyone with those fears around maybe rejection or of it not going the way you planned?
Rebecca: Absolutely. I mean such a good question as well actually. I think reflecting on what you were both saying there, it's such an important question. One of the first things that always comes to my mind when I hear people speaking about that, the understandable worries - because ultimately being rejected is really hard, it's awful if it's ever happened, it just can feel so crushing. And I think that's not to be undermined, the difficulty of taking that step. So I could hear that a lot in what you were saying of, yeah there were these situations you were in and you threw yourself out there but not to undermine the fact that that was a really difficult thing for you to do and I honestly really commend you for that because it's hard.
I think one of the first things that comes to my mind though is whenever we have concerns or worries, especially when that vulnerability comes up – for me, it just highlights the fact of how important this thing is for you, how strong the value is. We are worried about rejection, so actually we really value that connection strongly and of course, it's the way that our brains work. We're stuck in this survival fight or flight system where our brain is going to be hypervigilant of these things that could be potentially causing us pain and it's only going to cause us pain because it's something that we value. It's something that's important to us. So one of the things that I would always say is when we start to notice our minds getting into the place of those 'what if' worries, these hypothetical predicting the future kind of thing, is see if we can bring ourselves back to, well what is it that's important for me here? What is it that ultimately is causing my brain to go into a red alert?
Because if we can highlight the fact that actually it's the connection, it's the acceptance, the socialising, the friendship that is really important to us, that might give us a certain amount of gumption to be able to keep in mind the worries because they are very understandable and they are very valid. But to be able to pursue that action that is very valuable for you rather than sinking into a way of responding from that fear that actually is holding you back from living a life that is very in line with what you would like to be having and experiencing.
For one, actually to go off of the back of something that Zoe mentioned and what she had said I think is to not undermine actually talking about your process when you are doing these things. What I mean by that is, if you are feeling anxious about it, it's okay to say that you feel a bit anxious about it to say, 'Look, I don't know if this is a bit weird but we've spoken a bit, I feel like I get on with you, I'd really love it if we could go for coffee or grab a drink or whatever'. Actually, most times people will breathe a sigh of relief and be like, 'Oh great because I wanted to do the same thing but I was feeling very similarly', and then off the back of that you've had that shared experience - you've been able to offer up a bit of vulnerability and it's very rare that people would ever shut down or be standoffish or defensive in having someone show them vulnerability like that. I actually think it's quite refreshing myself but I hope perhaps that gives an element or two that could help.
Kat: Definitely, I think that's a really good point - if you are feeling some sense of connection then chances are they are as well. You wouldn't be feeling that if you weren't getting on if you didn't feel like you had some things in common. So the chances of them turning around and being like, 'Oh no, no I don't want to do that', is really unlikely. I love the idea of saying, 'Yep, this is really awkward and I'm asking you on a friend date but let's do it!' Yeah, that's a really good point. Zoe, do you have anything to add to that?
Zoe: Yeah, the vulnerability thing – I think that rings true and again it doesn't always feel easy to do, but making a joke, making a bit of light out of it, has definitely helped me. And then also the expectation on the timeline I think is good to have because as life is busy, whether or not the other person has a family, if you have a family and full-time jobs and stuff, even if they might not be able to do it next week or the week after - maybe it's about exchanging numbers and having a bit of a WhatsApp to help that connection moment continue.
And even if a date isn't set, that isn't rejection, it could blossom into something else, because sometimes I find if I'm on the receiving end of an invitation, which is amazing, then if I'm in that place in my life I feel a bit of blind panic like, "Oh my god I can't fit all this in" and it's not about the other person, it's about all the craziness in my life. So I think it's also about exchanging numbers and then texting each other every so often and seeing when works, even if it's not going to happen straight away. It could blossom into a coffee date and then dinner and lots of fun in the future maybe.
Kat: That's a really good point. It's about the little baby steps isn't it, towards connection. We've talked a bit more about making friends and how we can do that and got some really amazing insights there. I'd love it if we could move on to the delicate art of friendship maintenance. This is something I've written about in the past using the analogy of plants describing some friendships as really hardy cacti that maybe only need a little bit of watering here and there, but they're always there for you whilst other friendships can be a bit more like an orchid, a bit more delicate and maybe needs a little bit more time and attention.
So I'd be interested to ask you both about how we can maintain the friendships that feel really important to us. And again Zoe, I mentioned this earlier, but one of the reasons I wanted to bring you into this discussion is because I think you really put the work in when it comes to maintaining friendships, either long distance or otherwise. So I'd love to hear a bit more about your approach to maintaining friendships.
Zoe: Yeah, I think the fact that the maintenance of friendships is so important to me is because friendship is a really key value of mine – having solid friends and knowing the importance of friends for me in being that mirror and that identity. But sometimes it's really about the 'thinking about you' moments that I hook a lot of things on. That can be really functional in that I might actually put a reminder in my calendar that my friend has her 20-week scan on this day and I want to connect with her on that day, for example. I can be pretty organised about it, but it's also about if I hear a song or if I see something and think of them, I don't think twice about just picking up my phone and sending a short and sweet message. That's something I love when people do for me and I therefore like to do for others as well.
It's also a little bit about trusting the ebb and flow of life, and I love your analogy Kat about the cacti versus the orchid and all the spectrum in between and knowing that the friendships that are there. They'll maintain over time and it will be OK, and the right friends will hang around for you at that phase in your life. I think that comes a little bit with age, having a little bit of confidence in who you are and who your closest friends are.
Voice notes is a relatively new one but, Kat will know, we send each other voice notes and again make a bit of a joke about the 10-minute podcast episodes that we send each other, thank you for subscribing type thing <laugh> because they can get a bit epic but voice notes – super easy. I don't know how much that's used actually in the UK. I know some friends, obviously Kat and I, and some other friends, but I know here on the continent, especially in German-speaking countries, because German is such a long language to type, everyone voice notes all the time. So I love a voice note, love receiving one, love sending one.
Then the other one is, I was thinking about those key friendships, it's about making new memories – even if it's once a year you have a big day out or a weekend away, if you can stretch to it or even for big occasions, maybe a mini holiday, new memories that you can share together. And it doesn't have to be weekly or monthly. It can be once a year for those really key friends. So yeah, that's what I thought about when I thought about maintenance.
Kat: All amazing points and I loved what you said about putting it in your calendar. That's something I do as well. I have reminders, I think it's once a month, a reminder will pop up on my phone to say 'Have you checked in with your friends?' Because I can definitely be guilty of going into my own bubble at times, especially when work is really full on. If life is really full on, I can get lost in what I'm doing, me and my partner, just what we're doing day-to-day. So I need that little prompt every now and then to be like, hey, have you actually checked in with your friends? Not only for the purposes of maintaining that friendship but also for my own benefit, like, have I actually spoken to somebody else who isn't in this flat with me?
So I really loved what you said there. And also voice notes, I think it's a... There's a love/hate relationship with them here in the UK. Some people love them, some people hate them. I'm trying to love them <laugh>, I'm not a natural lover of them but I am getting there and I really have found value in that, especially when speaking to you and speaking to our closer friends and there's definitely something to be said for that, especially when you can't be bothered to sit there and type out really long messages. So my advice is always to ask if somebody is OK with voice notes before sending them <laugh> and make sure they're happy to receive them. But yeah, thank you for all of those really helpful insights.
Rebecca, I'd love to ask you the same question. Can you tell us a bit more about any important components you think there are when it comes to maintaining friendships?
Rebecca: Yeah, sure. I think just to reflect slightly on what Zoe was saying there, I was really getting this sense of quality over quantity and I just think that's so important. You know, especially reaching out with authentic and genuine connections rather than the like "Hi, how are you?" And sort of going through the very, "I'm fine work's busy, blah blah blah," the sort of regimented <laugh> conversations we can have. So I thought that was fantastic. I think more generally with maintaining friendships. There are some really core components that can be very, very important. Clear communication - I cannot shout about that enough. I think communication is so important. Things like when you are actually having communication with your friends, when you're actually having that contact, active listening, having empathy for one another, being able to maintain and continue to build that trust, having that mutual support for one another.
It requires handling conflicts constructively and consistently setting boundaries, and respecting other people's boundaries. I think actually above all is having those shared meaningful experiences and, it's something that Zoe touched on there, of even if it is once a year, of making that effort to find that contact, to have that shared experience, it is so important to bring us together.
I think quite rightly in the age that we live in, quite often we can have friends at some point where perhaps we are living in the same area and then at some point in time we're not anymore and our friendship can morph from being one that we might be bumping into this person every day and seeing them on a very regular basis and then it can morph into something that does have to take on that shape of the voice notes and actually those really meaningful moments of contact that you listen to a song and it reminds you of them and you reach out and you share that with them. So, I think just having that flexibility and adaptability to be able to morph and change with the relationship is so important, you know, especially nowadays but actually quite rightly as you were saying as well Kat, that a lot of your friends are just all over the place, all over the country, all over the world and it can be difficult but there are certainly ways that we can be innovative and creative in maintaining our relationships for sure.
Zoe: I think it's also interesting how your friendship style changes. So, if I think back to when I was a teenager, I used to love leisurely hanging out with a group of four or five of you, you'd go to the shop and get ice cream and then you'd sit around someone's house and just have that kind of vegetation moment of everyone just hanging out. And still now, in my late thirties, I crave that sort of kind of intimacy in a way, that ability to just be with each other for ages. But as you get older you realise that life changes. And it was actually, I think it was just before the pandemic, a friend of mine here from the US started movie nights and she'd invite a load of us around and then all of a sudden I'm like mid-thirties and I'm lounging around on someone's floor watching back to back movies and I had this real pang of nostalgia like wow, this is what friendship felt like in those younger days.
So that's also a reflection because friendship styles change and how you are friends and what fits in with your life. But every so often if you can throw yourself back to one of those moments as you were a teenager, I don't know, it was nice. A nice reminder of how it used to be as well.
Kat: Oh I love the idea of that. A movie night with friends. Oh my gosh we need to do that <laugh>. But we did that a little bit when our group of friends went to a cabin for a weekend. We sat around, we played games, we were just singing along to songs and doing stuff that we used to do as teenagers when we used to get together and do things like that. So that's such a great point about nostalgia and recognising that your friendship style can change, what is going to fit well into your life now and where can you make a bit of room for that fun nostalgia side of things?
Something that you mentioned there, Rebecca, was boundaries and I would love us to talk a little bit more about this because I do think it's such an important thing for all types of relationships. So could you tell us a bit more about how boundaries play an important role within friendships?
Rebecca: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like boundaries are - I hope that it's something that most people would've come across at some point now, I feel like I'm always seeing things about it on social media as well, but they are so important and I don't think that I can talk about them enough really today. I think they are so important.
Really, at their core, boundaries play such a crucial role in maintaining healthy and fulfilling friendships. But as you said, relationships of any kind. At their core, they define the limits and expectations that we can have within a friendship and actually just ensuring that both parties are feeling comfortable and respected and understood and contained and safe really as well. I think that from my side of things, from a psychological point of view, it's ensuring that the partnership can actually maintain and sustain itself as two individuals connecting rather than entering into a place of codependency or toxicity.
And you can see sometimes an element of that – I find that when we enter into difficult stages within our life, whether that is adulthood or moving to a different place, sometimes we can have one person that we almost view as, or we can treat as, our anchor. You know, they're our safe person, they're the person that we go to and that we're getting all of these friendship needs met within. But it can be quite common in these situations where boundaries might be a bit of a difficulty sometimes.
Not always, but some examples that I was thinking of just when it came to boundaries that I think people should have within their friendships anyway, things like the amount of time invested into the relationship, how often are we going to be seeing each other and for how long for, our availability. Am I expected to pick up the phone to you whenever or can we have a sort of certain mutual alignment about things like work hours? And when we're available to be contacted and to be in communication with each other, when we're not.
Things like personal space can be really important as well. How much closeness am I OK with within this? And equally things like how are we going to support each other emotionally? Is advice given or is it withheld until it's asked for? These can make such a massive, massive difference in relationships and just how it feels to be in a relationship, how that experience is and what it feels like for you. One of the things that I'm very mindful of is, because quite often when we are just speaking to people, and I suppose within our friendship we don't necessarily need to explicitly set these kinds of boundaries – quite often we gravitate towards people or they sort of align themselves quite naturally – but I think it takes a relationship where the boundaries are not aligned for us to realise how important it is to actually set these boundaries and to have these conversations with our friends. But I'll be interested to hear a bit more about your experiences of these and whether that aligns with anything.
Kat: Absolutely. I think what you were saying there about availability especially and how much you're able to support someone can be quite important. I know we've definitely got a good couple of articles on happiful.com around this, so I'll make sure to include links to those in the show notes if you want to read more about that because yeah, it is a topic that I think is really important in supporting not only our own mental health but how we can support those around us without sacrificing our own mental wellbeing.
Zoe, I'd love to hear if you've had any experience when it comes to boundaries or just your thoughts about them in the context of relationships and friendships.
Zoe: Yeah, it's interesting. I think what you said Rebecca, about how you tend to gravitate to people who share a similar level of boundaries with you is true, so I've never had to have an explicit conversation… Maybe more so around availability or, for example, WhatsApp. I have to have boundaries around how much I'm on WhatsApp and keeping up with the group chats. So although that's a technology boundary, it's also friendship related because you're trying to maintain. So WhatsApp boundaries and cutting myself some slack if I'm not up to date on all my messages and also giving my friends the benefit of the doubt that they're going to get it. They understand, they're not going to be annoyed at me, they understand what's going on in my life and also having a little bit of self-confidence in that, if someone is annoyed that I'm not messaging them back often enough then we are maybe not destined to be lifelong friends because maybe they're not understanding what's going on with me.
Interestingly though, when I thought about boundaries, and this is maybe not for everyone, but depending on the type of person you are – I'm quite extroverted and open, so actually when I reflected on boundaries and friendships I have to be a little bit more cautious on not oversharing because I tend to seek quite deep connections quite quickly. I've learned about myself over the years that I don't really do superficial very well for long. So sometimes I've had situations in the past where maybe I'm not very grounded in myself and I've overshared to get that connection and then that's left me with a bit of a vulnerability hangover <laugh> the next day. So that's where maybe I've sought out some connection with someone and maybe they're not on the same vulnerability wavelength as me in that moment and I've kind of tried to reach for some connection.
So again, that's probably not relevant for everyone, but that's something I have to be cautious of just so that I don't give out too much of my own energy and too much of my own story when I don't necessarily have to. And another one is travel and, yes, OK because I live abroad for sure, but maybe for other people who've met friends from college or university or they've moved away from home. It's about having some boundaries around how much I can really manage travel-wise a month to meet friends. Because my baseline is I want to be there for all people, for all of the important milestones in life and I want to go to all the weddings and the parties and the baby showers and I want to do all the things because I want to be there for them… But I have to again hold back and just check, okay, can I manage this from an energy perspective? Does this fit with the life I'm also trying to cultivate with my family?
So yeah, there are a couple of things that came to mind with boundaries. Some seem to be a bit more organic, just evolving relationships naturally, but for others I have to watch myself not to overbook my schedule or sometimes overshare.
Kat: That's really interesting and something my partner also funnily enough struggles with. We recently went to meet some of his new colleagues, he started a new job and it was something he mentioned to me, that he has a tendency to almost overshare. Ironically, he's different. He's an introvert - but he wants that really deep connection straight away. He's not very good at surface-level chat so he wants to go in. So it was quite funny hearing you say that and knowing that's something that he also deals with. So you're definitely not alone with that. I think that's something that many people can probably relate to and it's a really interesting point for us to keep in mind when it comes to boundaries and thinking about our own personal circumstances and what we might need to do to make ourselves feel better when it comes to relationships and how much energy we are giving.
With all of that being said about boundaries, and you touched on it there Zoe saying some friendships may not be destined to be lifelong, I would love us to talk a little bit more about when that time comes, when a friendship might be ready to end. Rebecca, I'd love to come to you for this first, can you tell us a bit more about any potential signs that a friendship may need to end?
Rebecca: Yeah, such a good question. I think something that I wanted to touch on before – because I have got six signs that I think would be worthwhile keeping in mind that hopefully can help some people – but something I wanted to touch on before I get onto that is that there can be so many reasons why a friendship might have gotten to the end of the line. As Zoe was saying, there are some people that perhaps we're just not destined to be friends with or perhaps we have grown apart as time has gone on and there doesn't have to be something big or catastrophic that has to happen in order for us to feel like the time is ready to relieve a relationship and I think the difficulty with this, especially within Westernised society, is that there's a lot of all or nothing thinking with this.
It's much easier for us to be able to think about the concept of leaving a relationship if we can demonise the other person. If they do something to really hurt us, it's much easier for us to then part ways, it's much more difficult than in the situation where actually perhaps they've not done anything wrong, maybe we're just not meshing anymore. Maybe our values, our morals, our ethics have drifted apart and maybe that's a reason that we want to end the relationship. So I just wanted to bring in that area of greyness, because I think it is important to talk about. But when it comes to the signs, I thought of six main reasons as to why people that I have spoken to have felt the need to leave relationships before, especially friendships.
The first one being that your core values have started to differ and it's notable enough that you have grown apart and that you don't really feel like you have much in common anymore. Now again, when I talk about values, I just mean who or what is important in your life. Now this could come across because of all sorts of things, life changes, a change in family, career change, perhaps even where you're living could be one. But there are all sorts of things that can make us drift apart or just mean that we've changed as people, that we've both evolved into, people that are just not so compatible anymore. So I wanted to introduce that as the first one.
The second one is when you're feeling like you're the only one in the relationship to be putting effort into maintaining it, or perhaps as a side note to this one, the friend is only really showing up when they need you, when actually they're needing support and it's not really reciprocated. I would say this is difficult because it can start to build up feelings of resentment. And I think that, especially without clear communication, resentment can actually be a really difficult emotion to tolerate, to experience, but actually to communicate without there becoming defensiveness involved.
My third one is that you feel drained after spending time with them. This is a really important one and it can be really difficult to realise this because quite a lot of the time we spend so much of our time in this doing mode, we're almost on autopilot, and often we are not actually that in tune with our intuition about experiences, that sort of gut feeling that we're having. But I think it is quite useful to actually just check in with, how is my body feeling after having spent this time with this individual. If you're feeling tense, if you're feeling drained, if you're feeling tired, there are all sorts of events we can go to where we're going to feel a little bit tense, a little bit tired. But if it's a consistent pattern that's coming up with a particular person, this might lend itself to a bit more reflection and exploration about why is that coming up for us.
The fourth one is that they don't respect your boundaries. We've just spoken about the importance of boundaries and I think it can be very difficult to navigate someone who doesn't have respect for your boundaries. Especially if you are doing work on trying to cultivate your identity and your self-worth and your self-esteem and things like this, you have someone that's not respecting those boundaries, that can be very difficult there.
A fifth one that I hear quite a lot is if you have started hiding things from them through fear of judgement. If things are happening in your life, if you have made decisions and you are not wanting to tell them because you're worried about the response, again, perhaps it just highlights a mismatch in vulnerability and your feelings of safety within the relationship.
The final one, the sixth one, is that you just don't feel good in their presence, perhaps there’s an element of competition or comparison or maybe you find that they just say things that don't make you feel good about yourself. I think that your feelings about yourself, your wellbeing, your mental health, your state is so important and if someone is compromising that for you, that's something that I would really strongly encourage you to think about. I do have some tips about leaving relationships and what that can be like, but I wonder, should I go into that now?
Kat: We will come to those because I definitely want to ask you about them. But all of those points were brilliant, they were really helpful. I especially liked what you said about feeling that you want to hide something for fear of judgement. I think, as you said, that can give you a really good indication of whether or not you feel safe in a friendship or relationship. If you're starting to hide things, then that's a really good indicator. So all really, really helpful.
Before we get onto the tips if you are thinking it's time to end that, Zoe, I'd love to come to you and just ask if you've had any experience when it comes to ending friendships or friendships finishing.
Zoe: This was an interesting one - thinking about this ahead of the chat, I realised that I actually found it harder when I was younger to move away from friendships. Particularly because, when I made the transition from school to college and then college to university and friends didn't go off to university or went off in different directions, I found at that point I had a lot in my mind around wanting to hold onto all these school friends and wanting that history to stay with me. So that was a particular transition point in my life where I felt like I really was grasping to keep everyone together. I think that was wanting control around the change and lots of big life events and all that sort of thing. I would say that the ebb and flow of life in general has made me more easygoing for want of a better word, about friendships that kind of ebb and flow with that.
And so I don't really have... Fortunately, touch wood, no recent experience of big friendship drama or big friendship arguments. That's just thankfully not something that's come up. And that's good because I know of some friends that have gone through that with other people even now later on in life. I think how much we've all got going on, whether it's older parents or children or health worries, we just don't need that stress on top of it.
Geography has definitely changed friendships for me. So obviously, Zurich is quite transient with expats, so I have been very fortunate being here for a decade that I have a good group of solid friends that live in Zurich and love it. But I've had friendships change because they've moved back to their home country and that's the nature of it. But yeah, it's more been a reflection that when I was younger I found it a lot harder to let friendships go, but now I'm a little bit more open with the ebb and flow of it all.
Kat: That's a really interesting reflection there to think about how things have changed and it makes sense, as you said, when you do get a little bit older, you realise that you are doing the work to make the connections that are important to you matter and hold onto those ones and understand that some friendships are for a season and they're not for an entire lifetime and that's OK.
So with that in mind, Rebecca, let's come back to you about some of these ideas and perhaps tips to support somebody if they think that a friendship is not serving them anymore and they want to move on, but they're not sure what steps to take.
Rebecca: I think the first, and perhaps one of the most important steps is actually taking some time to reflect on the friendship and what exactly it is that is bothering you or that's giving you the feeling that it's no longer the right place for you to be. I think actually fully understanding what's bothering you just helps you to be so much more specific in the later steps, which is going to involve a bit of communication, which I know can be very scary and very anxiety-provoking, but I think it is really important. So giving yourself the time and the space, and this might be something that you sort of intuitively know straight away. You might be able to pinpoint it very easily, you might not be able to, but just knowing that you can take the time and the space to do that is really important.
The second thing with this in mind is actually remembering that a friendship is a dynamic between two people. So if you're experiencing something within this dynamic to a certain extent you will have a role in maintaining that. And that can be something that can be really difficult to think about as well. But actually, I like to see that as something that can be quite empowering. There might be things that you can do to actually help save this relationship if you want to do that. Whether that is clearly communicating your boundaries, whether that's setting boundaries in the first place, it could be all sorts of things.
I think the third thing is to actually have a go at communicating the difficulty, I think to give the friendship an opportunity, a chance to still survive, it's quite important – and it actually comes back to this idea of process that we spoke about before, when we were talking about asking someone for that coffee and saying, "Oh, this is a bit awkward, but I'd like to share this moment with you" – I think actually being able to give someone feedback on their process, how it is that they're coming across within this relationship is really important because we don't really get the opportunity to get that, not in a sort of safe and contained space on a day-to-day basis. It's not often that we have that opportunity.
So I do think it's important to be able to communicate the difficulty just to give someone the option and the opportunity to be able to alter how it is that they're behaving and acting within the relationship because they might not have even realised it was happening. I'd say quite a few times that I've come across experiences like this through my clients, it's been something that the other person has been completely unaware of and has been mortified that they would be having a negative impact on their friends. So it's certainly worth a go.
The next thing is coming up with a plan about how you can both try to overcome the difficulties and give it some time as well. Don't expect these things to change within the hour. I think at this point if it's clearly not working or perhaps your communication was invalidated or perhaps even worse, it was shut down, it was not respected, perhaps this could be an even stronger signal that it is the right time to be leaving the relationship. Once you have made that final decision to actually clearly communicate that – what you want the relationship to look like, is really important to give that person clarity and closure as well. Because I think we live in a society where there's a lot of ghosting that can happen and that can almost feel like a much easier way to go about these things. It's much more passive. It doesn't involve us having that direct communication, but it can be really hurtful for the other person to have that contact cut. So I think it is really important to clearly communicate.
And as a final point, I think just to remember that as adults we do have the skills to be able to manage disappointment. It might not be something we want to hear, it might not be something that's nice for the other person, but they do have the capacity to manage that. And it is not our individual responsibility to regulate their emotions or to people-please our way around relationships that are not good for us.
Kat: That is a very good reminder for everyone listening to recognise that we and other people have that capacity to deal with difficult things, hearing difficult things. We very much underestimate our capacity at that, I think. So that was a really good reminder, thank you, Rebecca. Those were really helpful hints for people to take away.
Before we wrap up, I would love it if you could tell us a little bit more, Rebecca, about how counselling can actually help people when it comes to friendships. If they're struggling with this, is it something that can come and speak to a therapist about?
Rebecca: Absolutely they can. Therapy in general can be really helpful with relationship dynamics in a number of different ways. I think first and foremost, as I was touching on there, there are all sorts of ways that we can be contributing to relationship dynamics ourselves that might not be serving us, they might not be helpful, in fact, sometimes they could be unhelpful. And I think to have that space where you have someone that can help you to address these difficulties in a non-judgmental way and for it to be a safe place where you can explore this and actually look into your role within these relationship dynamics, I think that's really important. Looking into things like attachment styles, the way that you communicate, whether you are introverted, or extroverted, your idea of your self-worth, how you set boundaries, all of this is really important and can be very helpful in exploring it.
I think another element can also be just managing the anxiety about making friends and the worries and the things that can just really get in the way and can freeze us into inaction around it. Therapy can be very helpful in helping people to navigate that and to live life in a way that they feel really happy about that's in line with what's important to them. So hopefully live a happier life with better friendships and better relationships.
Kat: I think that's a great note to end on there because it's so important to have that space to explore these different things. And Rebecca, for anyone who is listening to this and wants to connect with you online, can you tell us where they can find you?
Rebecca: Absolutely. So I am on Counseling Directory, so you can find me there at Dr. Rebecca O'Sullivan. I have a website which is www.equanimity-group.co.uk. And I also have an Instagram, which is @equanimity_group.
Kat: Brilliant. Thank you. And then before we finish, Zoe, I'd love to come to you for any final thoughts on what we've talked about today and anything else you want to share on this subject.
Zoe: I feel like we covered so much, so many aspects and it's been great. It's also been great to have this moment to pause and reflect. So I guess maybe to anyone else listening... For me, preparing for this chat taught me a lot already about my friendships, so maybe this podcast episode can prompt someone to journal a little bit and think about their own friendships and where they're at with things because it's certainly helped me.
Kat: Absolutely. With that in mind, do make sure anyone listening stays tuned for next week's episode, which will be the exhale episode where we're going to be sharing some questions to help you deepen any friendships. So definitely stay tuned for that. If you want to learn any more about counselling and relationships and friendships in general, you can head to counselling-directory.org.uk and we'll be back next week with our exhale episode. Thank you very much for listening.