While this may seem as commonplace as saying, “On Sunday, I yawned,” the truth is that this actually is not something I normally do. In fact, it felt so strange to roll my eyes that I thought back to the last time I did so, and couldn’t remember. Six months? A year? I was at a museum with my friend Adam, and our conversation that day could probably be best described as a mix of intellectually probing, playful and critical. The eye roll came from that last one. Sometimes Adam would make a joke that playfully put me down, or intellectually criticize the artist who made a certain piece, or complain about our fellow museum-goers. And, as you can tell from the eye-roll, I was chiming in. But did I want to spend my beautiful Sunday rolling my eyes?
Just as the food we eat nourishes our bodies and can promote good health or ill, our friendships nourish our souls. In graduate school, I hung out with a group of good friends who would often jokingly criticize each other. For example, my friend Tom would mock my idealism and naiveté; I mocked Tom’s Canadian-ness and choice of underwear, and we had some good laughs. Multiply that by a group of ten people, and you can imagine the mock-fests that would sometimes ensue. After graduate school, I started hanging with a different crowd, my Handel buddies. This group does not mock each other; we spend our dinners together taking turns answering probing questions, or telling stories of what is going on in our lives. Fewer laughs than with the graduate student gang, but also fewer criticisms. There are great and wonderful people in both groups, whom I count as some of my closest friends to this day. And now that I have experienced both dynamics on the subject of “critical,” I must say that I prefer interactions with less criticism.
It’s easy for us to channel our inner critics when we are surrounded by critics, just as it’s easy for us to channel our inner zen yogi when hanging out with a bunch of zen yogis. So our responsibility, then, is to first define which qualities we want to cultivate in ourselves. Most qualities have “positive” and “negative” aspects to them, and so it really is an individual choice which ones you want to cultivate. For example, I have an engineer friend, Kelly, who loves her critical quality, because it means that she builds electronic components of the highest quality and demands the best of her employees. And it is true that my critical thinking was one of the key traits that helped me earn my Ph.D. in Biological Engineering. Once you define what qualities you want to cultivate, then you can choose and alter your friendships and interactions in order to align with these qualities, in service of cultivating them within yourself.
NOTE that I said FRIENDSHIPS and not FRIENDS. I am not advocating going on a mass purge of friends who “do not align” with your values. After all, it takes two to tango, and odds are that your friends could say that YOU are cultivating the qualities of the relationship as much as THEY are. Remember that I, too, rolled my eyes at Adam and made fun of Tom. Birds of a feather flock together. That also means that Adam and Tom have many positive qualities in them that I value in myself.
Cultivating nourishing friendships, then, can often simply mean that you take a stand for the qualities that you want to cultivate, and this will bring out those very same qualities in your friends. You have no idea until you try. My graduate school friends have also become less critical with time; conversations with Tom may have a mocking joke here or there, but almost for the sake of nostalgia. Our conversations mostly resemble those I have with my Handel friends, as much as Tom may mockingly scowl if I told him that. Was this the result of me taking a stand against criticism, or him taking a stand? Probably a bit of both. Now it’s time for me to take on designing my friendship with Adam.
And yes, after taking a stand for your qualities-of-choice, there may be friendships that don’t survive the shift, and you decide to leave. That is ok too, but consider this the last resort.
Which friendships of yours nourish the qualities you value? What qualities do you want to bring into other friendships that could be more nourishing?
Originally heralding from academia, Dr. Samantha Sutton now combines her scientific background with her creativity and love of humanity to help people “engineer” better lives for themselves. She is a Senior Coach, Vice President and Director of Courses and Seminars for The Handel Group® where she designs and leads the Life Coaching Crash Course.
If you are ready for 2013 to be the year that you take the reins on your career, relationships, body, money, or any other area of your life, the Life Coaching Crash Course is the best place to start. See our newly released workshop dates in NYC, Los Angeles and Boston.