How to identify a true friendship

August 28, 2014
See-sawWe’re all sensitive.
Some of us just hide it better.
-Jeff Brown

The balance between giving and receiving in true friendship came up the other day in an event I attended given by a new age practitioner I know. The group  went through some exercises to identify how much we gave to our best friends–but also how much we received.

Consider friendship a see-saw, our facilitator told us,  and the goal is for it to be mostly balanced.

As it turned out, for some of us it was an epiphany about imbalance and I was one:  I found that in almost all of my friendships–oh, hell, ALL of them– I give much more than I receive. Significantly more.

In fact, my friends only rarely give me much at all. Whoa! Didn’t expect that.

Afterwards, M and I took Riley for a walk and talked about why that could be.

“You seem so self-contained and confident,” he said, “that it looks like you don’t need anything.”

“But it isn’t true,” I said. “Not at all.”

“Plus, you really are so much of a giver,” he said. “Just  by nature you give more than most people.”

I agree.

Giving is one of my greatest pleasures. But it doesn’t mean I don’t have emotional needs, myself.

I thought back to times when I needed support that I didn’t get.

Like when Little He died and some of my closest friends failed to reach out in any meaningful way.  Friends who knew the dog’s death was a huge blow.  Could they possibly think I didn’t need a few loving words over the phone?  Especially those who were also dog lovers. I mean. Seriously?

At the time I just noted it in passing, but this discussion made me look more deeply at the imbalance in my friendships. Which was of course, the point.

Immediately I thought of another time when something happened and an entire group of friends–some very close ones– failed to provide meaningful support because it would have meant giving something else up. That was a such a noteworthy scenario that I’ve carried it for a long time without deep thought. But it nagged at me, and now, I’m thinking.  Why wouldn’t they reach out more helpfully? Could they all have been that self-centered?  The thought is daunting. Who wants to believe they are carrying entire friendships single-handedly?

What was hardest for me to accept was that many of those who failed to reach out were some of the same people to whom I have given heavy doses of support of all kinds.

If “how to identify a true friend” meant that a relationship is more balanced than not, how many true friends do we really have?

So, which of my friends could I count on to be there for me–without being asked–or even to ask how I was?

Fewer than I’d like to admit.  But one in particular stood out, so I talked to her about what I’d learned and asked what she thought. Was it that I looked so self-sufficient? Or maybe something else?

“When we met all those years ago, I was very intimidated by you,” she said. “You looked so together.”

I was astonished. We spoke for a very long time and really, she ministered to me, being one of the very few friends who CAN minister to me. Whom I allow to.  Which could be the problem.

We accept our friends for who they are, flaws and all, and that’s a good thing, because we want to be embraced in the same way. At the same time, when a friendship is seriously imbalanced, very one-sided, something needs to change.

Since the only one we can change is ourselves, that’s our responsibility. Do we want to give less? Ask for more?

I’m interested in your thoughts. How balanced are YOUR friendships? Do you get as much as you give and how do you feel about that? What would you do if you found that you were giving way more than you got?

55 comments on “How to identify a true friendship
  1. chuck house says:

    Carol, you are indeed a major ‘giver’–spreading your gifts widely, unselfishly, almost gratuitously–and that is one of your defining characteristics. So is my wife. It is remarkable to see ‘in action’ and it is amazing to me that she (and you) do it so effortlessly, with so little apparent reciprocation, and outwardly little concern about ‘imbalance’. I’ve worried many times on her behalf that she gives and gives, and gets little in return, and your essay here is eloquent to that issue. Thank you!

    But I am not sure I’d be thrilled if she met your new age guru. To re-assess her friendships, her relationships, and her approach to life with a balance scale would seem to me to violate who she is. Not that she doesn’t have needs, desires, wishes for someone to treat her with compassion when she’s down, but that she would have to move to a more calculated “will this person ‘balance out’ when we do the double-entry bookkeeping.”

    I am not a giver particularly, certainly not in a balanced way with my friends, the bulk of whom give me far more than I bestow on them. But I am occasionally, even frequently, in receipt of some message such as “Thank you for your kind and thoughtful note. (another example of The HP Way that is still alive and well in many of us!) You name was always synonymous with the HP Way and the business and technology innovation and values it represented.” This came two days ago, from a person I cannot recall meeting. So I ‘gave’ him something, twenty-some years ago, and he just gave me psychic income at a time I found it sustaining.

    Yesterday I saw an old friend, whose wife ran HP’s TV studio in the seventies and eighties–he met her there. I asked if she might have some of the old Mork and Mindy ‘outtakes’ we did at HP in 1976, actually this was before their show became popular. Williams was outrageous on the set, pornographic to the extreme, witty beyond belief, and maybe twenty years old. No, they don’t have the outtakes, he said, but then went on to say, “You inspired me then with your ‘futures’ talks, and in particular I;ve thought a lot about ….” He went on for some minutes–I’d just been gifted again, but this was nearly forty years to have the balance sheet tip ‘evenly’ and more importantly, what I had done then, I did not perceive as ‘giving’ — he did.

    So, I appreciate and applaud your question and perspective, but I demur in terms of agreeing fully

    • Thank you, Chuck, for this erudite and thoughtful discussion. Now, I’ll give you a compliment. I’m pretty sure that you are one of those angels on earth put in my life as a teacher. Your point of view is always thoughtful and deep, making me think hard and differently about any topic. I absolutely know you were hell on wheels at HP in such a good way and wish we’d had a chance to work together. I love your comments and the fact that you take the time to write them is such a compliment to me. Thank you.

  2. I try my best to give my friends my all. When I was much younger I had large groups of friends, trying to tend to all of them as best as I could, trying to help them when they were in need. It’s just not possible, because when it came time that I needed a friend, only a few (my best ones) were there for me.

    In my experience I’d rather have a few close friends who are near and dear to me than have many, many friends only to be disappointed by the great imbalance of give and take.

    Great, thought-provoking post, Carol.

    • Oh, now that is a healthy way to view it, Cathy!

    • Robyn says:

      I agree with you Cathy. My question is (and maybe some of you here can help with this), when a peripheral “friend” calls needing something big (a place to stay for “just” a few weeks, you to brush up on your child birthing skills because her husband is in the hospital and she’s due any moment or needing to talk about a breakup until all hours of the night ahead of your big presentation – examples from my life) – how do you say “no, I can’t be there for you?”

  3. Lisa Flowers says:

    Carol, this is a wonderful and insightful post! I was just talking to a friend about being givers. I sometimes feel the way you do and want to let this post roll around in my head a little bit more, do some self-reflection, etc.. (And talk to my friend about it as well.) Thanks for sharing, Carol!

    • Hey, LIsa! Glad you are home, safe and sound. Yes, this is one of those things that we don’t often think about, but is worth taking time with. Thanks for commenting!

  4. Joan Stommen says:

    Great article, Carol. I see myself here…..and the lesson is this; to allow ourselves to be given to. Everyone says/thinks I’m strong, self-contained, doing great. I realize I give this impression because I’m afraid to be vulnerable and in need. I give and it always feels good….and I dont think I’m being short changed. But maybe we only NEED one or two folks to let in? I love your posts to start my day with thoughtful food!

  5. I really relate to this piece. I am a giver by nature so it’s easy for me to show up. There have been times where I felt that nobody was there when I needed them. But the truth is, I am much more comfortable being in control. Showing up, lending a hand is my nature. Needing, letting others help me and being vunerable is not! Very good food for thought! Thanks!

  6. Laura Kennedy says:

    Great post, and I love the way you brought it home in the end! I think that asking for what we want is a skill that many of us lack. It requires that we acknowledge our own needs, interdependence on others, and the vulnerability that this implies. I HATE asking for things! And I sometimes confuse “asking” with “demanding,” which is a whole topic in itself.

    Many of us were brought up in the religion of self-reliance (some of us to an extreme, if we grew up in dysfunctional families), and to ask means to admit that we have needs, and more terrifying still, needs that we cannot meet ourselves. So we struggle on without asking, giving because it’s just what we do, and then we’re shocked when nobody’s there when we need something.

    How much we give is up to us. If we give because that gives us pleasure, great! If, however, we find ourselves feeling neglected or resentful, I think we should ask ourselves first, “Have I been giving because giving makes me happy? Or in the hope that others will provide for me in turn?” And second, “How good am I at asking for what I need?”

    Thanks for a timely and thought-provoking post.

  7. Sheryl says:

    Great post, Carol. So many friendships are unbalanced; I think this is okay from time to time (sometimes we need a friend to lean on when we feel weak), but it really sucks the joy out of a friendship when the imbalance is chronic. Friendship is a complicated dance, and I think it’s rare to find a true friend – that’s why I hold mine so dear.

  8. Ryder Ziebarth says:

    I used to have an issue with people not thanking me in a way that measured my benevolane and a wise boyfriend years ago who witnesses some of my youthful indigence said to me:” You cannot give to someone and expect back. You must give freely of heart, because that it who you are. Be happy that they have taken your gifts. God put you here to be a giver–it is one of your greatest gifts from him; not everyone has the same capacity, but I guarantee, they are grateful for yours.” Now I take satisfaction in knowing I did what I do best, and I gave, freely. Reciprocation comes in so many forms. Maybe its not what you are expecting, but even if the person you gave to listened, and laughed with you for a time, that enough now for me. If hey didn’t call you about the dog, maybe they just couldn’t, and hopefully someday, they call you when an issue they have a knock for helping with comes up. I have faith in people. All that sounds a little saintly, but I have also learned friendships have a life span–some longer than others–and people leave or we weed them out to make room for others who can give us what we need at different ages and stages.It is natures way.xo

  9. kim tackett says:

    Interesting….just last night I had a conversation with a girlfriend about how much better our husbands are at nurturing their friendships than we are. There are four of them who bike ride at least twice a week, and they are totally connected, and work at being there for each other. I think for us, we take the friendships for granted. Actually, I don’t know what it is. But it’s worth exploring. Thanks for the nudge (and your friendship).

  10. Whoa! Though the answer I need didn’t materialize as firmly as I’d hoped, I really, REALLY needed this today…

    I have a friendship of nearly 16 years that has been falling away in recent years. It used to be a very 2-sided relationship but in the past 7 years I’ve been noticing a change, a big one. I’ve also recently realized that the change has been initiated, unwittingly, by me.

    This friend tends to be fickle about life in general, and comes with a great dose of sarcasm. As I began to realize how much of my own power I’d been relinquishing to others, how much I subconsciously felt that I didn’t matter as much as others, I made a choice to feel and think differently. When I’ve tried to let this person know my feelings have been hurt in the past, she’s made comments like “Oh, you’re just so sensitive.” When I finally decided to talk to her a year ago about how I was feeling, it didn’t go so well. In the past year, she mostly only phones if she needs something…

    M’s observations are something I’ve thought about myself… I’m a HUGE giver. I love to give…and I’ve always been involved in leadership type things, so I have wondered if people assume I don’t need support myself…

    Thanks for this insightful post…

    • While we don’t give to get, I do think that there has to be some overall balance. I’ve come to understand that people are in our lives for a reason and sometimes just a season or two. It used to be more painful than it is now. Now, I’m more apt to say, “Oh, THAT’S what you’re about? Yeah, I’ll be moving on, now…”

  11. Ruth Curran says:

    OK, true confessions…. I am not healthy or balanced in the give – take ratios of my “friendships” and M’s response to you just adds more evidence to the “we were cut from the same mold” file…. I work to appear put together, reliable, and stable but mostly for the benefit of others — doesn’t mean it is always true…. I rarely ask for help and when I do and get crickets (like very recently…) I take it very personally and much harder than I should or I believe that I used to. I started trying to weed out the unbalanced relationships but habits are hard to break. Funny thing is that instead of telling myself to weed my garden, my first reaction is still that I should not ask and then I won’t be disappointed. Insane loop isn’t it?

  12. Boy this one brought tears to my eyes. I have had several perplexing friendships where I was not supported through something super tragic. I know that I have been a very supporting friend, yet they were no where to be found. It was astounding. Just recently I have decided (at 53) to give up those friendships who continue to disappoint me. I want to give to the people who unselfishly care and are “present” with me. I need to go “to the light” and spend time with the people who want to spend time with me and not pine away for the ones who don’t.

    • I’m so sorry this happened to you, too. The blessing for me is that I now let go far more easily after assessing the situation. I’m not that big on pining, not for a long time now. But this was a lesson hard-learned for me.

  13. Lana says:

    Well…..I just wrote a post about breaking up with my best friend. One of our biggest issues was the imbalance in the friendship – it was off the charts! It took me many years to realize that things weren’t going to change – so I had to. Now I’m focusing on the other relationships in my life that give me joy, and I’m in a much healthier place.

  14. I went through this very same scenario when everything fell apart for us in 2011. I realized then that I have only 2 true friends I could count on. That’s so sad when we moved here we left everything behind and started over from scratch. I mean nothing but what could be put in our car. When things were really good everybody was our friend but when I got sick everything changed. It really opened my eyes. I learned I can only count on 2 people my husband and my daughter that sounds pathetic but it’s true. They only friends I have are 2 from KY and my family. The friendships I have made online have become more important to me because my friends here, like you truly want me to succeed at what I am doing. When I started this I was at the lowest part of my life. You don’t know how these online friendships have saved my life. I’ve always been a giver but when I figured out that it was all one sided it broke me for awhile. Don’t let that happen to you. I was also intimidated by you at first you are so successful and have it together. I learned what a loving and caring person you through your comments to me. I feel the pain you are going through I don’t know how but I do. You have a wall up that us just beginning to crumble and I am so proud to call you my friend.

    • I have heard this so many times it makes me sad. I am sorry this happened to you. You are such an uplifting person! I’m actually stronger than ever, not breaking me, but it took me years of massaging the concept of loss…not to mention forgiveness…and lots of experience to get here. Hugs, Rena!

  15. Caryn says:

    I LOVE this topic! I have many people in my life who say they are “friends” of mine and yet they seem to be more wrapped up in themselves and their needs than anyone else. I consider them associates instead. My true friends are the ones who are there for me and I am there for them. We have a balanced relationship of give and take, like a see-saw, sometimes one of us needs more than the other, but that’s ok. We make it happen and it’s a wonderful thing!

  16. Robyn says:

    When I was in grad school there were a few other female students who were emotionally abusive toward me. When I had a conversation with the dean he replied, “You come across very self-assured, strong even impervious. Others feel comfortable give you their sh– because you have broad shoulders and can take it. Perhaps if you tried to be a little more vulnerable and soft they would be kinder to you.”

    He has a doctorate in psychology and that was the best advice he had to offer?

    I doubt people really put forth thought and think, “She’s tough. She’s fine.” I truly believe they are so very wrapped up in their own lives they can’t see past the edge of their own needs. Those of us who have the emotional intelligence to recognize when someone is in need must do a better job of sticking together.

  17. The older I’ve gotten the more I’ve realized which friendships are worth putting time and effort into. I’ve come to realize that just because we’ve been friends for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean we’re GOOD friends. I want a friendship that will encourage me as a wife and mother, help me grow spiritually, and one that is, as you said, balanced. I agree with you, it is a sad realization when you discover that many of your friendships are out of balance. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  18. Karen says:

    This was a great post and really made me think about not only my friendships but my place in them. My friendships are mostly balanced and very deep – but I have fewer of them than others seem to have. I have moments of feeling jealous of those who have the ability to have a breadth of relationships, but I remind myself that depth is better. A friend of mine, a true friend, who is also a counselor by profession, once told me I shouldn’t waste the limited moments of my life on those who don’t really care. They were defining words for me and I took them to heart and began to gradually let go of several “friendships.” Great choice for me. Now I’m more selective and this is better for me.

    • This is insightful, Karen. You know, I never liked being part of homogenous groups, not even in high school. I never understood what girls got from them. I’m pretty ok with my roster of friend but it turns out they need a tweak now and then when volume beats out quality.

  19. This is a tough one, Carol. What would I do if I felt it was highly imbalanced? I believe my tendency has always been to give less than ask for more. But that’s only when I feel that I want to keep the friendship. If it were becoming toxic, then I’d probably just cut the cord and let go. But if it’s a relationship with a long history and something I really value, then you’re right. I would have no choice but to adjust my expectations and my actions. The thing is, sometimes I think I also get a reward from knowing I’m the giver. Maybe that’s why the behavior persists. It has been said, after all, that behaviors only persist because of perceived rewards, whether it’s psychic, emotional or something more tangible. It’s hard to be keeping score in relationships. I think this is why it needs to be clear to us what our boundaries are, and also clarify to the other person what the expectations are. We might be asking something of someone that they’re absolutely incapable of giving. If that were the case, then it is us who need to answer the question of why we are keeping the relationship, or do we really want to?

  20. Lux says:

    I super love this post! So many things discussed. Epiphany indeed. I especially love this line: “Giving is one of my greatest pleasures. But it doesn’t mean I don’t have emotional needs, myself.” Echoes my sentiments. Thanks for this enlightening sharing.

  21. Carol Graham says:

    I read about 75% of the comments after your post. They were so enlightening and interesting to see how many people have been disillusioned regarding what they thought were friendships. I find that so sad and of course, am one who can relate. When I was in second grade, a few decades ago, I found the nicest girl in the class and asked her is she would be my friend. She was hesitant and that started many years of insecurities without realizing why. As an adult, I am one of those people who everybody that meets me thinks I am their best friend — and that is because of how I make them feel. I understand the need for friendship and want to be sure any and all can count on me if they need a shoulder to cry on. Then my life went south and with that, so did my ‘friends.’ All the years of listening and encouraging them didn’t hold much weight then. The two main reasons I lost those friends were 1 — Our closest friends stole our business out from under us and fled and 2 — the majority of the ‘friends’ we had could not handle all the drama we were going through. We were supposed to be the strong ones and when we needed their support, they didn’t want to give it. As one of my closest friends, who became very angry with me for going through so much trauma told me, “ENOUGH. I can’t bear to hear any more, you are supposed to be there for me and now I feel guilty counting on you.” A bit twisted, eh?

    She has since apologized profusely but the harshness of her written words in an email has left me hesitant. So, once again, I am listening to her woes and offering her love and support and an ear, but it is now a one-sided relationship. I am o k with that, because no matter how much someone has hurt me, I will still be their friend. That is just the kind of hairpin I am!

    • Wow. This is the oldest story in the world–abandoning friends when fortunes turn–and I simply will never, ever understand it. Carol, I have come to learn that casting pearls before swine is not healthy. But it took me such a darn long time. I know it now, though. Blessings.

  22. I haven’t read all the other comments, but I will. However, I wanted to add this before anyone else’s comment seeped into my head and made me forget my point. 🙂

    I am very aware that I have friendships that go both ways–ones in which I am more the “giver” and ones in which I am more the “receiver.” And then . . . something will happen and I realize that this is just my own point of view. The other person may feel exactly the same way, but in reverse.

    It amazes me when one of my friends whom I consider to be more on the giving side to my receiving tells me that some remark I made YEARS ago — or some little thing I did — resonated with them, and they’ve remembered it for far longer than I did. To me, it might have been a casual remark, but to them, it was exactly what they needed to hear at that moment. Unbeknownst to me. I had someone recently reference a conversation we had more than 15 years ago, and he said it really made him think about his worldview and revise some things. Clearly it meant far more to him than me. I remembered it, but had no idea it has resonated with him so.

    I think maybe the give/take ratio of friendships is entirely in the eyes of the beholder. On both sides.

    Now, maybe if both people see themselves as more giving and less taking, there might be a problem. And maybe that problem is communication. I don’t know.

    But mostly, I don’t think about it too much. I consider it one of my crowning achievements in life that there are friends I can go for years without seeing, and then when we get together, it’s like no time has passed, and we basically resume the conversation where we left off. Who cares, in the end, who gives or receives more, as long as both are happy?

  23. I think real friendships ultimately do balance out, not always in the same ways, but in equal ways. As I get older, I realize that saying is true – I’d rather than 4 quarters than a hundred pennies.

  24. I just grieved a little bit over what I thought was a blossoming friendship but turns out it’s probably nothing, or at least nothing worth putting any more of my time and energy into. It’s taken me a long time to realize that people make time for the things that are important to them but even longer to admit that I’m not as high on people’s lists as I’d thought.

  25. pia says:

    My mother fell and died a month after 9/11. I was supposed to understand that it wasn’t really important compared to everything that happened.

    We did live in Manhattan, not my mother, and later I saw and understood 9/11 fatigue but I needed comforting too.

    All death things–the bank treated me so badly that later they apologized. Yes I got an apology that I hadn’t asked for from Chase. They thought since my mother was an old lady–who cared.

    I had always been a nice person. This experience hardened me. I kept the friends who had been great and a few who realized that I had the same rights as anybody else.

    I moved from NY. Why stay in a city, one that I loved beyond reason, where the worthiness of death was measured?

    I’m mostly over it now but I have to be very careful in late August through October to fill my life with fun things and friends who I can laugh with

    I’ll never be the person I was. I miss her.

  26. Tam Hess says:

    After reading all the comments after your article, which I love, I have come to the conclusion; If I don’t “befriend” myself I won’t know what a friend looks like. I think one of the biggest mistakes for people is thinking you know when you have a friend then try to take advantage, lean on or depend on them. You don’t realize they either don’t care or don’t care as much. Once you can rely on yourself for all your needs you can be picky and find the gems out of all the rocks.

    I have lots of friends but I have one best friend and my sisters who I rely on. Find healthy boundaries and lower your expectations of your friends. Love yourself so you know who loves you!

    Thanks Carol, I love discussions like these. Psychology is so complicated and I want to stick everything in a box which doesn’t work….but I will try! haha

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