The importance of Friends (not the sitcom)

Brown. It’s the colour of the 1970s. 

This is my family, all dressed up in 1974. My father an embodiment of brown, from his beard to his suit, and the rest of us with our hair, the shoes, the cushion. Even the dog is on trend. Brown is definitely à la mode. 

My mother and younger sister hedge their bets in beige. My older sister (always ploughing her own furrow) stands out in red. I am the cheery one on the right, unimpressed with the plethora of brown. What I don’t know is that years later a kaleidoscope of colour will be unleashed. A world of shoulder pads on steroids and explosions of permed hair. Bring on the 1980s. 

We can’t decide the decade of our birth – it’s written in the stars, or the twinkle of our parents’ eyes. We don’t choose the year or the place, but we do get to choose our friends. Below is Frances – the friend I’ve known the longest. She the one making the face on the left. I am the perplexed one on the right. Poor Alison bravely wedged between us both. If you’re out there Alison, hello and just to let you know we’ve matured a little, although I’m just as bemused by life.

Frances is all grown up below. She has an army of children and a serious job, so this is what happens when she’s let loose. We’ve been friends since we were three, which is 94.11% of our lives. As Jim Rohn says we’re the average of the people we spend our time with, which is true. We pick up habits and we learn what’s ‘acceptable’ from those around us. It has a shadow side as well. Echo chambers where we hear what we want to hear and we reinforce what we believe. 

But strength of friendship isn’t simply time spent together. It’s how they help us grow – stretch us, support us, make us better people. It is also how they make us feel. I ask myself: 

  • How easy is a conversation when we haven’t spoken for a year?
  • Could I confess my worst blunders without judgement? 
  • Would they help pick up the pieces if my life fell apart?

But enough of my friends. A jog down my memory lane isn’t a fun run for others. So, let me introduce different voices. I talked to 100 people in my Spoon by Spoon interviews. Conversations with men and women going through change. People with career doubts and worries. Those tackling ill health. Many with a foundation of disquiet. Here is what they said about their friends. 

1) The good: friends that can help us

Mark said: “I’m lucky to have friends who are coaches. I am lucky that my friends have certain skills… a listening ear is one thing and some have beautiful souls.” 

Cecilia had a challenging few years and her support network “has been really, really key.” Her family help, but she turns to friends for emotional comfort. “I know that if I’m low then they’re the ones I can speak to and get some support.” She has friends who help in different ways. “Other friends will very be very good if I want to go out and do something. They’re the people that will say yes and be really up for it. And if I need a travel partner, there’ll be certain people that I can go to for that.”

David was mildly depressed and his friends really helped him get back on track. “I had a really good network of friends who I spoke to.” He also went out to lunch with two friends every day. “It seemed like a bit of a luxury to go out for a lunch with plates and knives and forks. But it was fantastic. And that kept everything in check.”

2) The bad: we forget that our friends can help us

Sometimes we don’t help ourselves. Sometimes we hide ourselves away from our friends, the very resources that might help. Kiron found himself in a “downward spiral” when he started “looking at myself and not liking myself, or what I was becoming. I didn’t think to get out the door and do any exercise. Because I just couldn’t. I lost all my motivation.” 

Where he used to enjoy catching up with others he started “finding excuses to cancel the games that I ran with friends that I used to really look forward to. I’d have a few weeks where I’d be really eager and do it and then it’d be a couple of weeks where I just couldn’t muster the motivation. I’d make excuses not to meet up with people face to face.”

Sybille had a challenging time over several years. I found it difficult to connect with others, to make friends. I isolated myself really, I had very few friends. I would cut myself off, and I would have these feelings that nobody wanted to talk to me or have anything to do with me. Because I felt that I was rejected, then I was rejecting others.”

3) And the ugly: sometimes we just need to move on

Rebecca went through a difficult separation. “I know it’s a massive cliché, but I’m going to say it because it’s very true. When you go through something like that you do find out who your friends are.” She had a few surprises. “People that I wasn’t particularly close to but who were completely there for me. And then other people who’ve been in my life for years and years, who let me down.”

Yiorgos wanted to do something more meaningful with his life. “When I made that transition, I actually didn’t plan for it very well.” It was tough for him. “I didn’t have a partner at the time, so I had to get through it, more or less by myself, as my family were in Greece.” It impacted some of his relationships. “It helped me actually test who can be counted as a friend.” He ended up “parking” two of his friends. “It just felt like a betrayal as well. So, I haven’t even spoken to them since. In times like that you can really test things and just see which friendships are worth keeping and which are not.”

Whilst we talking about people from Greece, Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, says there are three types of friends. Friendships of utility – those that are useful to you. Friendships of pleasure – people whose company you enjoy. And friendships of the good. They take time to build and are deeper and longer lasting. We’ll have similar values and goals and it’s a friendship based on respect and admiration and we don’t have to pretend, we can just be ourselves. Aristotle says good friends are invaluable for a happy life.

Suzanne was having a difficult time in her career and couldn’t be her true self at work. She decided to take some time off and go on holiday to Scotland with a good friend. “It was one of the best holidays I’ve ever had because I suddenly realised all my needs were being met in those 10 days in the camper van.” 

She felt a real sense of identify that she hadn’t had for ages. “Fooling around with someone you get on with and have a connection with. Someone who laughs at your stupid jokes and who thinks you’re funny.” Even being confined in a small space wasn’t a problem. “You’re part of a team. You have to keep that camper van running when there’s a problem. I guess it was opposite to the job. The freedom of driving and movement – I found it quite soothing.”

Camper vans seemed to be a thing in Spoon by Spoon conversations. So here is one more from Emily. “I hate the rat race. I just feel like I’m 30 and my friends are getting married and having babies and I want to go and travel the world and live in a camper van.  I just want to elope – it would be really cool. I spend a lot of time on Pinterest looking at camper vans.”

I’m with Suzanne and Emily – who doesn’t love a camper van? Back in 1970, my extended family clearly do. It’s early days for brown though. Yet my father (on the right) is ahead of the pack with his trousers and shoes. A style icon – who knew? In four years he will have an epiphany. Grow a beard and it will match his outfit. Brown all the way to the 1980s. 

……..

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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