Posted by Kristen M. Ploetz in Navigations on April 14, 2016
If you ask me how to measure the amount of space you take up in someone’s life, I will tell you this.
When it comes to navigating friends and interpreting friendships, you and I are similar in many ways. You lean toward wanting just a small number of very close friends that do everything together, but right now you fight against that preference and tend to a number of friendships of varying degree. It’s a survival tactic, if nothing else, and one I recommended early in your school years, knowing full well how fickle friends and friendships can be during these and the coming years.
And yet I realized something the other day, a design flaw of sorts in some of these more tenuous relationships. More surprisingly, you did too. I heard it because my ears were pricked by something you said in passing. I was probably already primed because I’d recently experienced something very similar myself. I think you are on the cusp of calling bullshit on this notion of being “good enough” to fill a room for someone’s party but not much else.
It hurts to feel used and not otherwise regarded as important enough to connect on more regular, intimate levels. Some people really are satisfied with just being invited in the first place and are happy to go. Does this happen because of some fear of missing out or a deep need to feel liked? I’m not sure. But I am not like those people and so right or wrong—and despite knowing that life is always full of people along the spectrum between acquaintance and confidant—I bristle when it happens to me. I don’t just want to fill a room. I want to fill someone’s life.
You seem to be walking in this direction too, and whether that’s because of nature or nurture, I am not sure. But the difference here is that I am forty-two and you are not yet even nine years old. I know how to manage my feelings of being “good enough” for some things but not others. I can measure the long-term impact of me saying yes or saying no. I can reconcile my own relationship preferences with the set of realistic expectations that society (or someone else) has implicitly written. You are not quite there yet.
The truth is, I’m uncertain how to navigate this terrain with you. There is a narrow path on the map of raising a child that all parents must traverse, and on either side are sharp objects ready to stab and pierce the tenderness of the children we love. Do I just cut to the chase and tell you life’s lessons or do I let you figure things out for yourself? Do I hand you jagged slabs of jade or stand by helplessly and watch the scars form on your heart? I know that at best I can only give you the tools you might need as we steady on together, with me sometimes veering too close to one side or another or falling off altogether.
With that in mind, I give you another tool. Envision a two-pan balance scale. Use it to measure the space you fill in someone else’s life and how much they fill yours. Then listen. If you hear clanging on the other side, heavy and banging the table with all that you’ve offered or given while your pan silently sways high off the table near empty, you might need to adjust the weights in the other pan. Only you will know how much noise you can bear to hear, how much balance you need. Over time, friendships can sometimes become unbalanced and need to be recalibrated. But perhaps the most difficult thing to discover, the part you are now starting to learn, is that sometimes it was never balanced to begin with. So here’s the key to remember: you can only control what you put in or take out of the other side. Don’t expect the sides to be perfectly even and level, but neither should it hurt your ears. Or your heart.
A relevant aside: I wrote this post a few days ago, and I just now finished reading the chapter “The Shifting Sands of Friendship” in Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s new book, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife. It was so completely enlightening to me in several ways, both in how friends and friendships apply to me personally right now in my early 40s, as well as some sobering news that is likely very relevant to some people close to me. I am still reading the book (not in order) and will report on it in my usual end-of-the-month fashion, but if you are in midlife, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of this book and zeroing in on that particular chapter.
Copyright (c) 2016 Kristen M. Ploetz