Every December for the last five years or so, when my husband and I sat down to list our goals and intentions for the next year, I’ve included “make new friends.” I have listed that goal alongside innocuous things like, “read more books” and “take spin class twice a week.” There was nothing wrong with the few friends I had. But I had a niggling feeling that I hadn’t really found my crew yet.
I was looking for the women I could trust to love me no matter how I showed up, and understand me on a level much deeper than conversations about kids or work. I craved deeper and more authentic female friendships in which we could allow each other to be our beautifully messy, imperfect selves. Actually, I wanted friendships in which we didn’t just allow it, but we celebrated, encouraged, and maybe even required it.
Busting out of the bubble
I grew up in a household where expressing feelings was not encouraged. Even as a small child, I understood that each family member had a part to play in a choreographed scenario. Everything needed to look picture-perfect, but we shouldn’t and wouldn’t discuss the pain and unhappiness below.
But kids have a very keen sense of intuition. Even though I craved the ability to cry, laugh, or express fear openly, and without judgment, I knew I couldn’t. The few times I tried, I was told I was overemotional or my favorite, “lacked coping skills.” Perhaps that experience is what led me to be highly suspicious of relationships that stayed in that surface-level bubble. By the age of 40, I had a couple close friends who I knew I could call in times of need. Yet, I continued to long for more, better, or different friends. I still wasn’t fulfilled in the way I could sense my heart was pointing me.
Asking the hard questions
After a few years of failing to accomplish this goal, I took a long hard look at myself. Was I the kind of friend I wanted? Was I someone my friends knew they could trust with their secrets? Did they know they could be as goofy as their hearts desired and I wouldn’t tease them? Did they realize they could show up to coffee in their pajamas and the only feeling I’d have about it would be jealousy that I didn’t do the same? The harder I looked at it, I really wasn’t sure I could answer those questions with an emphatic “Yes!”
Creating authentic female friendships
I decided to change my tactic. Instead of bemoaning the fact that I hadn’t found the right friends, I focused on the women already in my life. I challenged myself to show up 100% Marti, every single time, even when I was fearful I’d be rejected as “too much.” Although I was worried my friend might think it was lame, I invited her to a tea-and-painting event. I suggested yoga and paddle boarding because that was more “me” than tired old happy hours. And, I asked another friend to a women’s moon circle celebration because I thought it sounded cool and different.
Practicing saying yes to things I would have previously said no to, out of fear of being uncomfortable, became my new normal. For instance, I said “yes” to a board game night at a friend’s house where I would know absolutely no one but the host.
Within these interactions I worked hard to drop anything that remotely resembled a façade. I didn’t laugh unless I really thought something was funny. You wouldn’t catch me saying I was fine if I wasn’t. I spoke up about issues important to me if the conversation turned to something political. If someone was or wasn’t going to like me, it needed to be the true ME on which she formed that opinion.
Conversation and connection
The result was blessed reciprocation. I received more invitations for yoga and breakfast, and walks and coffee. And, all of these came with real conversation and connection. Suddenly, I had what I had wanted all along: deeper authentic female friendships based on mutual love and support.
I still don’t have tons of friends. My contact list has not increased. But, the quality of these relationships is powerful. I learned that it was never entirely about the other women. I knew I would receive that authentic connection I craved when I became the friend I wanted. It would require me to open up, show vulnerability (by talking about my shortcomings and fears), and be silly without worrying what others thought. It seemed that I was the wall that had kept my friendships from going deeper. If we’re honest with ourselves, we are all craving the ability to cry, laugh, or express fear openly and without judgment; but, it’s damn scary to be the first one to go there with another human.
Taking the lesson wider
This little experiment has gone beyond friendships. Being myself at work (well, within reason!) has led me to create a strong sense of trust and space for others to lean on me because they know they won’t be judged. I am a fitness instructor and I gave up trying to put on the persona of the bubbly, bouncy instructor who has it all together, and survives on salads and smoothies. I bring my realness into work, the gym, and pretty much any interaction I have these days. And, wouldn’t you know it, people respond.
Now, I am able to put that satisfying check mark next to “make new friends” on my yearly goals list. I finally gave up the quest to be what I thought I should be. Today, I allow myself to fully lean into who I really am. Those authentic friends were already there. I just had to make friends with myself, first, in order to see them.