I Suck At Friendship
Beyond the Book: Bringing my whole self to relationships
I have written quite a bit about the need for community in these times. I have written about my relationship to community. All that I’ve written is true. Holding community, being held by community - I’m pretty good at all that. But friendship? The one on one thing, the small group of friends grabbing a drink thing, the calling your bestie to gossip about the day thing? Oh, I’m so bad at it.
When I was younger I had friends. I would go out to get drinks. I would have girls’ trips. I would have gossip sessions. But, even then, I wasn’t very good at friendship, and I felt it keenly.
The truth is, almost all of my relationships have been defined by how I can care for people. This has been my role as long as I can remember, and even before. My mom likes to tell people about how when she was a heartbroken and overwhelmed single mother, I - at the tender age of three - would place her head in my lap, stroke her hair, and say, “oh honey.” My relationship to family has always been the advice giver, the babysitter, the crisis counselor, the problem solver. Part of this is in my nature, I’m sure. I am very good at solving problems. I truly do love helping people. But a lot of it is what has always been expected of me as a Black woman.
The truth is, you can get really good at anything if you practice it enough, but that doesn’t mean it’s what you are meant to do for the rest of your life. It doesn’t mean that it fulfills you. And it certainly doesn’t mean that it’s all that you are.
So many of my relationships have hurt me in big and small ways. So many times I’ve been surrounded by people and felt alone. So many times I’ve needed to pick up the phone to call someone and there was nobody to call.
I spent a lot of years blaming other people for it. I spent a lot of more years blaming myself for not being smart enough or funny enough or cool enough to be truly loved. I would see people in my life who had healthy robust relationships with other people, while they would only call me when they needed something, and wonder what was wrong with me that they never asked for more.
Years before my partner Gabriel and I were together we were friends. We weren’t, like, best friends at first. We were people in community together who saw each other every few months and really liked each other’s company. Occasionally, he would call me for advice, but it was rare. He has always had a broad support network and is not the type to put all of his troubles on one person. Mostly, when we hung out, it was to grab a meal and talk about writing or music. He would always say, “anytime you want to hang out, let me know.” Even though he always seemed to enjoy my company, I didn’t quite believe the sincerity of his offer.
But one night, I was really sad. I had been let down by a friend and I really needed company. I decided to take a risk and text Gabriel and ask if he wanted to hang out. He did. We grabbed a bite and talked about travel and books and I still remember feeling so relieved that someone wanted to hang out with me, even if I was a little sad and needy.
There was a shift in our friendship after that. We started talking and texting more. It wasn’t an outpouring of all the emotional needs I’d had for years, it was a quiet opening of who I really was. Gabriel is, the most “himself” person I’ve ever met. He greets just about everyone with an open heart. I decided to try to meet him halfway. I would tell jokes that I wasn’t sure were even funny. I would talk about strange ideas and dreams I had. He would ask followup questions. Nobody ever asked me followup questions.
Then we fell in love. And things got even better. Yes, I have, and still sometimes do, tried to mother him when he didn’t need or want it. But I’ve slowly learned to trust that he is with me because of who I am, and not what I can do for him. It has allowed me to be more myself every day and to give with more authenticity.
The first people to notice the change were my sons. They sat me down for a meeting. They were upset. All of their lives they had heard my polite chuckle at their jokes. It was the same chuckle I used for everybody else. They didn’t realize that I could actually guffaw. They didn’t know how truly loud and uncontrolled my laughter actually is, until they heard me laugh with Gabriel.
“Mom,” my older son told me with the most adorably chastising look, “We’re starting to think that you don’t find our jokes as funny as you say you do.”
I have started to realize that all of my other friendships and relationships were disappointing because they weren’t actually with me. Not all of me. How could it be when I didn’t actually know who I was? We all contain multitudes but how can we know all that we are if most of it is never brought to light?
I am discovering that I’m very sensitive, which has surprised me after a lifetime of feeling like I have to be strong for everyone. The truth is, just about everything makes me cry. I am discovering that I’m not only funny and witty, I’m a little goofy - a fact that is now increasingly embarrassing my kids. I’m discovering that I’m very human and also, pretty darn great.
This may seem like an ode to my romantic relationship and my loving partner, but it isn’t really. Gabriel is wonderful. He’s a truly unique human and every day I wake up feeling so blessed that I get to spend my time with him. And yes, it has absolutely helped me open up, to open up to a partner who truly wants to see you and then loves what they see. But every bit of opening, every bit of trust - that was a risk I took. That was a step away from a lifetime of programming that told me that I was nothing more than a warm blanket or a flattering mirror for a partner. Each step I took. I did that. I’m pretty proud of that.
These years of having this space to truly become myself, I have been able to see the other relationships in my life with friends and family with much more clarity. I have been able to see that I can’t bring part of myself to a relationship and expect it to ever be whole. I can see how this isn’t wholly my fault, nor that of the people in my life. I have been able to set aside some of the hurt and judgement for myself and those in my life that I have carried. I can see how overwhelming this narrative has been.
I see obituaries for women that describe them only as loving wives and mothers and doting grandmothers, and wonder how many of us go through our lives unknown even to ourselves. So many of us have been told that this is all that we are and even the people who love us often don’t seem curious enough about us to ask if that’s true.
But none of this means that I know how to bring these truths into my other relationships. None of this means that I’m actually good at being myself around people. I’ve had so little practice. I’m awkward and uncomfortable. I’m constantly fighting the urge to fall back into old patterns of caregiving. I have been avoiding longtime friends because I honestly don’t know how to introduce myself to them. I really don’t know how to do this. It is really scary and exhausting to try. And in this pandemic, where (if you care about public safety) we aren’t just finding ourselves in random social situations where I can test my new “being a whole person around people” skills, it’s exceptionally hard. And that sucks, because I really do need friends. That’s another thing I’ve discovered about myself. I need people to laugh and cry with. I need to be known. I need people to be there for me just as much as I need to be there for them.
I don’t actually have advice to give here, and that makes me uncomfortable. This morning I sat at my desk trying to figure out how this newsletter could be of service and I had nothing but this to give. Even in this newsletter I struggle with the idea that I can just share part of who I am and that will be enough. Perhaps in writing this I’m trying to shift my relationship with you, reader, before we fall into unhealthy patterns. Perhaps I’m deciding to start here.
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