Advice to My Grandson about Friendships

I am the proud grandfather of a boy who is great with people as long as they love Thomas the Train and banana bread and don’t mind the repetitive “Jasper do it!” He loves to charm servers at the Cactus Club and he randomly says “Hi” to strangers and most things that move. When he sees that dumping everything on the floor makes me upset, he will say “Poppa sad?” and of course I melt.

So I thought I would write my grandson some things about friendships and relationships and if you want to listen in, you are welcome to. And as Jasper and I say when we are about to read a book, “Are you sitting comfortably? Then we shall begin!”

1) The first bit of advice is that your friendships are not really about you.

Friendships are about the unanticipated and serendipitous mix of people, timing and events. They are not about your need for “me” and “my” or your noisy tantrums that interrupt the adulation of your Mom and Dad. Today you are the centre stage of everybody’s life (especially mine) but – sorry to say this – this won’t last. You will discover that friendships are what you add to someone else’s life and how you treasure what people add to yours.

2) You can be right or you can be happy but you cannot be both.

Most of us are right some of the time but mostly we are wrong much of the time. The real problem is the drive to be right all the time. This is a “righteous obsessive compulsive disorder” (I just made this up) where the obsession (thought) is to be smarter than the person you are talking with and the compulsion (behaviour) is to make sure he knows it. Doesn’t sound like a fun friendship, does it?

3) You are responsible for creating your friendships.

I don’t think I was ever taught this as a kid, or at least I learned it late. Let’s say your Mom, or your Uncle David, or maybe me, does some horrid thing that makes you venomous. Here is what I think — this rage has a lot to do with you and not as much to do with your friendship. And, I think it is your responsibility to figure out your feelings (anger in this case), settle your emotions so that something good comes from them, and work things out with the friend who tripped into your reactivity. And you have to do it most every time if you are going to be friendly with friends. And it isn’t just anger. It also has to do with your prickly hurts, the too often recurring lusts, various bits of guilt that swim out from your unconscious, and ever-present self-pity that makes you reach for another bit of chocolate. From this mix you create a friendship and for this you are responsible.

4) Your friend is worth accepting…

When your Gamma and I first met, I thought it was my job to make her into the person I wanted to be married to. More than stupid, this cost me a lot of angst and caused Carole a lot of heartache. I thought that she could be my Xerox copy but what is that really worth? I want you to know that accepting yourself and accepting others as they are without correction or complaint is a choice and a virtue. I have discovered that is how God accepts me and, by the way, how you have accepted me, too.

5) …and so are you (worth accepting).

Jasper, there is oh so much wonderful about you. I want to tell you that accepting your person and your personality is good and right. I love to hear your funny sentences, the words for your newly discovered feelings, how you surprised yourself the other day that I have an elbow like you. Shortly after you were born I read a novel (“The Help”) and in the story a marvelous mentor / hero speaks to a depressed and acquiescent little girl, “You is kind. You is smart. You is important.” You too are kindness, intelligence and strength — I see this in you and more.

I may never really tell you these things but I think them.

Fiddling with the State of Being

I grew up in a home where alcohol ingestion was done compulsively. I discovered as a child that the drinking compulsion is an equal opportunity phenomenon – both my Mom and Dad were serious imbibers. I also learned that my parents and their friends formed an alcohol-conscious community where successful parties were granted the status of “great” by the quantity imbibed and the consequent sexualization of intimacies.

My parents were trained in drinking by the Canadian Forces during WW2 when service men and women had their pleasures subsidized by the government. I am reminded of this each and every November 11th and sometimes I stop to tell the “poppy people” why I am not buying their red and black lapel flowers while I stride righteously into the liquor store.

Over the years I have had lots of addicts of various sorts in my practice. I prefer to call them “obsessive fiddlers with states of being” – it sounds less prejudicial than “addicts” though that is what some of them are. These fine folk and friends have been compulsed by all sorts of obsessions: being happy, being right, being perfect, being taken care of, being in love, being admired, and the list goes on. (Perhaps making lists is a compulsion too?) And then they act these ideas out with predictable behaviours: drinking and drugging are common but so is arguing and defending and mean-spirited criticism. I especially dislike it when addicts pretend the moral high ground (e.g. “You are a bad person and I am busy being good or right,” or “I wouldn’t drink if you didn’t criticize me so much.”).

I often hear of sexual addictions as well. These are usually requests for affirmation and attention where the behaviours involve a moving computer image and a few square inches of genital flesh. What these folk want most often is some ordinary passion and some affection directed in their way. At least that is what heals them (mostly men) more than “Just Say No” mouse pads.

Now… I think that there are factors that may increase risk of some kind of addiction. Here are a few for you to consider and I am thinking especially of online compulsions:

♦  Fear of relationships can lead to online compulsions. I mean real relationships not surface social contacts. And a consequential lack of other interests and social isolation – this can lead to compulsive behaviour.
♦  Pre-existing abuse or addiction can easily transfer: for example, online gambling or gaming, cybersex, or online shopping.
♦  Social anxiety or nervousness can make online interactions a very attractive alternative to face-to-face interaction and thus much more compelling.
♦  Low self-esteem, poor body image, or untreated sexual dysfunction can add to obsessions and compulsions.

What fixes this more than anything else is a little reality and a little thoughtfulness. Person-to-person honesty and care, also called empathy, works well. I have found that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is really good in breaking the power of addictions and compulsions. I recommend people buy “Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think” by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky. It is best to work this through with a therapist and I have a copy in my office so that if you choose we can work through the harder parts together.

Someone Else’s Opinion of Me is None of My Business

This oft-repeated phrase in AA and Alanon is profound in its simplicity. The capacity to define oneself in spite of the approval or judgment of another is a sign of emotional maturity and a quality that makes life work better. “Someone else’s opinion of me is none of my business.” Say it to yourself.

Differentiation is about knowing who you are, about your purpose. It is about distinguishing between the business that is yours and the business that is others. It is about self-definition and the management of opinions.

Trying to live up (or down) to others opinions of you is undifferentiation. Needing others to have your opinion is also undifferentiation. These are patterns of immaturity. Lots of conflict comes from this.

A client friend said to me this week, “I have spent my life working for my father’s approval that I have never received. I am unhappy, overworked, compulsive about everything and I no longer know who I am or what I enjoy.” He is a doctor, newly married, often angry, lost in compulsivity – what used to give him pleasure is now bland. Undifferentiation is a trap that can take years to close.

A few questions for you:

• When do you most feel yourself? When are you most in control of yourself?

• What relationships most allow you to be you? What relationships trap?

• Does your faith mostly freeze you with others, or free you for God?

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