9 Things I learned about Friendships and Anxiety

As 2016 is coming to a close, I can say that this year I spent a lot of time reflecting on personal issues, specifically the interplay between relationships and anxiety. I have had anxiety for quite a while, and it has only intensified with high school drama and having high expectations of myself and those around me, and suffering from obsessing over perfection and what “should be”, which I am realising is becoming my worst enemy. This is something that stems from a little devil called perfectionism. 

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It was not until I found myself depressed after a series of bad decisions that I made, and found very few of my friends by my side during my darkest and hardest times.  I found though that I have not always been the perfect friend or even a great one – my year on reflecting on friendships also showed me that – but I was slightly disappointed to find very few of those people that I had helped, by my side when I needed them. I don’t know if I was madder at them or at myself, for the choices I had made that put me in that lonely position. Either way, a series of events worsened my anxiety and my obsession to achieve perfectionism deepened (because I did not want to experience disappointment from myself or from other again) and I started to develop Imposter Syndrome.

Usually, people first perceive me to be cool, smooth, confident and assertive (those are the words they use) so some cannot fathom that I would have anxiety. Even a shrink said that in our first session, he said “I cannot believe you have anxiety, you seem so assertive”.  That reaction generally makes me feel more anxious because then I feel like I shouldn’t be such a mess then if I already have the ability to seem assertive. It feeds into my imposter syndrome and chase after perfection, because it made me feel like my problem was much deeper than I thought, and i felt more incompetent and a mess.

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I was lucky that I grew up with some amazing women and men in my life, that are filled with love, support, compassion and empathy who fed me with love. However, I was also naive at times and did not understand that some people do not want to see you treated well by others and can get jealous of the beautiful relationships you have with others. But when you have social anxious you think that you are the problem all the time, if they look at you funny, demean you, talk down to you, do not celebrate the good in your life, and do not support or show you compassion, then it must be something that is wrong with me, after all there is more than one of them so I must be at fault. One thing I forgot though, was the dozens of people in my life that do support me compassionately, love me unconditionally, and want to see me succeed. But I was focusing on the approval from toxic people – I cannot tell you why….honestly if I knew, I would tell you..

I have now learned that I should not rely on others to heal me, or at least only rely on the few who I know have my best interest at heart. I was then able to identify the narcissists in my life. Let me just add, I am not saying that everyone that was not by my side is a bad person because they were not by my side, after all right before my break down, I was in a relationship with a person who was truly truly toxic, and kept me isolated and therefore, I did not maintain contact with everyone like I should have and I became I person I did not recognise and did not like, which was my shortcoming as a friend at the time, and I think I might have hurt some people.

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I then became re-acquainted with the work of Brené Brown (and boy, I LOVE her work – thank you, thank you, thank you for talking about vulnerability and shame). This is when I realised my role in enabling these toxic friendships and more importantly, the way our society views vulnerability and shame, which was a huge eye opener and explained people’s cold reactions. If you have not seen her TED talk, I recommend you do (start with that and then check out EVERYTHING ELSE!).

Through her work I also understood the importance of setting boundaries and how to build and maintain trusting relationships, with her acoustic BRAVING. And most important of all, which I still need to fully absorb, is why your critics do not matter. I witnessed women come together and gossip and bitch about other women, and would lie if I said I never engaged in those activities, but I did not understand what we were doing to one another as women by engaging in those activities. Until Brené Brown so beautifully talked about shame and the importance of having that space to be vulnerable, that I realised the real damaging effects of women tearing one another down, which is also a concept that seems to be transmitted to us through different medias – the constant of comparing ourselves to one another, and projecting our insecurities onto one another instead of dealing with them within yourself.

The reason I am writing this post today, is because I came across a post by Roxane Gay entitled “13 Rules for Female Friendship” and thought it was symbolic in a way, that I come across this post on the last day of a year that I had spent reflecting on such issues. Then thought “what a terrific way for me to end this year – sharing what I’ve learned about friendship this year”. Check out all the links I have shared, because they really helped me out.

And finally here is what I’ve learned;

  1.  “Not everyone deserves to hear your story” – A great one from Brené Brown. This to me means, knowing who can handle your darkest and toughest thoughts and who cannot. Who can you share them with without being judged and shamed for sharing or for having that kind of darkness.
  2. Recognise who makes you feel good and who makes you feel bad, and stick with those that make you feel good. Who makes you feel like it is ok to be who you are, at your darkest times and at your happiest time, who just accepts you as you are. Who talks to you compassionately and wants to help you meet your personal needs and goals, and who is supportive of you along the way. Who do you feel at ease with. If you are lucky with having a strong intuition, your gut will tell you who is good for you and who is not. Listen! You might like someone and have a good time with them, but that does not mean that they will be there for you when you need them.
  3. Who is honest with you. Let me tell you something, I am not good at receiving criticism, but when it is offered to me in a compassionate way, and not a way that tears me down, after I the two-year old in me stops throwing a tantrum, I often appreciate their honesty – when it is presented with good intentions.
  4. Think about what you need from a friendship. I am a very independent person, so there is not much I seek, but I do seek support, the occasional validation, and most important of, I need to know that I am being heard and understood when I express my thoughts and feelings. It could even be thoughts exchanged about pizza, but have you ever been in a discussion with someone and you just do not feel like your thoughts are really being understood. That really gets under my skin.
  5. Do not compare yourself to others! Everyone is different, everyone’s journey is different, and as long as there is mutual respect and love, those differences can actually be a beautiful thing – sometimes hard to deal with, especially if you spend a lot of time with a person, and if you have completely different backgrounds (which most of my friends and I do).
  6. Individualism vs. Collectivism. I am from Egypt, a very collective culture, but grew up in Denmark, a very individualistic culture (a concept established by Hofstede in the wake of globalisation) and I have noticed (and studied) that individuals in collective cultures are mentally stronger and more self-assured than individuals from individualist cultures. People from collective cultures are more accepting of who they let in, which creates opportunities to establish meaningful relationships.
  7. Be the friend you want to have – and be that friend to yourself too. I still believe in the golden rule. But with the help of Brené Brown’s BRAVING, I have a better idea of what it takes. Reliability – always showing up and being there when you can. Accountability – taking responsibility and recognising when you are not being a great friend. Integrity – doing what you say you are going to do. Vault – keep them secrets secret!! And be supportive.
  8. Do not be afraid to ask for help – after all thats what true friends are for.
  9. Keep a list in your head of 1-5 people of whose advice and opinions matters to you. If you get criticism from someone who is not on that list, do not think twice about it. The opinions of that people on that list are the only ones you should take into consideration.

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