Be a Good Friend, Channel Your Inner-Child
As a parent and a therapist, I hear a LOT about people’s social lives and close relationships. People (adults and kids) talk about their peer relationships much more than anything else, because our lives are rooted in these connections. And, this may sound strange, but in many ways I think kids have us adults beat when it comes to friendships. There is something special about childhood friendships.
Childhood friendships are a paradox, both mindless and meaningful at the same time. For many of us, having friends as a child meant playing kickball with whomever happened to be outside, making friends based on a shared love of Garbage Pail Kids (if you are old like me) or Pokemon (if you are more like my coworkers), and of course living within walking distance of each other. However, despite being largely based on convenience and fads, those childhood friendships were the easiest and sometimes some of the best friendships we ever had. Our childhood friends didn’t just occupy our time and keep us from getting bored; they helped to transform us into who we are now and continue to influence our happiness and even our health even as adults.
What was it that made them so impactful? Some may claim it was the sheer amount of time spent together or the inherent vulnerability of childhood that bound us so closely, but I think it was something else. Something that is missing in most adult friendships: brutal honesty and accountability.
Let’s face it, kids are not always nice, even to their friends (maybe especially not to their friends). Good or bad, they tell it like it is. Also, if you have ever failed to follow through on a well-intentioned promise to a kid, then you will know this, but they never forget. Even more than that, they never let you forget, and as a kid this made you into a better person.
Did this honesty make you like your childhood friends less or end your friendship? Of course not; if anything, it made you like them more, respect them more, and even made you respect yourself more. You knew that your friends were honest because they cared about you and that they knew that you were tough enough to handle a little feedback. You knew that they respected you enough to tell you how it really was, not just what you wanted to hear. These are the things that make childhood friendships so powerful: honesty and accountability. They are also what’s missing from most of our adult friendships.
At this point, you may be saying to yourself, ”not me, I have honesty in my friendships and I like to be held accountable for my actions.” Maybe you are right, if so, keep up the good work. However, for the rest of us I want us to take a minute and reflect on what our adult relationships are really like. How would you really react if friend told you that a new outfit was not flattering? What if they told you that you were making a mistake in your dating life or that you would never get the promotion that you are hoping for because you are always late to work? What if you confided in a friend that you were planning on starting a diet and exercise program on Monday and they actually called you on Friday to ask how many times you succeeded in going to the gym or how many pounds you lost?
“Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it’ll always get you the right ones.”
― John Lennon
For most of us, these situations would be uncomfortable, to say the least. As adults, we are used to letting each other off the hook and telling our friends what they want to hear. We make our friends feel better about their bad behavior and keep them from feeling sad, but are we really helping them? Maybe being a good friend means being more honest with us than we are with ourselves.
Why wouldn’t we want this? As adults are we more fragile than small children? Are we all such wusses that we need our friends to make us feel ok about our bad behavior? I don’t believe we are; I think we just got busy and became accustomed to this way of engaging with our friends.
We are fully capable of being and having better friends. Not just ones that make us feel better, but ones that make us act better. Taking some ownership over the well-being of our friends is actually part of the deal. We should stop being spectators in our friends’ lives and actually participate. When we lack honesty and accountability in our friendships, we rob ourselves of one of the most powerful motivational tools at our disposal.
How to Maximize Your Friendships
1. Do Difficult Tasks with a Friend, It Makes Them Easier
We have all heard that exercising with a friend makes it more fun, but research also shows that it makes challenges like walking up a steep hill feel less daunting. Some of the most successful people “outsource” self-control to their social circle and surround themselves with people who have been successful in meeting their own goals. Furthermore, when people are told that they are working together as a team to meet a goal, they persist longer on a task, enjoy it more, and show more intrinsic motivation, even when they work alone. So, schedule that weekly walk with a friend and surround yourself with other people who share the same goal, especially those that have already developed good strategies and habits.
2. Be Brutally Honest with Your Friends, but in a Nice Way.
We should care enough about the people in our lives to ask if they are meeting their goals and offer help when they need it. The first step in being holding your friends accountable is simply to pay attention to what they say and remember to follow-up. Check-in frequently; it may even help to write yourself a note or put it on your calendar to check back in a week or a month about their progress. Celebrate successes and brainstorm solutions for failures. You will probably be surprised at how much this alone will deepen your relationship and make people feel cared about. There are many resources about how to give feedback in ways that are constructive instead of critical. If still feel unsure, just ask your friend if they want you to be honest or not. However, be mindful that they have the right to make their own mistakes and decisions and may say “no.”
3. Ask Your Friends to Be Brutally Honest with You and Hold You Accountable.
Since it is not the status quo, you may need to directly ask your friends to be more honest and hold you more accountable. Prior research shows that sending adherence updates via text message to a loved one helps prevent temporal discounting, thereby boosting adherence [I] to behaviors like: taking medication, exercise, and diet. [II] Relatedly, the literature suggests [III] that close others can be a powerful force in helping people care for their health and meet their goals. So, utilize your support network. Tell your friends that you want their honest opinion. Outline your specific goals with deadlines and ask them to check-in with you. Perhaps most importantly, if you ask for feedback, you have to be able to take it graciously and not get mad (a sense of humor can really help here).
Don’t Know Anyone Well Enough? Don’t Worry!
In addition to support from familiar people, there is evidence that receiving social support from unknown peers is related to improved adherence to self-care including medication and physical activity, reduction in depression and anxiety, decreased smoking, and weight loss. So, find an online buddy to help hold you accountable to your goals.
Together, we can make a “new norm” (by going back to our childhoods) where friendships are allowed to have awkwardness, accountability, and honesty which deepens instead of weakening them . We all could, in fact, use a little help from our friends, but they have to know we it and we have to be willing to give it.
[I] Khaylis A, Yiaslas T: A review of efficacious technology-based weight- loss interventions: five key components. Telemed J E Health 2010; 16(9): 931–8. 22.
[II] Smith KP, Christakis NA: Social networks and health. Ann Rev Sociol 2008; 34; 405–29.
[III] Stephens, Mary Ann Parris, Erin M. Fekete, Melissa M. Franks, Karen S. Rook, Jennifer Ann Druley, and Kenneth Greene. “Spouses’ use of pressure and persuasion to promote osteoarthritis patients’ medical adherence after orthopedic surgery.” Health Psychology 28, no. 1 (2009): 48.