My first job after college was working for a beer company. Yep, I was hired to take on the onerous duty of selling beer to college students. Such hard work! For undertaking this major, heavy-lifting responsibility, I got a company car, an expense account, tickets to major sporting events all over the Pacific Northwest and all the gimme t-shirts a girl could want.
Nice work if you can get it, believe me.
At the time, and probably even today, the beer industry was dominated by men. I can’t tell you how many times I was the only woman in the room. It was a guy business, run by guys, governed by guy rules – and I sure learned to play by guy rules.
Which meant I swore like a sailor.
Everywhere I went – every warehouse, every meeting, every bar, every grocery store – people were using swear words. They were used as adjectives. As nouns. As verbs. Even as dangling participles.
I swam in an ocean of obscenity. And I took to it like a fish to water.
Imagine my surprise when, in my next job, I let go a stream of what I considered normal, creative invective and the room fell deadly quiet. Guess what? My new colleagues didn’t swear. I felt like a fish out of water. A fish with a potty mouth.
Group dynamics certainly govern our behavior. What’s acceptable to one crowd may be completely unacceptable to another. The trick is to find a group which supports that which is best in us – rather than a group that appeals to, how shall I say it? Our baser instincts.
There’s a public service announcement on TV now which shows a stick figure lounging in a window, smoking a joint. He offers a hit to the dog. The dog declines the opportunity. The stick figure says, “I feel bad about what I’m doing. If you did it with me, I’d feel less bad.” Maybe the dog’s name is B-I-N-G-O, because that’s what I felt like saying when I saw the ad. Bingo! People who feel bad about what they are doing need me to do it, too, so they can feel less bad.
In her book Not Just Friends, Dr. Shirley Glass suggests that one of the ways to affair-proof your marriage is to associate with people who are not only friends of marriage in general, but friends of your marriage in particular. In fact, Dr. Glass’ research shows that associating with people who are in affairs, or who condone, support or encourage affairs, increases the likelihood that your marriage will end in divorce.
It’s like a new norm is invented by the company you keep. If everyone swears, then it’s normal to swear. If everyone takes office supplies home, then it’s not stealing – it’s actually OK to put that Xerox copier in your pocketbook and haul it home. If people are rewarded for swindling clients, then clients get swindled. If everyone is cheating on their spouse, then it’s not cheating, really – it’s fun, it’s cool, it’s how the game is played. It may be unethical, but it’s the norm. And when you live unethically, day in and day out, your self-esteem erodes.
That’s why finding your “tribe” of like-minded friends is vitally important to your marriage, to your workplace, to your happiness — to your sense of self.
Friends help you be your best self. They support your personal growth, are objective and appropriately affirming. I say “appropriately” because it would be perfectly fine with me if a friend were less than affirming – especially if I had wandered off on some weird track that was not really that good for me. Like if I were spending day after day in my jammies eating junk food, not bathing, muttering to myself and watching back-to-back Rachel Ray shows. Some people call that “bad”. Other people call it “March, 2004.”
Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite spiritual writers,defined love as making a safe place for another person to be fully themselves. My kids’ pediatrician has a framed print on his wall, “Let him be left-handed if that’s how he’s made.” Love, then, is letting someone be left-handed. Or gassy. Or opinionated. Or a Rachel Ray fan.
But being a friend also means you have the obligation to raise the impact of their negative or destructive behaviors with them.
The moment to evaluate a friendship is when, in the process of your friend fully being themselves, you find that you cannot be fully yourself. If their full expression is hurtful, dangerous or negative to you, you have every right to say something and to lovingly detach – to give them a ton of safe space to be themselves.
Alcoholics often find that they need new friends after sobriety, because many of their old friends consciously or sub-consciously promote drinking. That’s one reason why recovering alcoholics get sponsors – the sponsor is the beginning of a new social network, one which supports healthy, affirming activities, yet is lovingly supportive when the person in recovery slips back into hurtful habits. The sponsor creates a positive space for the alcoholic to be fully himself.
Toxic friendships are often based on being in a negative space together. How do you know if you’re in one? If you feel used, you’re probably being used. If you feel demeaned and belittled, then you’re not in a situation which helps you grow. If you feel you can’t be fully yourself with your friends, then you definitely haven’t found your tribe. Relationships like this are not about growth or overcoming or affirmation. Rather, these friendships serve to keep all participants down, so nothing and no one has to change. They exist so other people won’t feel so bad.
When eyes open and one person begins to grow, however, these friendships end because what they’re built on is not solid. And that’s OK. Because when you’re out of a bad situation, you have the chance to find a good one.
Look at your friendships. Do they support you? Do they affirm you? Do they reflect your values, your ethics, your best self? If they do, then congratulations.
You’ve found your tribe.