Friendship When Nobody is Okay

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

Communication skills aren’t just about figuring out the most effective words to say. Communication is fundamentally about relationships. It involves speaking, listening, observing, and empathizing to help steward our interdependence. As we navigate unfathomable challenges, this reliance on one another has become markedly clear and, some relationships are proving more difficult to navigate.

Here we all are. Predominantly isolated from one another in a seemingly never-ending pandemic. The rare social visits. The perpetual physical distance (the infrequency of hugs). The face-to-face interactions obscured by essential masks. The urgent calls to take necessary action to eradicate structural racism. We are experiencing vulnerability and social separation at unprecedented levels. For Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC), and marginalized communities this stress is compounded by centuries of devastating racism and oppression. In his book How to Be An Antiracist, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi acknowledges the daily stress of racism when he calls forth the significance of microaggressions: “A persistent daily low hum of racist abuse is not minor”. Several BIPOC friends from different circles have noted this increase in isolation bringing about emotional and physical tension, meanwhile experiencing a decrease in microaggressions due to reduced social interactions. I have found this lived fact an ironic reprieve and revealing of the status quo.

I don’t know about you, but my self-compassion, capacity for supporting and relating to others, and my communication skills are being put to the test.

New challenges nip at the heels of foregoing challenges. We are flying by the seat of our pants, and our pants are on fire. Just as we find a rhythm or a strategy to cope or get grounded, another challenge pops up. There are all kinds of us, each with diverse predicaments: those with kids and without, with partners and without, living alone and living with folks you like and don’t like, taking care of elders or immunocompromised friends or not, and we all have various levels of mental health, oppression, marginalization and varied access to resources. The ongoing challenges have been exemplified by the devastating explosion in Beirut, and more locally the California fires ignited by nights of dry lighting.

My most recent personal challenge was a case of hyponatremia – a water/salt imbalance resulting from an excess of water combined with a low salt diet. This rendered me out of commission for ten days a few weeks ago with mild nausea and vertigo-like symptoms. It’s not surprising during these times that something as benign as “adulting”, a.k.a. attempting to adequately hydrate myself, could end up in disaster!

As I sheltered-in-place alone navigating scary symptoms that led to a COVID-19 test (negative!), I was confronted with my social and emotional patterns. I have designed my life around a quiet self-reliance that limits my engagement in relationships when it matters most. In this situation, not only was I slow to recognize the support I needed and had, I was painfully unable to tend to the needs of my beloved friends and family. (Granted I was sick, but I experienced that double stress intensely.)

Here’s the thing. I believe wholeheartedly in interdependence and the value of compassionate and effective communication to establish and maintain relationships. Yet by sheer force of my habits I came out of this experience feeling terribly alone and ineffective. I needed a change.

To facilitate this change I have been deeply questioning: How do we cope, connect, and maintain our friendships in this context of massive vulnerability when none of us are really okay?

Friendships are relationships characterized by trust, compassion, commitment, reciprocity, responsibility, openness, warmth, love and hopefully humor! They have the potential to be mutually satisfying, nourishing, and healing. Compassionate and effective communication is necessary to establish and maintain our friendships.

We use communication to let people know how we are on the inside, the often invisible state of our being. We use it to inquire about the internal and external worlds of others. Communication helps us know how we “are” with one another: where there is tension, where there is ease, where there are dilemmas to solve, where there is opportunity for collaboration. We can request support, and we can offer something to hopefully contribute to one another’s well-being.

The call and response of communication is foundational to our emotional and social creaturehood.

However, communicating how we are requires us to know how we are. This takes awareness, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to discover what is there. Asking about someone else? This takes curiosity, empathy, and the capacity to take in what’s being said. In this way, communication involves not only a self-awareness practice but also skills of setting boundaries while communicating that we care. Since we currently exist in a context of great vulnerability, communicating with one another also involves building tolerance and skills to process our collective distress.

Some of you may be thriving right now, I’d love to believe that! This exploration is for those of you who are not, or those of you who aren’t sure if you’re thriving and have a sneaking suspicion you might not be okay. Read further to check in with yourself and gain some tips on ways to cope, connect, establish and maintain friendship during these times.

1. Acknowledge that you are not okay.

bell hooks wrote, “Knowing how to be solitary is central to the art of loving. When we can be alone, we can be with others without using them as a means of escape.” Being alone isn’t the goal, the goal is growing in capacity to tolerate distressing emotions so we give our nervous systems a break and are available to generate creative solutions to dilemmas that arise. The goal is also being in compassionate and effective relationships with others and leaning into our interdependence. Friendships depend on us knowing ourselves and communicating when we need support, being able to receive that support, or accepting someone compassionately when they are not available to give it.

While we are sheltering-in-place for an undetermined period of time, our basic psychological needs for safety, belonging, autonomy, and competence are not being met with consistency. Our executive functioning is off in tandem. Rather than forging ahead trying to meet tight deadlines, working extensive hours per day, holding emotional space for person after person, and treating your body and mind like industrial production lines, recognize that you need rest and play to integrate what’s happening.

Start this self-awareness practice by telling on yourself. Acknowledge that you are not okay.

The mental processes that enable us to focus our attention, plan, and remember instructions are overwhelmed by the number of novel experiences happening at once. It’s difficult to set and achieve goals, prioritize, make wise decisions, manage impulses, and filter distractions. It’s hard to concentrate long enough to even read this newsletter!

Name our collective vulnerability not as a weakness, but as truth. Rather than judge yourself or others, sit with yourself and see what emotions are stirring inside. After all, there is no shortcut. Emotions have officially entered the building. They are here to stay and challenge our social and executive functioning.

Emotions are what’s real, what’s now, and they are messengers in and of themselves. One source of power comes through naming your truth, validating yourself, your reality, and your experiences. This self-validation is possible through tending to your emotions which illuminate your inner world, your values, the matters of your heart. Emotions are signals, and they bring you useful data about how you are relating to the present moment and past events.

Right now your emotions may seem a bit intimidating in their big-ness. However there isn’t risk in discovering your difficult emotions – how they feel, how they are living in your body, what they may tell you about what you fear, grieve, or care about. When we identify our emotions through curiosity and gentle self-compassion, name them, and find meaning, we can actually settle. Ask yourself: what’s important to you that you are activated about? Is there grief about all the loss you are experiencing? Be with that grief as you need to. Are you worrying about the future to the point of panic? Return to the present moment through connection with your body through exercise, meditation, and breath work. Know that feelings pass through us, they do not stay forever.

This practice of identifying and allowing your emotions into your field of awareness, and feeling them, supports self-validation and attunement with your inner world. When you get to know your sentient geography and landscape and name your internal experience through the qualities of emotions you are no longer using your energy to deny your truth or hide from it. You are being with what’s real. This self-connection work helps us come to rest and gives us some mental and emotional space and freedom. While we are isolated from many external resources, we have at our fingertips our skills to recognize what’s true for us right now and tend to ourselves with gentleness and compassion.

The risk is when you unconsciously succumb to your emotions which urge you to cope with them through actions and behaviors that sabotage yourself or hurt others. Identifying through awareness, and becoming familiar with your emotions is the path to learning to tolerate them and to manage reactive attempts to cope that may get you in trouble in your friendships.

Not dealing with our emotions impacts our capacity to be in relationship with others and to solve problems.

Connecting to our emotions supports us to make choices proactively rather than reactively, and thoughtfully rather than unconsciously acting on urges. Naming our feelings and connecting them to our needs, gives us a chance to attend to them with effective strategies. When we really see what’s going on we can work with it. Otherwise what we want remains elusive and we are stuck, disconnected and unable to tend to our well-being.

Emotions are what make us human. Acknowledging our feelings is acknowledging our humanity and builds our capacity, tolerance and understanding of the emotional experiences of others. Our self-empathy practice ignites our empathy for others.

When we acknowledge and share that we are not okay we also relieve others of having to guess. People have a sense of things even when we don’t share, and to name the invisible supports people’s sense of ease through understanding. When we can show up with clarity about what we need and clear requests for support, we support others to contribute to us with less effort. Communicating our state of being is one component to keeping us in relationship with our friends.

As you dive into your emotional world, you will likely find emotions that are difficult to tolerate. Radical acceptance is one mindset shift that supports that toleration. Radical acceptance can sound like:

  • I can’t change what’s already happened.
  • I can find a way to be with this right now, even though it’s hard and it’s not what I wished for.
  • There is a lot out of my control, but I can be here now and name my experience.
  • I love and accept the full range of my emotions.
  • I can grow and learn effective ways to achieve my logistical and relational goals.
  • I can allow my vulnerability and allow this challenge to soften me rather than harden me.
  • I can be flexible, agile, and creative in order to solve problems.

Radical acceptance serves as a support to acknowledging to at least yourself that you are not okay. Another thing to radically accept to inspire you to communicate and share what’s going on for you with others, is the fact that we all have a need to belong and connect.

2. Recognize your need to belong and connect.

Befriending your inner world supports your basic psychological need for autonomy and competence. Along with those needs, all human beings want to belong and be accepted by groups or a community. We also thrive off of healthy emotional connection with others. Belonging, acceptance and connection are critical components of compassionate and effective friendships. But first we can find a way to welcome these needs for ourselves.

These fundamental needs sit on par with the basic human needs of subsistence and security, however the dominant culture, which values individualism, stigmatizes these needs for collective holding as “needy” or “weak”. We all can unwittingly subscribe to and internalize these societal judgments, which can lead to an experience of shame when we find ourselves naturally longing for these needs to be fulfilled.

Augmenting the above for BIPOC and marginalized communities during everlasting isolation is the ongoing structural racism and oppression and the internalized lasting impact of it. During shelter-in-place, we are rooming with our own worst enemy, our active minds filled with messages of not being enough, deeming us failures because we have not met some imposed dominant culture standard. While the opportunity remains to generate new standards, or better yet, to generate radical acceptance of the importance and benefit of difference, internalized oppressive messages take their toll.

For example, have you ever found yourself isolated and alone and longing for connection but talking yourself out of calling someone because you think something like, “I don’t want to bother anyone.” Or, “I can get through this on my own”, or “Everyone’s got so much on their plate right now, I should be able to handle this”?

While it’s difficult to socialize in-person right now, you have options to meet your needs for belonging and connection. Right now it’s important to push through mental barriers, and do it. You can phone and video call people and hang out in groups online. The more you’re online remotely for work obligations, the less you may want to be online for any other reason – but when you contract from casual social engagement you miss tending to these crucial needs.

Our relationships with others nourish us, motivate us and uplift our psychological well-being.

Not only that, but oppression and marginalization in the form of racism relies on us divided and against one another. Through the hierarchical valuing of human lives it generates separateness and isolation. Reaching out to one another is an act of rebellion. Connecting emotionally and affirming and reaffirming our belonging with one another is counter cultural and necessary.

So if you discover you are shaming yourself and avoiding that phone call, that facetime, that group zoom, that physically distant walk, move toward the rebellion by reaching out, being with someone and sharing the more tender parts of what’s going on for you and reciprocating the same.

3. Recognize your need for balance.

As I found out dramatically with my case of hyponatremia, our human systems strive toward balance by all means necessary. That is nature’s way. We aspire to the same emotionally. When experiencing threat or overwhelm, our body reacts through flight, flight, and freeze. We shut down, escape or meet the “threat” head on – all toward getting back to a form of safety and security which allows for an eventual return to equanimity. There are so many important topics and situations to pay attention to right now that it’s easy to become stretched thin physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

At this moment, training toward balance is akin to what it takes to train for a marathon, not a sprint. This is about endurance.

Choose if, when, and how you want to offer support. We sustain fulfilling friendships when we are flexible, when we recognize we have less or more to give, and when we maintain our overall balance so when we are present to people. We are able to be totally there undistracted.

When our bodies are in balance, this contributes to our emotional, mental and spiritual balance. This is a time to be active as you can. The worlds of yoga, fitness camps and boot camps have moved online making physical activity accessible to many as we often stay indoors.

Get to know your pace, and become familiar with your capacity. As previously shared, knowing what’s going on for you emotionally is the place to start, and then communicating this to others can support friendships. There is less guessing, wondering, and worrying. By letting folks know the map of your inner world and by sharing your boundaries transparently, you are supporting others to preserve rather than expend their energy trying to figure you out.

If you aren’t sure where you’re at and need time to check-in with yourself, become familiar with the phrase:

  • I’d like to help. Let me think about that to be sure I have the resources to do so.
  • I will let you know [day/time].
  • When sharing your boundaries and your care for self and others, you can communicate things like:
  • I want to support you, but I am not able to come over, is there a way I can do that from here?
  • I can’t talk right now, but I want to hear how you are, do you have time on…. day/time.
  • Would you like to connect for a half an hour then?
  • I’m sad hearing what you’re going through. I wish I had the resources to support you right now, however I am overwhelmed and need to recoup. Can we brainstorm together for 5 minutes to help you think of someone you can talk to?

If you have a friend in your life on a regular basis and notice a pattern that doesn’t meet your needs for balance or reciprocity, ask to have a conversation so you can share your experience. Listen to what’s been going on for them, and build agreements of communication that work for mutual benefit. In that conversation you can listen to them and also share things like:

  • Nobody is okay these days. I care a lot about you and want to support you. However, I want you to know that I am not 100%. Some days I’m not available and need to regenerate.
  •  I’d love to know how it is to hear that. I notice we are both overwhelmed. Do you think we can design weekly support calls that we can depend on, rather than try and catch one another spontaneously? Predictability would give me more ease.
  • How can we let each other know when we aren’t available to talk in a way that also relays the love we have for one another?

Beyond communicating your boundaries and collaborating with your friends to do the same, balance can be found in other ways too. Remember that music, podcasts and reading can be effortless and energizing sources for balance and relaxation.

We need to be present in order to engage and participate in our friendships. Become familiar with and establish boundaries that serve you but are also flexible enough to accommodate change. Communicate these to the people you love. As an exercise, you could write what comes up for you around boundaries and balance after reading this as a place to start.

4. Recognize that your friends are also not okay.

As you get in touch with your inner world, learn to tolerate distressing emotions, achieve more balance, learn to establish and communicate your agile boundaries, the fact remains that none of us are okay. While we tend to ourselves, how do we still participate and engage in our friendships, and how do we communicate when it’s hard?

First, recognize that reciprocity looks different right now. We no longer have “that one friend” to rely on who seems to be thriving and who consistently offers support. And, we ourselves are less reliable. Just as we are discovering the emotions that are most challenging for us and figuring out our boundaries to help us maintain equilibrium, our friends are doing the same.

The collective vulnerability is real, and it’s time to lower our expectations. Lowering our expectations isn’t a loss, it’s an act of compassion. It’s an act of interdependence.

I have shared earlier how to communicate and navigate boundaries while sharing your care. Be that as it may, this isn’t gonna be a smooth ride. As we figure out how to run this marathon, hard conversations will come up. We may be hurt by someone who doesn’t show up in a way we hoped for. Even if we cognitively understand that someone is not emotionally available to support us, we may still have feelings of disappointment. Friendships rely on trust, and trust is born in communicating what’s true for us with care. We don’t have to communicate every nuance, but if we are impacted by someone it contributes to them and the strength of the friendship to let them know. By doing this you are giving them an opportunity to respond and care for you, meanwhile you get an opportunity to understand them more deeply and what may be impacting them.

In addition to complex relational conversations, there are also many other conversations to have. Whether or not our friendships are intersectional crossing social categorizations such as race, class, and gender, conversations about racial justice, pandemic politics, and grief and loss are becoming conventional.

If we isolate ourselves further than what’s already mandated, if we stop ourselves from sharing how alone we feel or other feelings marking our humanity, if we find a sneaky way to reject support that is given, if we don’t ask for some TLC and practice gently giving what we can within our limitations and capacity… If we don’t practice acknowledging we are not okay, appreciate our need for belonging and connection, maintain our equilibrium, and exercise compassion by recognizing that others are also not okay, what will we do when complex and important topics come up that we need to engage and participate in in order to transform our society into one that is livable for all?

We need to have complex conversations to understand how harm is created and perpetuated, and how we may be complicit in that so as to collectively figure out how to prevent future harm and move forward together towards equity. There is no way to get through all of these conversations with friends without experiencing emotions, because we are human beings. We are social and emotional creatures. There is no way to transform and heal unless we acknowledge what’s here, now.

One way to engage in complex conversations is to begin with curiosity. It is critical to name harmful behavior in the context of injustice. Sometimes this is important to do within friendships as well. This can include naming the harm – the action taken that has impacted you. Your purpose in naming the harm may be a matter of self-respect and self-protection as a priority; in friendships it can also include tending to the relationship while achieving your objective to address the harm. Curiosity is also critical as a stance when a friend is letting you know something that you have done has impacted them.

What we commonly do, instead of being curious, is complain, criticize and condemn. Dale Carnegie timelessly named this in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, written in the 1930’s and one of the bestsellers of all time (my Dad’s favorite book). When approaching someone about a hurt, we can often unskillfully lead with criticism about the behavior or action we don’t like and this can inspire immediate defensiveness. Or, we condemn the person, rather than the behavior. No one enjoys being judged or shamed. We can get stuck in complaining about what happened rather than fully express our experience. Instead, become curious about the impact of the harm, what led to that harm, and collaborate to figure out how to move forward together in a way that works for both.

What else helps maintain connection in our friendships when we get into tough topics?

Since none of us are okay, the first step is to ask permission and check in to see when is an okay time to have a conversation. This can sound like:

  • I’m wondering if you’d be willing to talk with me about some things that felt uncomfortable for me that happened between us yesterday, is now a good time for you? If not, do you have a sense of when?
  • I have been thinking about something you said the other day, and I’m curious about what you meant. Do you have space for a conversation now?
  • I’m worried I said something hurtful the other day to you and I want to check in with you. Do you have time tomorrow at 5pm for a half hour call, or is there another time that works?

Since none of us are okay, when you are in a conversation consistently check in and notice if the other person is engaged. Many of us are at our wits end right now, so check in more often than you think makes sense. Consider pausing the conversation if you notice either of you becoming overwhelmed or checking out. Be explicit and transparent, compassionately naming what you are noticing in the other, or in yourself.

Friendships built on mutual respect and commitment and founded in trust and compassion are built to last. So, remember that conversations aren’t necessarily emergencies. Trust that things can be talked about when each of you has some more space in another moment.

Since none of us are okay, as you are having the complex conversation some other things to consider asking in order to stay connected and curious, flexible and open, are:

  • I’m curious, when you said that did you mean [share your interpretation of what was said]?
  • Is there more? I’d like to understand.
  • I’m noticing [name a body or facial expression] and I’m wondering if you feel fearful, nervous, worried or uncomfortable? If so, I’d like to understand what’s on your mind?
  • What do you think is the most effective thing we could do right now to stay connected and hear one another?
  • What sort of impact do you think your comment/action may have had?
  • Is there anything I can do differently right now that would support you?
  • Do you think there’s anything getting in the way of you hearing what I’m sharing with you?
  • I care about you and even if we disagree I want you to know I value our friendship and trust we will find a way to understand one another.

Even as none of us are okay, there are definitely some things we can attempt to say and do to maintain our friendships and express our compassion and care. The first of which is to ourselves. It is quite a challenging time and the more we get to know our inner worlds, and learn skills to be with our humanity displayed through our emotions, the more we can be available to engage and participate in our friendships.

Communication is fundamentally about relationships. As we speak, listen, observe, and empathize with ourselves and others we steward our interdependence. We rely on one another, and we can learn from each other about how to be interdependent as the world shape-shifts each day. My hope is that my everlasting journey leaning into and accepting the fact of interdependence during a time when none of us are okay will support you with fresh ideas, encouragement, and some new possibilities in doing the same for yourself. I am holding you all with love.