Sunday, January 31, 2010

What Are Friends For?

“I just want you to be happy.”

That has always been my mother’s final answer whenever I’ve gone to her for help with making a big decision. Sure, we’ll talk about the what-ifs and examine every aspect of the situation, but in the end, she will ultimately step aside and leave it up to me.

Of course, that doesn’t mean she has no opinion on the subject.

Having nurtured me since the day I was born, she knows me as well as anyone. She’s very familiar with my strengths and weaknesses, with what gives me fulfillment and what does not. And she has taken this information, mixed it with a dash of intuition, and painted her own vision of what I should be doing with my life.

This vision is ever-changing, and it took on a new look several years ago when she began her second career as a Licensed Professional Counselor. Building a successful practice from a stack of manila folders and some refrigerator magnets, she has learned what being a therapist is all about, and she’s slowly become convinced that I have what it takes.

I don’t disagree with her, either…I think I would make a good therapist. A natural observer, I feel as if I “see” the world well, like a quarterback who can cut through the chaos of a defense and determine the best place to throw the football. I try to understand the reasons behind a person’s actions before ever passing judgment on their character. And I believe in the power of therapy – that everyone could probably benefit from quality time on somebody’s couch.

Plus, considering how screwed up I am, there’s a high probability that I’ve experienced every issue that any potential patient could be suffering from.

In spite of all that, I have never had the desire to go into the profession. There are just other things I want to do with my time – and none of them require me going back to school. Having gotten through my mandated educational career largely by picking “C” on Scantron tests, I’d be terrified of pursuing a graduate degree for which I would have to actually learn the material.

So I have decided to maintain my amateur status, applying whatever skills I may have to any family and friends who turn to me as a confidant. It’s a responsibility I take very seriously, and I’m flattered when someone entrusts me with the more sensitive aspects of their life.

Most of the time, I feel like I do a good job, and it is quite a compliment whenever I get a return customer.

But there are other times when I’m about as effective as George Costanza in a job interview. No matter what I say, no matter what persona I take on – from advisor to cheerleader to drill sergeant to rabbi – I end up making things worse, giving the person a whole new set of reasons to be mad and upset.

And it is during those moments, as I’m getting yelled at for not understanding or reading an e-mail full of angry capital letters, when I can’t help asking:

When somebody turns to you in their time of need, what is your role as a friend?

It’s never fun to see someone who you care about struggling. You feel their pain, and your natural instinct is to take charge, to dive in headfirst and do whatever you can to make them feel better.

Unfortunately, that emotional connection can cloud your view of things, making it difficult to maintain any semblance of objectivity. You inject your personal opinions and beliefs into the situation, confident that you can fix the problem yourself.

But it’s not your problem to fix.

That realization can be hard to digest, but the quicker you take a step back and relinquish any ownership over what is happening, the quicker you can start having a positive impact on the matter.

Because the only way the person is going to make a lasting change or improve their circumstances is if they figure it out for themselves. It’s the same principal that applies to learning: listening to a lecture or watching someone perform a task is great, but there’s simply no replacement for doing and experiencing something yourself.

I mean, I warned people about the nightmares I suffered after watching the internet video “Two Chicks and a Cup,” but it took them clicking on the link to fully grasp the horror.

That’s why I am always hesitant to give my friends advice. Without having Quantum Leap powers that allow me to step inside their body, I have no idea what it’s like to be them. I don’t know what they’re going through. I don’t know what they’re feeling. I don’t know how what they’ve gone through in the past is affecting their outlook in the present.

All I have is a second-hand, outsider’s opinion of what is going on. So while I can tell them what I might do – or have done – in a similar situation, any solution I offer beyond that would be my own issues and biases talking.

I also respect that everyone has their own timeline for dealing with something, and it’s useless to try to disrupt it. Just look at the couples who take forever to break up. They schizophrenically ping-pong back and forth…one minute they’re together, the next they’re not. And even though those close to them can see why the relationship will never work, it can take them longer to reach that conclusion – and not just because the “backslide hookup” is wreaking havoc on their judgment.

So you can shout and lecture and preach all you want, but the person has to be ready to hear what you are saying. And until the idea of making a change or taking a step clicks in their heart, your suggestions and recommendations will most likely be translated as a high-horse scolding or dismissed with a nobody-gets-me wave.

As my mother-the-professional taught me, a good therapist doesn’t tell their clients what to do. Instead, they act as a guide, gently nudging and prodding the person in the right direction.

In that vein, I try to serve as a wide-angle lens, giving the person the panoramic view of their situation. I ask the stereotypical how-does-that-make-you-feel questions, so that they can process their emotions. I challenge them by pointing out destructive behavioral patterns. I present them with the different options they can pursue.

But above all else, I do my best to validate their feelings, to let them know that no matter what course they choose, I will be there for them.

That doesn’t mean that I always agree or take their side. Being a “Yes Man” is not being a good friend. And even though at times my difference of opinion has been interpreted as a lack of support, I will not blindly back someone’s actions or decisions simply out of friendship. They came to me because they felt they could trust me, and to automatically fall in step with them would be a betrayal of that trust.

So it is a constant battle to find the right buttons to push, and what is successful in one instance can often fail in the next. But when nothing is working, and I feel like putting my head through the nearest wall, I take a deep breath and think about what I want whenever I’m the one in pain.

I want to be heard. I want to be understood. I want to know that the person I’m talking to really gets what I’m saying. I want to be comforted and loved and supported. I want to be told that there is a way out, and that everything is going to be all right.

In other words…

I want my mom.

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?