By Jeremy Godwin
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health; I’m Jeremy Godwin and every week I look at one aspect of better mental health and I share practical and straightforward advice that you can apply immediately to improve your wellbeing.
Today I’m talking about how to have better friendships and how that helps your mental health — so get comfortable, and Let’s Talk About Mental Health…
Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below (or using your preferred podcast service; see below for links) or continue reading for the full transcript.
Watch Episode 53 of Better Mental Health on YouTube — in this latest episode I’m challenging common myths about mental health.
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This podcast episode was originally released on 23 January, 2022.
Hello and welcome to Episode 115, and thanks so much for joining me!
This week I’m talking about friendships and I’ll be covering what friendship is, why friendship matters and how to have healthier relationships with your friends. So, let’s talk about mental health!
Our friendships are unique relationships. When they are healthy and mutually-supportive, friendships can make us feel seen, heard and valued in a way that is different from those we’re related to; after all, most of the time a friend is someone who actively chooses to be in your company (whether physically or remotely) so the fact that their relationship with you is a choice makes it totally different to, say, a sibling who you might be friendly with but who is, ultimately, bonded to you through the common ties of family (note that you can definitely be friends with family members, however it takes work… but then again, so do all good relationships!).
Good friends listen to our challenges, help us celebrate our wins in life and provide us with feelings of safety and support. Not-so-good friends, on the other hand, can leave you questioning your self-worth and, at worst, can lead you down a path that can cause damage to your mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing. The people we spend our time with help to shape our reality (as we do with theirs) and that’s why it’s important to know the difference between quality friendships versus those that maybe aren’t in your best interests (or which might even be downright bad for you).
So let’s start, as I usually do, by getting on the same page with some definitions, and let’s talk about…
What is friendship?
A friend is someone who you have a bond of mutual affection with, and the term is usually used to refer to a relationship that is with someone not related to you. It’s also usually assumed that the bond is not sexual in nature, although that opens a whole Pandora’s box in terms of “friends with benefits”… however I am leaving that one alone for the purposes of this episode and focusing purely on platonic friendship, which is intimate and affectionate without being sexual.
Moving on, there is a big difference between healthy and unhealthy friendships. A healthy friendship has balance and mutual respect, whereas an unhealthy one might see one person in a stronger position than the other, where they might take advantage of that, or the relationship might be unevenly matched because one person puts in effort whereas the other puts little or no effort in.
When it comes to friendship, it’s not about how many friends you have but about how genuine and intimate those friendships are; in other words, quantity is far less important than quality — especially when it comes to your mental health and wellbeing.
When you’re younger, it can seem really easy to make friends. Think back to what it was like at school when you were a child; I can think of quite a few friends I made simply because we both liked the same thing (to paraphrase a meme I saw a couple of years ago, the conversation was pretty much: “You like toy cars? I like toy cars… let’s be friends! Oh, you like toy trains as well? Me too! Now we’re best friends!”).
As you grow older, friendships change because people change; you (hopefully!) mature and evolve as a person, and your relationships deepen. At the same time, your circumstances will inevitably change; for example, you’ll move to another city or settle down with a partner, and those things will change the way you live your life. I have done both of those things (in fact, I’ve made major moves a few times; first from where I grew up in the outer suburbs of Sydney to the city when I was 18, then from Sydney to Melbourne just before I turned 25, then from Melbourne to the countryside when I was 38) and each time I’ve made that sort of big move I have convinced myself that nothing would change between my friends and I… but, of course it did. When you’re around people all of the time it’s easier to connect and you have more in common, but when you make a big lifestyle change (especially one that takes you to a totally different location), all of that goes out the window and it’s easy to grow apart (having said that, it’s absolutely possible to maintain strong long-distance friendships… but they take a lot of work).
I’m telling you all of this because it’s part of recognising that as we age, our friendships often require a greater degree of consideration than they might have in the past. For most of us there’s a deepening sense of wanting more out of friendships than just someone to have a drink with every now and then; we often want genuine connection with good friends rather than passing acquaintances. And that leads me to the next part of today’s episode…
Why friendship matters
And it matters because quality friendships can have a positive effect on your mental health and overall wellbeing. To quote the Mayo Clinic;
“Good friends are good for your health. Friends can help you celebrate good times and provide support during bad times. Friends prevent isolation and loneliness and give you a chance to offer needed companionship, too. Friends can also:
- Increase your sense of belonging and purpose
- Boost your happiness and reduce your stress
- Improve your self-confidence and self-worth
- Help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one
- Encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise”
And you’ll find the link for that article in the transcript (https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/friendships/art-20044860).
There are also a number of positive health benefits from having strong social connections: reduced risk of depression, lower blood pressure and healthier body mass index or BMI. In fact, to quote the Mayo Clinic article again, “studies have found that older adults who have meaningful relationships and social support are likely to live longer than their peers with fewer connections” — so, you know, just a few incentives there to cultivate and maintain good friendships!
Here’s the challenging bit though: as an adult it can be tough to make new friends and to maintain the ones that you have. Life often gets in the way, in terms of our responsibilities and the general pressures we all face from time to time, and then there are other challenges like moving to a new place and finding it tough to make new friends (trust me, I know that one first-hand!) or even just growing apart from the people you once called your friends due to circumstances or changing priorities.
With that in mind, here’s one more (final) quote from that same Mayo Clinic article I mentioned before: “Developing and maintaining good friendships takes effort. The enjoyment and comfort friendship can provide, however, makes the investment worthwhile.”
So how do you do that? How do you develop and maintain good friendships? Well, let’s get into the how-to part of today’s episode and let’s talk about…
How to have healthier friendships
So this week’s how-to section will be a little different to normal in the sense that I’m going to focus on advice for four key sub-topics: existing friendships, making new friends, addressing problems and then, finally, how to deal with the end of a friendship. So, let’s first talk about…
Maintaining existing friendships
And it should come as no surprise that I’m going to say to start you need to know that all healthy relationships require work. Look, I have a couple of friends who I have known for years and we might go months (or even years) without catching up, but when we do we just pick up where we left off… but those types of friendships really are the exception, not the norm. Most relationships require effort and commitment, and to develop in a healthy way they need both of you to put in the work to connect with one another; just hitting ‘like’ every now and then when they post on Instagram does not cut it! So, with that in mind, let’s move on to my next point which is…
Assess the quality of your current friendships — and this can feel really uncomfortable (or even confronting), but the truth is that you need to look at the relationships in your life and decide which ones are working, which ones require work, and which ones are barely on life support. All relationships need to be give and take if they’re going to be healthy and mutually-beneficial, so you need to consider the quality of those currently in your life. I think that the simplest way to do this is to consider each friendship one-by-one and ask yourself these questions: does this person do no harm to me? Do I do no harm to them? Are they kind to me? Am I kind to them? Do they give more than they take from me? Do I give more than I take from them? This assessment needs to be brutally honest, because if a friend is causing you harm or being unkind to you, then that’s less of a red flag and more of a “get the hell out of there!” sign (and we’ll talk about how to deal with negative friendships in a little bit). So, assuming that you have identified the positive friendships in your life, my next point is…
Actively nurture your friendships — and by this I mean putting in the work that I talked about before. Make regular time to connect (whether in person or online, or go old-school and pick up the phone!), spend time together doing things you enjoy (when it is safe to do so), be supportive of one another, and be respectful of their time (for example, don’t ignore or forget to respond to their messages; you don’t have to reply the instant you get it, but when they can see their message was read five days ago and you haven’t replied, that can send a message that they aren’t a priority… even if that’s not your intention).
My basic view on friendship is this: treat people as you would want to be treated, and so — for example — that might mean that you need to talk about expectations upfront, especially if you’re not the sort of person who jumps on messages when they arrive; I’ve had a conversation with several people to let them know that I have notifications turned off on my phone for messages, which means I manually go in and check every day or every other day… so that means that if you message me, it might be a couple of days until I read it and reply. If people know what to expect upfront, then you avoid any potential misinterpretation of your actions (or lack of action!). Speaking of, my next point is…
Communicate — and this is about recognising that quality communication goes both ways; it’s about you opening up and letting others in, and it’s also about being a good listener who is genuinely interested in what the other person has to say. Communication is a balance; a good friendship is one where you both feel heard, seen and valued; anything less than that is an acquaintanceship (and yes that is actually a word!). I remember walking away from a 40-minute conversation with someone a little while ago and realising that they had not asked me once how I was, let alone about anything that was going on in my life. That’s an amber flag, in terms of being something to be conscious of so you can monitor it (because we all have bad days, so it might just be a one-off) and if it continues then it becomes a red flag (and by the way, red flags mean ‘stop’ not ‘look for more signs to tell you the same thing’!). I’ll be exploring how to address issues shortly, but before I do let’s talk about…
Developing new friendships
So, there are lots of ways to meet new people — you could get involved in community activities or special interest groups, you could volunteer, you could take a class and connect with other people there, you could even meet people through mutual friends or family members and there are also apps to help you meet people who are also looking for friendship (just be clear which app you’re using first, because we all know there’s a big difference between a friendship app and a dating or hook-up app!); I talked about a whole bunch of ideas back in the loneliness episode (which was Episode 15) so that might be helpful as well. Here’s the thing: meeting new people won’t just happen; you need to put yourself out there… but with time, effort and perseverance you will slowly meet other people and the likelihood is that some of them will be people you actually enjoy spending time with and want to get to know better. When you do find those people, then it’s time for my next point which is…
Put in the work — because to get to know someone you have to make the effort get to know them, just as they have to make the effort to get to know you. You can be just friendly acquaintances with someone without having that more meaningful connection, but if you want a true friendship then you need to ask them questions, listen to their answers and share things about yourself as well. The more you do that, the more you will begin to grow that initial connection — which leads to my next point…
Be patient — because quality relationships do not just magically happen; meaningful connections take time to build and strengthen. Make time to catch up on a regular basis, and explore how you can be a mutual support to one another. And be mindful that not all friendships will work out, so don’t take it personally — we each have our own needs, values, and preferences, so the choices other people make are about them and not you. And that leads to my next point…
Set clear boundaries and expectations up-front — because, in any relationship, you should start as you mean to continue. You can do this in a subtle way so you don’t scare people off, but it’s important to give some clear thought to what you will and will not accept so that you don’t find yourself compromising your own values and needs just to try and impress someone you are getting to know. I covered boundaries in Episode 53 if you’d like some advice on how to go about setting and maintaining boundaries (plus I’ve done a couple of videos about this stuff over on my YouTube channel, Better Mental Health, where I post new videos every Wednesday, and it’s linked in the episode description).
And one more thing I’d like you to consider about new friendships is consider reconnecting with people you already know. Sometimes we lose touch with old friends through no reason other than time and circumstances, and so that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a potential connection there. The same goes for people we have known from different aspects of our life, such as ex-colleagues who you got on well with or people you knew from classes you’ve taken in the past. Reaching out can be a welcome gesture and even though it might not lead to an actual friendship, it also might… so there is no harm in spreading a bit of kindness and seeing where it might go in the future!
Alright so that’s some of the warm-and-fuzzy stuff covered, and now we need to talk about the other side of the conversation: what to do when things go wrong. So, let’s move on to the next bit which is…
OK, I know most of us probably don’t particularly relish confrontation and conflict (which is a good thing, because you don’t want drama just for the sake of it!) but it’s important to know that issues need to be addressed as quickly as possible — because if you let them fester, they tend to grow into larger issues, and the bigger they are the harder they are to resolve. Let me share an example: I had a close friend about 14 or 15 years ago who was really negative about a lot of stuff and it became harder and harder to spend time with her, because she would spend a massive amount of time moaning (without ever trying to find solutions to her issues) and it reached a point where she rarely showed an interest in what was happening in my life. I didn’t address it and it became more and more frustrating for me, and then there was a birthday dinner for my partner where she turned up and spent the whole night talking to a friend of hers that she had brought along uninvited (who was visiting from out of town and who made zero effort to talk to any of us at the dinner, which frankly pissed me off because it was my partner’s birthday). Instead of handling it like an adult, I told her off the next time we spoke and then refused to talk to her again until I had calmed down, which took weeks… and by then, the damage was done and neither of us wanted to speak to the other, and that was the end of that. I don’t do regrets (which I mentioned in Episode 22, about regrets), however I will say that I learned a lot from that experience and I now try to proactively resolve issues before they get that far, even if that means easing away from a friendship if it’s heading in a not-so-great direction. In hindsight, I most definitely could have (and should have) handled that situation better. So, my point in all of this is to deal with issues as quickly as possible so that they don’t grow into something much bigger and harder to deal with. I talked about conflict back in Episode 88, so you might find that helpful for some advice on the subject. OK, so my next point is…
Communicate clearly — and yes, I know I mentioned communication in the last section, but this is in relation to addressing issues: to do so effectively you need to be clear, concise and rational. Let’s not kid ourselves here — some people won’t take it well if you address issues with them. However, if you do it in a kind, fair and respectful way then most reasonable people will hear what you are saying (and if someone takes it badly then, provided you have been kind and respectful, that’s about them). This is about treating yourself with self respect (which I talked about in Episode 96) and recognising your self worth (which I covered in Episode 78). And speaking of communicating about issues, if you tend to go into avoidance mode when it comes to this stuff then you might find Episode 99, about avoidance, to be handy. So, my next point is…
Give people a chance to change — because there’s a huge difference between an unintentional mistake and deliberate, malicious action… so be sure that your response is considered and that it is proportionate to the issue (malice is a different story, and I’m about to address that in the next part). If a genuine mistake is made, have an adult conversation about it and use it as an opportunity to reset boundaries and expectations with a view to doing better next time. Nobody is perfect and so I think we really do need to at least give people the opportunity to learn from their mistakes so they can grow, rather than just writing them off; like I said earlier, there’s a big difference between an amber flag and a red flag!
And so that leads me to the most challenging topic of all…
So there’s going to be a bunch of stuff rolled up into this discussion in terms of the end of friendships, such as: choosing to end one, having a friendship end whether you like it or not, growing apart, and dealing with malicious behaviour. Either way, the message is the same and that is…
Know that sometimes friendships end and that’s OK — you will have friends that you know for life, and then there are others that are more about who you are or where you are (or both) at a certain time in your life. For example, I had a bunch of friends who I spent massive amounts of time going out drinking with; take the alcohol out of the equation and we have absolutely nothing in common, and that’s OK. The same goes for people I worked with; I left, and the things we had in common no longer existed. Some friendships aren’t meant to last and you will grow apart, and it is what it is. Instead of seeing that as a negative, I choose to see that as a positive reinforcement of the fact that life is all about growth, so celebrate the friendships that have ended as a sign that you are evolving. Speaking of, the next point is…
Let go of unhealthy or toxic relationships — because they will do far more harm than good. Toxic friendships can be really draining and they are usually based on an unequal relationship that is not based on mutual respect. These types of friendships are damaging (although, frankly, I wouldn’t really call a toxic friend a true friend!), so it comes down to what matters most to you: either your wellbeing or the relationship. This goes for toxic behaviour as well, such as someone acting maliciously towards you or being disrespectful and not treating you better when you call out the behaviour.
Please, do not ever stay in any relationship, friendship or otherwise, because of obligation or fear; you can and will do better, and there are plenty of good people just waiting to meet you in the future. I know it’s tough to deal with these types of situations (and if you need help, I covered difficult choices back in Episode 89 and toxic people in Episode 75), but the fact is this: a healthy friendship is one that is mutually respectful, so anything outside of that definition either needs to be changed or it needs to go.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to friendship and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: Who you spend your time with and who you let into your life has a direct effect on your mental health and wellbeing, and when you have quality relationships with people who genuinely care about you (and who you genuinely care about) you feel seen, heard and valued as a human being, which helps you both to get through the tough times and celebrate the good times. You won’t be friends with everyone you meet, and that’s OK; with time, effort and perseverance, you will find your people. Who you choose to be friends with will shape your present, which in turn will shape your future, so be considered in your choices.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the writer Joseph Addison, and it is:
“Friendship improves happiness and abates misery by doubling our joy and dividing our grief.”Joseph Addison
Alright… that’s nearly it for this week. Next week I’ll be talking about ruminating. I talked about overthinking back in Episode 4, which is often associated with worry about the future or agonising over the past (or both). Since I dug into ‘worry’ deeper in Episode 95, I felt it was time to explore how to deal with that feeling of struggling to let go of things that have happened in the past or at least make peace with it, especially if you find yourself stuck in a cycle of going around and around thinking about things from the past. So next week I’ll be exploring what ruminating is, why addressing it matters, and how to manage rumination for the sake of your mental health.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 30th of January, 2022.
And catch my latest YouTube video on Wednesday over on my Better Mental Health channel; take a moment to subscribe to my channel using the link in the episode description or head to letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au where you can also join my mailing list for my free weekly newsletter (and you’ll find my website also linked in the episode description on whatever podcast service you’re currently listening to me on).
And, as always, find me on Instagram at @ltamentalhealth where I post extra content throughout the week.
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time!
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