I’m in my early sixties and I grew up as the daughter of survivors. As you can imagine, I have enough issues to fill a book. My siblings and I believed all of the messages that our parents drummed into our heads when we were children. We didn’t know any better, and whatever they told us we held as the absolute truth. There are so many areas in which I’ve had to relearn where the truth lies and fear ends. It’s a long journey, and I know I still have a way to go.
But I’m writing to you about one specific area that I’m struggling with and feel as though I haven’t had much success fixing, despite desperately wanting to. It surely isn’t the most serious outgrowth of my childhood, but it is something that is becoming more and more difficult for me to deal with. When my siblings and I were growing up, our parents told us repeatedly that we shouldn’t trust anyone other than family. We were instructed to always be nice and polite, but that, ultimately, you can’t really count on anyone besides your family. It’s obvious to me now where their thinking originated, but as an obedient child, I took their words of advice (more like commands) very seriously.
I always had friends in school, but in my head I drew a line between the relationships I had with them versus the relationships I had with my parents, siblings, and a few relatives. My lack of trust kept me from ever really having a best friend or confidante. The relationships were successful up until a point, but never past that point.
I’m at a stage of life right now where my parents are gone, my sister lives in Israel, and my brother seems to have gotten much closer to his wife’s family than his own. Thank G-d, I have a good marriage and keep up with a few extended relatives, but as my children are all grown and doing their own thing, I find myself craving relationships with female friends that are more meaningful than what I presently have. Yes, I’m sure there are many women who, if asked, would say that they are my friends. I’m always friendly and chatty and can engage anyone in conversation without a problem. But the depth of conversation is never there. I find myself wanting to finally be real with friends, to share my true feelings, my innermost thoughts.
Anyone can talk about grandchildren and recipes. I want something more. I read books and watch movies that depict beautiful female relationships and I want that for myself. But the crazy thing is that I don’t have a clue how to take what I have and shift it into something real. Is that something I can learn how to do?
Growing up the way you did, as a child of Holocaust survivors, it is understandable how you accepted as truth the messages you received from your parents. Surely, they were trying their best to protect you and your siblings and be the best parents they could possibly be. However, the horrific histories they carried within their souls left them scarred in ways that none of us could ever begin to comprehend. And I’m sure you understand that better than anyone.
But understanding the facts and moving forward don’t necessarily always automatically click together. Often, our way of moving through the world is so solidly ingrained within each of us that it takes enormous strength and commitment to move the needle, even just a little. Wanting to change the nature of your relationships with other women isn’t enough to make it happen, as you are unfortunately finding out.
Despite the fact that most close relationships tend to happen organically, when the setting, chemistry, and opportunity arises, there are a few tips I can share with you to help you approach your current friendships a little differently, hopefully creating an opportunity for more.
First off, to have a good friend, you have to be a good friend. Like a savings account, the more you put in, the more you will be able to withdraw, and often with interest. I’ve noticed that sometimes people who don’t want to be asked to do a favor for someone else are very careful not to ask for anything from others. They don’t want to be indebted on any level. Does that apply to you? Have you created boundaries between yourself and the women you are friendly with that say, “I’ll show up at your simchas and talk to you about where I purchased my latest pair of sunglasses, but please don’t lean on me in any way.” Examine where you’ve drawn the lines and see if you can step out of your comfort zone and move closer to these women, both in concrete ways and emotional ways. Offer to do favors, ask for favors, and blur the boundaries that so distinctly separate you from others.
I’m guessing that you never allow yourself to be vulnerable with your friends. Often, opening that door to one’s true feelings is the surest way to build a meaningful connection. Being vulnerable is hard and it’s also not something that you do with just anyone. You have to be very careful about whom you honor with your story, but once you’ve identified who among your friends seems trustworthy and kind, try to have a real dialogue that has meaning and lasting value. Look for reciprocity. Obviously, if it’s a one-sided conversation, with no give and take, you’ve chosen the wrong candidate to fill this role for you. Move on.
Understand that building and maintaining a close friendship takes work. It’s good work, but it’s still work. It requires care and maintenance. Pick up the phone often, check in, confide, trust, and, most important, love. A great friendship is, in fact, a love story. At least that’s how it ought to feel if it’s got all the right ingredients.
I’m sure everything I’ve just suggested to you sounds strange and maybe even unachievable. But if you honestly feel that this is something missing from your life and it’s time to do something about it, get very uncomfortable and go for it! We are all friend-worthy. We just have to find the individuals who are right for us and then do the work!
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.