I’ve been trying to figure something out about myself for most of my life, and I’m as clueless about it today as I was years ago. I have a sister, Rivky, whom I love dearly, but we are as different as night and day. There is a specific difference that I want to address, and maybe you’ll be able to shed some light on this situation.
Rivky has a million friends. She can be sitting next to someone she’s never met before on a train one day, and suddenly that person is her new best friend. Wherever she goes, she makes friends. I don’t remember her ever meeting someone and making a comment to me that this is a person she couldn’t be friends with. She could be friends with women younger or older than she is, more religious than her, or totally modern, married women or singles. It doesn’t matter.
I, on the other hand, very rarely warm up to anyone! Yes, I have a few friends, but when I’m meeting new people, it’s rare for me to think to myself that I’d like to become friends with that person. I look around in shul, and although everyone is nice enough and friendly, there is not one woman there who I could consider having a real friendship with. When I think about the mothers of my children’s friends, I also can’t think of any one of them with whom I can connect.
The few friendships I have happened immediately. Sounds hokey, but it was really love at first sight. We met, immediately felt connected, and had tons in common and tons to talk about. Because I have such good friends, I don’t feel lonely, but sometimes I feel like I’ve painted myself into a corner and I could and should be much more out there, more involved, more connected.
So I wonder what’s wrong with me. Why does it take so much for me to make a friend — and it could happen as rarely as once in a decade — whereas my sister and people like her can make a new friend every week? What am I missing, and is it a bad thing that I’m the way I am? Should I try to change and be more like my sister? I have no doubt that some people consider me a snob. I don’t see myself that way. But I can’t just “pretend” or work so hard to hang out with just anyone. I wish it didn’t bother me, and I suspect you might think I don’t really have a problem, but for some reason, there is a little voice in me that tells me I need to change. How?
Friendships are so complicated and interesting by nature. How they happen, why they happen, how meaningful they are, what their purpose is — I can go on and on. There is much to be said on the subject. I’m sure there are people reading this column right now wondering why I’m invested in a subject such as this one, when so many more serious issues abound. And though I must agree, I don’t want to minimize this issue either, because it is our relationships that help nurture us, guide us, support us, and hopefully inspire us to live our best lives.
So what’s the deal with making friendships, sustaining friendships, enjoying friendships, etc.? Friendship means different things to different people. First off, some people take friendships very seriously. Obviously, you are such a person. You probably view a commitment to a friendship as being not too far away from the type of commitment one makes to a marriage. (Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the picture.) It’s got to work on all cylinders. Other people, like your sister, clearly don’t take friendships all that seriously. She can’t possibly view it as something almost sacred if just about anyone and everyone can fit the bill. People like your sister often have very simple parameters to fill (if any) when signing on to a new relationship. If the person breathes, that’s often good enough. And typically, people like Rivky can move in and out of friendships effortlessly, never looking back when a friendship slips away. People like you, on the other hand, hold on to each and every friendship for dear life, nurturing it, growing with it, and keeping it alive and well forever.
There is no right or wrong way to be. If it works, it works. What works for your sister doesn’t work for you, and vice versa. But as we look at this issue more closely, there is another aspect that plays into this dynamic, and that is an individual’s level of sensitivity. Again, based on what you described, Rivky probably doesn’t go as deep and therefore doesn’t allow herself to process deeper feelings that we as individuals often trigger in one another. For instance, let’s say you and Rivky grew up with the same difficult aunt, who always criticized the two of you and made you feel badly about yourselves. Say you and Rivky one day happen to meet a new person. Rivky may not connect this person to anyone or anything, immediately being drawn to her, while you may sense something about her that triggers feelings of discomfort because she has a similar quality to that of your aunt. And this association, as subtle as it may be, can easily cause in you a desire to run for your life, while Rivky is perfectly content to get to know this new person better.
Finally, some people seem to think there is something almost noble about having dozens and dozens of friends, as if it reflects how lovable, wonderful, and desirable they are. Frankly, some of the most impressive individuals have very few friendships because they take friendship very seriously and only invest in such relationships when it is truly meaningful and inspiring.
You ask whether you need to step up your game and create new friendships. On the one hand, you sound content with the few fabulous friends that you have, but on the other hand, you sound as though you suspect that maybe something is missing in your life and perhaps you could use a few more people to welcome into your orbit. I always advise people to listen to that little voice and follow that lead. It sounds as though you are extremely discerning before you allow yourself to get to know a new person, but perhaps you can try being a bit more curious when you meet new people.
As you mentioned, the friendships you described happened in a flash. Well, sometimes it takes a lot longer to really appreciate someone new. Not everyone is easy to read or to connect with in a moment. If you suspect there is some potential, work on it. Like all good things in life, it might take effort — and sometimes the effort may not pay off, but sometimes it will. I doubt that you will ever need dozens and dozens of friends like Rivky seems to need, but perhaps your plate is not entirely full just yet! Pay attention, do the work, and you will ultimately find a few more soulmates to rejoice in.
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.