A Key to Avoiding Friendship Problems: Mentalization
There is considerable evidence that friendships enhance our physical and emotional well-being. A recent study by John Cacioppo at the University of Chicago even suggests that the feeling of extreme loneliness increases the risk of premature death by 14 percent.
Culturally the notion of having and holding friends is passed on to us from early childhood:
Despite the benefits, however, friendships are complicated and at times problematic. The key to avoid problems in friendships is to begin with you, the only person you can ever really know or control and to use mentalization.
- Psychologists describe mentalization as our reflective function—our capacity to reflect on our own feelings, needs, and expectations, etc., as well as our ability to consider other people has having their own separate set of feelings, needs, and expectations, etc.
- It is the recognition that your best friend may love you but actually feel differently about the party, the movie or the amount of time you spend together.
Five Potential Friendship Problems You Can Avoid
Consider how your capacity to self-reflect and see yourself and your friends from different perspectives can help you avoid the following:
Tired of It All:
- If you often feel that being with your friend or friends has become more work than it is worth, the first place to look may be your own authenticity. Are you being who you really are or are you always working at being the person you THINK your friends want you to be?
- As good a chameleon as you may be, eventually it becomes too much work. If you never get to be your true self, you will never be with friends who really match or compliment you. You will never just relax and feel accepted.
The last thing Mary wanted to do was read the books for the book group–but everyone else seemed to like it. She really wanted to go for a walk with a friend.
- In The Friendship Fix, author Andrea Bonior suggests that when you are trying to make new friends start by thinking about your own personality.
- What would you want to do if you suddenly had tomorrow off?
- Would you go to the beach and just do your own thing? Would you want to spend every moment with a friend who loves risky adventures? Would you be happy with a talkative friend because you are a great listener? Do you want a friend who has lots of time for you?
- Have you given much thought to the times when being with a friend has been really easy? How did you meet that friend?
- When is the last time you were just you in the company of a friend?
All For One and One for All
- No matter how wonderful you think it would be—the expectation that your friends will all get along and love each other is a problem in the making. The expectation that they will all want to wear the same thing in your bridal party or be happy to be matched up with partners they would never choose is for many–like adding insult to injury!!
- If you recognize your own multiple dimensions and roles as daughter, son, girlfriend, teacher, golfer, accountant, student etc. it is likely that you have friends that match certain aspects of you at different times and in different contexts throughout your life. That does not mean they match each other.
- Accepting that your high school friend is different than the guy who is your partner at work and that both are different than the guy who is your best wingman in the clubs allows each to be who they really are as friends to you. The relationship you have with each of them and they have with you is unique.
Frozen in Time
One of the greatest strains in friendships is the reality that with time things change. The expectation that over life’s journey you will give and get the same things from the same friends in the same way is a tall order.
I can’t believe that she doesn’t call me during the week now that she is married.
I can’t believe that they don’t want to hang out with our kids!
- Sometimes you are the one who struggles with flexibility of friendship roles over time and sometimes you have a friend or friends who can’t or won’t make the adjustment when your life changes.
- How realistic are your expectations? If you reversed the roles could you understand why two single guys might not want to hang out with your kids?
- Can you hold on to the friendship with redefined expectations? Is a discussion possible?
- Can you agree to disagree about what each of you now defines as the friendship?
- If you can’t make the adjustment, can you hold on to the good memories of what you had without metaphorically throwing away those good old days?
Seduced by Social Media
- How much has social media enhanced or compromised the pleasure you get from friendships?
- Have you reunited with friends in cyberspace in a way that has been an unexpected gift on all sides?
- Are you, as Andrea Bonior asks, “ hoarding friends” to have a high number on Facebook or comparing and evaluating your life and pictures with everyone else, while overlooking the face-to-face intimacy of friends who want to be with you in the real world?
- Do you feel pressure to meet the expectations of the title, Best Friend Forever–“BFF”?
- Are you demanding more of friends because you feel you must identify someone as your BFF?
- Are you tolerating a friend who consistently makes you feel badly about yourself because you assume everyone has a “frenemy?”
Most of us shape and are shaped by the friends we have journeyed with throughout the chapters of our lives. Some of these friendships are constant, some are complex, some cannot sustain and some are yet to come.
As we journey our friendships will always benefit from our capacity to self-reflect and our openness to understand others.
Listen in as Dr. Andrea Bonior discusses The Friendship Fix on Psych Up on Cosozo Radio
Phillips, S. (2014). A Key to Avoiding Friendship Problems: Mentalization. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 21, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/healing-together/2014/03/a-key-to-avoiding-friendship-problems-mentalization/