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Do You Know the Secret to Meaningful Relationships?

Relationships aren't built through strategies and certainties. They are formed through bravery.

Have you ever done the group activity where each person writes something they like about you and all the slips of paper are collected so you have an envelope of warm fuzzies to cheer you up when you’re having a bad day?

At its best, it’s a valuable exercise. It makes us think about what we value in each other and share things sometimes left unsaid. All of us need to be reminded of the good qualities others see in us on the days we just can’t see them in ourselves.

But what about when—even with the best intentions—those slips of paper don’t tell a story of been loved and seen?

I don’t know where the envelope is anymore, but I still remember pulling the flap open and shaking the contents across my quilt when I was finally alone in my room. My eyes skimmed hungrily over the pieces of paper, longing to be reassured I was worthy of love.

Isn’t that the question we’re all asking deep down—am I lovable?

My envelope didn’t hold the evidence of deep friendship I hoped for… You’re a nice person. You’re so nice. What I like about you is you are nice. The underlying message of those generic notes seemed to be… I don’t know who you are.

Of course, it could be the writers weren’t willing to invest in the activity, choosing easy over meaningful. Perhaps they didn’t have the emotional vocabulary to express what they really meant.

Or maybe there’s a harder truth here. Did their shallow compliments reflect the depth of our connection? Maybe in trying to avoid rejection, I’d hidden my best and worst qualities until only only a nondescript inoffensiveness remained.

Making and keeping close friends has never come easily to me. I’m quick to blame my difficulty meeting people on my introversion, my sense of humor, or my fashion choices.

None of those things are really the problem. I don’t need to become a certain kind of person to experience meaningful relationships. Deep, lasting relationships aren’t what happens when I change myself to please another.

I tend to get it a little backwards. I think a lot of us do. I start to believe the way to be liked and accepted is to look and act and think just like the person I’m trying to get to know. I make assumptions about what people expect from me and spend our time together assessing how well I’m meeting those expectations.

This never quite works out the way I hope it will. Even if I do succeed in gaining their approval, it’s not the real me they like. I haven’t let them see who I am. It’s lonely to spend time with someone who doesn’t really see me, but so often I’m the one hiding.

As I strive for validation I prevent myself from finding what I’m really seeking—connection. Not only can no one see me through my mask, I’m also too busy monitoring my own performance to really get to know anyone else. To make matters worse, in changing myself to try to win approval, I’m telling myself that who I really am isn’t good enough.

It’s natural to seek validation. Rejection hurts. Unfortunately, there are no guarantees I won’t be rejected, whether I show up authentically or not.

I’ve told myself that making friends and building relationships is just something other people are good at, not me. Defining myself in this way puts meaningful friendships beyond my reach. It excuses me from trying.

I have to admit, I eagerly read every article I run across on making friends, hoping for an easy step I’ve overlooked to permanently fix all my relationship struggles.

You know what I’ve learned?

Relationships aren’t built through strategies and certainties. They are formed through bravery. Friendships require risk—a willingness to reach out to another person even though I’m afraid. They grow out of sharing true bits of who I am and being curious about the person in front of me.

It takes bravery to talk to someone about what matters to me. What if they think it’s stupid—that I’m stupid?

It takes bravery to admit where I am hurting. What if they dismiss me as pathetic, selfish, or weak?

It takes bravery to listen to another person without trying to fix or change them. If we’re different, doesn’t it mean one of us is wrong?

Before I can share myself authentically with another person, I have to start learning what’s really me and what’s not. I’m afraid to ask who I am without outside reassurance I’m ok. I don’t want to admit I’m a person still in process.

It takes incredible bravery to trust myself and believe I’m worthy of love, even as I know myself to be a mix of qualities I appreciate and things I just really wish weren’t there.

The thing is, I can’t be truly vulnerable and authentic with others while I’m constantly trying to prove to myself and the world I’m worthy of friendship. I can’t experience connection without letting another see who I am. I’m still learning how to be consistently honest with myself about who I am and what I need each day. It’s not easy to share that with another person.

But connection is what I want. Choosing connection over validation means feeling all my fears of rejection and doubts about my likeability and reaching out anyway. It means letting go of looking for the answer to who I’m supposed to be and repeatedly asking the day-by-day, moment-by-moment questions—Who am I? Who are you? Who are we?

I’d love to hear…what are your biggest struggles with making friends? What are your favorite parts of getting to know someone? What questions do you like to ask? What do you wish someone would ask you? Send me an email and let me know.