The value of having supportive friends and associates can scarcely be overestimated.
– from Step 4 of my post, How to Change Who You Are.
Perhaps the most difficult challenge we face when we resolve to make positive changes in our lives is that, often times, our existing friends, family and associates are unable or unwilling to support us. Sometimes they don’t understand the resolutions we are making, or they don’t understand how or why it is important to us. They may be non-supportive at best and condescending at worst.
One moment, we might feel inspired and hopeful about our new direction in life, and the next moment we feel alienated and discouraged. Unless we are exceptionally strong and stubborn, alienation from those people we care about can drain our inspiration and pull us back to the same old lifestyle habits. And even the most persistent stubbornness can only sustain us for so long before draining our energy.
The problem is that we’ve built our lives and our social networks around our existing lifestyle habits. We chose our friends because they reinforced those habits and made us feel comfortable, validated and safe. When we decide that we are going to change those habits, we are threatening that system. And if our friends and associates are not on the same path of change, we are threatening those relationships. It is inevitable that when we change the way we live, we change the way we interact and relate with others.
Changing Our Social Circles
About 20 years ago, I was facing two unpleasant options. Either continue down the path of addiction which predictably ended in self-destruction, or make some serious changes in nearly every area of my life. The first path was familiar and comfortable to me. I knew that I would continue to experience misery, loneliness, failure and probably an early death. The second path was uncomfortable, unfamiliar and no one I associated with was taking it. I didn’t want to change everything about my life. I just wanted the misery to go away. I wanted to be able to set goals and actually achieve something rather than continuously alienating myself and making the same mistakes over and over again.
I soon learned that making long-lasting, significant change requires a deep commitment that begins with changing our social circle. When I reached out to a 12 step program for help, other members strongly suggested that if I wanted to be free from the burdens of addiction, I would have to let go of all ties to the people with whom I practiced my addiction and establish connections with people who are free from these practices. I use the phrase, “strongly suggested,” but the reality of the message delivered to me was this: “you will do this or your addiction will kill you.” In other words, do it or die. That’s a pretty strong “suggestion.”
This was the single most difficult thing for me to do. But I had seen so many others fail and end up in misery, living on the streets, in prison or dead, and in nearly every case, it was their failure to change their social circles that lead to the ultimate failure. Of course, witnessing this failure motivated me to give it a try. As a result, I have been free from the imprisonment of addiction since then.
In some ways, it may be easier to commit to such changes when you are dealing with a life threatening condition such as addiction. When simply faced with mediocrity and a desire for a better life, we have to work harder to keep ourselves inspired. However, our goal does not need to be quite as extreme. It is probably not necessary to drop all of our old associates and replace them with new ones if we’re simply trying to live a more inspired life. It is probably enough to start by associating with a few people who are more like the person we want to become. This should be enough to make us strong enough to face the non-supportive ones without allowing their negativity to influence us.
Quick List of Ways to Find Good Friends
Making new friends can take time, patience and energy, but it can be rewarding and rejuvenating. In my case, I had the help of a 12-step fellowship with thousands of other addicts seeking the same path I was seeking. Not everyone has that option. So, here’s a quick list of other places to help you get started:
- Join a support group, community group or organization of people who suit your interests. Some examples include Toastmaster’s International, any number of 12-Step fellowships, parenting groups, etc.
- Volunteer for an organization you strongly believe in. You will find others who share that belief.
- Join a sports team.
- Participate in online forums and discussions focused on something you are strongly interested in or one directed at people making the same changes you are making.
- Become involved in a church or fellowship that is aligned with your values.
- Enroll in a class or educational program.
- Meet friends of friends by inviting your friends to bring their friends to an activity or event.
- Be a good listener.
- Be a good friend.
One Person at a Time
When establishing a support system, it is not necessary to focus on gathering a large group of people. Instead, just try to relate with others one-on-one. Normally, that is how social circles are built. You know someone; you meet some of their friends; you feel a connection with one of them; and in turn, you meet some of that person’s friends, etc. Even if a large social circle is not established, having a few good, supportive friendships is much more valuable than having many friends who are not supportive.
We Get What We Give
When establishing a support system, it is important to focus on what we can give. When we think about support systems, we may think about surrounding ourselves with people who will offer us support and guidance. However, if we focus too heavily on that aspect of the relationship, we may find that our friendship is too burdensome, and our friends may not have the energy or desire to keep giving.
When we give of ourselves to our friends and stay mindful of their needs, we experience joy and a deeper connection to that person. And, we help them become a stronger person who is more readily prepared to help us in our time of need.
Once we have supportive people in our lives, it will be much easier to practice the forth step to long lasting change:
Share your plans with others who will support your decision to change. This is especially helpful if shared with others who are making or have made similar changes. It may also help to avoid sharing with others who may not be supportive until you have achieved some success. The value of having supportive friends and associates can scarcely be overestimated.
-from How to Change Who You Are.