July 30 is International Day of Friendship!

To celebrate, I want to talk a little bit about friendship, connection, compassion, and openness. This will wrap up the series from this month that started with Mindfulness 101!

Friend Levels

I have been talking for years about ‘Friend Levels’ – I got the concept years ago from an article about how many connections you need that was derived from the research of Robin Dunbar, a British psychologist. I think the first article I read was called “The Limits of Friendship” by Maria Konnikova in October 2014. They have also updated the number over the years and added some.

There was a post-pandemic update in the NYT about it in May 2022 called “How Many Close Friends Do You Need in Adulthood?” 

My recollection may have shifted over the years – I called the levels: 

  • BFFs – the chart above called them “Intimates” – of which you have 1 or 2 over the course of your life and they can also be partners or family members. These friends are the kind of friends you could bury a body with, that know all of your secrets, and who you plan to sit on the porch and complain about ‘the youngsters’ with when you are a grumpy old lady. 
  • Close Friends or Trusted Friends – 2 to 5 of these that you see often and have a close, trusting connection with for as long as you are connected. These may be lifelong friends that you reconnect with easily even after time has passed. To use similar examples to those above, you would call them to bail you out of jail, tell them many things (but maybe not all), and plan for them to be in your life in some way forever. 
  • Activity Friends – 5-15 people that you do certain things with or work with, but are not close with outside of that context. You may trust them or talk to them about stressors in your life, but these friendships tend to fade if you move away or do not see them very often. We might miss them, but it would be more nostalgia than loss. 
  • Acquaintances – 15-50 people that you interact with regularly (neighbors, people at the train station you see on your commute, people you say hello to when you are walking the dog, people on social media) and connect with at some level, but are not trusted people in your life. 

For me, as an introvert and a therapist, helped me conceptualize the importance of connections over social media (which I categorize as Acquaintances) to others. It also made me comfortable, the idea that I would have different levels of friends that mean different things to me at different times in my life, and that it is normal and reasonable to have these fluctuations with my friendships. 

I am a very loyal friend – my oldest friend has been around since we were in junior high and I love her dearly. She is what I call a ‘BFF’ or ‘level one’ friend – whatever you want to call it, we will be friends no matter what happens in our lives or if we lose touch for a while. It is never more than a few months, and we both try really hard to make sure that we connect regularly and set up routines that help us do that, like regularly scheduled visits with her and her family, with just her, and with other friends of ours that we share. I have other close friends from most eras of my life that I keep in touch with and see regularly – high school, grad school, and all of the different places I have lived. These friendships, along with close family relationships, form the core of my friend group. 

Activity friends are great – no one wants to go to work unless they have people there to connect to. Having people you do certain things with, like go see Marvel movies, can sometimes turn into close friends, also, over time. I had a bunch of these types of friends in each place I have lived, and only one or two have stuck with me and made it to level 2. This is the area of friendship that I will always be on the lookout for – people to add to the positivity in my life. Research indicates that it takes 40-100 hours of friendship activity to become more than that – that is a lot of movies! It also explains why when you go on a trip with someone (like a work conference) you tend to develop a much closer relationship with them – you are spending a bunch of time together! 

I have to admit, I do not pay a lot of attention to my acquaintances. Not surprising, but sometimes it does make me wonder if I could connect more with people like neighbors and people in other departments at different jobs and what might have been. 

Friend Skills

Connection, compassion, and openness are all skills that we need to have strong friendships and things that develop over the course of our lives. 

This  is another interesting set of articles called The Friendship Files. One of these talks about the ‘six forces that help form friendships and maintain them through the years: accumulation, attention, intention, ritual, imagination, and grace.’ I will talk about just a few of them that impact my friendships and keep them going.

Connection is something that all of us need and some of us suck at. The forces of accumulation and ritual speak to this the most to me. 

Accumulation is the time spent together – this is one of the reasons friendships form more easily when you are younger. We get busier as we get older and have more demands on our time. When we were in school we spent a lot more time together, with people who had inherently similar backgrounds to us. Similar to activity friends that transfer into closer relationships the more time you spend with them. 40-100 hours of work friendship usually takes at least a year of lunches and shared projects, and some time away from work, to accumulate.

Rituals,  like getting into a routine of eating lunch with a coworker or the Sunday afternoon phone calls I often have with my closest friends, are part of what keep a friendship alive. Even if they are not expressed, they have power. Ever had a friend stop doing one of these? Ugh, it’s harsh. And also a signal that you need to address something in the relationship. 

Social connection is something that you focus on a lot with Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RO DBT) – part of that are the routines, habits, and rituals that humans have developed over time to help keep individual tribe members safe. These behaviors help foster connection and help you stay part of your ‘tribe’ so that you gain the benefits of the group. Once upon a time, this may have been about safety. Now, it is also part of our identity in a way that if we do not have our groups, we feel disconnected as people.

This doesn’t have to be in person, it could be online, but everyone, no matter how independent or introverted, needs connection.

Grace – two of the big elements here, I think, are compassion and openness. 

I am big on compassion lately – most of my clients and friends will have heard the word at least once in the last few months. In general, we are much better friends to others than we are to ourselves, but if we do not have self-compassion, we tend to become poorer friends to others. Paradox, but also a good reminder – you have to experience grace to be able to give it to others.

As far as openness, I think that is mostly about non-judgment. My friends will be my friends no matter what they do. I may not approve of their behavior, but that doesn’t stop me from loving them and believing in them. It helps to also be flexible – people do not always do exactly what they say they will do, and we frequently communicate poorly. Assuming that the people we value also value us and are not trying to be hurtful goes a long way in these kinds of situations. When I was younger, I tended to be much more black and white, and it hurt my relationships. Now, I see all shades of gray, and even when my automatic response is negative, I try to step back and see the nuances. 

I like to think I am a good friend, and I am trying to be a better one all the time – like so many things, it is an ongoing process!