I’ve written in the past about 3am friends – people whom you can call in the early hours of the morning when you are in the middle of a crisis, with complete confidence that they will listen instead of biting your head off – and how we should consider ourselves lucky if we have even a handful of them. But as I looked at pictures of Maria Shriver, the estranged wife of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who left him after discovering that he had fathered an illegitimate child with their housekeeper (what a gent, eh?), walking the beach with a few friends looking miserable and near tears, I began to wonder about the nature of friendship.
Yes, it’s all very well to have some people in our lives who will drop everything and listen to us when we are in a funk. But sometimes, that’s not enough. You also have to be sure that afterwards you will feel better about yourself, not worse. You need to believe that your friends are completely on your side. That there isn’t a tiny part of them that is judging you – and finding you wanting. Or even, that at some subliminal level, they are enjoying the sight of your come-uppance.
Which is why, in my book, you need to have four kinds of friends tucked away for such emergencies.First up is the Sympathetic Listener who, as the phrase suggests, is brilliant at allowing you to let it all out. She doesn’t say very much, sometimes she even refrains from making sympathetic noises. Instead, she just creates a vast stillness between you, a safe space where you can deposit all your fear, your anger, your sorrow and your despair.
And then, by some mysterious process, she gathers all these negative emotions into herself, leaving you feeling strangely unburdened. Spend time with this sort of friend, or even speak to her on the phone, and you end up experiencing a curious lightness of being that leaves you feeling much better about yourself, even though nothing has really changed in your life.
Once you have achieved this sort of closure, you need the services of your Cruel to be Kind Friend. This one takes no prisoners. She is not afraid to tell it as it is, no matter how fragile you may be feeling at that point. And she will not allow you to wimp out even when all you want to do is curl up and die.
No, she will berate you for letting life get the better of you. She will inform you sternly that you have much to be grateful for – a good job, lovely children, your health – and that you need to snap out of it. Stop wallowing in your misery, is her essential message. As the Eagles sang so presciently many decades ago, Get Over It. And there comes a time when all of us need to hear that message.
But while friends like these work like a charm when you are feeling badly about yourself, when you have had a bad break-up for instance, or lost a job, you need a different approach when guilt – rather than sorrow and anger – is the emotion you want to overcome.
We all have moments when we feel that we have screwed up badly; that we have hurt the people we love the most through our thoughtless behaviour. And at such times, all you want to do is hit yourself on the head with a shovel over and over again so that you can wallow in the same pain that you have inflicted on others.
That’s when you need to spend time with a friend who has perfected the quality of being non-judgemental to a fine art. In other words, you need the services of the Whatever Floats Your Boat friend. As far as she is concerned, it’s all good, it’s all a part of life; and you don’t need to beat yourself up over it.
She is never shocked by your worst confessions. Cheated on your boyfriend while on a business trip; yeah, it happens, don’t make a big deal out of it. Feel that you should never have had kids because they make you miserable; hey, everyone feels that way sometimes. Hate your mother-in-law; duh, that’s the way of the universe.
No, none of this takes away the guilt about behaving badly, but you do feel a wee bit better for having shared these feelings – and having had them dismissed as banal rather than shocking.
But, if by some mischance, any of this leaves you feeling a bit rubbish, like you can’t get anything right no matter how hard you try, you need to call in The Eternal Optimist.
She is programmed to always look on the bright side of life; to see the glass as half full rather than half empty. And at times of stress, this relentless optimism can be rather invigorating. It helps that she always has a feel-good story to go with the advice; with the additional homily that if it happened to someone else, there is no reason it can’t happen to you.
I just hope that Maria Shriver has at least one such friend in each category filed away in her Rolodex (apart from her ubiquitous celebrity chum, Oprah Winfrey). Or else the months ahead are going to be very challenging indeed.
Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami
- From HT Brunch, May 29
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