Friendship relationships play an important role in everyone's life, but they can’t be built artificially or forced; they require time and involvement from us. We become friends with people we perceive as similar to us, with whom we share interests, values, or similar beliefs, and based on these similarities, we begin to build more and more, invest emotionally, and open up to each other.
However, there are moments in life when something makes us doubt the sincerity of the friendship we have with someone. We don’t want, of course, to doubt those who are close to us, but certain words, gestures, or actions slowly begin to raise questions. Is he or she truly a friend to me? Is it beneficial to continue this relationship, or would it be wiser to take a step back?
So, what makes the difference between a true friend and a mere "passerby" in our lives? A true friend...
-accepts you as you are - they don’t impose on you to be or live in a certain way (according to what they believe is right), they don’t try to change you, they don’t criticize you, and they don't judge you for what they perceive as your faults. They accept you with your flaws and strengths. In their presence, you feel that you can be exactly as you are, authentic; you feel comfortable.
-he/she wants what's best for you - often people, in an attempt to make others do what they want or what they believe is best, say: "I only want what's best for you." The problem here is that often, without realizing it, what we perceive as best for the other person is not, in fact, in their best interest. No matter how well-intentioned we may be, we can’t know better than the person in question what is best for them; we can only assume based on our life experience, beliefs, and needs, not theirs.
A friend who wants what's best for you allows you to make your own choices; they give you the space you need to make your own decisions and they don’t bombard you with advice, especially if you didn’t ask for it. If you make a mistake, they don’t make you feel guilty or ashamed, but they try to support you, be there for you, encourage you to take responsibility for your mistakes. They maintain enough distance between you and themselves so that you have the space to see and take responsibility for your own actions. They help you reflect on whether you made a mistake or not, where you went wrong, and what you can learn from it, rather than rushing to save you, distracting you from your uncomfortable feelings (which can lead you to avoid taking responsibility), or reproaching you: "I told you so." They also maintain a close enough distance to let you feel that "you are not alone," that they are still there for you, accepting you despite your mistakes.
-he/she respects you - respecting a friend means respecting their opinions, feelings, decisions, values, boundaries, and their way of being.
- respecting one’s opinions - being friends with someone doesn’t mean you have to agree with them all the time; it means that despite having differences of opinion, you continue to show respect. Differences of opinion should not be the perfect occasion to prove to the other person that they are wrong or that they are making a mistake; it should not be an opportunity to persuade the other person, to try to make them give up their opinions because yours are "right" and "correct." If we are willing to approach with an open mind and try to understand different opinions (or why someone thinks in a certain way), we can expand the horizons of our perception, even if we agree or disagree with those opinions.
- respecting one’s feelings - a true friend respects your feelings simply by not judging you for them; they do not try to block your feelings (by blocking their expression, for example, by saying things like "you shouldn't feel that way," "you have no reason to feel that way"), and they do not invalidate them. For example, if your friend feels sad, give them the space they need to experience that sadness and let go of it. Be there for them, empathize with them, show them your compassion and understanding, tell them you're sorry, but do not rush to "save them" from their own feelings, especially since this rescue is temporary, superficial, and only postpones their confrontation with those feelings. If your friend is angry or upset about something you did, do not rush to say: "you're wrong," "you're imagining things," or "you're exaggerating" – this way, you show that their feelings do not matter. Accept the fact that they are upset (perhaps because they felt you treated them unfairly, even if it was not your intention), but suggest that you address the issue, express your point of view, and avoid becoming defensive. Because, yes, often we think that others exaggerate or have no reason to feel a certain way, but this perception does not change the reality of their feelings. However, through communication and an attitude as non-confrontational or at least curious as possible, we can resolve issues and avoid turning misunderstandings into real conflicts.
- respecting one’s decisions - a true friend will not try to intervene in your life in a forceful way, they will not pressure you to change your decisions or make certain decisions they want, and they will not emotionally blackmail you, inducing you feelings of guilt because they didn’t agree with the decisions you made. They will not "direct" or control you as if you were a small child who should or shouldn’t do certain things. By controlling you, they are giving you the idea that you are incapable of managing your life on your own and that you lack personal power.
- respecting one’s values - in general, friendship relationships are also based on compatibility in terms of values, but since that compatibility is not 100%, a true friend will know how to respect the values they do not share. If you are not like me, it does not mean you are worse or better; it just means you are different, and respecting the differences between people is one of the most important pillars of any healthy society.
- respecting one’s personal boundaries and limits - every person, regardless of their level of closeness to us, has the right to decide for themselves how much they allow and what they allow from others. For example, if you are the type of person who has no problem with unannounced guests, for another friend of yours, showing up unannounced at their door could be extremely annoying. Whatever the case may be, for a friendship to work, both friends need to set, express, and respect their personal boundaries and limits. If someone does not respect these boundaries, especially when they know them (perhaps you have repeated them many times), they do not respect or value you. A friendship does not allow "anything" and does not tolerate "anything" (as some people wrongly believe) precisely because friendship is supposed to be so valuable to us, so we should pay attention to our behaviors.
-he/she doesn’t have "demands" and unrealistic expectations - we often see this entitlement that some people have towards their friends, more or less close. "Because you are my friend, you owe it to me to.../ I expect you to.../ I ask you to.../ I get upset if you don't...". No, someone's status as your friend does not turn that person into your subordinate, does not obligate them to please you at all costs, and do not constrain them in any way. A friendship is supposed to be based on reciprocity, understanding, empathy, respect, equality, the pleasure of spending time together, discovering things together, being there for each other in both beautiful and less beautiful moments of life, not on manipulation, fear, or a kind of blackmail like "give me what I want because you don't know when you'll need me ", "if you don't do as I say, I won't help you either".
Yes, friendship implies reciprocity, it implies the desire to help each other if help is needed, but that help does not come as a result of an emotional blackmail like "if you don't give me what I want, you'll see what happens... ", "if you don't do this for me, you're selfish". You should not feel obligated to do something for someone; you do those things because you want to. And you are not responsible for anyone's life, just as you can’t expect someone else to take responsibility for your life and wellbeing. We are not helpless children who need to be given all sort of things and taken care of, and the entitlement in our friendships comes from both our immaturity and our selfishness.
No one owes us anything, no matter how good friends we are with those people. The friends in our lives are not substitutes for parents or caregivers, and we are no longer helpless children. We should give from our abundance, give as much as we can and feel, give with joy and love, and know when what is asked of us exceeds our resources, regardless of their type, and then know how to refuse. Let's be mindful if those we refuse can accept a refusal or if suddenly we become just spoiled fruit in their eyes (in which case it is very likely that we have only been used as 'suppliers'). Those who are our friends do not take advantage of us;
-they are there for you in both beautiful and difficult moments of life - we all know that life is not only sprinkled with joys and rosy moments, but also with difficulties and downsides, and a friend who is willing to be there for you in difficult times (he/she listens to you, offers a shoulder to cry on, encourages you, or helps you in any other way they can, as much as they can, knowing when and how much to intervene in such a way that you always rely primarily on your own strengths) is truly a genuine friend.
-he is honest with you and tells you even what you don't want to hear - the truth can sometimes be painful if we can't accept that truth, and a true friend will not just tell you what you want to hear to stay in your good graces; they will also tell you less pleasant but true things, at the risk of getting upset with them. For example, there are certain practices (especially abroad) called "interventions" in which we deal with a person who has a certain problem that has spiraled out of control (drug addiction, alcoholism, compulsive eating, or any other behavior that significantly affects the person's functionality) and he/she is encouraged by their loved ones (friends, family members) in the context of an "intervention" meeting to confront that problem, not to deny it anymore, and seek specialized help. Each of these participants in that meeting has the courage to tell the person in question an unpleasant truth, hoping that it will "wake them up to reality," but his/her subsequent behaviors and decisions no longer depend on them;
-he/she rejoices for you and encourages you to pursue your goals and dreams - be wary of people who claim to be your friends but discourage you, put you down, and do not share your enthusiasm. A true friend doesn’t do that and doesn’t try to convince you that your dreams are impossible to achieve; quite the opposite;
-he/she doesn’t lie to you, speak ill of you, gossip about you, and doesn’t allow others to do so in his/her presence - a friend tells you things to your face if he has something to say, doesn't complain behind your back, doesn't speak ill of you, and doesn't twist your words to make himself look good. He/she doesn’t use what he knows about you to attack you or to make things difficult for you or to harm in any way;
-he/she makes time for you - we live in a demanding world, and we all have tasks to fulfill, problems to solve, and goals to achieve. Even if all our responsibilities don’t allow us to spend as much time together as we want, a true friend will find a way to include you in his/her life, and you, in turn, will do the same. If we want someone to be a part of our lives, we can find a way to keep the interest alive. We are not necessarily talking about how much time we spend together, but about the quality of the time spent together. For example, your best friend may live in another country, and the fact that you don’t meet in person may not affect the quality of your relationship at all because you have found other ways to maintain the emotional connection. In a friendship, it is more about attention, interest, and emotional presence, as you can spend hours with someone, but your interaction can be superficial or just polite;
-he/she is interested in your life, listens to you, and doesn't judge you; he/she is your ally, not your rival - you may sometimes feel that your friend is competing with you, that, although he/she says he/she is happy for your achievements, your intuition tells you that he/she actually envies you. If you feel these things, do not ignore them, but try to find out what is the truth. Also, observe if that person is interested in your life only because they need certain information that could benefit them, or if they genuinely care about you. Observe if they tend to judge or criticize you, throw a snide remark that they then mask as a "joke," or give you "compliments" that sound more like veiled insults. Sometimes the insincere intentions of a person surface through these small details.
Our friends are the family we choose for ourselves, and we have no reason to accept people in our lives who are only looking to take advantage of us without giving anything in return, who drain our vitality and burden our existence, who judge us, speak ill of us behind our backs even though they smile nicely to our faces, who devalue or don’t respect us, who don’t take our feelings into account, who violate our boundaries, who don’t keep their word and mess with our plans this way, who don’t know how to respect the intimacy of a friendship, who tell others everything we tell them in confidence.
Let's distance ourselves from toxic people and make room in our lives for those who truly deserve a place there. Let's choose with our mind, but also with our heart, the people to whom we grant our friendship, and then let's not forget to nourish the respect, trust, and affection that underlie that relationship.
What does a true friend mean to you?
Dr. Ursula Sandner