Homo sapiens is a social primate with a highly developed forebrain and an inherent capacity for using tools to accomplish tasks not otherwise possible for the species.
A SOCIAL primate… we are social creatures by nature and, barring extreme abuse or neglect in childhood, continue to have varying levels of social need throughout our lives.
Yes, even Introverts have a need to engage in social interaction from time to time, if only to get a reality check from someone other than the chattering monkeys inside their own heads.
Don’t even get me started on the Extroverts…most of the ones that I know claim to have come out of the womb with a cocktail in one hand and a phone in the other, looking for where the next party is. The few non-gregarious extroverts I know still enjoy some social people-ing when they return from their journeys to remote places where the outer world is exciting but missing a lot of humanity.
There is a bit of common wisdom that says something along the lines of “You are a composite of the five people who you spend the most time with”.
While I don’t necessarily think this is entirely accurate (for instance, where does the Authentic Self fit into this composite, unless we want to explore the recursive idea that YOU are one of those five…?), it does at least bear looking at, because the people that we surround ourselves with DO have a significant impact on how we see ourselves, how we see humanity and how we see the world.
In an ideal social situation, everyone gets along, they all have the same ideals and agendas and they are all mutually supportive of their fellows, with no-one needing more than they give and everyone fulfilled and healthy and seeking self-actualization together.
Most of us don’t live in that world.
And even if we did, we wouldn’t be living in that world because every single individual human is the result of a series of trial and error self-programming processes that cobbled together a complex tapestry of experiences, both supportive and traumatic, that ended up being the creature we call “You”. And since there are more than 7 BILLION of these self-programmed experience recorders trying to interact in a meaningful way, it just isn’t going to happen that every single one of those persons is going to be fully compatible with every single other one of them.
You can try, if you like, to be a fully accommodating counterpart to every person you meet, but let me speak a little from experience on this one: It sucks and it still doesn’t work.
Some people are going to despise you simply because they know you aren’t being authentic with them and so they cannot get a sense of trust for you.
Well… it means that the world is a rich diverse panoply of people, each individual of which may or may not be compatible within certain tolerances with any given other individual. Most will be compatible within a tolerance range of about 50% or so… enough to get along at the surface level without taking an instant dislike to one another. This is an important adaptation that allows us to gather in groups that don’t immediately fly apart at the seams as soon as some environmental pressure hits. People who are more compatible than that will tend to aggregate around each other because it feels good to be surrounded by people that we are compatible with… we are hard-wired for it. This aggregate will often be called a “Friends’ Circle” or a “Post Modern Tribe” or any of a number of other things. We can spitball compatibility in this Circle as ranging from the aforementioned 50% (Friend of a friend) up to about 85-90% for Besties. Still not 100% compatible. The only one that can possibly reach the 100% compatibility level with you is… you guessed it: Yourself.
And even that is not guaranteed. We all have things about ourselves we don’t like. Habits, tendencies, temperaments, a fat butt (OK, I may be over sharing here on this one) all might be subject to being assessed as “not compatible with self image”. But let’s get back to the Social Circle…
If you would indulge me in a metaphor for a bit, let’s look at your Social Circle as being like a garden.This garden is yours to cultivate and nurture in whatever way you like. It is yours to shape into your ideal place to live. It can filled with flowers and beauty, or it can be wild and adventurous or it can be nurturing and filled with things that can support your life, and in all likelihood, it will have elements of all of these.
In any garden, you will need tools to make cultivating and maintaining that garden in a way that keeps it in a state that pleases you. The same goes for your social circle garden. There are tools that can help maintain your garden’s health and vigor, and can help you recognize weeds so that you can get rid of them. I submit the following 5 tools as being the most useful to me, and hopefully they can help you bring your Social Garden into a semblance of a place that brings you more joy than sorrow and is nurturing and supportive instead of depleting and frustrating.
Tool #5 – No matter where in life you go, there you are.
This one may seem obvious and I get called on the fact that I harp on it quite a bit, but it’s an important fact: You are the common thread throughout your life. Things that happen to you may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility to deal with them. You are living in the place and conditions you are currently in and have those resources and challenges to deal with. It does no good to make plans that are dependent on some theoretical other place and set of conditions… and the people around you are part of that. If you are surrounded by friends and loved ones, great! If you are surrounded by toxic assholes, that sucks, but at least armed with that knowledge, you can start to correct for it. Most people have varying mixtures of both. Whatever it is you have to work with, though, is what you have and burying your head in the sand about it only propagates the current trend. So take an unashamed appraising look at your garden and see what’s growing there, because you cannot decide what has to change until you have both a desired end result and clear and current picture of what you have to work with.
Tool #4 – Some people are good for you. You should spend more time with these people if they allow it.
There are people who are genuinely GOOD for you… they support your goals, boost your self-esteem, help you keep accountable to your word without inducing shame or guilt, promote your positive qualities while compassionately encouraging you to correct for your faults and a host of other positive actions that make them an unambiguously positive element of your social circle. These are people who you need to KEEP AROUND. Seriously, these are the people who make life better for you. They might not do this for everyone, but if they do it for you, then they are good for you to have around. And while it may seem silly to have to say it, there are plenty of people out there that have been reprogrammed by negative influences to cut such positive influences out of their lives because of the idea “I don’t deserve good things and people”. This is, to put it succinctly, a crock of shit! All people, including you, dear reader, should have good things and people in your life. If you don’t have good things right now, that sucks and it behooves you to make some changes (See Rule #5). In our garden metaphor, these people are the desired elements of your garden: The beautiful Flowers, the nurturing fruit trees, the relaxing shade, the elements that bring your garden closer to your ideal. Each of these elements must be accepted for what they are (cannot grow artichokes from a carrot plant, for instance) and they must be cultured as best suits each of them. Some of them will not be compatible with each other and so should not be planted right next to each other either… others will be fast friends and will work to make the garden even more lovely together.
Tool #3 – Some people are bad for you. You should spend less time with these people whether they “need you” or not.
Some people are genuinely and unambiguously BAD for you. They cause you to question your sanity and perceptions, undermine your self esteem and self worth, demand that you compromise your values in favor of theirs and, possibly worst of all, deny your validity and dignity as a Human Being. People who do these things to you are toxic for you . They may not do it to everyone, but if they do it to you, then you are better off without these people in you life. Why would people keep these toxic elements around? The answer to this one is kind of complicated, but ultimately rests in misplaced obligation (They NEED me… and it’s good to be needed, right?), imposed values centered in self denial (My needs are less important than the people I love, right?), and a diminished sense of self-worth (I deserve this and don’t deserve better). These people are the toxic weeds of the garden. Poison ivy, kudzu, dodder, ragweed, knotweed, crabgrass. They take nutrients from the soil (and in some cases, from the other plants) and give nothing back but suffering and ugliness. Sometimes it is work to get rid of them once they become established, but it is well worth the effort, because without them, the things you want in your garden can grow freely.
Tool #2 – Not everyone is either bad for you or good for you… many fluctuate; assess accordingly.
OK… now that our two extremes are mentioned, it is important to understand that most people actually fall somewhere between the extremes. A blackberry bramble can provide nourishment, but if allowed to go wild without any boundaries, will soon take over it’s allowed space in your garden and choke out other things you want to keep. Similarly, in our lives, it is possible for a needy friend to overstep boundaries and take up more space in your life than is necessarily healthy for you. As a temporary measure, this is sometimes a necessary thing (the blackberry suffered a rootblight and needs to be allowed to grow freely for a season to get the energy to reestablish itself); however, this should not be a permanent change of status unless YOU want to make a change in your garden to reflect that( and have a ton of blackberries and very little else in your garden). Your garden is not likely to be a static thing… neither is your Social Circle. You get to decide whether or not to keep someone in your space. And how much time you want to spend with them. If they start to encroach on other things, it is up to you to prune it back a little and set the boundaries. Teach the people in your life how you need to be treated. Let them know which behaviors are desirable, which are acceptable and which are unacceptable to you. Decide where on the scale of beneficial to harmful they fall and treat them accordingly (If they are more beneficial, but make you “itchy”, enjoy the times you have with them, but limit your exposure, for example). If they are a little more harmful than beneficial, but also make for fun times, also limit your interactions accordingly (maybe socialize with them only in groups and then set firm boundaries as needed) . Whatever the case, realize that very few people are all bad or all good. Most people are like the blackberry in my example metaphor – beneficial, but need healthy boundaries set so that they don’t overrun your garden in pursuit of their own goals. (Note: my personal view on blackberry is that they are trying their very best to take over the entire world)
Tool #1 – You are the adult in your life and you are responsible for who you spend time with.
So there are all of these people in the world… and some of them just aren’t going to work out for you… it doesn’t mean that they are bad people.
It just means that they might be bad for you. (Though it has to be said that some of them may in fact be bad people… it’s just that compatibility with you is not the determining criteria for that).
And you are the adult in your life and therefore you are the party that is responsible to you for taking care of you.
Keep this in mind, because it is Tool #1 for unfucking your social circle: If you need to spend less time with someone who is toxic to you, it is up to you to set that boundary and spend less time with that toxic person.
This does not mean that other people should spend less time with them… just you. If other people find that person to be bad for them, then they are responsible for taking care of their own boundaries. Each of us is responsible for setting and maintaining our own boundaries.
Children are exempt from this for obvious reasons, but their parents must take up the mantle of responsibility for them and make sure that they learn HOW to maintain their own social space so that when they ARE adults, they will know how to do so for themselves. And you wanna know the best, research demonstrated best, way to teach kids how to keep healthy friendships and eliminate toxic relationships from their lives? Modeling from their caregivers. Meaning if you are a parent in a toxic relationship, it is better for the kids if you pull out now than if you “wait for them to be grown up”. A broken home is demonstrably less traumatic than continuing to live in an atmosphere of resentment, abuse, denigration, gaslighting, invalidation or any of a number of other toxic habits that humans use against each other when a relationship has gone poisonous.
SO what’s the wrap-up here?
Ultimately, each of us has a social circle… people that we associate with on a daily basis. They may be friends, enemies, frenemies, colleagues, rivals, family and host of other categories that people fit into to describe their relationships with each other. For each of us it is necessary for our own mental and emotional health to spend more time with the people who are healthy for us and less time with the people that are unhealthy for us. If our life circumstances do not reflect this state of affairs (meaning we spend too much time with the ones that are bad for us and not enough with the ones that are good for us) then it behooves us to make the necessary changes to bring things back into a healthier balance. It may seem difficult or even impossible, but believe me, it can be done… must be done… if you want to untangle the Chaos Web and unfuck your life.
Thanks for reading.
As usual, this is a dialogue and not a diatribe.
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