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Are communication and mutual acceptance sufficient to provide a foundation for friendship? What glues people together? What is the role of friendship in life and what is the essence of friendship? Przemysław Staroń, psychologist and culture expert from the Sopot Faculty of Psychology, at SWPS University, answers these questions.

If you need to find a wise quote about friendship, there is plenty of choice. Bookstores offer a multitude of publications on the subject and Google provides 843,000,000 search results related to the phrase “friendship”. Therefore, regardless of what you think of friendship, you can be sure of one thing ‒ it is important, because people talk and write about it a lot.

If you are not convinced by statistics, you can review various cultural texts. Well known works of literature, such as Anne of Green Gables, The Six Bullerby Children, the world of Harry Potter, the universe created by Tolkien and an extraordinary analysis conducted by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in The Little Prince, all deal with various aspects of friendship. The film industry also approaches this subject in a spectacular way.

Philosophy, even by its name, praises friendship, because the literal meaning of the Greek word is “friendly love of wisdom” [philo (love) + sophia (wisdom)]. Moreover religions, from Rome to Tibet, emphasize the value of assisting each other in the journey to a spiritual pinnacle. If this list is not a crowning argument for you, your own experiences of friendship may convince you that friendship is important. Unfortunately, not everyone would agree. If you have ever been abandoned or rejected by a friend, you may carry a deep wound inside, which prevents you from entering into close relationships in the subsequent stages of life.

However, a feeling of doubt emerges whether the person, who abandoned or betrayed you, was your true friend. They were your friend, but then they stopped? Is it possible? To answer these questions and justify the place of friendship in life one must understand what is the essence of friendship. Not what the characteristics of friendship are, but what the essence of friendship is.

Honest conversations make friendship necessary and very valuable. You can say and express everything in front of friends and you will be understood and accepted. It does not mean that friends should praise you for everything and that they are not allowed to criticize you.

The essence of friendship

Let’s look at the characteristic of friendship. For example, openness is one of the traits of friendship. However, we expect most people we meet in life, including employees of public administration, to be open.

Another characteristic is similarity, but you probably know people who in some way are like you, but you are not close with them. What about trust and feeling safe with someone? Even a good family doctor can fulfill these two requirements. Of course, it does not mean that you do not expect openness, likeness, trust and the feeling of safety from friends. But even the sum of these characteristics does not provide a description of friendship. The deepest essence of friendship is that you do not have to pretend anything with your friends.

Theatre of life

Erving Goffman, a renowned Canadian-American sociologist, noted that we all perform on stage. Every day. If we are among people, we perform almost incessantly. According to Goffman, a mere presence of another person inevitably transforms your every activity into a performance. Is it hard to believe?

Just recall how you eat potato chips in the presence of others and how you do it when you are watching a TV series at home, by yourself. Or another situation, when you send a text message meant for a friend to your parents, by mistake. On YouTube, there is a music video called “Second Lives” by Vitalic, which shows what people, who are convince that none is watching them, do in a toilet cubicle. At times, watching them makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. You might say that the video is an exaggeration. And that only ridiculous and false people perform.

Nevertheless, assuming various roles is a very human behavior. Note, that the Latin word “persona” is derived from the Greek prósōpon, which means a mask of the type actors used to wear in the ancient Greek theatre.

Friendship brings salvation and allows you to stop performing. It is like a smiling dresser, who sees you off stage, in your dressing room. It is in his or her hands that you, tired, sweaty, upset or proud, put your stage costume. He or she helps you to take the stage clothes off, gives you a glass of water and something more important ‒ an ear that listens and a shoulder to cry on. The dresser also prepares you for the next appearance on stage, supports you, keeps his or her fingers crossed for you and motivates you. The dresser sees you with your unshaved armpits, with the fatty folds on your stomach, with tears in your eyes and it does not bother you that they do. On the contrary, this bareness provides a respite between your appearances on stage. In the company of the dresser, you can really be yourself. You do not have to pretend any more.

Friends vs family

The accolades bestowed upon friendship seem to downgrade the role of the family. Books, mass media and offices of psychotherapists are full of heartbreak stories of people, who must perform and pretend in front of their families. Because of our unhappy relationships at home, we read books or seek help in therapy to escape into a different world or to fix the one we come from. One might say that confessor or a therapist also provide a space where you do not have to pretend. However, this comes with the job, which requires a fundamental element of friendship.

Why does friendship undermine the role of family? The socio-cultural conditions of our lives are conducive to the development of specific model of family. In most cases, family does not provide a space, where you can be yourself. And the most tragic thing is that families do not talk enough. There is a lack of deep and honest conversations, which allow family members to be themselves.

Haruki Murakami wrote that pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice... Thanks to friendship, pain may not turn into suffering, because you have a chance to express it. Pain expressed and heard by someone else is lighter by half, because it is managed and taken care of.

Honest conversations

Honest conversations make friendship wonderful, necessary and very valuable. You can say and express everything in front of friends and you will be understood and accepted. It does not mean that friends should praise you for everything and that they are not allowed to criticize you. This is not the clue of friendship.

To understand this, you need to understand the difference between acceptance and approval. Acceptance is derived from the Latin word accepto, which means: “to accept”. Approval, on the other hand, is derived from the Latin word aprobo, which means “to agree”. Friends have the right not to approve of your behaviors or decisions. If they praised you for something that they do not agree with, they themselves would be pretending. However, friends are people who accept you. They may tell you that, in their opinion, the relationship you are in is ruining your life, but at the same time they let you know that they will never leave you, despite the fact that you, in their opinion, are making wrong choices.

What makes friendship such a unique phenomenon is a coexistence of two factors: the acceptance of you as a person and a respectful approval or disapproval of your actions. If the same attitude is transferred into the sphere of family, romantic relationships and any other relations, it gives them depth. Sometimes you see this, when spouses or partners say that they are friends first and then lovers, when daughters admit that their mothers are their best friends and when students claim that their teacher is their role model and their best friend.

How can you build relationships like these? You need to see and hear emotions that your friends experience and provide them with assurance that they can work through all these feelings in your company. At the same time, you should create a space, which allows you to break a stream of complaints or tears, by telling a story of an unusual event that happened on the bus. However, everything must be built on honesty and must be authentic, otherwise it will not work.

Haruki Murakami wrote that pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice. You cannot avoid pain that life brings, because this is how your psyche has been structured. Lack of pain would indicate that you have no emotions, which would mean either that you are dead or that you are under the influence of a strong psychoactive substance. Thanks to friendship, pain may not turn into suffering, because you have a chance to express it. Pain expressed and heard by someone else is lighter by half, because it is managed and taken care of. Just as the Peanuts comic strip says: “Friendship picks you up, when the world lets you down.” Friends kiss pain better.

The article was first published in the Polish edition of „Newsweek Psychologia Extra 4/2018”
Magazine available here »


About the Author

258 przemyslaw staron

Przemysław Staroń – psychologist and culture expert, specializing in working with adolescence, adults and senior citizens. He provides creativity training sessions and consultations for business. As a subject-matter expert, he writes for Psychologia w szkole (Psychology at School), a professional publication for teachers. Member of the Polish Association of Business Trainers (PTTB) and the Polish Association For Therapy Through Arts (PSTS). He teaches developmental psychology and conducts workshops on working with teenagers and seniors, at SWPS University in Sopot. In 2018, he was awarded a “Teacher of the Year” title granted by Głos Nauczycielski (Teacher’s Voice), a professional weekly magazine devoted to social and educational issues. Nominations for the “Teacher of the Year” national award are submitted by students, parents, head teachers, local governments, community organizations and teachers.