I walked onto the campus of my alma mater in the Fall of 2006. I (slightly) knew a grand total of one person. I was socially backward, painfully shy and generally opposed to group activities. A recipe for disaster? It had all the earmarks…
What I didn’t know is that the campus experience would be one of the most important times of my life.
- It forced me to come out of my shell instead of retreat into it.
- It taught me social skills I sorely lacked.
- It helped me become a more functional adult.
There was one key ingredient in this growth stage–I chose my friendships wisely.
Below are a few tips I learned about choosing friendships, and I hope they will be of use to you as you enter into this new and important stage of your life.
Tip #1 – Choose friends that are emotionally healthy.
Choose friends that speak life into your world. Let’s define what these people look like:
- These are the folks that are attuned to your emotions but are not dependent on them.
- They have other friends they can also lean on.
- They give as much (or more) than they get.
- They know when to linger and when to leave.
- They have a healthy sense of interdependence instead of codependence.
These healthy souls are a somewhat rare find, so you may have to be patient. While you’re waiting, work to become the friend you hope to find in others.
Deep friendships require commitment through the good, the bad and the ugly. That’s true. But when your friendship is more like a ratio of 45% bad, 45% ugly, and 10% good, something is a little unbalanced.
You become that person’s therapist instead of their friend. Instead of sharing the weight of life together you carry their baggage for them. This person sucks more life out of you than they pour into you. These are the friendships that become ‘toxic’.
Tip #2 – Establish healthy boundaries.
There are two types of boundaries that high-functioning folks have mastered: internal boundaries and external boundaries.
Internal boundaries are the ones we use to regulate our own words and actions. This is the boundary that keeps you from a pattern of oversharing sensitive details about your life.
An example of a poor internal boundary is the person that shares their deepest secret with the lady they just met at the check-out counter. That person’s internal boundary was weak because it failed to keep private information better shared with a close friend or therapist instead of a random stranger.
An example of a healthy internal boundary is the man who correctly turns his frustration into constructive conversation rather than spewing his anger on anyone nearby.
External boundaries are the ones we use to keep us safe from other people who would overreach into our world. These boundaries are the ones that help you say “no” to requests that will stretch you too thin or cause you harm. They protect you from harsh words that do not have the ring of truth about them.
An example of a weak, external boundary is when you agree to work that extra shift for someone when you are already have too many obligations to complete. It also means you hold statements made about you in a neutral zone while you evaluate their truthfulness.
For example, have you ever had a peer call you a name or smear your character? Instead of automatically accepting their words as true or denying their words as false, try hitting the pause button for a second.
Hold their words loosely in the neutral zone and ask, “Is that true of me? What about their words are accurate or inaccurate?” Then, after careful thought, you accept or reject the parts of the statement which are true or false.
Tip #3 – Find friends from all walks of life and age ranges.
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut when finding friends. We tend to seek out folks who are similar to us (same hobbies, same belief system, same age, same nationality, same ethnicity, etc.).
I would encourage you to diversify your friendships. Seek out people who are older and wiser; seek those you can learn from (and who are also willing to learn from you). Seek out folks who are younger than you. This enables you to speak into their lives and learn from them.
Look for friends from other ethnicities or nationalities. Glean from their culture and life experiences. Gain sensitivity to the struggles they face. Find friends with different belief systems, interests, hobbies and goals. Learn the value of respect in disagreement while cherishing these relationships as gifts for growth.
Tip #4 – Learn how to ask good questions.
No one enjoys chats that are one-sided. Don’t be the person that talks endlessly about themselves. Instead, learn to ask honest and insightful questions. This helps put people at ease, and it shows genuine interest and concern for their well-being. It is also important to know levels of appropriateness when asking questions.
For example, you wouldn’t ask the same level of question to a close friend of 10 years as you would a friend of 10 minutes. The list below gives both light questions and deep questions to help guide you down the right path:
- Is there anything that excites you about moving to this city for college?
- What is your hometown like?
- How did you decide to come to this college?
- What’s your major and how did you decide to choose that one?
- Did any of your family attend this college before you?
- What do you hope to gain from your college experience?
- What are some of your hobbies or interests?
- If you could choose anywhere to travel, where would you go?
- Are you a dog person or a cat person?
- What kind of music do you like?
- Who’s been a major influence in your life?
- Use three adjectives to describe your weekend.
- What is something that’s excited you this week?
- What has been tough for you this week?
- What is your dream job and why?
- If you could be guaranteed of success, what would you attempt?
- Is there a way I can support you today?
- How have you grown this year?
- If you were to wake up tomorrow and your life was dramatically better, what would be different in your world?
Tip #5 – Be mindful of how your friendships are affecting you.
Close friendships tend to affect in very powerful, but often subtle ways–both for good or ill. It takes a high level of self-awareness to catch these subtle shifts.
For example, after hanging around wise, emotionally-functional friends for a few months, you may become aware that you are also becoming more functional in your relationships with other friends and family. You have unwittingly picked up their healthy tendencies through the time spent together.
Or, maybe you find that you have become critical, frustrated and depressed because you have surrounded yourself with a peer group that loves to spiral down the dark road of negativity.
We need to live aware of how relationships affect us physically and emotionally. Here are a few questions to help you answer the question, “How is this relationship affecting me?”.
- Does spending time with this person make me a better person?
- Is the time I spend with this person constructive and destructive?
- Do I walk away from time spent with this person feeling good about myself or poorly about myself?
- Do I walk away from time spent with this person feeling good about others or poorly about others?
- Does this person accept me or me, or do I need to wear a mask for them to like me?
- Do I always have to be perfect when I’m with this person, or is it okay for me to make mistakes?
- Does this person isolate me from others, or allow me the space I need to deepen other friendships as well?
- Does this person belittle my belief system, or honor our differences with respect?
So these are my tips to help guide down the path of finding meaningful friendships during your college years (and beyond).
While friendships can be confusing and sticky at times, don’t let those moments keep you from the journey of friendship. They’re the stuff life is made of.
I hope you find the type of friendships William Shakespeare wrote of when he said,
A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.
Trust me, they’re worth the search.
Ryan Watters is a husband and father. He’s a college professor whose teaching is in psychology and the integration of theology and counseling.
Ryan earned his BA (Ministerial Education, Pastoral Counseling) and MA (Counseling) from regionally accredited colleges.
He’s a photographer, coffee roaster, and avid hiker. He was born and raised in Michigan and has an inordinate amount of state pride.
He is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Ohio and practices at the Counseling Alliance in Cincinnati. He is certified in Developmental and Relational Trauma (DART) and is currently training to become a Certified Sexual Addiction Therapist (CSAT).