Friendships grow and change as we do. Some fit our needs at one stage of recovery but don’t when we gain greater health. As you grow in wellness, give yourself permission to explore new friendships while still holding those nearest and dearest close.
Friendship Calls for Acceptance & Challenge
In 1960, writer and theologian C. S. Lewis wrote The Four Loves, exploring different kinds of love and relationships; this is where we find a wonderful quote on friendship often paraphrased as, “Friendship is born at that moment one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’”
What was true for Lewis still holds true today—especially for those of us struggling with a mental health issue. There is that spark, that synergy, when you realize you are no longer alone in this world. This identification, that someone else shares your secret pain, is deeply liberating, as every attendee of a self-help group knows.
But then there is this quotation attributed to Thomas J. Watson, the American industrialist who built IBM into the largest manufacturer of electric typewriters and data-processing equipment in the world: “Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.”
On one hand, we need unconditional acceptance in friendships, genuine appreciation for the people we are—warts and all. And on the other hand, we also need friends whom we admire and want to emulate. We need friends who push us, who love us and value us enough to call us out on our destructive behavior.
What Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) Teaches
I don’t think this is an either/or situation. Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), first developed to treat borderline personality disorder (BPD), is a form of talk therapy shown to be an effective treatment for bulimia, binge-eating, depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and substance abuse disorders. A core principle of DBT that I have learned in therapy is I can completely and totally accept myself, faults and all, while still working to improve myself and my situation.
I believe this “both/and,” holding two beliefs at the same time, can be true of friendship as well. We can have friends who accept us but also push us to better ourselves, who don’t tolerate destructive behavior yet encourage us and support us during hard times.
The Friendship Life Cycle
A wise therapist once taught me that every friendship goes through a life cycle. Friendships wax and wane. People enter and exit your life. This happens even to people without mental illnesses.
Now, a few people, if you are lucky, will be there for you throughout the majority of your life. For me, these are family members, not friends.
I’m at a stage where I have a number of friendships that follow C.S . Lewis’s quotation: I made these friends because we shared mental health issues, and we found, in sharing our stories, a deep care and concern for each other.
But now, as I continue to recover and develop new interests, I find myself longing for friends with whom I share my hobbies, too. As wonderful as support groups are, and though I still attend them, I no longer want to lead with, “Hi, I’m Meg, and I have bipolar disorder….”
First of all, let’s acknowledge that this is hard. Life—caring for children and aging parents, working, and managing our own mental health—gets in the way. Developing and maintaining friendships takes effort.
People you’ve been friends with in the past but have lost touch with
People you’ve enjoyed chatting with socially
People with whom you share family ties
If you want to strike out and meet totally new people, build upon a shared interest.
I’m a runner, so I asked among acquaintances about local beginner’s running clubs. A Facebook friend pointed me in the direction of the Hope Water Project, which raises funds for clean water in Africa through running. While my local group isn’t meeting to train until July, I’ve attended Zoom meetings to have some face time getting to know other members, and I intend to participate in the group training runs once they resume.
There are also apps and websites you can turn to; I’ve found that Meetup is a great way to find a group of people who are actively engaged with similar interests.
The First Friendship
You might be wondering if you can make new friends when you’re living with bipolar disorder, wondering Will people accept me?
Remember that nurturing friendship is a give-and-take experience, and friendships don’t happen overnight.
But empathy and kindness go a long way. Coping with bipolar disorder, I believe, helps make us more open-minded. We make great friends to others because of this trait.
If you really don’t know where to begin, I suggest focusing on yourself, first—being the kind of person that people can trust and confide in.
Because the first friendship, of course, is with ourselves.
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