On choosing one’s friends

About a year ago I set myself the goal of building a rich network of friends and acquaintances with which to meet my personal, social, and professional needs. After a few months of going all out with my social skills, I’d built a long list of people who wanted a piece of my time. I was enjoying the attention, the novelty, and overall staying busy, as I’d visit new places to dine, drink, or stroll every week. It felt like this time I was finally doing adult life in San Diego the right way.

Sometimes I’d double book myself or make my plans so tight that I ended up running from one lunch to the next coffee chat, waking up early after a late night out to go run with my friend the marathon addict. I was barely spending time at home, and the abundance of social interaction was profoundly invigorating. Despite all the fun and opportunities that were coming up, I slowly started to realize this was not sustainable. At some point, when I had to focus more on work or family, I would have to transition back into a less social state. Who would be left then? Is the hectic lifestyle worth it while it last? Should I try to extend it as long as I keep getting some good out of it?

Trying to make sense of the people and activities that made up my schedule, I asked my therapist for advice: now that I have this fantastic network of people, how do I make sure that I am making the best of it?

His answer was simple and was inspired on this HBR article on networking: define who’s in your inner circle, who’s close to it, and who’s not. Once that’s clear, deciding how to spend time with each person and how to prioritize them in a schedule will be much easier.

You may or may not think that you need to make these distinctions in your own life, but regardless of who you are, you can benefit from drawing your circles too. In my own case, I needed a system to prioritize because I was too busy and often unable to find time to sit alone with my thoughts and feelings. At the same time, I was spending too much time with people in my intermediate and outter circles. Therefore, I was not taking full advantage of relationships with some of my favorite people. Someone who doesn’t spend much time in social settings and like to keep to themselves can still benefit greatly from categorizing and prioritizing people in their lives.

How can drawing one’s inner, intermediate, and outter social circles help when it feels like there’s no one to fill them with?

  • Make an inventory of the people in your life: try hard and dig deep to find the people you could reach out to and have a conversation, no matter how short or inconsequential.
  • Understanding why some people are not closer to you will bring you peace: say that you’d love to be friends with someone in your outer circle; without full awareness of your social situation, this may cause you stress or harm your self-esteem. When you see the full picture, you’ll often see that the distance between you and them is likely circumstancial and not a fundamental rejection of your character.
  • Knowing who and what you have will reveal much of what you want and need: you may feel like you have no one in your innermost circle that you can be fully candid and vulnerable with, or you may not have someone who you feel you can spend a worryless afternoon watching movies with.
  • Don’t underestimate the potential of your loose connections: we like to think that people become great friends by chance, but getting close to someone takes a great deal of effort and intention. Drawing your circles will help you think of strategies to bring some people closer.

Ultimately, drawing our circles is a great way of living our social connections with greater intention and awareness. A diagnosis of your situation is only meant to help you come up with a treatment, whatever that might look like, for your social needs and aches.

In the case of the personal story I started this post with, some might read my use of proximity circles as a mechanisms to block people out and distance myself from unnecessary connections. However, it was much more than that: many of the people I put in my inner circle were only in fact loose friends. These were people who had shown tremendous promise, depth, and openness, but with whom I had not yet solidified a bond or expressed profound appreciation. In other words, my heart felt a strong connection to them, but our schedules and communication did not reflect how we truly felt. Before you make space for someone, you need to know that the space exists and that your life can gain from it.

There’s a big difference between liking someone, and embarking on life-changing friendship with them. The latter is only possible when we open ourselves without reserve, and to do that responsibly we need to know where we stand relative to others.

Little more than a year after starting my categorization of friends, I’ve come closer to many and fostered spaces where complete transparency is the norm. Likewise, I’ve pushed others away who were taking up much of my schedule but with whom I was incapable of feeling safe emotional proximity. People like that now take up very little of my time, as I’ve kept the relationships alive but only at a distance that is appropriate. Without opening up that space, I wouldn’t have been able to nourish new bonds, and my decisions would have still been influenced by people whose principles conflict with my own. Intention, intention, intention.

In summary, being intentional about our proximity with others, and how much of our schedule we let them take, is a key to reducing frustration, increasing fulfillment, and overall making the most of everything we have: time and people.

Food for thought:

How should our willingness to keep someone in the inner circle change depending on how THEY choose and prioritize their friends? I don’t think there’s an easy answer here, as someone’s worthiness for the inner circle results from a balance of their character rather than individual traits.

Is there any single personal trait that will automatically decide which circle someone is in? When I drew my circles I decided that people who routinely hold on to feelings of hate belong in the outermost circle.

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