In college, a friend and I made an unusual pact. The idea was simple, but for the social climate we found ourselves in, we might as well have been revolutionaries.
We were going to tell each other good news.
During my freshman year at an academically rigorous college full of overachievers, I was living in close quarters with dozens of eighteen-year-olds placed under the same tremendous pressures. Very quickly, we developed habits that would be familiar to all of us now living in the adult world: the default answer to “How are you?” was “Busy.” When two girls got together, they tended to bewail their busyness, their singleness, their busyness as related to their singleness, or the current status of masculinity in the world. Add more girls, and the conversation only got exponentially more bewailing. At their worst, these conversations could last into the wee hours of the morning and involve psychoanalyzing one another, tearful discussion of Myers-Briggs personality types, and deep dives into our childhoods and previous relationships.
In themselves, these kind of conversations aren’t necessarily bad, and I don’t deny that some of the best discussions happen at 1 or 2 a.m. The problem, in retrospect, was simple: in our desire to help one another and deal with our issues, we tended to focus exclusively on the negative. When I approached a heart-to-heart with someone, I assumed that they would share the biggest problems of their life with me, and I would share my problems with them. The focus was on the problems—on how we felt our lives fell short—not on the great blessings of our lives, the fact that we could afford to go to college, or the relative health and prosperity of our eighteen-year-old existences.
When my friend and I noticed this, we realized that we needed to do something very basic to keep our friendship alive: share good news. From a good grade on a history test to a club soccer win, we needed to share our gratitude for the little blessings that happened every day, not just our struggles or frustrations.
Sharing the negativity
After I graduated and entered adult life, I realized that this problem wasn’t confined to my college years. Especially as women, it’s easy to focus on the negatives: causes for anxiety, childhood wounds, global tragedies. The media world doesn’t help with this, since good days and personal successes rarely make the front page. As modern women with so many societal pressures and manifold obligations, it’s easy to focus on what goes wrong in our lives. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we realize that what goes wrong can be a much easier topic of conversation. Who among us hasn’t enjoyed a bit of communal kvetching about family life, parenthood, work drama, or the aforementioned and ever-fruitful topic of men? “I went on a great date today” doesn’t quite draw in the listener’s attention as much as, “That was the worst date of my life.” And if someone asks “How are you?” an exasperated, “Ah, my teenage daughter is driving me crazy,” is more likely to lead to a conversation than, “Just fine, thanks, how are you?”
Of course, some of us struggle to be open about our problems with other people, and cultivating this openness is truly valuable. But if I’m honest with myself, I often share problems or frustrations in a spirit of complaining and the hopes of a good, juicy conversation rather than out of a true feeling of openness.
There’s so much more to share
The fact is that while we all have real struggles and frustrations in our lives, there is so much more to share: little victories, moments of gratitude, surprises, and funny moments. In heart-to-heart conversations with other women, I often find myself overlooking these moments. In my mind, the “deep” stuff is the heavy stuff—the problems that have been weighing on my mind and heart. And while I do need to share those things with a close friend or two, I also have a deep need to share what’s good in my own life, a need that is just as important as sharing my struggles. Sharing what’s good in my life affirms that good things are really happening, that my struggles do not define me.
Besides the fact that negative conversations can be more “interesting,” I can think of one or two other reasons I don’t always share good news or positive thoughts with my friends. First, sharing our victories is a vulnerable moment. In a certain way, we become more vulnerable than when we share our struggles! For example, I was recently on the phone with my best friend, and shared that after a late-night Pinterest resolution I was starting a new running habit and had taken my first run that morning—running ten seconds and walking two minutes at a time! It was hardly an impressive victory, but it was something I was proud of. She happily congratulated me and cheered me on in my new goal. It would have been easy for her to laugh in my face since she lives a much more active lifestyle, but she chose to affirm me in that vulnerable moment.
Another reason it’s sometimes hard to share personal successes or encouraging moments is that female friendship can be haunted by an unhealthy sense of competition. Sometimes I worry that sharing a personal victory—an acceptance letter, a job promotion, a goal achieved—will feed into a spirit of competition in a friendship, or make my friend feel belittled and unimportant. Conversely, I sometimes struggle to share those funny self-deprecating stories (like that morning I drove to work with a piece of toast stuck to my car) because that spirit of competition haunts me, too, and I don’t want to give my friend the “competitive advantage.” Even small, beautiful moments (like noticing a tiny frog on my walk) can be hard to share if a spirit of competition is lingering because it’s so easy for another person to minimize your experience when it’s not accompanied by the weight and significance of, say, a personal tragedy.
Building one another up
Thankfully, I can honestly report that many of these fears have proven unfounded in my relationships. Even when I hesitated to share a victory at first because I feared the competitive attitude that sometimes appears in friendships, my friends have greeted my victories, large and small, with enthusiasm and encouragement. When we exchange the little stories that make up our day-to-day, I find that my friends are interested in what I have to say and tell me about the little moments that made their day worthwhile.
Is it a little less interesting than the drama-laden college days? In a certain way, it is. I’ve had to train myself out of being a “foul-weather friend,” the friend who is always there for you in a crisis but doesn’t have much to say to you if your day is going well. In fact, who am I kidding, I still struggle with that balance. Everyone loves to be a hero, and I still have to work to rejoice in my friends’ successes and not allow the green-eyed monster of jealousy to sneak in.
But the benefits have been so worth it. Because in place of my view of the world as a general disaster and my own life and the lives of others as tragedies in which we were the heroines, there is a new vision—a more realistic vision of a beautiful, worthwhile, often hilarious everyday world. And that’s something we can all celebrate together.
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