The Qualities of a Good Friend
Take a few moments to think of someone you count on as a good friend. What it is about them that makes you feel that they are your friend? Perhaps they are loyal, non-judgemental, a good listener, funny, affectionate—the list could go on and on. The bottom line is that generally a good friend is someone who enables us—someone who supports us through hard times with kindness. One thing that is pretty certain is that they do not beat us up emotionally, or tell us we are losers and always get things in a mess. This is something we do for ourselves.
When we are in the position of being a good friend to another person, we behave quite differently. Usually we can support our friends when they turn to us for help. We are able to listen and to give some gentle suggestions and feedback. We are very unlikely to blame and criticise them—to beat up on them until they feel miserable. So why do we talk to ourselves in ways that we would never talk to another person, nor allow them to talk to us?
How we respond to threat
Some of the answer can be traced to our stress response. When human beings face danger we have evolved to respond with the fight, flight, or freeze response. In simple terms this mean that we stand and fight against whatever is threatening us, or we run for our lives, or we become overwhelmed by our fear and simply freeze. As part of our everyday lives we do not meet so many occasions when we have to fight to protect ourselves, or our loved ones. However, we do repeatedly face the threat that comes to us from our own minds and that can have just as big an impact on us as an external danger.
When internalized the instinct to stand and fight can become our inner critical voice expressing anger and disdain about our behaviour. If we examine it closely it we can often trace the voice of a disappointed parent, or a disapproving school teacher. It’s the voice that quickly puts us down, and makes us feel inadequate—all the things a good friend would never do. When we lose our keys it calls us stupid, when we are nervous about a work presentation it tells we don’t have a chance to succeed and when our children answer us back it assures us we are a bad parent.
How to work with our inner critic
Although the inner critic is not our conscience it does have the possibility to be a kind of commentator on our behaviour—a way of offering some observations on how we are conducting ourselves. We may feel that it gives us a sense of control over our lives and motivates us to change. That’s all well and good but if we make this inner critic into a harsh and angry voice it will not help us to change and grow at all. It is more likely to lead us to feel anxious and ashamed and to lead to avoiding strategies, such as over-eating, or drinking too much.
However, if we can accept that this inner critic could be useful to us and even help us, then we need to be able to soften its harsh voice and turn into from a foe into a good friend. We can do this by showing kindness to ourselves, just as we would to a friend in need—or as a friend would do towards us.
How do we show kindness to ourselves?
We can begin by not taking everything our inner critic says as the complete truth. By relying on our own awareness and self-knowledge we can see when we are allowing the inner critic to lead us to exaggerate our faults, and that the truth is nothing like as extreme. A sense of humour and the capacity to laugh at ourselves in a friendly way can go a long way in taking the sting out of a situation. A good friend can tell us difficult truths in a way that we can hear and work with. By being patient and gentle with ourselves we can support ourselves to work through change—rather than emotionally bludgeoning ourselves.
So, listen to your inner critic and learn to reframe what it saying to you in a way that you can hear and use. For example, instead of telling yourself you always get nervous when you need to present at work, acknowledge your nervousness and have patience with yourself. Tell yourself to prepare well, to take plenty of time and to try and enjoy yourself. This will take the threat out of the situation and give you space to find ease. If your attempt to try out a new dish for a dinner party ends in a less successful result than you hoped for, focus on celebrating your wish to experiment rather than the disappointing outcome. Try to avoid insisting that you have to be perfect all the time. Allow yourself to get it wrong sometimes and see that as simply part of how life is.
The Tend and Befriend Response and Oxytocin
We know that the neocortex area of the brain developed with the arrival of mammals and the necessity for parents to protect and defend their offspring. Mammals developed a tend and befriend response to stress, which meant that they were willing to face danger themselves in order to protect their offspring. Imagine a female tiger fighting off a predator trying to attack her cubs.
In humans the ‘tend’ aspect refers to a nurturing response to a child, or person in need. The ‘befriend’ aspect involves seeking social contact to assist in the tending process.
This response is linked to the hormone oxytocin. When oxytocin is produced we feel more empathy, connection and trust. We experience a greater sense of calmness and safety. Although this system developed to enable us to protect others, it works just as well when we apply it to our own stress, fears and anxieties—we know that thoughts and emotions have the same effect on our bodies whether we direct them towards others, or towards ourselves. So self-compassion could be a powerful trigger for the release of oxytocin and we can earn to tend and befriend ourselves, rather than attacking with self-criticism.
Current neurological research is showing evidence that self-kindness and self-criticism operate differently in the brain. Self-criticism is associated with areas of the brain associated with error processing and problem solving. Self-kindness is associated with areas of the brain associated with positive emotions and compassion. Instead of approaching ourselves as a problem to be sorted out, self-kindness encourages us to see ourselves as worthy of care and support—the basis of a good friendship.
If you would like to take the ideas in this post further check out my online course How to be a Good Friend to Yourself
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