The Healing Power of Friendships

In my recent discussions of what it means to “have it all,” I’ve explored two pillars of life — self and family. Now I’d like to explore a third pillar, one that is often as neglected as self: community.

A landmark 81-year Harvard study sought the answer to the question, “what keeps us happiest as we go through life?” The results boiled down to one core conclusion: Good relationships keep us happy. Later research shows they also keep us healthy, impacting everything from mental sharpness to longevity.

Your community is the sum of these relationships. And while the makeup of your community may change throughout your life, the importance of having a support system stays the same.

But just as the pillar of “self” requires deliberate nurturing and care, we have to put some work and thought into how we cultivate our community.

Deepen existing relationships and build new ones.
Your community is made up of the people who nurture and support you throughout the stages of your life — and who receive the same kind of support from you. It’s easy to set aside these relationships when work and family take up most of our time and energy, but our emotional and physical well-being demand they be made a priority. Double down on your investment in these relationships.

My mother-in-law once shared an insight on friendship that I have never forgotten. When my children were younger, I commented that I thought it was wonderful she was able to frequently socialize with her friends, and that I wished I had time for that too. Her response surprised me. “When my kids were your kids’ age, I also rarely had time for my friends. That’s just different stages in life. But it’s good to always maintain some connection, even minimal, because once the kids grow older, you can reconnect with people and spend more time with them.”

It’s easy to send a text to check in, or a holiday card to remind someone you cherish your friendship. These actions maintain a connection — and make both parties feel supported and cared for.

Sometimes we grow apart from certain friends. Maybe we no longer share the same values, or the relationship is simply no longer rewarding. It’s OK to let those relationships go, but be open to creating new ones to take their place.

Be deliberate about whom you choose to spend your time with.
Author Tim Ferriss once said, “You are the average of the five people you associate with most.” I keep a note on my desk that reminds me of something else: “You become what you focus on and the people you spend time with.” Fill your community with people who are supportive, positive, and lift your mind and spirit, and stay away from toxic people.

What defines a toxic person? It’s someone who is negative, critical, intentionally brings you down, or approaches friendship as a one-sided, all-take, no-give relationship. This is not to say that friends should not challenge you, but toxic people tend to drain you of energy, rather than reenergize you.

Having people around you who admire and respect you, who support and raise you up, and who encourage you to become your best self plays a huge part in your sense of belonging and connectedness, not just with yourself, but with others and within the world you live.

When thinking of your community, ask yourself: Who do I want to spend time with, and what kind of person do I want to become?

Women supporting women.
Sometimes women view other women as competition. This can fuel hostility, and women wind up being ignored, undermined, and, in some cases, even sabotaged by other women. Instead, we should think of ourselves as one large community. The more women help one another, the more we help ourselves. Acting like a coalition truly does produce results.

An excellent example of this is the approach that the women of the Obama White House took to supporting one another. When President Obama took office, women made up only one-third of the staff. They often found themselves talked over, ignored, or interrupted in meetings. In response, the women banded together to adopt a strategy of “amplification”: When a woman voiced an important contribution in a meeting, another woman repeated it, crediting its author. Another woman would then repeat that woman’s statement, and so on and so forth, until the original message was amplified throughout the room. This ensured the women’s contributions weren’t ignored, and that credit was given to the rightful originator.

We all want the same thing: to feel comfortable with our choices and to feel validated by those around us. So let’s start by validating and support one another.

When the demands of work and family overwhelm, it’s easy to think friendships aren’t a priority. In fact, the opposite is true: It’s then that we need support the most. Take time to nurture your friendships, surround yourself with the right people, and support your fellow women. Then, you’ll have community for a lifetime.