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Boundaries in friendships!

Photographs: Unsplash

Text: Ophelia Wu

Last month I briefly talked about setting boundaries with yourself and for yourself, this month, let’s talk a bit about the friendship realm.

Friendship is such a pure and complex realm. Like any other relationship, it involves a lot of emotions, feelings, expectations and understanding. We meet people from all walks of life at every age - some stay, some go, it is a choice, and it is also not a choice sometimes. While I sincerely wish for everyone to have the best friends with the purest intention at heart, life isn’t always that simple. Although, like every connection, friendship also needs mutual time and effort to cultivate, it is sometimes the most long-lasting and fulfilling one can have in life- because they are for life.

Making new friends can be tricky, especially for the introverted or lacking access to meet new human beings. As expats in Denmark, it is one of the most difficult challenges for many who don’t already have an existing network here. I am blessed to have an extensive network of friends in different countries and friends from when I was a child till this day, but I have also let friends go, ended some friendships, and abruptly dropped. Friendship breakups are hard. Sometimes, it makes you realise as an adult, friendship only goes as far as when it’s convenient for the other party.

Setting and maintaining certain boundaries is vital to cultivating and nurturing childhood or adult friendships. However, it is hard because as one grows older, it gets harder to make new friends, and it takes so much effort to maintain. Therefore, giving in to things you’re not 100% aligned with, agreed with, or even enjoy is very easy because you don’t want to jeopardise the bond. I’m not going to argue if a true bond is unbreakable or if soulmates are for life, but I will stress the importance of knowing when enough is enough and if you should let go.

"You might wonder, does it mean one needs to be selfish and ruthless to set a boundary?"

Now you may wonder, why would you let go of a friend? There are many types of friends. Some only think of you when they need something. Some only get along when you socialise. Some you can talk about everything and confide in. Some are just fleeting visits at a particular stage in life. Sometimes friends take so much comfort in one another and grow dependent on them. They become the lifeline, the emotional anchor, the comfort, the shelter. Isn’t this what friends are for? Yes and no. So often, we take friends for granted, expecting them to be there, assuming they can hold whatever we throw at a time without asking if they can. We forget our friends are also like us - having a lot on their plates, going through different things and stress in life, have emotions and bad days. As a caring friend, it is essential to set a firm boundary and respect that it is ok to say no to a friend when you have too much on your plate. You cannot pour from an empty glass. It is emotionally and mentally draining when someone wants more energy and attention from you when you cannot offer it. The worst? You feel bad and guilty for being a bad friend, not lending a hand, not being there. But how can you when you have reached your total capacity? Your friend’s life is not your responsibility. It is also true the other way round - you don’t have to share every secret or detail of your life with your friend, and you are not obliged to join every social gathering or say yes to every dinner invite.

While I’m not suggesting dropping a friend the moment they ask for help (you also don’t want that kind of person in your life if they drop you as soon as you need some help) but having a boundary and politely tell them you’d love to be there for them as support, just not as much as they require is an excellent way to go. A mature friend will understand and respect that. It is healthy and respectful for both parties. You can be close and feel connected while keeping a boundary.

Looking after yourself is not selfish. You need to be able to hold space for them and identify what they are seeking from you. Is it to seek validation? To use you to fill an emotional void? Projecting all their stress, insecurities, and expectation onto you? What is it?

This goes the other way, too - instead of emotional dumping, just ask, ‘I’d like to share some of my thoughts. Do you have the capacity to listen?’ And if your friend says no, it’s ok because everyone can say no, and do what they can manage. It doesn’t make them a bad friend; it also doesn’t make you a bad friend when you do that. As you do that, you will very soon realise who are your real friends, who’s there for you and who can give you a loving and caring friendship that lasts long.

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