Guilty by Association or Awesome by Osmosis: 3-Step Health Check for your Relationships

One of the mantras I live by is “We are who we hang out with”. And if we can believe this to be true (for just one moment), then the logical follow-on question is: are you guilty by association or awesome by osmosis?

Are you really who you hang out with?

The short answer is yes, but let’s have a quick look at why you should care to begin with. Well, in my experience, most people are extremely clear on acceptable standards in some areas of their life. Take relationships, for instance. I am pretty sure that – without thinking too much about it – you are able to tell me at least ten behaviours, attributes and characteristics deal breakers. The same generally holds true for your perfect career.

In fact, if you’re anything like me, you’ve written out long lists of criteria as to what your perfect career or relationship should look, sound and feel like. You know what you want to experience, how you want to feel at the end of the day and have the physical description of your perfect partner meticulously worked out: down to the last dimple and the length of their little toe (well, I hope you don’t but I think you’re getting the point I am making here). In short, you’re investing time, energy and thought in what you want, in what you can live with and in what makes you run for the hills in record time.

My question is: are you clear about your criteria for friendship?

What does a person need to do or how do they need to behave so that – consciously or subconsciously – you end up deciding that Mary (or whoever it is you’re thinking about right now) is a really good friend.

Does Mary need to have something in common with you? Does she need to behave in a certain way? Does she need to share one of your interests or hobbies? Or does Mary need to be in a particular age bracket?

The possibilities are endless. Yet – most of the time – we’re not giving it too much thought. Instead, friendships seem to happen incidentally or are bound by a year-long history. You’ve always been friends with Josh since you were both five years old and although he really behaves like an ass most of the time, that’s just the way he is. How many times have you heard something like this or equivalent?

Interestingly though, the people around you are a good indicator of who you are as a person. In fact, it was Jim Rohn, an American entrepreneur, who said that we are the average of the five people with whom we surround ourselves the most. Now, most people relate this back to financials, i.e. your income is determined by the average of the income of the five people closest to you, in line with the law of averages.  But this is not the end of it, because – whether we admit it or not – deep down we know that this is true.

Let me share a little memory with you. I used to be friends with this really nice guy, Ralph. Over the course of a few years, Ralph had a few different girlfriends and – a bit like a chameleon and very much to my amazement – he changed his interests, looks and attitudes significantly in all relationships. One girlfriend was vegan so all of a sudden he embraced the vegan lifestyle, posted pictures of anti-animal cruelty demonstrations and looked a bit more like a hobo than his usual prim and proper self. All fair enough things and causes; yet, once the relationship ended and he found himself with a new girl, Ralph started developing a taste for wine, dressed entirely differently again and stopped his activism.

There is no judgment on this because we have all been there. We started hanging out with a new group of people and all of a sudden we find ourselves listening more to classical music, eating vegetarian, wearing designer labels, talking about political issues or developing a taste for imported beer. Some of these things we had never contemplated doing or talking about before but all of a sudden they seem to be a crucial part of who we are and of our life. And that’s okay. In fact, it’s normal. The real question is: do you like what you see? And, maybe even more importantly, is it serving your purpose?

With this in mind, let’s have a look at three checkpoints that can help you assess your current friendships / social environment.

Checkpoint 1: As a consequence of hanging out with your friends, are you moving closer towards your goals, dreams and ambitions or further away from them?

It is nice to be part of a group. It is nice to belong. However, in some instances your peer group might not serve your purpose but, instead, lead you on a path down the wrong rabbit hole.

What do I mean? Let me illustrate my point by introducing to you a former client of mine, Jenny. At the point of seeing me, Jenny was a beautiful young lady with the ambition to become a personal trainer. Her dream was to run her own practice and steer people towards a healthy, sustainable lifestyle. This is why after finishing high school she enrolled in college. So far, so good.

Driven by high levels of integrity, she sought to embrace the healthy lifestyle she envisioned for her clients so that she would be able to ‘walk her talk’ when interacting with them. This meant that she chose to abstain from alcohol, to get sufficient sleep, to exercise and to be mindful as to the food she used to fuel her body and soul. Being the determined young lady that she was, she even quit smoking.

She didn’t need my help with any of those things. Instead, Jenny sought me out because she felt that her goals and dreams were interfering with her circle of friends. Or, to be much more precise, her circle of friends were interfering with her goals and dreams.

You see, for years Jenny had been hanging out with the same group of friends from high school. Most of them didn’t have any real ambitions, just went to work, and – once work was done – lived a good life. Or at least their interpretation of the good life. This was all well and fine, only that the moment Jenny started to change her lifestyle and re-organise her priorities to accommodate her studies the group dynamics changed. Previously a solid part of the group, all of a sudden she encountered snide comments about her not smoking any longer or people calling her boring because she preferred water over wine.

It doesn’t matter why her friends didn’t support her in her endeavours; the fact is that they didn’t. Underhanded comments became the norm and slowly but surely Jenny was forced into a choice: loosen her goals and dreams in favour of the gang or reclassify her friendship with the group members and find alternative friends that were supportive of her choices, dreams and goals.

This is not an isolated case. How many times have you changed a habit and got a snarky remark? Or realised, seemingly out of nowhere, that the people in your group had absolutely no understanding for your choices, goals and dreams?

I recently changed a lot of my own health habits and encountered a lot of resistance in my peer group, too. Whilst some felt inspired by my new exercise and health regime, others tried to coax me back into being who I had been and behaving the way I had behaved prior to my game-changing decision. It all started with small remarks about how I was not having time any longer because of all the sports I was doing or ‘innocent remarks’ regarding the fact that I chose not to eat three scoops of ice-cream as dessert but only one. They even tried to coax me into eating more. I mean WTF?! Chances are that the underlying reason was that they felt bad about their own routine, but whatever the reason, I felt unsupported.

Thus, I, too, had to make a decision. Loosen my goals or redefine my friendships and find people more supportive of my lifestyle. Out of respect for my health and myself, I chose the latter (as did Jenny, by the way).

So I am wondering: what are your biggest dreams and ambitions? And does your environment and the people with whom you surround yourself support you and your goals or do they – consciously or subconsciously – try to sabotage them?

Checkpoint 2: Are you the person you aspire to be whilst you’re around your friends – or are you behaving in ways you don’t really appreciate?

We all have a vision of our ideal self: how we behave, what we say, what we believe and how we interact with our environment and others. Simple question: does this vision align with who you are and how you behave when you’re around your friends or not? Do you actually like yourself whilst you’re with them?

If your answer is: “yes, my friends are awesome, I love hanging out with them and they bring out the absolute best in me” then stop reading right here. You’re on the right track and this is absolutely awesome. In fact, you are wasting your time here. Seriously! Go now and call one of your mates; hang out with them or do something else.

Chances are, however, that if you have been drawn to this blog, then some of your friends might not always make you feel awesome about yourself and if you are honest, not even half of the time. Not even close… And that can be a challenge.

I give you a personal example. I used to be friends with an extremely lovely girl, Rose. Rose was bright, funny, ambitious and rather helpful. She still is. Yet, over time, I realised that every time I hung out with her I ended up saying negative things about mutual friends, feeling bad about having said these things and starting to get irritated by these occurrences. The traits I displayed while interacting with her were not in line with my ideal self-image. Of course, the traits were inherent in me; otherwise, they wouldn’t have come out. There was, however, a big difference in who I was and how I felt when I was with Rose compared to other friends.

Now, I am not blaming her. How could I?! She is who she is and I am who I am. How I behave and what I say is my responsibility, independent of the people around me. The fact remains though that it was damn difficult to be the person I aspired to be around her. It cost a lot of energy maintaining positivity, not buying into her gossip or bonding over negative thoughts about other people and over time it happened more and more that I ended up returning home from our catch ups feeling not only dissatisfied but also like a bad person. And because I felt like a bad person I started beating myself up, ultimately resulting in a decrease in my own self-belief, self-esteem and self-respect. I turned from liking – sometimes even loving myself to loathing myself.

It took me quite a while to realise that I didn’t feel that way at all when hanging out with some of my other friends. Heck, I behaved completely differently in their company. Of particular mention is one of my best friends, Anna, because all those personality traits that I treasure so highly and that are fully aligned with my ideal self-image emerge as a consequence of spending time with her. We laugh a lot, we talk about life, we’re just silly, hearty and appreciative of all and everything we have in our life. Quite a big difference compared to my time with Rose. When I am around Anna, I like who I am; when with Rose I didn’t.

Again, this is not Rose’s fault or responsibility. It’s mine. And truly realising that I changed my behaviour around her. I stopped talking about others. In fact, I highlighted what I liked about them every time Rose would make fun of or judge them. I stopped any kind of gossiping or speculation and would generally display a jovial composure. Do you know what happened? She didn’t like it. After several failed attempts to get me back to behaving the way I used to, she simply distanced herself from me and moved on to another person with whom she was able to continue engaging in her usual behaviour – and that was fine by me.

So take your time and really, truly ask yourself whether or not you like who you are and how you behave as a consequence of being around your friends. If you do, that’s absolutely terrific. If not, it’s time to find people who bring out the best and not the worst in you. Of course, it is up to you to take responsibility for who you are and how you behave – if, however, your friends are not aligned with that ideal vision of you, then it’s totally okay to reclassify those friendships and invest your time and energy in people who support your ideal self.

Checkpoint 3: Are you feeling ‘drain’ or ‘gain’ after seeing your friends?

This is a real quickie. Clear cut and easily answered. When walking away from a catch up with your friends, do you feel inspired, motivated and good about yourself and the world or drained, shitty and tired?

This is similar to Checkpoint 2 with a slight difference. Instead of focusing on who you are as a person and how you behave whilst engaging with your friends, we are now turning our attention to your energy levels. Yep, you heard me right: your energy levels.

Just remember the last time you returned from a catch up with one of your friends: did you feel elated, inspired, motivated and amazing; or tired, drained, in a bad mood and with a more negative mindset?

No need to say that good friends should leave you inspired, elated and motivated. You want to remember your catch up as an awesome experience and not as another reminder that the world is a bad, bad place and that humanity sucks. If you want to experience that, just watch the news three times a day. Of course, we all have good and bad days and I am not saying you should cull all of your friends because every once in a while they’re having a good, old whinge. Reality Check: We all do. I am talking about the majority of the time. If let’s say, in eighty per cent of the cases you feel like absolute rat shit after seeing your friends, it’s time for a change.

To elaborate, there is a thing called ‘energy vampire’. Someone, I should say. And maybe you have a person like this in your life. Every time you speak with them on the phone or meet them in person, you end up with a slight headache or an immense need for rest and recovery. Sometimes you might even feel that the world is one dark shit hole after you’ve spent some time with them. These are the people where you roll your eyes, silently saying to yourself: “Oh no, not this person again!” when their number appears on your mobile display or praying for an easy exit route when you spot them at the mall.

Easy solution: spend less time with those people who drain your energy and more time with people where you gain energy. Of course, you might not be able to eliminate all of the energy vampires from your life but at least you can limit your exposure to them and plan accordingly. For instance, instead of hanging out with them for five hours, limit it to one or two by scheduling another catch-up or appointment right after. That way you will have to leave on time and can’t be dragged into an afternoon of doom and gloom.

In short, hang out more with people who inspire you and who add to your day, mood and personality as opposed to those who drain your energy and leave you hanging with a bad taste in your mouth.

Where to from here?

Please understand. We all have friends who drag us down from time to time, who don’t necessarily support all of our ambitions and who might not always bring out the best in us. That, too, is normal and as such, a normal part of doing life and relating to others. Heck, some people will feel the same about us.

What I am talking about here are the more extreme cases. If, for instance, you feel drained, unsupported or engage in behaviours that are not typical of you and your goals the majority of the time, then it might be wise to re-evaluate your friendships. A friend doesn’t need to be a friend just because you have a twenty-year long history. It’s okay for you to re-classify them (for instance, as an acquaintance) and to reset the boundaries of the relationship. It’s also okay to openly communicate your boundaries to them. It’s okay to avoid talking about topics that sabotage instead of support your goals and it’s okay to leave friendships altogether to find a new tribe if you’re inclined to do so.

The point is to create an environment in which you can thrive personally and with regards to your ideal self and goals. You might want to start by writing down your friendship criteria: who does a person need to be, how do they need to behave and what do they need to believe about the world in order to be seen as a friend by you? There is no right or wrong. There are only your personal and internal requirements – and whatever they are, they are fine.

Then have a look around you and ask yourself: “Am I awesome by osmosis or guilty by association?” You know what to do!

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