“Friends can help each other. A true friend is someone who lets you have total freedom to be yourself, and especially to feel. Or, not feel. Whatever you happen to be feeling at the moment is fine with them. That’s what real love amounts to: letting a person be what he really is.” Jim Morrison
My life has been a constant stream of transitions. I have lived in more places than I can count. I do not even know where I went to kindergarten. By the time I landed in college, I could list numerous towns and cities in seven separate states as well as Kenya, East Africa. I was ecstatic and relieved when I finally celebrated a major milestone of living four entire years in the same location during college.
The concept of developing close friendships was a mystery to me. I was perpetually the new kid on the block. The only tools I knew to navigate constant transition were either fit in or stay as invisible as possible. If you have ever seen The Princess Diaries, I was much like the main character, Mia, at the beginning of the movie, doing my best to hide so that I could protect myself from unpredictability. But in order to do this you have to master some pretty uncomfortable skills. When you look up related synonyms to “fitting in” and being “invisible” this is what pops up:
- don’t make waves
- don’t rock the boat
- bear with
- defer to
- play the game
Ouch. Not a very whole-hearted approach to living life. Over the years, the exhausting effort to fit in and remain invisible made it challenging and even made it seem dangerous to learn the skills related to authenticity and risking intimate relationships.
I craved deeper connection, but was unsure how to go about making friends. Thankfully, meaningful friendships did happen organically over the years, but I wondered if I was missing something. I could not figure out how to be friends with everyone and still be myself. In the search for friendship, there were times I ended up hurt and confused… times when I tried to open up and be myself, but instead ended up as material for someone’s gossip.
Time For Some Boundary Work
Then, I had a daughter.
As Reese began to navigate the friend arena, her challenges gave me extra incentive to learn more about how to create deep meaningful friendships. In my search for understanding, I began to notice the important connection between relationships and boundaries.
When Reese was in fourth grade she went through a period of several painful months with one particular girl. I will call her Cindy. Reese wanted to be friends with everyone, and Cindy was no exception. Each time they got together to play, Cindy would ask Reese personal questions like: “What boys do you like?” or “What do you think about the new girl in class?” and Reese would tell Cindy all of her “secrets.” Each time Reese confided intimate details, Cindy would turn around and tell the kids at school. This happened on several occasions. Reese would end up devastated and confused about friendship, and she began to wonder if she could trust anyone.
As a mother, it hurt to see my daughter hurting. I wanted to offer some insight that could help her be her unique, authentic self while also providing protection from continued exposure to harm.
Gratefully at the time I was listening to Brené Brown’s “ITIWJM (I Thought It Was Just Me) Read-Along” podcast. In one of the podcasts, Brené explored the idea that connection is something that is built over time. She used the metaphor of “Marble Jar Friends” to explain how family and friends earn the right to be in meaningful relationships.
What is a Marble Jar?
Some teachers use a marble jar with their class as an incentive for good behavior. When the class behaves and works hard, the teacher adds a marble to the jar. When the class misbehaves, the teacher removes a marble. When the marble jar fills to the top, it is time to celebrate! The kids win something special like a pizza or ice cream party.
Likewise, when you meet someone for the first time, you start off with an “empty marble jar.” You do not have any experiences together. You cannot know whether or not this person will be trustworthy and treat you with care. As you spend time together, you begin to “collect” experiences. With each positive interaction, marbles are added to the jar. For each negative interaction, marbles are taken away. When you have a hefty marble jar of shared experiences with someone, you have a good sense that it is okay to be yourself with this person.
“Whenever someone supports you, or is kind to you, or sticks up for you, or honors what you share with them as private, you put marbles in the jar. When people are mean, or disrespectful, or share your secrets, marbles come out… Trust is built one marble at a time.” Brené Brown
Room for Forgiveness
Another thing I like about the metaphor of the marble jar is that it leaves room for mistakes. All relationships are imperfect. We will occasionally mess up and experience misunderstandings. I do not have to cut off every single person in my life to protect myself from hurt. When I have a hefty marble jar of shared experience with someone, but then experience conflict, I might take out a marble or two. However, there are still plenty of marbles left to indicate that this person is worth giving a second chance.
But… if you only take “marbles” out of the jar and continually experience harmful interactions, this person is treating your relationship as disposable and will not treat you with care. If you are vulnerable and open in this relationship, you will be exposed to harm.
“The bottom line: if the friendship feels good, it is good. But if a person tries to control you, criticizes you, abuses your generosity, or brings unwanted danger, drama, or negative influences into your life, it’s time to take a hard look at the value of the friendship. A good friendship does not require you to act against your own values, always agree with the other person, or disregard your own needs.” (helpguide.org)
The marble jar illustration helped Reese to understand that she would be exposed to harm if she continued to confide in Cindy. She also learned that she does not need to close herself off from everyone. Over a period of time, friendships built on trust can be a place to express your own unique, authentic self.
I Cannot Be Friends with Everyone
I learned from experience that it is not possible to be friends with everyone and still be myself. The truth is, everyone cannot be my friend, and that is okay. Meaningful friendships are precious and rare.
The best part of going through this with my daughter is what I learned about myself. I realized I already know how to have wonderful friends… friends that like me for me. And, it is okay to be me. I can relax and give myself permission to enjoy those precious relationships and not worry about the unrealistic expectation of trying to fit in and please everyone.
Marble Jar Boundary Exercise
Remember every relationship starts off as an empty “marble jar.” The following questions from helpguide.org are helpful in determining when to add marbles and when to take them away. When you have a hefty marble jar of shared experiences with someone, you will have a good sense that it is okay to be yourself in this relationship.
- Do I feel better after spending time with this person?
- Do I feel free to be myself around this person?
- Do I feel safe, or do I feel like I have to watch what I say and do?
- Is the person supportive of me? Does he or she treat me with respect?
- Is this a person I feel that I could trust?
Brene Brown’s TED talk on Vulnerability is another excellent resource for building deeper, meaningful connections in your relationships: