It was a Friday night; I was in the first few weeks of my freshman year of college, and I had nothing to do. I needed some friends.
To be fair, I had actually made some friends at my new church, but I wasn’t sure I fit in there. Everyone was nice to me at church activities, but our friendships didn’t go much further than that.
That Friday night in my dorm room, my loneliness got the best of me. An insecure thought shot into my mind: I wonder if these people are really my friends.
But right on the heels of that thought came an uncharacteristically mature response, one that made me wonder if God himself may have dropped it in my mind.
I wonder if you’re really their friend.
The thought caught me off guard and challenged my whole perspective. I had always judged friendships based upon how much others initiated. It occurred to me that my focus might be in the wrong place. Perhaps, if I wanted better friendships, it made more sense to focus on the behavior of the only person I could control: me.
One of the greatest obstacles to breaking free from my old mindset was my desire for reciprocation. If I called you, I figured you should call me back. If I invited you to my party, I wanted to be invited to yours. And if you didn’t, then we just weren’t friends.
In a word, friendship was conditional.
The problem with conditional friendship was that it gave others the power to make me more or less friendly, depending on how well they responded to me. And it didn’t take much for me to deem someone’s response as inadequately friendly.
I always needed a prompt reply to my phone call or email, an enthusiastic “yes” to my invitations. I needed to be coddled and comforted and assured that I was liked. If someone neglected to call back, it couldn’t be because they forgot — no way, it had to be because they were ignoring me and my all-important need for affirmation.
It was exhausting trying to operate in the adult world with the emotional fragility of a sixth grader, and it tended to drive people away. But after my Friday night dorm room revelation, I realized that if I was going to have good friends, it required me to focus on what I could do to be a better friend. With that in mind, I decided that I was simply going to have to get comfortable with being the primary initiator — even if other people didn’t do a very good job of reciprocating.
Although I found that most people responded well to my new approach, there were a few others who continually failed to get back in touch or regularly declined my invitations. And eventually, I realized that I had to respect myself enough to recognize their lack of interest and move on. The hard part was doing it without resentment or bitterness; however, as my genuine friendships grew, the loss of those “friendships” didn’t seem like such a big deal.
Around that time, I also came across a scripture that helped me stick with my new approach, even when I felt insecure or resentful over someone who wasn’t initiating as much as I was. It said, “A man that hath friends must show himself friendly, and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24, KJ21).
Show yourself friendly, I would tell myself whenever I felt slighted or insecure. It took time, but gradually, I developed a thicker skin and began feeling more comfortable in the role of initiator.
It’s a good thing I did, because otherwise, I might have missed out on finding the thing I really wanted: “a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”
Laying Down My Pride
I remember the first time I met my buddy Shon.
It was the summer before my freshman year, and I attended a Bible study at my new church for the first time. Everyone made a point to speak to me — except Shon — and it annoyed me. Being the insecure person that I was, I wrote him off immediately, and while I was at it, decided he probably wasn’t a Christian.
Fortunately, it wasn’t long after the Bible study that I had my dorm room revelation. A few Sundays later, I was sitting in the front row at church when the pastor invited anyone in the congregation to come forward to receive prayer. A few church members, including Shon, stood at the front waiting to pray with people.
Despite a lingering insecurity about Shon, I walked up to him and — for some unknown reason — decided to open up about an internal struggle I had never really discussed with anyone.
“Um — I need you to pray for me, because — well, my dad left our family when I was growing up, and it had a big effect on me. I always felt so weird in school, and I mean, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve always felt like such an oddball.”
And then, with no warning, I got choked up and my eyes watered in front of the quiet, long-haired guy whom I had recently deemed a heathen. He didn’t act embarrassed or surprised, and he didn’t try to give me advice. He simply waited a moment and, before praying, said, “You know, my dad wasn’t there for me either when I was growing up, and sometimes, I kind of feel like an oddball, too.”
After that, I felt safe with Shon, but it was going to take a lot more than one instance of mutual vulnerability to build a friendship – it was going to take some work.
The Slow Death of Insecurity
Trying to build a friendship with Shon put my new resolve to “show myself friendly” to the test. Unlike me, Shon had plenty of friends — not to mention the fact that he was married and had a job — so he had a lot less time to invest in the friendship. And although my desire to work on the friendship was admirable, quite frankly, I worked on it a little too hard sometimes.
I probably called a little too often and extended a few too many invitations, and I didn’t know how to handle the fact that Shon was so comfortable saying no to me. He didn’t offer long explanations or apologies when he couldn’t hang out — he just respected his own space and made time for me when he was able.
It bruised my fragile ego, and it definitely made me want to go back to the days of conditional friendship. But instead, I made other friends while continuing to reach out to Shon. Pretty soon, my social life took a turn for the better, and at the same time, Shon and I actually ended up spending a lot of time hanging out.
And during those times of jogging, fishing or just talking with Shon, I realized that he was pretty much the same guy I met at the altar that Sunday morning. He was a person who welcomed my transparency, who allowed me to reveal the brokenness inside; and most importantly, he was a person who listened.
His Life’s Purpose
Shon did quite a lot of listening over the phone after I graduated from college and moved away. Around that time, I started processing some heavy emotional baggage from my childhood, and I almost exclusively went to him to talk through my issues.
One time I told him I felt guilty about our friendship because “if you put our phone conversations on a graph, on my side, it would probably show that I do 85 percent of the talking.”
“Oh, that’s OK,” he said. “It’s part of my life’s purpose.”
“What? To listen to people?” I asked.
“No,” he said sincerely, “to listen to you.”
I was floored. I’d never had a friendship like that, where someone literally felt called to listen to me. And I never would’ve had a friendship like that — not to mention a number of other dear friendships over the years — if I hadn’t summoned the courage to let go of my insecurities and simply be the friend I so badly wanted.
This article originally appeared at Boundless.org.