Hello dear friends!
I want you to close your eyes for just a moment.
Think of the first person you would call in an emergency- maybe you just lost your house and need somewhere to crash, or perhaps you are in the middle of a terrible flare up and need a ride to the hospital. Who do you have in your life that you trust to have your back in situations like this? Picture them very clearly in your mind. See their face. Feel their arms wrap around you. Hear the reassurance in their voice. Maybe even recall the way they smell.
Chances are by now you’re feeling a flush of warmth and maybe a smile has crept onto your face (I’m definitely got a little grin going on). After all, it’s in our nature to rely on each other and we feel good when we consider the people who love and support us. Our brains especially crave connection and trust, and thrive when we know we are part of a group- our “tribe” as many call it. Now, keep that good feeling in the back of your head- we’ll expand on it later.
All people, regardless of circumstance, are healthier and happier when they have a strong support system, but the benefits are even more pronounced in people with serious health conditions or disabilities. I know for me, when I realized my illness wasn’t just a passing fad, the importance of genuine caring relationships came roaring into the spotlight and made me seriously take stock of everyone I had in my life. But also around this time, it became clear that only a handful of people were going to stick around anyway (chronic diseases have a special way of killing relationships, especially for those who are still “young”), so it clarified my perspective even more. It was sad to feel those losses, but after a while it was obvious that the holes they left in their wake weren’t all that big or important after all.
You may have noticed that living with a chronic or invisible illness tends to polarize your interactions with people. Some of your friends or acquaintances seem to be uncomfortable with being confronted with your health issues and you can feel them pull away- you can tell by watching their body language or even tapping into your energetic sense. These people generally fall off the face of the map within a few months of your diagnosis or other major life change, occasionally taking a piece of your heart and your trust with them. And this can hurt oh so badly; believe me, I’ve been in this position a couple of times in my life already. There’s nothing quite as painful as losing what you thought was a good solid relationship to something as unpredictable as illness. But I’ll let you in on a little secret: those people weren’t your true friends to begin with. Sadly, it just often takes a catastrophe to separate the good from the bad, the real from the fake, the strong from the weak. But this post isn’t about those people…
It’s about the ones that stand up and stick around. The ones who speak out and settle in. Your real support system.
I’m just now coming to realize one very important thing about the people we attract into our lives- that their unique fortitude and energy is often the most similar to our own. It’s less about our shared past experiences, but how we choose to work with them. For example, it’s probably easy to find someone who shares your diagnosis, or someone who struggles with the same addictions, or someone with the same socioeconomic background. But it’s much more difficult to sift out the ones who have the same attitude, mindset, and mental/emotional strength that you do. A sieve of that power takes time and patience to create, but is the only reliable way to find the real diamonds!
So how do you even start identifying and attracting your tribe? Here’s an easy little exercise to get you going:
Begin with the first person that pops into your head, and work from there (trust your intuition to guide you through your social circle) and ask yourself these questions:
· Does my relationship with this person suck away more energy than it provides?
· Do I find myself acting in ways that are not in line with my authentic self when I am around this person?
· Do I find myself shouldering the majority of the work in maintaining this relationship?
· Does this person listen and value my beliefs/opinions or are they constantly trying to substitute their own?
· Do I leave my interactions with this person with a feeling of satisfaction, lightness, and a sense of deepened closeness?
Some of the names and faces in your life may be a cinch to categorize; the answers to these questions may be crystal clear and direct you to an easy yes or no when deciding to keep them in your life. But for most, the water is a bit more muddy. You may have to replay many interactions over the years, and perhaps reflect on how you both have changed since you first met. You may need to meditate for a while, or journal, on some of your most tangled and complicated relationships, but the true answers will always find their way to the surface.
I find it to be helpful to do this exercise before meeting someone, whether they’re a long time friend or still new. Having these questions sitting in the back of your mind can help re-frame your interaction and can sometimes provide clues to where you should be headed. But don’t think of it as a laundry list to be checked off- remember, we all have good days and bad days and it can take some time to realize if someone is really on your team or not. And again- some people in your life may very clearly lie on one side or the other, but for everyone else, use these questions to pique your awareness whenever you’re around each other.
When you deal with something like chronic fatigue, cancer, MS, or fibromyalgia, you only have so much energy to give every day, so weaning yourself off toxic or taxing relationships is an important aspect of self-care. Bonus points if you’re also an introvert like me, and have to work extra hard to not drain yourself with unnecessary social interactions! Think about quality over quantity here my friends- wouldn’t you rather give your precious water and sunshine to a handful of gorgeous, colorful plants than spread it among an entire garden of spindly, wilting ones?
Here’s an important note though, before we go any further: this is not an opportunity to indulge in selfishness, as some people tend to do when confronted with anything challenging. It can be easy, especially in the throes of serious illness, divorce, or job loss, to turn all the attention in on ourselves and start viewing our relationships with others in the context of how they can serve me. Beware- this is a highly toxic thing and some people never recover their compassionate worldview after a tragic event or trauma (I’m sure you’ve met at least one of these individuals!), which is such a loss for them and everyone around them.
So I invite you to sit back and resift through those names you just thought about in the previous exercise. With each person, now ask yourself a different set of questions:
· Do I tend to monopolize our conversations with my illness/personal problems?
· Do I tend to view my own challenges as more important than theirs?
· Is this person struggling with something major right now, and how have I been supportive of them?
· Do I genuinely listen and hold space for this person, or do I tend to interject my opinions/advice on a regular basis?
· Do I make a concerted effort to reach out to this person, or do I tend to wait for them to initiate contact?
· How must it feel for this person to have me in their life?
Not so easy this time, was it? That’s because we are so often wrapped up in our own experiences and perceptions, and too quick to shift blame to a more comfortable place: on others. This set of questions is really designed to incite mindfulness when you are interacting with a friend or loved one and can sometimes give clear pointers to why maybe your relationship has been fading, or why things have been feeling strained. And with the right dynamic, these can be a great way to ease into a conversation about how to repair or strengthen a valuable friendship! You’d be surprised how receptive people are when you let yourself be vulnerable and flawed.
All relationships are built on a give and take over time, between two equals. Most that are built on imbalances- of time, effort, or “worthiness” tend to fade out or sometimes crash and burn. Patience and remaining true to your authentic self are two sure-fire ways to attract more equal and nourishing relationships into your life, no matter your circumstances.
But now that you’ve got all these people swirling around in your head, let’s take a little different turn, and end with a simple but powerful variation on a metta meditation (sometimes called compassion or loving-kindness meditation).
Close your eyes again and visualize the people in your support system. See them standing in a circle around you, surrounding you with love. Bring your hands to rest on your heart, feeling the energy of your heartbeat, and allow yourself to bring that love into yourself. Say either out loud right where you are, or silently in your head:
May I be happy.
May I be well.
May I be safe and protected.
May I be free from suffering.
Now bring your attention back to your circle of support, and focus on the person you’re facing. Bring your hands to meet in front of your heart (“prayer” position). First acknowledge them by name, and then say to them, either out loud where you are right now or silently in your head:
May you be happy.
May you be well.
May you be safe and protected.
May you be free from suffering.
Then turn to the next person in your circle and send them the same gratitude and love. Repeat until everyone in your support circle has been acknowledged, then return to resting your hands on your own heart and take several deep breaths. Open your eyes when you’re ready (and reach for a tissue if needed!).
Take some time this week to reevaluate your relationships and clarify those that are healing and opening and grounding for you. Go through these exercises and the meditation as many times as you’d like, and cultivate some quiet so you can better hear your intuitive voice. Maybe reach out to a few people and try to mend things or if you feel like it’s time, cut ties with someone who has been dragging you down.
There’s never been a better time to find your tribe. After all, none of us should go on our healing adventures alone!
~ Hoping you feel as well as possible ~